When Lou Taglieri took the reins of the historic Hoboken High School football program from the legendary Ed Stinson a little more than eight years ago, he thought he had the world on a string.
Taglieri was elevated from assistant coach under Stinson to head coach and quickly led the Red Wings to an undefeated 12-0 season in 2005, winning the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship at Giants Stadium with a 21-6 victory over Verona.
In 2006, the Red Wings won their first nine games, meaning that Taglieri won an astounding 21 games as a head coach – and a state championship – before ever suffering a setback.
“I had been around too long to think it came easy,” Taglieri said. “But back then, it was almost an expected thing to play for a state championship in Giants Stadium.”
Sure enough, there were five state titles won in the Meadowlands in the 1990s – 1994 through 1996, then 1998 and 1999. Then Taglieri guided the Red Wings to another state crown in 2005.
“You walk through the halls of the school and there are all these reminders of those years,” Taglieri said. “You remember those days and attach the names to those years.”
But since that championship victory in 2005 – ironically on the same night that St. Peter’s Prep last won a state title – the Red Wings have not had much success, either getting to the Meadowlands or doing damage when they got there.
In 2008, the Red Wings suffered a heartbreaking 13-12 loss to Verona at Giants Stadium in the North 2, Group I title game.
And since then, there’s been a drought.
“We went through some tough times,” Taglieri said. “To be honest, you had to wonder if we would ever get back there again.”
There was the ungodly 3-7 season in 2009 that made a lot of people in New Jersey believe as if the once-feared and famed Red Wing gridiron program was dead.
“We also suffered from declining enrollment,” Taglieri said. “It was a tough time.”
In 2010, the Red Wings made it back to the Group I state playoffs and had a 21-0 lead against New Providence in the first half of the opening round playoff game _ only to lose, 24-21.
A year later, the Red Wings had a 12-0 lead against Weequahic in the opening round, but fell, 38-12. Two playoff appearances, two first-round exits.
“We knew we had to right this ship,” Taglieri said. “I don’t know if I was beginning to doubt myself, but we knew that we all had to put even more of an effort into it. The outlook had to change. We had to win some games in the state playoffs. We had to get out of the first round.”
However, the Red Wings had to handle some adversity before this year’s state playoffs began a few weeks ago.
Hoboken was one of the local municipalities hardest hit by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Literally half of the Mile Square City suffered flood damage. Hoboken was a battle zone, complete with National Guard troops evacuating residents.
“Perhaps the hardest thing I had to deal with was getting in touch with the players,” Taglieri said. “Cell phones were out. There was no electricity. In some cases, it was three days before I got to speak to any of them.”
JFK Stadium was under water. So were the Red Wings’ locker room and weight room, adjacent to the stadium.
“Shoulder pads were lost, cleats were lost,” Taglieri said. “We had to get the equipment together and send it out to be reconditioned. The kids all rallied together. In some instances, we had to rely on their parents who helped out transporting the kids. Without a doubt, this was the toughest thing I had to go through as a coach. Even that 3-7 year wasn’t as bad. We had to worry about people having food, having safe places to sleep. It was crazy.”
Then, right before the Red Wings were slated to face local rival Union City to close out the regular season, another disaster struck.
“We got the snow,” Taglieri said. “We were just getting back to normal and the snow shut us down for a few days. It was just a matter of getting the kids together, because they wanted to play. The kids rallied through all of this.”
The Red Wings steamrolled past Dayton Regional, 54-14, then last week, took care of Dunellen, 35-0, to advance to this weekend’s North 2, Group I title game at MetLife Stadium against Roselle Park.
It’s just like old times for the Red Wings, ending a football season in the Mecca of New Jersey sports facilities.
“These kids deserve this, because they’ve been through a lot,” Taglieri said. “They’ve earned the right to be there.”
As the Red Wings prepared for their showdown in the Meadowlands, they had an unexpected visitor stop by for a visit and offer a few words.
Legendary grid coach Vince Ascolese, whose coaching career ended with a championship victory at MetLife Stadium last December, dropped down to his old stomping grounds Tuesday and offered some emotional words of wisdom to the Red Wings. Ascolese began his coaching career back in 1961 as the head coach of Demarest, which later became Hoboken High.
“You should have seen the way the kids listened to his every word,” Taglieri said.
It was the equivalent of the Hoboken football team getting a Papal visit.
“I woke up on Saturday, after the Dunellen game and I said to myself, ‘Hey, we’re playing in December,’” Taglieri said. “We’re still practicing and still playing. That’s what you want to do. I hadn’t said that in a long time.”
And sure enough, the Red Wings were the last team standing in Hudson County football, another ritual of early December. The tree at Rockefeller Center gets lit, the malls get crowded with Christmas shoppers, and Hoboken plays for a state championship in football. Just like old times.
The Red Wings have a standout running back like they have had in other championship seasons. Senior Donte Carter has emerged as one of the most electrifying players in the state and has rushed for 1,483 yards and scored 27 touchdowns. Fifteen of those touchdowns have come in the last four weeks, including five against Dayton Regional in the first round of the states.
“He’s playing like a mature senior,” Taglieri said of Carter. “He’s put a lot of time in. He was banged up a little earlier in the season, but he’s healthy now. We’re hoping he has his biggest game against Roselle Park.”
Quarterback Dante Bass, who is only a junior, has emerged as a full-fledged passing threat. Bass has thrown for 1,324 yards and 14 touchdowns and has been picked off only four times out of 105 passes.
Bass’ top receiver Kane Durham, also a junior, has made some miraculous catches down the stretch of the season.
The Red Wings are poised to bring another state championship trophy back to the Mile Square City and host another victory parade down Washington Street.
“We’re the last team standing once again,” Taglieri said. “It’s a great feeling, a feeling that belongs.”
Again, just like old times.