UNION — As Union walked off the field at Rutgers’ SHI Stadium after its season-opening victory on September 7, West Orange simultaneously trickled out of the opposite tunnel to prepare to open its season as well.
Union and West Orange played and won consecutively in the final two games of the Rumble on the Raritan Showcase back in Week 0, and have since established themselves as two of the premier public school powerhouses in the state. On Friday night, the two will again share the same field, only this time, they will be going up head-to-head.
In arguably the most-anticipated sectional semifinal in the state, No. 1-seeded Union (10-0) will host No. 4-seeded West Orange (7-3) with a trip to the North 2, Group 5 final on the line Friday night at Cooke Memorial Field. The talent level in this game will be about as elite as can be for a game between two public schools, as copious amounts of NCAA FBS-level players will highlight this Union-Essex County showdown.
West Orange is in the first year of a drastic rebuild under esteemed head coach Darnell Grant, who was hired by West Orange in March after undertaking a similar and successful rebuild for years at Malcolm X. Shabazz in Newark. Grant immediately inherited one of the youngest but most-talented public school rosters in the state, and has begun to cultivate all of that talent into an elite football club.
West Orange’s season got off to a scintillating start with an opening night victory over Montclair four hours after Union’s victory over Curtis on the same turf at Rutgers. The Mountaineers then proceeded to defeat Paterson Kennedy, Columbia, Livingston, Bloomfield, and Barringer during the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs Friday, West Orange rallied to down defending state champion and No. 5-seeded Piscataway, 30-18.
The Mountaineers play one of the tougher schedules in the state, and their three loses have come against East Orange, Passaic Tech, and parochial juggernaut Don Bosco Prep. The loses to East Orange and Passaic Tech — both seeded higher than West Orange in the North Group 5 super section — were by a combined five points.
Paterson Kennedy is the only common opponent between the two. Union defeated the Knights, 35-0, in the first round last week, while West Orange sneaked by the Passaic County school, 14-6, on September 13.
Just like Union, West Orange possesses a lethally-potent offense filled with Division I talent. The Mountaineers are junior-heavy, but most of those kids started as sophomores and even freshmen, so bring plenty of experience to the table.
6-foot-4 wide receiver Jayson Raines (DNP last week) is one of the state’s top receivers in the Class of 2021 and currently holds offers from Rutgers, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, along with interest from Penn State and Virginia Tech. Fellow junior receiver Amiyn Hanks, a North Plainfield transfer, has attracted interest from Indiana and Howard. Junior running back Shakhi Carson might only be 5-foot-9, but is as explosive as anyone and has been offered by Kentucky and Massachusetts along with interest from Rutgers, Michigan State, Penn State, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, among others.
West Orange’s signal-caller is junior Mason Murdock, listed as a 6-foot pro-style QB.
As Farmer fans know well by now, Union is also Uber-talented offensively, under the leadership of three-year starting senior QB Andrew Sanborn. The Farmers are equally, if not more, dangerous in the air, led by Rutgers-commit wide receiver Ahmirr Robinson and junior receivers Desmond Igbinosun, Elijah White, and Jalen Carter. Christian Murrell, Diante Wilson, and Kayir McBride make up an equally-dangerous running game, in which Sanborn can also shine in.
However, that Union offense will be pegged with a challenging task against a stingy West Orange defense, which has posted five games of allowing one or fewer touchdowns. The Mountaineers’ D is led by hard-hitting strong safety Adonis May, a senior who has interest from Howard.
The key for Union in this game will be scoring early, which the Farmers have excelled at this year. Setting the tone in a game like this is so important, especially against a West Orange team that, at times this year, has been like Jekyll and Hyde throughout the course of a game.
Unlike last weekend’s frozen tundra at Cooke Memorial Field, temperatures are supposed to be a little more fair Friday night. Per AccuWeather, the afternoon high is forecasted to be 50 degrees, but could dip into the low-40s/upper-30s by night time.