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Cedar Grove senior Stephen Paradiso (9) is one of the top returning quarterbacks from Essex County set for the upcoming 2024 Super Football Conference season. The 3-year starter passed for 2,420 yards and 28 TDs last fall for 8-2 CG. (Photos by Jeff Stiefbold)

Cedar Grove's Paradiso Brings Experience
As One Of Essex's Talented Returning QBs

By Steve Tober

Stephen Paradiso has been like a proverbial sponge when it has come to soaking up all he can about being a productive high school quarterback during his entire Cedar Grove football career, including as a freshman on the sidelines as he watched senior starter Alfonso Lombardi direct the Panthers’ offense in a thrilling 13-12 victory over Park Ridge in the North, Regional Group 1 championship at MetLife Stadium.

Now, as he prepares to enter his third season as the starting QB for a top-notch Cedar Grove gridiron program, he continues to value all he has learned along the way, and continues to learn while also putting up some terrific passing numbers.    

“I learned so much my freshman year which helped me be ready to start as a sophomore,” said Paradiso, an athletic and strong 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior who passed for 2,420 yards and 28 touchdowns with 8 interceptions in 2023. “Watching Alfonso quarterback our team to a playoff championship in 2021 was an invaluable experience for me, plus coach (Rob) Gogerty has done such a great job teaching me how to read defenses, and also give me the confidence to be able to make quick decisions and execute the plays that are there for us in the course of a game.”

While Paradiso brings tremendous talent and experience to the table as a veteran signal caller in Essex County, there are also others who are set to begin their third years as starting QBs at their respective high schools such as senior Connor Demasi at Verona and junior Paul Jones III at Weequahic.

West Orange senior Charlie LaMorte, who has committed to Bucknell University, is in his second season with the Mountaineers after transferring in last fall from Don Bosco Prep where he had been a young understudy for the talent-laden Ironmen, while Seton Hall Prep’s precocious sophomore Kahden Davis, who already has five Football Bowl Championship (FBS, formerly 1-A) college offers, is competing for the starting job this season for coach Bill Fitzgerald’s Pirates.  

The veteran Cedar Grove QB knows there are great challenges ahead for a fairly young Panthers team, which graduated an all-time great in wide receiver in Nick Iannacone (61 receptions for 1,036 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall.

“Nick is a huge loss because we had a connection that was just different after playing together for so many years,” said Paradiso. "We still have some very good receivers plus a lot of young guys in the mix as well, and we will continue to work together like we’ve been doing this summer in order to make it all click once again offensively this season.”

Among the experienced pass catchers back in tow for the Panthers are seniors Jackson Morrice (36 receptions for 538 yards, 4 TDs in 2023) and Nick Russo (29-437-8).

Cedar Grove will face a strenuous schedule right from the start beginning with a strong Schalick team in the ‘Battle at the Beach’ at Egg Harbor Township High School on Friday, Aug. 30.

“We have a tough schedule and I would say the first three games with Schalick, which had a great season (11-1) last year while reaching a (Central Jersey, Group 1) playoff final, down at the Shore to start things off," continued Paradiso. "And, then we host Weequahic (Sept. 6 in The Grove), which always gives us a battle, and there is still a sour taste in our mouths after losing to them (21-10 in the North 2, Group 1 final at Untermann Field) my sophomore year.

“That game is followed by Verona (Sept. 13, also in The Grove), which is definitely an improved team, and it doesn’t get better than that rivalry with us.

“We have a great program here at Cedar Grove and I have the utmost confidence in my guys to help us get the job done with some big victories this season.”

While the 8-2 campaign in 2023 ended with a tough first-round playoff loss to Shabazz (32-26) it was still a memorable season for Paradiso and company with one of his best games coming in the team’s other defeat last fall, a hard-fought 42-28 setback to a strong Caldwell squad when the Panthers’ QB put on an absolute aerial show while completing 40-of-66 passes for 463 yards and 2 TDs while also running for 2 more scores.    

Gogerty, a former standout QB under legendary Panthers coach Ed Sadloch during his own scholastic career at Cedar Grove, certainly values the fact that he has a veteran signal caller to help lead the way for his team this fall.

“It is always nice to return a 2-year starter to lead the offense,” said the veteran Cedar Grove head mentor. “Stephen has an outstanding grasp of our offense and has full reign in making decisions.

“He makes all decisions and checks for us and in a game like Caldwell had to make over 80 decisions (run and pass) as a high school QB which shows you both the mental and physical abilities he has to play the position.

“We will continue to lean on him to help win games for us.”

Paradiso, who will be looking at both Division II and Division III programs in the coming months, is continuing to grow both mentally and physically as one of the top returning QBs in the Super Football Conference.

“He has trimmed down about 15 pounds since last season and has been working on gaining more strength and speed over the past few months, which has been nice to see,” said Gogerty. “I think his next step is taking on full leadership of this team and to continue to make big plays throughout a game to put us in position to win the game at the end.” 

Among The Other Essex QBs To Watch In Upcoming Season

Among the other aforementioned, veteran QBs returning this season, Verona’s Demasi (2,046 yards, 12 TDs and 10 Int.) appears destined for a big season as the Hillbillies look to improve on last fall’s 2-8 mark with some strong, veteran talent.

"Connor has tremendous leadership skills combined with great talent and is ready for a big year," said Verona's first-year coach Mang Singh. "We see him having a terrific senior season."

Weequahic’s Jones III threw for 1,333 yards and 20 TDs with 4 Int. and rushed for 343 and 5 more TDs last fall for the 10-1 Indians.

LaMorte, who had to sit out the season’s first month after his transfer from Bosco, completed 41 of 85 passes for 739 yards, 9 TDs and 7 Int. in 2023 for the 5-5 Mountaineers.

SHP’s highly-regarded sophomore Davis, who has FBS offers from Maryland, Duke, West Virginia, Arkansas State and Bethune-Cookman, was one of three SHP QBs last fall and he completed 14 of 31 passes for 227 yards, 2 TDs and 1 Int. in his time behind veteran senior starter Liam Londergan (now at University of New Haven).     

Follow Steve Tober on X (Twitter) @ Chattermeister

Weequahic's Paul Jones III (9), West Orange's Bucknell commit Charlie LaMorte, Seton Hall Prep's sophomore Kahden Davis (right, in third photo) and Verona's Connor Demasi (10 in bottom photo) are among quarterbacks to watch in Essex County in 2024 campaign. (Photos by PJ Candido, Jeff Stiefbold & courtesy of Weequahic & West Orange football)

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