A few days had passed since North Bergen had pulled off the unthinkable and unimaginable, since the Bruins somehow managed to continue their improbable run all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV football state championship.
Just the idea that the Bruins upset previously undefeated Montclair, 14-13, was one thing.
But the manner in how the Bruins were able to win the title is another.
Fairytale and storybook? Perhaps, but even Steven Spielberg or the folks at Disney couldn’t have conjured up a better story with a better ending. Movies like “Remember the Titans” pale in comparison.
But this was real life, not Hollywood. It wasn’t on the silver screen. It was in the Meadowlands, in the new MetLife Stadium. It wasn’t a dream sequence, although it might have seemed that way. It wasn’t a fantasy. It actually, legitimately, really took place.
Even the coach who was the beneficiary of all that magic still couldn’t comprehend what really happened a few days later.
“It’s really hard to believe,” legendary North Bergen head coach Vince Ascolese said. “There are lot of people who still can’t believe it.”
You have to put the entire equation into focus to realize the magnitude of it all.
Start a month ago or so, when Ascolese announced that this would be his last season after 50 years of coaching, the last 39 in North Bergen. It turned the state playoffs into a crusade, trying to keep Ascolese’s career alive for as long as possible.
Then, there were the two previous state playoff victories over Passaic County Tech and Union City, both of which were won in overtime. A slip here or there and the whole thing ends.
One of those overtime wins came when the coach’s grandson scored the game-winning touchdown. Another came when an unlikely hero kicked his first field goal of the season in the extra session to win it.
Finally, there was the journey to MetLife Stadium and the championship game against the seemingly invincible Mounties of Montclair.
After all, Montclair had won its previous 11 games, including an impressive season-opening win over St. Peter’s Prep, a team that the Bruins lost to by a score of 21-0. Montclair, the top-ranked public school in the state, had rolled through their last 10 games, winning all of them by an average of 34 points.
This wasn’t going to be any Miracle in the Meadowlands or Magic in the Meadowlands. This had the makings of being a Massacre in the Meadowlands.
But as the days to the big game, the final game of Ascolese’s career, kept winding down, the coach kept thinking one thought.
“Every day, as I was getting up, I kept reminding myself, ‘OK, it’s Tuesday. OK, it’s Wednesday,’ ” Ascolese said. “And each day I kept thinking that we could get it done. Each day, it was the same thing. I kept thinking to myself that it could happen. I kept going back over things in my mind, games of the past that we lost, like games against Passaic and Hackensack. And I just kept thinking that something is going to make it happen. I tried to think logically and then I had to get that message to the kids. We could do it. We could get it done. No matter what others may be saying, we can do this.”
It made you think that perhaps Ascolese was a little blinded by the idea that it was his final game. After all, Montclair had a whirlwind of a quarterback, a dominating player named Khalif Herbin, who had merely compiled nearly 3,000 of total yards of offense and 56 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,800-plus yards and scored a new Essex County-record 42 touchdowns, just two away from the all-time state record.
“You knew what they were capable of doing, but they were basically just one guy,” Ascolese said. “I knew they had talent, but they basically put all their eggs in one basket with that kid. The more tape we watched of them, the more I saw that they relied almost solely on him. I told the kids that we could get this done if we took him away. That was the whole plan. We had to keep him in the middle of the field, then hit him hard.”
The game begins and fate is instantly on the Bruins’ side. It appears as if the Bruins planned an onsides kick with the opening kickoff, one that they recovered. But in reality, it was simply an attempt to keep the ball away from Herbin – and it somehow ended up in the hands of the Bruins.
Ten plays later, Eric McMullen scored a touchdown. The Bruins added the two-point PAT as well. They led, 8-0. Just like that, a message was sent. The Bruins were in a war and not going away easily.
Even when Montclair took a 13-8 lead right before halftime.
Even when the Bruins took the opening kickoff of the second half, marched to the Montclair 17-yard line, only to see the drive stall there.
“Usually, when a team is down, you see the heads down, but I didn’t see that,” Ascolese said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were going to come back. They didn’t quit. That was a good sign. We weren’t going away. We were going to play until the end.”
The Bruins got the ball back in the fourth quarter, still down by five points, but with time rapidly running out. But there was no panic at all in the Bruins. As long as there was still time on the clock, there still was hope.
“We practice the two-minute drill every day in practice,” Ascolese said. “We were prepared.”
So when quarterback Sergio Rodriguez, a kid who was a tight end six weeks prior, completed a pass down to the Montclair 22-yard line with 19 seconds left, he had enough sense to get his team to the line so he could spike the ball to stop the clock. When he did, one tick remained on the clock. One.
For a high school kid to have that kind of a piece of mind to calmly go and spike the ball is astounding. To have one second left when he did it just adds to the mystique. Why didn’t the clock run out? How could one second remain?
It gave Rodriguez one last shot. On the game’s final play, he heaved the ball toward the end zone. Receiver Debray Tavarez had three Montclair defenders draped all over him, but he was the only one who truly saw the ball. Two of the three Mounties never turned around to look at the ball as it was in flight. If just one did, the ball more than likely would have been knocked away.
But it somehow got to Tavarez, who cradled the ball between his helmet and his chest, the way a father holds a newborn infant, and the Bruins had the improbable, the unthinkable, the unfathomable.
“It’s over, we did it,” Ascolese said. “That was the first thing that came to mind.”
A year ago, Ascolese sat in MetLife Stadium and watched as New Providence defeated Lincoln in the North 2, Group I state title game, giving retiring coach Frank Bottone a state championship in his final game.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘If I could only do what Frankie did,’” Ascolese said of his long-time friend and coaching colleague. “I could only pray to God to get the same chance. Friday, I got a phone call from Frankie and he said, ‘Go get it done.’ ”
Ascolese was asked if he truly could believe what transpired, if deep in his heart, he thought his upstart team had a chance to send him out as a champion.
“The one thing I was confident about was that I knew they weren’t going to score the points they did on everyone else,” Ascolese said. “I knew our defense would come to play. And they did. It’s amazing. It really is.”
Ascolese was right. The Bruins got it done. In his last game. On the last play. Nothing tops that. Nothing.
“I have a friend who goes to games all the time, goes to the pros and colleges and said that he never saw anything like that,” Ascolese said.
Ascolese’s friend was not alone. It was the event of a lifetime, a setting that even Hollywood couldn’t dream up.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.