UNION — Great strides were made on the field and excitement returned to the Union football program last fall, but as head coach Lou Grasso, Jr., notes, any great year ends in a championship.
Sure, the Farmers (8-3) secured their first conference title in over a decade thanks to a blistering 7-1 start, but ultimately failed to achieve the final goal of a state title. With that being the case, there is unfinished business for Union to complete this fall as the Farmers approach the upcoming season with championship aspirations.
“Last year was a good year, but any great year ends in a championship,” Grasso, Jr. told TAPinto Union after the Farmers’ game scrimmage against Summit Friday afternoon. “We won the conference last year which we were happy about, but we’d like to win it unanimously and improve upon last year.”
And one would think the Farmers certainly have the talent to be raising a trophy at MetLife Stadium come December, especially when a good nucleus of the team’s success returns to the field. Specifically, that starts with Union’s offense and star senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn.
A third-year starter, Sanborn comes into his senior season as arguably the best quarterback in Union County and the Farmers’ Mid-State 38 Watchung Division, and perhaps even the North 1, Group 5 section. Sanborn completed 128 of 223 passes for a blistering 2,228 yards on 19 touchdowns last season, good for a QB rating of 108.7. A true dual-threat, he also rushed for 468 yards and five touchdowns.
Sanborn currently holds a Division II offer from New Mexico Highlands, but there is a unanimous belief that he should have some DI offers, which would seem to come with a good season. But right now, Sanborn and the Farmers' focus solely shifts on a championship this season.
“We’re just looking for him to continue his progress — he’s gotten better every year,” Grasso, Jr., said. “He’s extremely talented — we’re not worried about that part. Just some nuances and things about the game that he has to get better at. When he does, he’s gonna be about as good of a high school quarterback as you can find.”
Part of what has made Sanborn so successful is his supporting cast on offense, which does take a bit of a hit after key loses to graduated Division I playmakers in Isaiah Stewart (Pittsburgh), Michel Lucien (Central Connecticut), and Jacqu’e Cook (Wagner). However, the Farmers bring back a solid core offensively that should help ease the pain of those big departures.
Union’s skill players are headlined by star senior wide-receiver Ahmirr Robinson, who verbally committed to Rutgers in the offseason. Robinson, who led a strong cast of Farmer receivers last year with 41 receptions for 769 yards and seven TDs, figures to see even more of an increase in attention this year. Another strong receiver that the Farmers will boast is junior Jalen Carter, who hauled in 325 yards and four TDs as a sophomore. Desmond Igbinosun, Kayir McBride, and Elijah White all figure to see catches, as well.
In addition to Sanborn’s legs, Union will have some solid options running the ball, as well. It will undoubtedly be challenging to replace the rushing efforts of Lucien (690 yards) and Justin Peterman (580) from last season, but returning senior Christian Murrell will look to pick up much of the rushing load. Diante Wilson and Trey Noelsaint will step up, too.
On the offensive line, the Farmers return Jared Durand, Chiemela Onuegbu, Khari Parker, and Warren Francis. Terrell Cannon and Malachi Pierre-Louis will round out the crew up front.
The experience that the Farmers return on offense figures to grow stronger after a progressive offseason of work -- including a championship in the New York Jets' prestigious 7-on-7 tournament in June -- which Grasso, Jr., anticipates translating into success on the gridiron.
“You usually expect guys from one year to another to improve and show growth,” said Grasso, Jr. “We’ve worked hard this offseason; we had a great offseason with our guys, and we’re hoping that it translates onto the field.”
Defensively, Union was pretty sound in 2018, allowing under three touchdowns a game, but will look to improve upon that mark, which will be key against some of the strong competition that the Farmers face on a weekly basis.
Typically operating in a 4-3 defensive front, Union will bring with it some experience on the line with returning All-Conference tackle D'Shawn Etienne along with JaQuan Robinson, who the Farmers hope will be ready to go come gametime after suffering earlier injury. Chris Williams and Cannon also figure to start on the D-Line, while Durand and Onuegbo will contribute in addition to their offensive labors.
Returning senior Aaron Myrick will lead the hard-hitting linebacker trio that figures to also see Diante Wilson and Charles Ozurumba start.
In the secondary, Murrell is the only returning starter, and will play cornerback along with Kofi Ansah and Davison Igbinosun. Igbinosun's older brother, junior Desmond, figures to start at safety along with McBride.
On special teams, Sanborn will surely hope he does not have to perform his job, but will be the Farmers' punter, as he has been the starter since his freshman season. Senior Ricardo Casas will handle place kicking duties, and was nearly a sure thing at 35 for 37 on extra points last year.
Union's schedule is a weekly gauntlet this fall and that starts right away from Week 1. The Farmers open up the season with a bang, playing Curtis of Staten Island at Rutgers' 52,000-seat SHI Stadium on Sept. 7 at 3:30 p.m. as part of the Rumble on the Raritan showcase. Divisional opponents include Elizabeth, Westfield, Plainfield (home opener, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m.), Watchung Hills, and Linden. Out-of-conference showdowns are with perennial powerhouses Hunterdon Central, Bridgewater-Raritan, and Sayreville.
In terms of the state alignment, Union moved up in northing to North Jersey Section 1, Group 5. Last year, the Farmers were in North 2. Competition up in North 1 traditionally is slightly lighter than North 2, and the Farmers seem to open up the season as an early to compete for a sectional title, along with powers such as Montclair, East Orange, West Orange and Ridgewood.
And if the Farmers' starters and newcomers can gel as a cohesive unit, there is no telling how far this group can throughout that section and beyond.