He’s spent the last 50 autumns molding the lives and mentoring the minds of thousands of adolescent young men in both Hoboken and North Bergen. He’s garnered countless awards and accolades over those five decades doing so. He’s won almost 360 games, 14 Hudson County championships, seven state sectional titles, and one overall No. 1-state ranking during that time.
To call Vince Ascolese simply a legend would be like saying that Wayne Gretzky was a just a good ice skater or Charlize Theron is just another pretty girl.
Ascolese is beyond a legendary figure in North Bergen, in Hudson County, in New Jersey high school sports. He is North Bergen. You think of North Bergen, you think of Ascolese, think of his tremendous family, think of the countless years of service as a football coach, as an administrator, as a former Hudson County Freeholder.
He’s one of those figures who is larger than life – and in Hudson County, we’ve had a lot of those in the sports world over the years. We had Bill Cochrane and we had Joe Coviello. They passed on and left Ascolese to carry the torch on the gridiron.
In basketball, we have Bob Hurley, another legendary figure, another man larger than his physical stature, another who has given so much to so many for what seems like forever.
We’ve been blessed over the years to have so many excellent coaches. We’ve been fortunate to have a select few who are among the upper echelon, the cream of the crop, not just locally, but throughout the entire state.
Ascolese announced a few weeks ago that this would be the final autumn of his historic coaching career. It’s his 50th season. He always said that he knew when it was time – and it’s time.
It’s a Thanksgiving weekend to remember in the Ascolese household and there are plenty of reasons to give thanks. “Pop” is retiring on his terms. His battle with bone cancer is thankfully under control. He has his health, he has his family, and he has his pride and dignity intact.
And now, the football gods – somehow, someway – have decided to let Vince Ascolese ride off into the gridiron sunset with another special slice of lasting memory.
Ascolese’s Bruins defeated Union City, 10-7, last Friday night in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinals. The Bruins won the game in overtime, their second straight overtime victory in the state playoffs.
The Bruins did so when an unlikely hero named Welmar Muriel, a name that will live in North Bergen football folklore forever, kicked a 25-yard field goal in the extra session, then watched their stifling and tenacious defense stop the Soaring Eagles from moving at all in the overtime.
And with that victory, the Bruins will march on, extending Ascolese’s brilliant career one more week. The Bruins will face Montclair for the state sectional championship next Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. The game will be played at the new MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
So there it is, Ascolese’s final game as a coach will be for a state championship in the shiny, $1.6 billion edifice in East Rutherford.
Does it get any more fitting than that? Ascolese gets a chance to do something that his long-time close friend and football coaching colleague Frank Bottone did last year, when Bottone, in his final game as head coach of New Providence, won one last game and one final state championship before going off into retirement.
“It’s really like a storybook,” Ascolese said. “It really is. It’s a great opportunity. I don’t think anyone could have dreamed up anything like this.”
No one could have. After all, even with all of Ascolese’s prior achievements, the Bruins haven’t played for a state title since winning the sectional in 1997. There were too many state playoff failures and losses to count. Ascolese has had much better teams falter for some reason come state playoff time.
But here they are, somehow, someway, playing for the state sectional crown for the first time since Ascolese’s last undefeated season 14 years ago, when most of these current Bruins were still toddlers.
The manner in which the Bruins meander to the Meadowlands is also extraordinary. They had to win back-to-back games in overtime, with the coach’s grandson the hero in the first game against Passaic County Tech.
Then, the Bruins had to come back and face a Union City team that defeated them in the regular season just a few weeks ago. The Soaring Eagles won that game Oct. 28 by a 14-12 margin and had to have the upper hand in terms of confidence and in terms of home field advantage.
“I thought we had a shot,” Ascolese said. “I really did. We have a good group of kids. Some of them are very quiet and others do a little chirping, but that mix helps a lot.”
Ascolese was asked if revenge was a motive for the second game with neighboring Union City.
“We tried to downplay that,” Ascolese said. “We gave up the ball twice the first time and it led to two touchdowns right away. They had the lead early. We fought to come back, but I thought we were the better team. We preached all week that they could win the game, but they couldn’t get overconfident.”
Ascolese has always prided himself on having a ball-control offense and a stingy defense. That’s what the Bruins are this year. They are a relentless bunch of defenders who don’t give up much.
“We’re a very good defensive team,” Ascolese said. “They all run to the ball and feed off each other. Mike [Ascolese’s son, the team’s defensive coordinator] has done a great job with the defense. It’s a team effort, not just one kid. We’re also very resilient defensively. We bounce back pretty quickly.”
Kids like Alex Rodriguez and a banged-up Anthony Calabrese came through to make big tackles in the overtime. Ascolese’s grandson Vin has been a defensive stalwart all year. And when Nick Garcia sacked Union City quarterback Isaiah Moreira on fourth down, it set off a victory celebration that will carry the Bruins all the way to the Meadowlands.
The task at hand when they arrive next Saturday will not be an easy one. Montclair is the best public school in the state, a team that has already defeated St. Peter’s Prep and manhandled Memorial in the opening round of the state playoffs. The Mounties feature one of the most electrifying players in the state in quarterback Khalif Herbin. They’re averaging 45 points per game this season. It’s a challenge and a half for the Bruins.
“The quarterback is a very good football player and they have a lot of other weapons,” Ascolese said. “It’s not an easy task at all and I remind them of that every day. They certainly can put some points on the board.”
But the Bruins are there. They’re the heavy underdogs – that’s for sure. But the Bruins have one thing working in their favor. It’s called fate. For some reason, albeit a very deserved reason, someone decided to give Vince Ascolese one last shot at state glory. He’s earned every right to go out on top, leave the game of football as the champion he’s always been. Here’s that shot and it’s on the grandest stage of all. Is there anyone who can deny fate?
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.