UNION — On paper, what jumps out about Union upon first glance is the Farmers’ elite passing game, armed with stellar receivers and all-time great quarterback Andrew Sanborn. But when it gets down to it, Union has proven the ability to just as well win games — and now championships — on the ground, too.
In last Friday’s North 2, Group 5 sectional semifinal win over West Orange, senior running back Christian Murrell surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season with a great night running the ball. Flash forward to Friday night’s sectional championship, and Murrell’s fellow back Diante Wilson eclipsed that landmark, rushing for 216 yards and two touchdowns to lead Union to a 42-28 victory over Clifton for the Farmers’ first sectional championship since 1993.
“All year, everyone thinks we’re a finesse team, and then when it gets down to it, we can be physical and get it done on the ground,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “They’re both 1,000-yard rushers. They both do their part and they’re unselfish and pull for each other. You can’t ask for much more than that with two young guys — it’s not an easy thing to get in this day and age.”
The storied legacy of Union football added another chapter with Friday’s victory, as the Farmers have officially returned to their glory days in claiming their first title in 26 years. Legendary former Union head coach Lou Rettino had engineered the Farmer dynasty of the late 20th century, winning 10 sectional titles, the last of which came in 1993.
Since then, Union has been back to some sectional finals — most recently in 2013 — but was never able to get over the hump until Friday night. But after slowly building back up to the elite ranks throughout the mid-to-late 2010s under Grasso, Jr., Union has now gotten back to that level of excellence.
The road is not over for Union, either. The Farmers advance to play Ridgewood in the North Jersey Group 5 super-sectional bowl game, likely at MetLife Stadium, though a date and time are TBD.
“We wanted to bring The U back onto the map, and we just worked, worked, worked every day, and we got to where we are today,” Sanborn, who threw for 115 yards and a touchdown, said. “We’ve worked for this every day during the time I’ve been here. It’s something that I personally wanted, because I wanted to put the U on the map. I grew up here, and I wanted to stay here and do it for my town. I’m glad that we were able to do that.”
Both Union and Clifton came into this game boasting stellar lines on both sides, and that was likely going to be the key to victory. A main question was if Clifton’s D-Line would be able to disrupt the Farmers’ rhythm, but Union’s offensive line won that battle and opened up holes for some explosive runs.
That tone was set from the jump, as Wilson broke free for a 29-yard touchdown run up the gut to finish the first drive of the game and give Union a 7-0 advantage just 2:13 into the game. Wilson also closed out the scoring for Union with a major 69-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to make it 42-28 and cap off Union’s historic victory.
“Our team did great tonight,” Wilson said. "The O-Line did a wonderful job blocking and creating holes for me. I just used my vision and hit the holes as hard as I could to bring us a victory. Shoutout to the O-Line.
It’s very good to pass the ball, but us running backs had to step it up a notch and show them what Union’s running game was really about and it showed tonight.”
Problem was, Clifton has a pretty darn good rushing attack as well, led by bruising back Christian Boneparte, who immediately tied the game with a one-yard off tackle move into the end zone on Clifton’s ensuing possession to knot up the game at seven apiece.
The two teams would trade touchdowns again in the second quarter to make it 14-14, which is the score that it appeared they’d take into the locker room at halftime. But all of that changed in an instant when Kayir McBride received the kickoff following Clifton’s second TD, hit a hole, turned it into a second gear, and ran 85 yards down the left sideline to give the Farmers a 20-14 advantage heading into the break.
“I just caught the ball and I saw all my blockers in front of me,” McBride said. “I just had to burst. I saw the open cut, made it, and took it to the crib — turbo speed.”
Union would never trail again, and extended the lead to 27-14 on its first drive of the second half when Sanborn ran for a four-yard score on an off-tackle run to his right. The drive was given life by a monstrous 66-yard breakaway by Wilson.
Clifton would get closer on a touchdown run from Boneparte, though, to make it 27-21, but Union responded right away when Murrell punched in a two-yard TD early in the fourth quarter. But Clifton wasn’t finished and yet again made it a one-touchdown game when sophomore QB Kyle Vellis hit with Angel Payano on an 18-yard TD pass to make it 34-28 with 8:58 left in the game.
However, Union put it away moments later when Wilson gashed a hole up front and streaked 69 yards up the middle of the field for a touchdown to make it 42-28 and seal the deal.
“During that play the line created a hole for me and I just hit it hard,” Wilson said. “I knew someone had to end the game right then and there, and I took the chance to finish the game off with a huge run.”
Prior to that run, Clifton had threatened on a series into Farmer territory after recovering an onside kick following Payano’s TD. But on fourth down, Union came up with a stop at its 31 yard line. Wilson would run it to the house on the very next play.
Union’s defense also came up huge to seal the deal after Wilson’s big run. Davison Igbinosun intercepted a pass down the right sideline around the Union 15 with just over three minutes left, which gave the Farmers the ball back, and Union soon found itself in victory formation.
Igbinosun intercepted the pass in double-coverage with older brother, Desmond.
“Me and my big brother got to it, and I knew he had his hands on it,” Davison said. “I haven’t caught a pick this season and I’m the little brother, so big brother has to take care of the little brother — let me get it.”
"He said 'let me get it, let me get it', and I let him have it,” Desmond added.
Boneparte finished with 175 rushing yards and two touchdowns for Clifton. On cue, the Mustangs were big and physical up front, and that paved the way for some big runs for their star senior, who is arguably the best back that Union has faced this season.
"He’s a great football player," Grasso, Jr., said. "He ran really hard, did his job, and it was a tough night with him. He was good as advertised."