If there's one consistent fact about Hudson County high school football, it's an appearance in the NJSIAA Group IV state playoffs by the Bruins of North Bergen High School.
Every year since 1987, the Bruins have qualified for the state playoffs. In fact, since the playoff system was instituted in 1974, the Bruins have failed to make the state playoffs only twice - that first year, 1974, and in 1987, when the Bruins didn't get in, despite having a brilliant 8-1 record.
It's perhaps the most impressive streak of all in local football. The county's two other grid powers, St. Peter's Prep and Hoboken, also seem to be bound for the post-season every year, but neither school can reach the same consistency of playoff-bound teams like North Bergen has produced.
If the Bruins make another trip to the playoffs this year, that would make 20 consecutive seasons of playoff-bound teams, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for a storied program.
Since the playoff system began, North Bergen has known only one head football coach, the "Pappa Bear" of the Bruins, Vince Ascolese. The legendary Ascolese has been coaching in the Hudson County high school football ranks for 44 straight seasons now, first with Demarest (now Hoboken) and for the last 32 years at North Bergen. During that time, Ascolese has collected 319 career victories, good for third on the all-time coaching list in New Jersey.
Ascolese has been just as consistent as the playoff streak. He's there every year and the Bruins win every year. The Bruins finished 2005 with a 7-3 record.
"I think it has to be attributed to the nature of the kids we have," Ascolese said. "The standard has been set by our other teams that have gone to the playoffs. Honestly, I don't even give much thought to it (the playoff streak). Every year is different. We just go in, start working and do what we have to. We tell the kids right away that we have two goals: that we want to have a winning season, and we want to get to the state playoffs. Those are our goals every year. We don't have many."
Ascolese feels that the Bruins should live up to the level of excellence that has been maintained over the last two decades.
"We've had great attendance from the kids and they've been working extremely hard," said Ascolese, who kicks off his 45th season as a head coach this weekend with a game against Lincoln. "Some of the seniors are assuming leadership roles and that has shown me a lot of character. I've been impressed with that. It's not always the obvious ones, the ones you expect, who step up. We've had our seniors do a great job in the preseason."
Leading the returnees is senior do-everything Evan Rodriguez (6-3, 230), who is clearly the best all-around athlete the school has produced in a long time. Rodriguez, who is being heavily recruited by a lot of big-time colleges, has put some personal problems he endured over the summer in the rear view mirror.
"We talked about his importance to this team, and he has an understanding," Ascolese said of Rodriguez, who has a chance to become only the second four-time Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree, joining former Reporter Athlete of the Year Mike Brown of St. Peter's Prep, currently playing defensive back at the University of Virginia. "Everything that happened to Evan is behind him. I don't see any effect right now. There is very little bothering him."
Much like what St. Peter's Prep is doing with its best athlete Will Hill and what Hudson Catholic is doing with standout Calvin Brownridge, Ascolese is utilizing Rodriguez' talents all over the field, both on offense and defense. Rodriguez will line up as a quarterback, where he played last year, as well as halfback and wide receiver. On defense, Rodriguez is being moved to outside linebacker, where some of the colleges recruiting him think he's best suited. He's been a free safety in each of his first three years at North Bergen.
"I hope that Evan has the senior year we're expecting from him, because he deserves it," Ascolese said.
When Rodriguez isn't playing quarterback (where he had 1,400 yards passing and 800 yards rushing last year), senior David Portes (5-10, 170) and junior Thomas Guaschino (5-11, 180) will share the duties. Guaschino's father, Brian, was a standout track star at the University of Tennessee during his heyday.
Senior Jean Mentor (6-1, 210) is the fullback in the Bruins' famed Delaware Wing-T offense, with three backs, senior returnee Chris Macias (5-7, 160), along with juniors Eric Salgado (5-6, 155) and Enderson Velez (5-7, 165) sharing the halfback and wing back positions.
Ascolese can call upon four players at wide receiver, beginning with seniors Emilio Morel (5-10, 180) and Steve Palma (5-11, 175), but Portes and Evan Rodriguez might line up outside as well, as will senior Steve Ramos (6-1, 190).
The offensive line has only one returning player in senior tackle Larry DeCandia (6-3, 270). Ascolese was asked if the lack of experience up front was a concern.
"It was in the beginning, but they've come along pretty well in the scrimmages," Ascolese said.
Senior George Sorimba (6-3, 290) is the other starting tackle, with seniors Alex Nunez (5-10, 215), junior Bryan Quezada (6-1, 190) and sophomore Conner Payne (5-10, 200) all vying for playing time at guard. Senior Ralph Lopez (6-0, 215) is the center.
Senior Kevin Rodriguez (6-1, 220 and no relation to Evan) is the tight end.
On defense, Evan Rodriguez will be a key now that he's an outside linebacker. Junior Bernie Castano (5-10, 180) is the other outside linebacker.
Mentor returns as an inside linebacker, where he earned All-Area honors last season. Junior Mike Valdivia (5-9, 195) is the other inside linebacker.
The defensive tackles are Lopez and DeCandia. Junior Julian Torres (6-0, 265) is the nose guard.
Macias and Salgado will play cornerback with Portes and Guaschino at safety. Junior Jonathan Mentor, Jean's younger brother, will get to see some action at both defensive end and tight end.
So the ingredients are there for another Group IV state playoff berth, making it an unprecedented 20 straight.
"I think we can play well with the teams there (in Group IV)," said Ascolese, whose team already scrimmaged possible state playoff opponents Paterson Eastside, Ridgewood and Montclair. "I hope we can play with them and would love to face them again."
Count on it. History says so.