WOODBRIDGE, NJ — Over the past three seasons, Westfield High School has been the posterchild team of Union County football. The Blue Devils have won three consecutive state championships and currently own a state-best 38 game win streak, dating back to 2015.
In large part, Westfield’s success — unheralded for most public schools — has been due to the play of its lockdown defense. And while they weren’t sporting a Westfield jersey, five of the Blue Devils’ former defensive cogs took the field as teammates for one final time Thursday night.
Adam McDaniel, Jake Vall-Llobera, Drew Ortiz, Jordan Barham and Shea Elliott all represented WHS as Union County All-Stars in the 25th annual Snapple Bowl at Woodbridge High School. All were three-year starters on Westfield’s defense.
“This was a big honor,” said McDaniel, who spent most of his time in the game on the defensive secondary. “We had five players here, and that’s the most players of any team. We work hard all summer, all season, just so that we can get to those big championship games, so things like this are always nice to have at the end of the season.”
The quintet of Westfield players is a testament to how big the program currently is on the New Jersey football scene. While the Blue Devils are known on the statewide level, they are revered back home in Westfield.
Representing one’s hometown by playing in a prestigious event such as the Snapple Bowl is honor that every high school football player from Union and Middlesex Counties dreams of, and Drew Ortiz epitomized the luxury of earning that experience.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Ortiz said. “The fact that we’re all such great players that we get to represent our town — a great town with so many great players, and we were chosen to represent our town in this game is really a feeling.”
Entering this Snapple Bowl, Westfield’s five defensive standouts were the big story. That meant the Blue Devils and Union County had a target on its back — evident in some chippy play, among other things.
“Everyone was trying to beat the streak and stuff like that,” Ortiz said. “We were playing in this game, so everyone’s like, ‘Oh, these are Westfield kids. They’re undefeated, so we’ll see what it’s like.’ But we shut that stuff down; we don’t care about pressure and stuff — we just go out there and ball.”
Technically, Ortiz raises a point. This is the first time that those five Westfield players have lost a high school football game — luckily it was just an exhibition. It wasn’t any of the Blue Devils’ fault though — Union County’s defense limited Middlesex to a mere 65 yards in the first half and was really burned just once the entire night, when Paul Cocozziello (St. Joseph) threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Jack (Perth Amboy).
Despite having a heavy influx of Blue Devils players, Union County overall played very un-Westfield like while losing, 22-6, in a game that was ended with 1:25 left because of a fight. Union County’s only score came when Chuck Ifewekwune (Union) caught a four-yard TD pass early in the third quarter.
“Fundamentally, this was a totally different game,” said Barham. “It’s harder learning a playbook in two weeks, but we attacked it and tried to do our best out there."
All five of these Westfield players will be taking their talents to the collegiate level later this month. For them, playing in the Snapple Bowl almost served dual purposes: A final hurrah of high school football, while also providing a glimpse of what the college competition will be like.
“There were a lot of bigger guys and fundamentally, it was a better, college feel,” said Barham, who will play at Montclair State. This was a good way to prepare for college, he explained, “because five of my friends are also playing at Montclair State, so I already know the chemistry of playing together already.”
In addition to Barham starting his collegiate career in Montclair, McDaniel will be playing at Div. II New Haven; Vall-Llobera is headed to prestigious Johns Hopkins; Ortiz travels up north to Bowdoin; and Elliott will be off to the elite academic institution at the University of Chicago.
But for one final time Thursday, they were teammates.