It was a finish that even people who witnessed it couldn’t believe – a fairytale ending that even the Hollywood screenwriters and studio moguls could never create. It was certainly one of the biggest moments in the history of New Jersey high school football.
Debray Tavarez hauled in a 22-yard touchdown pass from Sergio Rodriguez on the final play of the game, giving North Bergen a stunning and thrilling 14-13 upset over Montclair to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship last Saturday night at the new MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
The win enabled long-time North Bergen head coach Vince Ascolese to retire in glory. Ascolese, who has been a head football coach for 50 years in Hudson County, the first 11 in Hoboken and the last 39 in North Bergen, announced a few weeks ago that this would be his final season.
The nearly 5,000 fans were screaming at the top of their lungs.
Ascolese ends his career with 360 career victories, ranking him third all-time in New Jersey state history. He also captured eight NJSIAA state championships, seven with the Bruins. It was Ascolese’s first state title since guiding the Bruins to an 11-0 season, capturing the same sectional title, in 1997.
It wasn’t only because it was Ascolese’s final game that made the day and game special.
First, the Bruins had to defeat Passaic County Tech in the first round and neighboring Union City in the semifinals, both victories coming in overtime.
Then, they had to face the state’s No. 1-ranked public school in Montclair, which entered the game with a perfect 11-0 record. They had won the final 10 games of the season by an average of 34 points. Montclair’s Mounties featured the state’s premier offensive weapon in quarterback Khalif Herbin, who rushed for 1,800 yards and scored an astounding 42 touchdowns this season.
That’s not all. The Bruins had to somehow find a way to get past all of that pre-game hype and try to win a game that no one in their right mind thought they had a shot of winning.
Then, it came down to the final minute of the game. Rodriguez, who was the Bruins’ starting tight end just six weeks ago and was moved to quarterback when the starting signal caller was injured, somehow managed to engineer the winning drive with no timeouts remaining and the clock dwindling away.
Rodriguez managed to complete a pass with 22 seconds left that got the Bruins down to the Mounties’ 22-yard line with the clock ticking. He somehow had the presence of mind to bring the team to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball to stop the clock.
A quick glance at the MetLife Stadium clock showed exactly one tick remaining. Officials then reset the clock to read two seconds, but it didn’t matter. There was only time for one play.
Rodriguez avoided the rush and heaved the ball into the end zone.
Tavarez, who had one catch prior in the game, was covered by three Montclair defensive backs. But Tavarez never lost sight of the ball, like two of the three defenders did, and he cradled the ball into his chest and helmet in the end zone, setting off pandemonium.
Tavarez could not believe what had happened and was in tears as he was mobbed by his teammates.
The nearly 5,000 fans in attendance were screaming at the top of their lungs, like they were at a Beatles concert in the 1960s.
And the legendary coach was given the fitting farewell to his historic coaching career.
“It’s hard to believe,” Ascolese said. “It’s over. We did it. That’s the first thing that came to my mind. I had to thank St. Jude, who I always pray to. St. Jude is my man, my guy. I can’t even begin to describe this.”
Ascolese was not alone. There are thousands of others who can’t believe it or describe it either. Stephen Spielberg could not create such drama and make it real. “Remember the Titans” is a comedy compared to what happened, the true meaning of “Magic in the Meadowlands.”
To read more about the thrilling North Bergen victory, please turn to Jim Hague’s Scoreboard column on the inside pages of the Reporter.