It was a historic moment, pitting two teams that never faced each other before, even though the two towns are geographically so closely positioned.
It was also a time where the Patriots were in a little awe of the Hoboken mystique, about Friday Night Lights, the Hoboken rock, the flags, the championship reminders. For anyone to experience all that for the first time, it is an atmosphere unlike any other in New Jersey high school sports.
To try to break that mystique and the aura, Secaucus head coach Charlie Voorhees took his team to visit JFK Stadium in Hoboken a few days before they faced the Red Wings for the first time in the state playoffs.
"You walk in there and you see all the flags and banners," Voorhees said last year. "No one from Secaucus has ever seen anything like it. You can't describe it. I mean, it's Hoboken football. We had to bring our kids there to see it, because they might get overwhelmed. Even the word Hoboken sounds like football. It sounds like they should go together. Hoboken football. They go together, Hoboken and football and (Hoboken head coach Ed) Stinson. More so now than Sinatra. Hey, Stinson's even bigger than Sinatra now."
That was the sentiment a year ago. It doesn't exist now.
You see, the Patriots were a little starstruck a year ago, heading into the Mile Square City for the first time. It showed on the field, as the Patriots took the fateful four-mile trip back home, licking their wounds after a 44-14 drubbing.
Well, turn the clock ahead a full year and lo and behold, we have the same scenario again. Secaucus is ready to travel to Hoboken for yet another state playoff showdown Friday night, only this time, there will be no awe, no intimidation, no fear, no nothing.
"Last year, we crawled into the playoffs," Voorhees said. "We were struggling. This year, we're playing well and we're going back with a lot of the same kids. We've been there. It's not new to us. But it's still obvious that it's Hoboken and all that tradition. We just want to go play the game this year. It's just another game now. It's not even close to what it was last year. I'm not putting the same importance on going to Hoboken as I did last year. We like where we're at."
The novelty of the Secaucus-Hoboken showdown is long gone. In fact, the stakes have been raised a little this year, in the fact that it was a quarterfinal playoff contest last year and this year, it's a sectional semifinal. Secaucus soundly defeated Lyndhurst in the quarterfinals last week. Hoboken easily disposed of Belvidere.
It marks the first time that Secaucus has reached the semifinals since 1999. The Patriots played in the sectional finals in 1996. The school has yet to win a football state championship.
On the other side, Hoboken has captured six state titles in the Stinson era, but all six came in the Group III classification.
"We know that we'll never get fully respected in Hudson County until we win something," said Voorhees, who has been Secaucus' head coach for the last six years. "I can't say that we're playing for pride, because teams that play for pride aren't that good. We've played nine games and won eight. We're a much better team than we were last year. I feel better about my team this year than I did last year. In fact, we're pretty good. But until we win a championship, we'll never get respected."
However, veteran coach Stinson, the architect of all those state championships and all that tradition, has a lot of respect for Secaucus and its players, especially the one kid who is currently the second leading scorer in the entire state, the kid with 33 touchdowns and 1,700 rushing yards.
"That David Tejada is a hell of a football player," Stinson said. "The kid is the No. 2 scorer in the entire state. When you consider that nearly 400 high schools play football in New Jersey, then it gives you a perspective how big of an accomplishment that is. He has more than 200 points. It's an incredible statistic. Trying to defend him is going to be tough. He has quick feet and has the ability to stop and change direction. All college coaches look for that, called COD (Change of Direction). We have to be able to put this kid on the ground."
Stinson realizes that the novelty will not be a factor this year.
"They've all played on this field before," Stinson said. "If there was intimidation last year, it's not going to exist this year. They're physically more mature. They're a very formidable opponent. But we like to think we're a better football team as well."
The Red Wings will be much improved this week, thanks to the return of a very familiar face. The exile of standout running back/linebacker Terrence Vargas is now history. With his academic situation finally settled, Vargas returned to the practice field this week in time for the Secaucus showdown.
"We're hopeful that there's an emotional uplift for the team with his return," Stinson said of Vargas, who tried in vain to have his eligibility restored, going all the way to Hudson County Superior Court last month. "I know he's learned a tremendous life lesson through all of this. He has a physical presence, especially on defense. He will take the pressure off others in the offensive backfield and will be the kicker and punter again. He'll start at linebacker and feed him in offensively."
You can count on a very hungry Vargas making his presence felt this weekend.
Voorhees is hopeful that the novelty of a Secaucus-Hoboken state playoff game will continue to disappear, especially if the schools can make it an annual event.
"It potentially could be a game we play every year," Voorhees said. "We'd certainly like that."
However, it remains to be seen whether the Patriots can make that four-mile journey back home from the Mile Square City a joyous one.
"It just happened to work out that we're in the same place, facing the same team," Voorhees said. "But things are a lot different this year."
Let's see if the result is different as well. - Jim Hague