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East Orange Campus' Monmouth Universtiy-bound defensive lineman Keneek Tomlinson gazes at all that is around him on the North sideline during Monday night's 38th annual Phil Simms New Jersey North-South All-Star Classic at Kean University's Alumni Feld in Union. The Jaguars standout earned his second straight all-star game defensive MVP award, an honor he also received for the East in the Paul Robeson Classic on June 13. (Sideline Chatter photo)

Nutley's Wagner-bound running back Craig Merkle makes his way behind blockers including Union's David Brown (74) as the North offense looks to build some sort of momentum in game. (Photos by Gene Nann-nannphoto)

EOC’s Tomlinson MVP Again
In Leading The North Defense
By Steve Tober

UNION- In what was a relatively short period of time in preparation for this past Monday night’s 38 th annual Phil Simms New Jersey North-South All-Star Classic, Nutley’s Craig Merkle very quickly came to realize just how great an athlete and football player East Orange Campus’ Keneek Tomlinson is.

As he stood on the North sideline and looked at the defensive unit continue to bottle up the South offense, the Maroon Raiders’ record-setting Wagner University-bound running back watched a certain defensive lineman was seemingly always using his speed and strength to make his way into the South backfield where he wreaked havoc, coming up with four sacks and four other tackles while earning North Defensive MVP honors, the same award he received in the June 13 th annual Paul Robeson East-West All-Star Classic at his home high school field which is Robeson Stadium in East Orange.

“He’s my man right there, No. 66 amazing,” said Merkle, while pointing at Tomlinson as the latter came up with one of his first half sacks in the North’s 7-0 win over the South in a defensive struggle played under rainy conditions on the Alumni Field artificial surface. “To get picked for two all-star games, back-to-back, and play as well as he has each time is just amazing!

“Most of all, we’ve become friends along with being teammates and that’s what’s so great about this game. You realize that it’s not only been terrific to spend a few days with great guys like Keneek, but I’m also excited to know that I’m going to want to follow how he does in the next four years along with everyone else.

“As a kid you hear about what a great game the North-South Classic is, and then to have the chance to play in the game and spend time with all these great guys, it’s just been an incredible last four days.”

While Merkle had his own productive game, rushing nine times for 44 yards, Tomlinson was an absolute terror, combining with other Essex all-stars such as Shabazz’ defensive end Darnell Grant, Jr. to terrorize the South offense while coming up with huge plays.

Grant’s hit and strip resulted in a fumble recovery for the North and set up the game’s only touchdown, a 15-yard pass from Princeton University-bound Seton Hall Prep quarterback Zach Keller to North offensive MVP, wide receiver Mike Pimpinella of Pascack Valley, with 8:02 still showing in the first quarter.

“I just looked to make a big play in that spot and I’m glad it led to a score for our team,” said Grant, who will play at Bryant University in Rhode Island this fall. “This is such an honor and I feel blessed to be around so many great players and it’s been real competitive on both sides.”

Tomlinson is a unique story in that he is still quite new to the football scene, having just taken up the sport two years ago at the urging of former East Orange Campus coach Marion Bell and then simply continuing to progress quickly and impressively for the Jaguars.

“I know that not everyone gets picked for two all-star games and it’s been an amazing experience, that’s for sure,” said the Monmouth University-bound EOC star in the making, who moved with his family to New Jersey from Jamaica, “Playing with all these great players has been a tremendous experience and I hope it helps me get ready for what I’m going to see at Monmouth.

“I never thought I was going to get any (college) offers, but I’ve been tremendously blessed and I just want to continue to work hard and be the best football player I can be.”

Mustafa Lawrence, who knows something about being a great all-around athlete as he starred in hoops as a first-team All-Essex guard for Newark Tech and then excelled as a defensive back and wide receiver for Weequahic, appreciates the burgeoning stardom on Tomlinson while enjoying having been part of one last high school football game before heading off to Shaw (N.C,) University for basketball.

“Keneek is a tremendous athlete and football player and it’s been great watching him this past few days,” said Lawrence, who played cornerback for the North offense Monday night.

“What’s great about this game is that in addition to being around tremendous football players, you also see just how athletic all these guys are.

“It’s been a great experience and I’m so happy that I also played high school football in addition to basketball!”

While Merkle, Tomlinson, Grant and Lawrence all know what college they’ll be heading off to soon, Orange’s standout defensive lineman Amir Copher, who also excelled on the North’s D-Line Monday night, is still working on landing his college situation.

He’ll be attending Milford Academy this fall while continuing to work on his technique and improving his test scores in order to qualify for a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS or formerly 1-A) program in 2017.

“I need a better SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score, and I know that I can do it,” said the solidly-built 6-3, 330-pound Orange graduating senior. “My goal is to play major college football and a year at Milford Academy can help me in that direction.

“Playing in the North-South Classic is a big honor and there a lot of players from my school who never had this opportunity so I will relish these memories and all the great players that I played with and against in this great game!”

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

The North's running back Craig Merkle of Nutley (22) finds the corner as the South's Jared Fraraccio of J.P. Stevens pursues during the 38th Simms North-South Classic at Kean. (Photo by Gene Nann-nannphoto)

Two neighboring Essex County players enjoying their time on the North squad during Monday night's Simms New Jersey North-South Classic were Caldwell's Justin Jackson (left) & West Essex's Frank Hunter. (Sideline Chatter photo)

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