And then, there were four.
Four local high school teams are still competing for their respective NJSIAA state championships, just one win away from playing for a state title.
There’s St. Peter’s Prep, the state-ranked powerhouse, who manhandled Paul VI last weekend and will face St. Augustine Prep this weekend. A win this weekend will catapult the Marauders into the Non-Public Group 4 state championship game at MetLife Stadium against one of two Bergen County nemesis, Paramus Catholic or long-time dreaded foe Don Bosco Prep.
There’s Union City, which is in pursuit of school history, looking for its first-ever berth in a state title game. The Soaring Eagles defeated West Orange last weekend and will lock horns with perennial state public school power Montclair for the right to go to MetLife Stadium as well in the North Jersey Section 1, Group V title game.
There’s Lincoln, which has already carved a bit of school history and is in pursuit of more. The Lions knocked off three-time defending NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II champion Madison in a thriller last weekend, becoming the first Jersey City public school to ever win a state playoff home game. The Lions also have a huge mountain to climb this weekend, taking on perennial powerhouse Mountain Lakes on the road with the possibility of heading to the Meadowlands as well.
And finally, there’s Hoboken, which destroyed Ridgefield in the opening round last Friday night and gets to host yet another Friday Night Lights in the Mile Square City, this time against New Providence, for the right to go back to the Meadowlands and defend the North Jersey Section 2, Group I title they earned a year ago.
Four teams, all from the same county, all shooting for the same thing. A chance to become a state champion. It’s what they all put down as a goal long before the season started. Now, it’s there for the taking. One win more and they’re staring down the goal.
Lincoln head coach Robert Hampton, the architect of the Lincoln renaissance over the last few years, tried to remind his players all week that they had a chance to create a slice of history. No Jersey City public school had ever won a home game in the state playoffs.
“We had that in mind all week,” Hampton said. “We really didn’t have a great week of practice. Some of the younger kids were goofing around. We had a bit of insanity from our sophomores. But then our seniors grabbed hold of them and set them straight. They made them understand the history of it.”
One of the players who was not cooperating was sophomore wide receiver Frank Darby.
“I spoke to him alone,” Hampton said. “I told him that he had a chance to make history.”
Hampton was right. The Lions were facing a Madison team who was a juggernaut through the North 2, Group II bracket the last three years and had a state-high 39-game winning streak that carried into four football seasons that was snapped earlier in the season. Winning 39 straight football games is totally unfathomable.
As it turned out, Darby went on to have the game of his life. He snared six of Darius Wade’s passes for an astounding 213 yards and scored three touchdowns, becoming the key offensive performer in the Lions’ 28-26 victory.
“He had a monster game,” Hampton said. “I wouldn’t have thought that earlier in the week. It was great to see him mature on the spot.”
Hampton was excited for the kids.
“We play good football in Hudson County,” Hampton said. “I think we all, Prep, Hoboken, Union City, sent a message that we do. We don’t get a lot of respect, but we deserve it. We just beat the three-time state champion. We sent a message that Lincoln is a team on the rise. It’s a good feeling that the kids realized how special it was. It was a great day for us, the city, the Jersey City public schools.”
Hampton said that he loved the fact that there were so many alumni at the game last Saturday.
“One of the greatest feelings I got was seeing someone like Tony Gallo there,” Hampton said. “Before the game, he came to me and said, `This is beautiful, having Lincoln play in the states.’ He was a great player in his day and he came back to be there. I was so happy to see that. We had guys back from the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was a good feeling.”
At Hoboken, the Red Wings are poised to make a return trip to MetLife Stadium. The Red Wings manhandled Ridgefield, 34-7, last Friday night to earn another home game. There’s no better local football setting than Friday Night Lights in Hoboken. There’s always this air of excitement – and that’s only enhanced with a state playoff atmosphere.
The Red Wings, right down to their head coach, are a little banged up these days. Not only are standout players Kain Dunham (torn ACL and MCL) and Terry Perry (collapsed lung) out for the season, but head coach Lou Taglieri has been in and out of the hospital with complications after gall bladder surgery.
The Red Wings are certainly the walking wounded.
“It makes it tough,” Taglieri said. “It just becomes time for others to chip in. They have to go out and play and can’t worry about the injured players.”
So it has meant that senior Robert Montanez, junior Michael Williamson and sophomore Daquill Neal have had to play bigger roles – Montanez and Williamson (two 100-plus yard games) in the backfield and Neal replacing Dunham at wide receiver.
“They’re learning game-by-game,” said Taglieri, who was released from the hospital just two hours before last week’s kickoff. “But you don’t want to learn come playoff time. We’ll see where it goes.”
One constant that the Red Wings have had throughout has been senior quarterback Dante Bass, who was the engineer of last year’s state championship.
Having someone like Bass with big-game experience certainly helps.
“He just needs to run the offense,” Taglieri said. “He tried to do too many things at first since we were down two guys. He just needs to be Dante Bass. He doesn’t have to be anyone else. He’s the trigger of the offense.”
Taglieri was a little concerned as the Red Wings prepared to face New Providence, who dominated Secaucus in the opening round last weekend.
“I would like to see us play a little better,” Taglieri said. “Especially when you get to the playoffs. We have to come out and play hard like we did against Jefferson. We have to play a physical game.”
The Red Wings are in pursuit of their ninth state title – and third under Taglieri’s tutelage.
“Without a doubt, there’s nothing new about this,” Taglieri said. “You win, you move on. You lose and you pack up the equipment. You have to perform. And I truly believe that if this team comes to play, they can play against anyone. I think we can do it. These kids have a chance to do this twice. How many kids can say that? If they’re not ready for that, then they shouldn’t be playing.”
That’s the motto that all four local teams should abide by this weekend.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.