Mercer County players cap careers with appearances in Sunshine Football Classic

Courtesy photo

The 23rd annual Sunshine Football Classic was called to an end in the third quarter after a lightning bolt was sighted.

But that didn’t stop a host of Mercer County area all-stars from enjoying their final high school game and appreciating their scholastic careers in the annual game that was held at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville.

On July 2, officials spotted the bolt in the distance, waved their arms above their heads and called the game.

Despite the early conclusion, the game’s score still went final.

The East All-Stars beat the West All-Stars, 14-7, ending a four-game losing streak dating to 2014.

The annual game predominantly features all-star high school football players from Mercer County, but it also included players from Burlington County, Monmouth County and Ocean County.

This year’s game, as usual, raised money for the Sunshine Foundation, which helps children with illnesses and physical challenges. It also generated funds for scholarships to the Delaware Valley Chapter of the National Football Foundation.

And like the other summer all-star games throughout New Jersey each year, the Sunshine Classic serves as a nice capstone for players who overcame challenges to enjoy successful high school careers.

The 2019 edition of the Sunshine Classic was no different in that regard. The thoughts and stories of some area participants are below.

Lawrence High School 

Lawrence High School did not have the best football season in 2018, going just 1-8. But the Cardinals still boasted a lot of solid players.

Six of them were selected for the Sunshine Football Classic on July 2 at Notre Dame. Defensive back Jason Nalbone, fullback/linebacker Dawson Aime, tight end Malik Southward, defensive end Jacoby Sherard, offensive lineman Krystian Hajduczka and defensive tackle Brandyn Williams suited up for the West All-Stars in their 14-7 loss to the East All-Stars.

All six players helped a relatively thin Lawrence roster battle through the ’18 campaign to the end. They represented their school with dignity one last time at the charity all-star event in Lawrenceville.

“Tonight’s very special. One last high school experience having fun playing the game with my teammates,” Nalbone said. “It was a great experience all around.”

“Perseverance, hard work, dedication,” he added. “Good things will happen if you put the work in.”

“One last ride with my brothers,” Hajduczka said. “We had our ups and downs but it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me leadership, work ethic and responsibility,” he added. “Hopefully in the future I’ll give back to my community.”

Notre Dame High School

Notre Dame High School went 7-3 in the 2018 football season, reaching the NJSIAA Non-Public, Group 4 playoffs but losing in the first round to the St. Augustine Preparatory School, 41-7.

Patrick Jones started at cornerback for that team, and his play earned him a spot in the Sunshine Football Classic on July 2 on Notre Dame’s home turf. Jones played corner for the West team in its 14-7 loss to the East squad.

“It’s awesome. It’s my last game on my home field so I’m really excited,” Jones said. “My sophomore and junior years we struggled but we stuck with it.”

Notre Dame finished a combined 5-15 between the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. The Irish won more games in 2018 alone. They also took home the West Jersey Football League’s Capitol Division title.

It was a textbook lesson in perseverance.

“It taught me hard work,” Jones said.

The recent graduate will take that mindset into the next phase of his life at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI., where he will play football.

“I’m hoping to work my way in and eventually start,” he said.

Princeton High School

Four Princeton High School seniors, defensive back Steven Hennessy, linebacker Evan Angelucci, defensive tackle Jaylen Johnson and offensive lineman Connor Coffee, played in the Sunshine Classic for the West squad.

All four represented Princeton High with pride, just as they did during the 2018 football season. With only 30 players, the Tigers went just 2-7. But they stayed committed right on through the end of the fall campaign.

It was a good life lesson, as high school football so often is.

“It was an honor to be out here with all these other guys selected from across the county,” Hennessy said of the Sunshine Classic. “It was great to be at a higher level of competition.”

“I enjoyed my time at Princeton High School,” Angelucci said. “I’m very hopeful for the future of the program.”

“I love playing for coach (Charles) Gallagher,” Johnson said.

Hennessy might play football at the collegiate level, too. The former Princeton captain is headed to The College of New Jersey this fall.

“I’m still deciding but I think I’m going to play,” he said.

“Football requires a different kind of toughness and perseverance,” Hennessy added. “That’s something I’m going to take with me the rest of my life.”

Hopewell Valley Central High School

Hopewell Valley Central High School had a pretty good football season in 2018. The Bulldogs finished 5-4 after only winning four games in the previous two seasons combined.

Though their team fell just short of the NJSIAA playoffs, four Hopewell Valley seniors still earned nods to play in the Sunshine Classic on July 2. Hopewell Valley fullback Mike Vanover, wide receiver Brennan Rouse, running back/safety Steven Doldy and kicker/punter Robert Cacciabaudo played for the West team in its 14-7 defeat to the East squad.

For the Bulldogs’ players, it was a nice reward for the turnaround job they pulled off in 2018.

“There were a lot of ups and downs but I learned a lot about myself,” Doldy said. “If you get scored on, just keep your head up.”

“It means a lot to be here. It’s not just any high school player who gets to play,” Cacciabaudo said. “I used to go through the motions. Now I commit myself.”

“You learn a lot of life lessons from football,” he explained.

Doldy will continue his football career at the Virginia Military Institute.

Hightstown High School

Quarterbacking the East squad was Liam Monahan of Hightstown High School.

In the the first series of the game for the East, Monahan’s 61-yard pass connection with wide receiver Jahmiq Johnson of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South set up the first touchdown.

That pass play brought the ball inside the West team’s five. Florence Township Memorial High School’s Jajuan Hays then scored from a yard out.

Also representing Hightstown in the game was back Michael Quigg, who will now move on to play lacrosse at Monmouth University, lineman Brendan Defoe, defensive back Tairiq Clopton, offensive lineman Will McDade and receiver Justin Dailey.

Hightstown finished 3-6 this past fall season.