Hamilton football looks to change Mercer’s playoff fortunes against Shore Conference

From the left, Jacob Darby, Gage Storer, Kevin Boswell, Zykeem Williams, Ishmael Gonzalez and Pat Migliaccio leave no doubt as to who is number one in the Valley Division after last Friday’s win over Lawrence (Photo by Donna “Roll Tide” Brihn). 

By Rich Fisher

Nov. 6: The Mike Papero Era at Hamilton West started with a 44-6 destruction at the hands of state-ranked Somerville.

It might be a stretch to say it was all part of the grand scheme of things.

Then again, maybe it should have been.

“We were bullied up there on that field, and it was the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Papero as he prepares his 5th-seeded Hornets for Friday’s 7 p.m., NJSIAA Group IV Central playoff game at 4th-seeded Middletown South. “We got to see what a powerhouse program is like and how far away we were from being one ourselves. Somerville prepared us for anyone in the state. We said we’d hit the reset button after that game. We did, and we are a much different team nowadays.”

Much different in a good way. But it just as easily could have been in a negative manner.

“After getting smacked by Somerville, some teams may have pointed fingers at each other and started to fracture,” Papero said. “We did the opposite. Our players came together and realized that we didn’t want to feel that way again. There is no quit in this team; we play with controlled emotion, and these guys love hitting people.”

Do they ever. The Hornets are one of those rare teams where it is fun to watch them play defense. The players fly to the ball en masse and often set a tone for the offense.

The Hamilton West football team celebrates its Valley Division title last Friday at Lawrence, but are back to work this week as it prepares for Friday night’s CJ IV playoff opener at Middletown South (PHoto by Donna “Roll Tide” Brihn).

Since allowing 65 points in the first two games, Hamilton has allowed 46 in its last six. West has not lost since Somerville and carries a seven-game winning streak – its longest since 2004 – into Friday’s battle.

Middletown South is only 3-4 and has won its last two games but, as followers of Mercer County football are well aware, Shore Conference teams have dominated local squads over the years; be it in playoff or consolation games.

“We just worry about us,” Papero said. “The record of Mercer County teams vs Shore Conference teams has nothing to do with Hamilton West and Middletown South in 2019. We will let others talk about that while we continue to work in silence.”

The Meatball Master is proud that West has gotten a swagger back and is playing inspired, physical football. He is also happy to see that as their winning streak has grown, the Hornets have not gotten over-confident.

“We want the kids to have fun,” he said, “and what’s more fun than winning and flying around the field hitting people? That being said, we respect every opponent, and our job as coaches is to make sure that we don’t overlook anyone, no matter what the record. Great teams can’t have letdowns, and we’re proud of our team for coming to play every single week.”

Hamilton’s last trip to the playoffs in 2016 actually led to a win over a Shore Conference foe as it defeated Lakewood before losing to Wall. It also played well in a 21-13 playoff loss to Middletown South in 2010, although that’s ancient history.

Then again, things don’t change much when it comes to Shore teams. Which is why South’s 3-4 record doesn’t indicate how strong the Eagles are.

West  has played two playoff teams this year and beaten one (Hopewell Valley), while all seven of Middletown South’s opponents have been against playoff qualifiers.

Two of the Eagles victories are over defending Non-Public Group III champion Red Bank Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven, which are both seeded second in their respective brackets.  They only lost by five to Toms River North, which is 8-1 and second seeded in CJ V.

“We, as coaches, have pounded into our kids’ heads how different Shore Conference football is,” Papero said. “Every game is a battle against a playoff caliber team out there. So we all know that records mean nothing. We respect them, but we aren’t scared of anybody, Shore team or not.

“We know about their program. They are a tough, strong, well-coached, team that plays Shore Conference football. But the past means nothing to us. We only care about the 2019 version.”

Which is pretty much like all the other versions – physical football. Lineman Vinny Condito and defensive back Chris Lotito are keys to the Eagles defense and also contribute to the offense.

“They don’t try to trick anyone,” Papero said. “They line up and play smart, tough, football and won’t make many mistakes. Whatever we get, we will need to earn, and that’s how we like it.”

Hamilton will counter that physicality with a formidable front seven on defense and a strong offensive line.

Joe Muni has been one of the countless Hornets flying around the football on defense this season (Photo by Donna “Roll Tide” Brihn).

 The Cronce twins – Chris (66 tackles, 3 sacks) and Chase (38 tackles, 4 sacks) – have been all over the field along with guys like Joe Muni (31 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 tackles for loss), Tolu Adeaga (43 tackles, 4-1/2 sacks), Joe Laezza (57 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions), Andy Figueroa (38 tackles, 2 interceptions), Tyler Williams (41 tackles, 7 sacks, 13 tackles for loss) and Bryon Hearst (31 tackles). A slew of others have also contributed to the defensive cause.

Offensively, the o-line of Zach Medina, Patrick Migliaccio, Ish Gonzalez, Gage Storer, Jacob Darby and Connor Kasa, along with blocking help from fullback Chase Cronce, have opened the holes for the dazzling Kevin Boswell.

The Boz is this week’s 12th Man TD Club Offensive Back of the Week after running for 252 yards and four touchdowns in a 27-12 win over Lawrence that clinched the West Jersey Football League Valley Division title last Friday. Boswell has rushed for 1,356 yards and 17 TDs this year, and needs 84 to break Shelton Snead’s single-season record.

With help from fullback Chase Cronce (45), Kevin “The Boz” Boswell shows the form that enabled him to be named the 12th Man TD Club’s Offensive Back of the Week (Photo by Donna “Roll Tide” Brihn).

Quarterback Mike Nielsen has some dangerous receivers in Nate Rodriguez and Zykeem Williams, who both average 23 yards per catch.

“We came into this season with high expectations,” Papero said. “We worked hard all off-season to get bigger, faster, and stronger. The question we had to answer was ‘Are we going to play the game the right way and show up to work every week, work in silence, and sacrifice for each other?’  We have done that.”

Papero says in order to win the game, West must play disciplined, inspired, physical team football, while remaining confident and composed. He feels the Hornets will be in trouble if they play sloppy, noting that “they will take advantage of any mistakes, so we need to play a smart, clean game and give them nothing.”

If all that happens, Hamilton has a chance to take the next step toward a goal Papero established when he took over last winter.

“We are not just happy to be here,” the MBM said. “Our goal was, is, and always will be to win a state title. We are proud of this team for the way we have played and conducted ourselves, but we aren’t looking for moral victories. We are proud but not satisfied.”

About The Author

Rich Fisher has been around the Hamilton Township sports scene for so long that he actually got Rich Giallella’s autograph when Giallella was still a player! Proud product of Hamilton YMCA and Lou Gehrig baseball leagues and former teammate of Jim Maher on a very average Barton & Cooney rec basketball team, Fish graduated from Nottingham Junior High and Steinert High school and has covered township sports since 1980. His goal in life is to convince Maria Prato that Jersey tomatoes are at least 100 times better than California tomatoes.