Monday marked the official start of preseason for high school football in New Jersey. But for coaches and players across the state, there is definitely no easing into things during the start of training camp.
In recent years, the regular season has started earlier and earlier with 2023 being the earliest start time yet. While hard to believe, when Belleville and Nutley hold their first official practices, they’ll be just two and a half weeks away from their first regular season games.
In fact, Nutley, under new head coach Chris Helm, kicks off the new season when it faces West Milford in the first game of the Jim Grasso Classic on Friday, August 25 at 11 a.m. at Overpeck Park’s Vince Lombardi Field in Palisades Park.
“It’s pretty crazy. It makes for a pretty short preseason, it gets really compacted,” said Belleville head coach Brian Antab, who’s Bucs start the season on Aug. 25 a few hours later at Passaic. “But it’s exciting to know that football is this close and that we’ll get to get back out there and compete against another team so quickly.”
This is the second consecutive season that Belleville is playing in what the NJSIAA terms “Week 0” on the calendar. But unlike a year ago, when the Bucs suffered a lopsided loss in Antab’s head coaching debut, he and Belleville are now better prepared for the early start, now that he’s completed his first full offseason as coach.
“We were able to plan the offseason workouts, get through all we wanted to install throughout the offseason and then be ready for this preseason camp to really tune-in on what we want to get good at,” Antab said. “Now that we pretty much have everything installed and ready to go, now we can really rep it and get good at the things we want to be able to do and look to add to and subtract from what we already have.”
Helm doesn’t view the shortened preseason as a negative as he enters his first year as the Maroon Raiders’ head coach. Instead, Helm, who was hired in December as serving as an assistant the previous two seasons, looks at the condensed time period as a way to hit the ground running with the high-energy approach he wants to bring to the team.
“That was the idea behind it. If we pick up the pace with how we change things, how we practice and everything, it will change the culture,” said Helm, who credits his years as an assistant under Steve DiGregorio and Roger Kotlarz for teaching him how to get a lot done in a little bit of time. “Over the summer, the kids did a great job with coming in twice a week for football, twice a week for training. We already have a pretty good jumpstart because we had great numbers over the summer. The kids were all excited.”
While neither Lyndhurst nor North Arlington play Week 0, the rush to be ready is still there. Just six days later, on Thursday, Aug. 31, both NJIC schools will be making their season debuts on the road with North Arlington going to Hawthorne and Lyndhurst traveling to Secaucus. That night will also be the second game for Belleville (at Bayonne) and Nutley (at Bloomfield).
For North Arlington head coach Joe Borokowski, who is now in his third season as head coach, he feels the shorter preseason might prove advantageous due a veteran roster that includes 16 seniors and several returning starters on both sides of the ball.
“There’s a quick turnaround from the first practice to the first game, but having an experienced group, I look at it as an advantage this year as compared to the previous seasons,” said Borokowski. “The next couple of weeks tend to drag a little bit, but the good thing is we have lots of experience.”
That extensive experience should also be beneficial for veteran head coach Rich Tuero, who returns eight starters on both sides of the ball.
Kearny and Harrison begin their regular seasons the first weekend after Labor Day, which long served as the opening week for football statewide. The Blue Tide open at home on Thursday, Sept. 7 against Bogota while the Kardinals travel to Memorial of West New York the next night.
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)