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***Caldwell has a veteran team to work with as it makes jump up to the rigorous SEC-American where powerhouse diamond squads from Essex are ever-present once again!

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***Former Summit hoops star is ready to execute on the stage with the same energy she had on court while hosting a comedy fundraiser for RC girls basketball March 31. Learn more in "Feature Articles"

***While the 50th Mercier Club's Dinner had usual close-knit feel to the proceedings there was also the spirit of a certain past member in the room. Check out "The Buzz"

West Orange's coach Darnell Grant (left), who will work with the wide receivers for the North squad, and his standout O-lineman Jay Straker will both be part of the 2023 Phil Simms North-South All-Star Classic which had its media day March 19 and will have its 42nd edition at 6 p.m., Sunday, June 11th, at Kean University. (Sideline Chatter photo)

Linemen Will Have A ‘Big’ Role To Play
For North In 2023 Simms All-Star Classic

By Steve Tober

UNION- West Orange’s Jay Straker enjoyed opening up holes for his Mountaineer running backs to shoot through during this past fall’s historic season for the Essex County Group 5 school, while Glen Ridge’s Jake Russell utilized his strength and size to lead the Ridgers to a North, Group 1 Regional Invitational Tournament title.

Both young men, with excellent size and strong college potential on and off the field, will help lead the North’s imposing O-Line during the 42nd Phil Simms N.J. North-South All-Star Classic set for 6 p.m., Sunday, June 11, at Kean University’s Alumni Field.

Straker (6-foot-3, 310 pounds) and Russell (6-3, 280) were among the big linemen on hand for the Simms Classic Media Day held Sunday, March 19, inside Kean’s Harwood Arena.

Straker, who will play guard or center and study business at Stonehill (Mass.) College, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school in the Northeast Conference, is thrilled to soon have the opportunity to try and create lanes against the South defense as the North attempts to tie the series with the South leads, 20-19-2, as the 43rd game approaches.

The North has never led in the all-star classic which began in 1979, had one game called off because of lightning in 2002, and wasn’t played in either 2020 or 2021 due to covid-19.

“It’s an all-star game with an amazing history and I’m honored to be recognized for my talents and potential by those who select the team,” said Straker, who will be one of those providing blocks for North all-star backs including Irvington’s Kyshir Desir and Hillside’s Kyon Simonson. “There are a lot of good linemen in this game, including talented guys from Essex County, and I’m thrilled to be a member of the North team.”

Darnell Grant, Straker’s head coach at West Orange, will be a wide receiver’s coach on the North staff which will also include Darnell’s brother, Barris Grant of Hillside.

“I love the fact this game is still going strong with Phil Simms providing a great name and inspiring voice behind it,” said Darnell, whose Mountaineers captured the football program’s first-ever playoff title with a stunning 28-7 championship win at heavily-favored Phillipsburg. “And, having everything at Kean, including this day to introduce the players, is just a ‘win-win’ situation for all involved.

“There are going to be some great backs and receivers in this game, for sure, but there also some big and very talented linemen like Jay who did such a great job for us on our way to a (North 2, Group 5) playoff championship last fall.”

Glen Ridge’s Russell, who is originally from Chicago, Ill., and will play at the FCS level at Valparaiso University in Indiana where he will also study engineering, helped his Group 1 Ridgers turn things around over the second half of the 2022 season capped by a regional invitational title in the new NJSIAA post-season tourney created for non-playoff teams.

“Winning the regional invitational title showed how far our team came during the season with terrific work from our (first-year) coach Manj Singh,” said Russell, whose Ridgers defeated Hawthorne, 36-13, in the North, Group 1 regional invitational final. “It’s great to be recognized for this tame from a small school which usually doesn’t have someone in this game and I’m thrilled to be part of this.”

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