Defending champion Shabazz HS football team rolls into North 2, Group 1 state final

NEWARK, NJ – The defending champion Shabazz High School football team defeated Cedar Grove, 49-6, in the semifinals of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 1 state playoffs on Nov. 9.

Shabazz will vie for its second straight title when it hosts Hasbrouck Heights in the final on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.

The Redemption Song rang loud and true for the Bulldogs of Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark’s South Ward. The redemption was payback for the team responsible for snapping their state leading 17-game winning streak. The redemption came as the Bulldogs were expecting to play their backyard rival, the Weequahic Indians, in the sectional finals for the third straight year, as well as play in the Soul Bowl on Thanksgiving.

For the past three years, the North Jersey Section 2, Group 1 final has been decided between the Indians (2016) and the Bulldogs (2017), who both recorded perfect records in their championship runs. But they both had a common thread in the way  – their streaks were snapped. It would be the inevitable trip to visit the Panthers of Cedar Grove High School. In each of the following seasons, Cedar Grove was instrumental in snapping a winning streak of both Newark schools. They defeated Weequahic, 19-0, in 2017 and Shabazz this season, 22-19.

“It is always very tough to win a game in Cedar Grove,” said Shabazz head coach Darnell Grant. “They got us on three straight penalties that put us out of scoring position with just a few seconds on the clock.”

The game got off to a fast start as Cedar Grove tried to pull an opening kickoff throwback trick play from kick returner Peter Johnson that was sniffed out by the Bulldogs’ special teams, which immediately cornered KR John Guaimano up against the Cedar Grove end zone. Three plays later, QB Mike Lever was sacked by Shabazz’s DE Michael Bright Jr. for a safety.

Shabazz was just hitting the gas when RB Aziz Wilson hit the express lane and sprinted 56 yards for the immediate score that gave the Bulldogs a 9-0 lead with just 10:11 left in the first quarter.

The Panthers special teams couldn’t catch a break when KR Peter Johnson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Bulldogs the opportunity to strike gold again. Anthony Travis capped a five-play 20-yard drive when he snuck into the end zone for the 15-0 stretch with just 7:13 left in the first quarter.

The game balanced out a little when Cedar Grove started to get their legs under them and drive the field, but the might of the Bulldogs’ defense, led by DE Michael Bright and FS Byron Whitehead that had Cedar Grove QB Mike Lever looking for daylight in the rain. With time running out of the first quarter, Shabazz was able to shut down the impending Cedar Grove threat when they got inside the Bulldog 5-yard line after a 36-yard connection from Lever to Guaimano. The goal line stand put Shabazz on their 1-yard line for the first time all game. But the Bulldog defense came up big in the middle of the second quarter.

After a fumbled punt reception, Cedar Grove looked to be back in business as they pounced on the ball at the Shabazz 40 yardline. But the Panthers tried to get back into scoring position, when a Mike Lever pass was completed to WR George Slattery but the Bulldogs defensive backfield stripped the ball causing a fumble that was scooped up by Shabazz FS Byron Whitehead Jr. for an 80-yard return and a 21-0 lead with 5:46 left in the half.

But the Bulldogs defense found the end zone a minute later. This time, it was a 36-yard pick-6 by SS Brandon Brown- Shaw to keep the score growing 28-0 with 4:48 left in the first half.

Cedar Grove’s turnover woes continued to plague them as Shabazz made quick work of yet another fumble that gave the Bulldogs a growing lead. QB Anthony Travis tossed a 27-yard strike to WR Al-Shaquan Floyd setting up RB Raekwon Robinson’s 2-yard dive into the house for a 35-0 halftime lead.

“We wanted this badly enough to bring the championship to Newark,” said Grant.

Shabazz scored two more times from Robinson’s 14-yard run and a 36-yard punt return by Shaun Pennington to stretch the lead to 49-0 by the end of the third quarter.

Cedar Grove finally found the end zone to avoid a complete shutout in the fourth quarter. RB Peter Johnson capped a 10-play, 69-yard march that was engineered by Lever, whose 45-yard sprint helped set up Johnson’s 3 yard run.

“I believe that history has been made,” said Grant. “There hasn’t been a state championship game played in Newark and we are the first to do it.”

It would be the first high school football championship played in Newark since the old Newark City League Championship was played in 1989. Not since the late 1960s has there been a Newark high school going to a championship three years in a row.

The Bulldogs will put their combined three-year record of 29-5 since 2016 on the line to a high-powered Hasbrouck Heights Aviators squad that has a combined three-year record of 30-1.  “We welcome the challenge to play a team that has taken the last two North Jersey Section 1, Group 1 Championships,” said Grant. “It will show that our program has been able to play at the highest levels.” Kickoff is slated for Friday evening at 7 p.m. It will also be live streamed by via www.D1mediapro.com.

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