There’s a tradition in North Bergen come October that is almost as annual as the leaves falling and kids going trick or treating.
It’s a given that the North Bergen football team competes for a berth in the NJSIAA state playoffs.
Over the last 27 years, the Bruins have failed to make the playoffs just twice – in 1987 and in 2008. That pretty much constitutes a habit, a perennial, a sure-fire occurrence.
Last Friday night, the Bruins faced Kearny in what was certainly a do-or-die scenario. With a win, the Bruins kept alive the hope that they would once again be part of the postseason festivities. Lose and you could kiss that annual affair goodbye.
Bruins senior quarterback Dominick Trautz knew full well the ramifications of the game.
“It came down to every game being do-or-die for us,” Trautz said. “I knew that it was going to be one of the last games of my career.”
There was another reason why it was a special game for Trautz.
“My mom [Heather] was going to be at the game,” Trautz said.
Heather Trautz is battling multiple sclerosis and her health has not been good in recent months.
“She missed a couple of games and was in the hospital,” Trautz said. “She was able to come home for this game. It was Homecoming, so it was big for her to be there. I had to prove something for her.”
Trautz said that his Bruin teammates realized the immense importance of the game as well.
“We knew it,” Trautz said. “We stressed it all week. I didn’t want to think about it, being the team that didn’t keep up with tradition.”
North Bergen head coach Czar Wiley knows all about the annual ritual. Wiley was a standout player for the Bruins. The former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year was a mainstay on the Bruins’ last undefeated state championship team in 1997.
“There’s the tradition of making the state playoffs all the time,” Wiley said. “Every year, that’s our goal. We realized that this was a game we needed to have, that we needed to win.”
Wiley said that he spoke with Trautz before the matchup with Kearny.
“I thought he tried to do too much in the Bayonne game,” Wiley said. “That game [a 21-20 loss] really hurt us. Dom was trying to force things a little. I needed him to just play his game, make the right decisions.”
“I had a little trouble doing the right things,” Trautz said. “I just needed to play freer. Once my back is put to the wall, I keep fighting. Playing football is what I love to do. I just had to play football.”
Wiley said that he needed Trautz to be the Bruins’ main man against Kearny.
“He needed to take control,” Wiley said. “The whole week of practice, he was focused and determined. We have a lot of young kids on the team, so we needed Dom to be the leader. I started to give him a little leeway with the ball. In the beginning of the year, I didn’t want him to get hurt. He already had a bum ankle, so he didn’t run much. I knew he was our bread and butter, so I protected him.”
However, with the Bruins’ hopes of gaining a state playoff bid hanging in the balance, Wiley changed his philosophy.
“Now, our backs were against the wall,” Wiley said. “This was our season, so I changed things around a little.”
Trautz welcomed the change.
“I was focused too much on passing,” Trautz said. “I needed to have the ability to run. I don’t see myself as strictly a passer. Once the defense thinks they have a read on me, I have the ability to catch them when they’re not looking. I don’t want to be a defense’s game plan. I want to be their nightmare.”
Trautz was definitely that against Kearny. He completed 10-of-15 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns, while running for 78 yards on six carries and two more scores. Trautz led the Bruins to a 41-14 victory in their do-or-die battle.
For his efforts, Trautz has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
The Bruins now have a 4-3 record with a bye this weekend. They face the state’s No. 6-ranked team St. Peter’s Prep next weekend. The Bruins currently hold the eighth and final spot in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV power point standings, meaning if the season ended today, they would once again qualify for the state playoffs. They will need some assistance from other teams to get in, but at the very least, they are in position to be in the postseason.
Trautz has received some lukewarm interest from some colleges like Lafayette, Army and New Haven. He’s not overly concerned about his future just yet.
“It becomes a little stressful to think about it too much,” Trautz said. “I guess I’m just focusing on the year. Once the year’s over, I’ll jump into things more. I’m open to any offer. I went to a New Haven game last Saturday and they run the same offense as we do. Lafayette is also a school that plays the run-and-shoot that plays into my hands.”
“Without a doubt, he can play at the next level,” said Wiley, who was a standout at New Hampshire during his collegiate days. “He runs well and throws well. He’s a great kid, a hard worker. Once he gets to college, his rewards will come for doing the right thing.”
Needless to say, Trautz feels good about the way the Bruins have bounced back from early season struggles.
“We climbed out of a bad situation and now we have a playoff chance,” Trautz said. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d have a chance. We fell on our backs for a while, but we’re back now. We’re playing my kind of football. I just hope we can continue to do more. It’s been a great four years here at North Bergen. I just want to finish this strong.” – Jim Hague
NOTE: Athlete of the Week will not appear in next week’s editions of The Hudson Reporter. The feature will return in the Nov. 10 editions.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.