Here's a countdown of Darren Cooper's Top 10 football plays of North Jersey's 2020 season. NorthJersey.com
Who's No. 1?
Every year, hundreds of high school football teams in New Jersey compete for conference titles, sectional championships and the right to claim the No. 1 ranking in the Garden State.
Every week, voters from across USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey will rank the Top 25 teams in the state. The rankings will be posted every Tuesday morning.
Here, the Network ranks New Jersey's preseason Top 25:
The Braves have moved up in stature since Matt Parzero took over the program in 2016. They've racked up a 44-7 record, including last season’s perfect 6-0 mark. Newton will be leaning on senior quarterback Jack Young, who threw for 943 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season, to keep the Braves thriving in Group 2.
24. Colts Neck
The Cougars return many key players from a team that went 7-1 last season. Among the returnees are quarterback Tommy Fallon, in his third season as the starter, lineman Dan Volpe and linebackers Anthony Bonnano and Will Surdez. The schedule is way tougher this season as Colts Neck is in the same division as Wall, Donovan Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven.
23. Rumson-Fair Haven
The Bulldogs are a program that reloads every season. They have to replace standout running back John Volker and find a new quarterback, but four starters return on the offensive line, and six return on defense, led by linebacker John Lista and lineman Aiden Moriarty.
22. St. Joseph (Hammonton)
It was a turbulent year for St. Joseph in 2020 as the high school was closed by the Diocese of Camden in the spring before alumni scrambled to reopen as independent St. Joseph Academy just a few months later. Despite the chaos, and no home field, the vaunted football program managed to go 7-2. It’s been a lot smoother this offseason and the Wildcats boast an impressive backfield duo in Cohl Mercado and Kevin Mayfield.
One of only a handful of teams to play a full nine-game slate during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, the Blue Knights went 7-2. Irvington lost a trio of senior starters to FBS schools, but return a star-studded defense led by four-star junior Adon Shuler (committed to Notre Dame) and senior defensive lineman Justin Jenkins, who has offers from has offers from a dozen schools, including Alabama and Texas A&M.
The Green Raiders have some pieces to fill in after graduation, most notably at quarterback and the No. 1 wide receiver spot. But this is a program, not a fad. The Green Raiders will roll out one of North Jersey’s most explosive offenses and take on all comers as it moves up to Group 4.
19. West Orange
The Mountaineers began last season losing to top-ranked St. Peter's Prep, but recovered to win their final six games. West Orange did not allow more than 14 points to any foe in those six straight wins, including wins at East Orange Campus and at Clifton. Senior WR Makhi Green is a Temple commit and one of the most sure-handed receivers in the state.
The Spartans are well-equipped to continue their rein of dominance in the North Jersey Super Football Conference, where they have yet to lose a division game. After finishing 5-2 with losses to West Morris and Shawnee, the Spartans will go as far as junior quarterback Austen Frattura takes them. He has 3,736 yards and 35 touchdowns in his first two seasons, garnering offers from Maryland and Pittsburgh.
17. Donovan Catholic
The Griffins, even though they lost key players to graduation like receiver Jayon Farrar, running back Jahdir Loftland and quarterback Evyn Menta, still return some key players from a team that went 7-1 and ended up less than a yard away from beating Wall in the unofficial Shore Conference championship team. Among the returnees are safety Jalin Butler, who will likely take over at quarterback, lineman Caron McNair and linebacker Connor Farrell.
While Woodbridge graduated a chunk of last year’s team that finished No. 8, enough firepower returns to enter the season as one of Middlesex County’s best squads. The Barrons are boosted by the transfer of of senior quarterback Matt Stanton from St. Joseph (Metuchen), a two-year starter for the Falcons. Two-way lineman AJ Elhossiani II (6-4, 300) brings experience and playmaker Isiah Allen is primed for a breakout season at RB/WR.
15. Winslow Township
The Eagles were one of South Jersey’s biggest surprises last season as they went 5-1, their first winning season since 2010. They’re looking equally dangerous this season both on the field and on the sideline as coach Kenny Scott brought in some big names to round out his coaching staff, including former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
14. Red Bank Catholic
The Caseys have been fortified by three transfers from Mater Dei Prep: quarterback Alex Brown – a two-year starter at Mater Dei – running back/linebacker Ra’Jahn Cooper and lineman Ashton Mejias. Those additions add to a team that already included standout tight end/defensive end and Division I recruit Alex Bauman, junior running back/linebacker Sabino Portella and junior wide wide receiver Najih Rahman.
