It takes a lot to get to Giants Stadium, especially for local high school football players. It takes more than a ticket to a Giants' or Jets' game. It takes more than just a car ride or a bus trip. It takes determination and dedication. It takes pride and perseverance. It takes grit, strong will, and the ability to handle adversity. It takes a trip to the state championships.
For two Hudson County football programs, the Marauders of St. Peter's Prep and the Red Wings of Hoboken High, the 2005 high school football season will culminate in a pilgrimage to the Mecca.
The Marauders, the state's No. 3-ranked team, will head to Giants Stadium for the first time in exactly a decade. The undefeated Marauders (11-0) will take on mighty Don Bosco Prep in the NJSIAA Parochial (Non-Public, as the NJSIAA tries to call it) Group 4 finale on Friday night, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m.
Just to make the "Friday Night Lights" doubleheader complete, the undefeated Red Wings (10-0) of Hoboken will also make the journey to the Meadowlands, taking on Verona for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I title, preceding the St. Peter's clash, with the Red Wings-Hillbillies (yes, that is Verona's nickname) contest set to kick off at 5 p.m.
We have two of Hudson County's finest programs playing on the grandest stage of New Jersey football. It's an evening that shouldn't be missed.
It's almost like turning back the clock, because the last time St. Peter's Prep won a state championship in 1994, it was at Giants Stadium against Bergen Catholic. On that same day, Hoboken won the Group III state championship at Giants Stadium, defeating Ramsey.
It was a great day for Hudson County football. Perhaps it can happen again.
"I'm hoping it will," said St. Peter's Prep head coach Rich Hansen, whose team advanced to the Parochial Group 4 finale by coming from behind to defeat Camden Catholic, 21-14, last Saturday. "I'll take anything that swings in our direction. If that's a trend, I'll take it. I'm happy for Louie (Taglieri, the Hoboken coach). It's great for a first-year head coach to take his team to the Meadowlands. It's great for our league and great for Hudson County that we're both there."
In the case of Hoboken, it's a team that has been on a mission since it lost last year in Giants Stadium, in a game that should have never turned out that way. The Red Wings knew they were the much better team against Cedar Grove, but somehow managed to walk out of the joint with a 6-0 setback.
So this year, the Red Wings took care of Cedar Grove with ease in the first round, then dismantled Belvidere last week, 42-7.
The only thing that stands between Hoboken and a seventh state title in a third different enrollment group is a bunch of Hillbillies. Verona's Hillbillies are a 9-1 team that had to get a touchdown and a two-point PAT in the closing minutes to get past New Providence in the sectional semifinals last Saturday - and they face the same Cedar Grove team that Hoboken destroyed 48-12, this weekend.
"I'd have to say that [St. Peter's Prep's] road is a little tougher," Hansen said.
He's right. For the Marauders to get their first state title since 1994 and the third of Hansen's career, they will have to topple mighty Don Bosco Prep, a team that has totally destroyed the Marauders in the last two state playoff meetings (59-16 in 2003, 42-6 in 2002).
The Ironmen appear to be as powerful as they were in the prior two state playoff meetings.
However, the anticipated showdown with DBP almost didn't take place. The Marauders found themselves in a particularly troubling situation last Saturday. They were losing.
For the first time all season, the Marauders actually trailed in a game. Camden Catholic came out and smoked the Marauders to the tune of 14-0 by the middle of the second quarter.
"No question, they took it to us," Hansen said. "But we were still pretty calm at halftime, even though we were down. We made a ton of mistakes in the first half, turning the ball over three times. We were off kilter and out of sync. I really think we had some jitters."
There were other obstacles. Three players were suspended for academic reasons. One key performer, tight end/defensive end Ravi Pradahang, had a bad case of the flu and a high fever that almost hospitalized him. In the first quarter, do-everything back Kee-Ayre Griffin suffered a deep thigh bruise. It wasn't going according to plan for the Marauders.
But then Griffin managed to recover from his leg injuries and carried the ball 20 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Will Hill capped an impressive 87-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with 9:03 remaining, giving the Marauders their first lead of the day at 21-14 - a lead that stood up, however, only after Camden Catholic marched down to the Prep red zone in the closing minute.
"We overcame all that and beat a very good team," Hansen said. "Camden Catholic is as underrated as a team can be in New Jersey. They had good size, a good offensive design and we were facing an uphill battle, being down 14. But we dominated the second half defensively and came away with a great win."
In each of the last four years, the Marauders lost in the sectional semifinals. They couldn't get past a Bergen County power, either Bergen Catholic or Don Bosco Prep. Now, they have advanced to the finals.
"I think it really was a hump game," Hansen said. "I think the kids were tired of hearing that we couldn't get past the semifinals. I really don't pay attention to what others say, but I think there was something to the fact that we didn't win in the semifinals all those times. It's probably more of a relief that we're back there."
Hansen said that he will call upon the experience that his 1994 team had going to Giants Stadium. That year, the Marauders were facing a Bergen Catholic team that was No. 1 in the entire country. No one gave the Marauders a fighting chance that day, but they came away with a 26-24 victory that really wasn't as close as the final score.
Some of the players from that 1994 team, like offensive linemen Anthony Verdi, who happens to be Hansen's brother, and Anthony Locricchio, are still involved with the program. They can relate their stories of being heavy underdogs and leaving the Mecca as champions.
"I think all our kids know about the 1994 team," Hansen said. "It's part of our tradition and history. But it can't hurt to have the kids hear a reminder."
That it's time for new additions to the history and tradition, that another state title game is there for the taking.
It's been a decade since the Marauders have visited Mecca. It's been a decade and a year since the Red Wings and the Marauders made the trip on the same day.
It would only be fitting if they can leave Giants Stadium the same way they left 11 years ago - as state champions.