The Stateliners posted their fourth straight season of three or fewer losses last year, with the lone setback coming by one point to Watchung Hills – the first time the Warriors had beaten Phillipsburg in 20 meetings. Wins over Ridge and Hillsborough highlighted the campaign for a team that averaged 37 points per game and allowed just 12, holding three opponents to a touchdown or less.
The Thunderbolts were enigmatic a year ago. They scored monster wins over powerhouses St. Augustine and Williamstown but finished the season 4-4. If they show up every week, there’s nobody they can’t beat in South Jersey. Nate Robbins is a three-year starter at quarterback, and he’s got a loaded group of playmakers to get the ball to, including Syracuse recruit LeQuint Allen.
The Crimson Knights, even though they lost standout running back/cornerback Casey Larkin and quarterback/safety Logan Peters to graduation, still will be a team to be reckoned with. They return eight starters on offense, including three starters on the line, and nine on defense, including first team All-State linebacker Charlie Sasso. The questions will be can they get solid play at quarterback and can they come close to the production Larkin gave them?
10. Northern Highlands
The Highlanders were one of the many teams bitten by the COVID bug in 2020, but they return one of New Jersey’s top quarterbacks in Enzo Arjona (committed to Monmouth) and are solid up front and on defense. They face a tough test in Week 1 with a game against Somerville at the Rumble at the Raritan showcase at Rutgers.
9. St. Joseph (Montvale)
No more Audric Estime – he’s running for Notre Dame now – but don’t feel too bad for the Green Knights. The defense is led by All-World wrestler Jimmy Mullen and new quarterback Luke Henrich has a speedy target in Lehigh commit Jaden Wimberly. Also, don’t forget, St. Joseph may have been playing the best of anyone in New Jersey at the end of 2020.
Last year's Big Central Conference Group 3 Team of the Year is coming off another dominant season, outscoring opponents by a 47-19 average, including wins over state-ranked Rahway and Group 4 Team of the Year Woodbridge. The Pioneers, who have gone 49-5 the past five seasons, combined, are returning a host of talent, including quarterback Mike Miller and DB/WR Jaiman Bryant.
New coach Nick Campanile has beefed up the Spartans in more ways than one. This may be the biggest DePaul team ever, numbers wise, so depth may not be an issue. The defense is supremely talented with defensive back A’khoury Lyde (committed to Wisconsin) and Q’yaeir Price (Syracuse) causing havoc. The Spartans could be the team to beat in Non-Public B.
6. St. Augustine
The Hermits were just 4-3 a year ago, but their losses came by a combined 12 points to three of the toughest teams in South Jersey. They’ve got as much top-end talent as anyone in the area, the only question is if they can put all the pieces together. The offense has seven players that are Division I commits or have offers.
5. Don Bosco
The Ironmen have one of North Jersey’s top offensive linemen in junior Chase Bisontis and a promising young running back in Ronnie Heath. The bulk of the defense comes back from last season, led by star lineman Claudy Robinson Jr. (Fordham) and hit machine linebacker Tim Hinspeter (West Point).
The Green Wave are looking to build off a perfect 6-0 season that included wins over Don Bosco, DePaul and Seton Hall Prep. Heading up the efforts to repeat an outright NJSFC United White Division title will be Delbarton’s front seven, led by Stanford commit Pat Caughey at defensive end, all-state linebacker PJ Casale, and Division I prospects Matt Gemma and Chuck Nnaeto on the line.
3. Holy Spirit
The reigning South Jersey Team of the Year is coming off a perfect 9-0 campaign that saw the Spartans dominate on both sides of the ball, outscoring their opponents 228-47. They did lose the Courier Post’s Offensive Player of the Year in Patrick “Cheeks” Smith, but there’s a lot of talent back this season, including all five starters on the offensive line.
2. St. Peter's Prep
The Marauders will miss retired coach Rich Hansen, but have found the next best thing as Hansen’s son takes over the proud Jersey City program. Champ Long (a Maryland commit) takes over the role at quarterback and has two of the best running backs in New Jersey behind him. The defense is loaded with lineman K.J. Miles (Georgia Tech) and Bryce Rooks (Monmouth).
1. Bergen Catholic
The Crusaders are New Jersey’s most talented team and are on a mission after they feel they were robbed of the No. 1 ranking in 2020. This may be the most-talented Bergen Catholic team ever, starring quarterback Steve Angeli (committed to Notre Dame) running back Ryan Butler (Princeton), and a stacked defense that returns nine starters including Jaeden Gould (USC) and Jayden Bellamy (Notre Dame).
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: North Brunswick, Ridge, Verona