What was once a promising campaign had turned into a disaster. The Hillers went from undefeated state playoff contenders to also-rans and out of the Group III state playoffs in a matter of three weeks.
"We just ran into two good teams in Hoboken and Hudson Catholic," Union Hill head coach Joe Rotondi said. "We played well against Hoboken for a while, into the fourth quarter, and it turned out to be an emotionally draining loss. We were still down when we faced Hudson Catholic. Then, we were physically banged up when we played Lincoln. It's no excuse, but it's just the way it happened. We ran into a team [Lincoln] that played its best game of the year against us."
It also didn't help that the Hillers' best player, Rutgers-bound linebacker Manny Abreu, missed the Lincoln game with ankle and knee injuries.
"We just weren't right without him," Rotondi said.
So after the three straight losses and with basically nothing to play for except pride, Rotondi and his staff went back to work.
"We just got back to basics and started again," Rotondi said. "We needed to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and finish strong. We had three games left and we had to make sure that we won all three. The seniors on the team pulled everyone together. They were the ones who got us going."
The Hillers first defeated Snyder, 14-0, to get back on the winning track. Then came a showdown against Ferris in an NJSIAA consolation game for teams that failed to make the state playoffs. Both were strong contenders in the same playoff section (North Jersey Section 2, Group III), but fell a few power points shy of qualifying.
On paper, it appeared as if Union Hill was headed to defeat against Ferris, but the Hillers managed to come away with a 22-14 victory.
"We turned things around," Rotondi said. "We beat a good team in Ferris. It gave us some momentum for Thanksgiving Day."
The 89th annual Turkey Day showdown between Union Hill and Emerson, which returned to Union City this year and was played at the Midtown Athletic Complex (which was first thought to be called Monastery Field), now represented something to play for.
The Hillers had won two straight and had a chance to totally reverse last season's record. They had a chance to go from 3-7 to 7-3 with a win on Turkey Day.
But considering that Emerson had won seven straight Thanksgiving Day games, it wasn't going to be an easy task. The last two contests were extremely lopsided, including last year's 48-0 debacle.
"The last two years, they beat us up pretty bad," Rotondi said.
But not this year, as the motivated Hillers wanted to make sure that they completed the upward trend at season's end.
"The goal was to get to the 100 percent turnaround," Rotondi said. "That would be a successful season for us. It would lay the foundation for next year."
The Hillers came away with a well-earned 17-7 victory.
Chris Ulacia got the Hillers going with a 37-yard touchdown in the first half, before he left the game with what appeared to be a serious leg injury, but later turned out to be only a bone bruise.
Once Ulacia went down, it forced Rotondi to line up his stud Abreu at running back, which he handled well. Steve Ulacia, Chris' brother, and William Vanderhorst, were also effective in running the ball for the Hillers. Vanderhorst returned a kickoff 80 yards for the Hillers' other touchdown.
Senior Cesar Angulo, one of the team's leaders, had a 28-yard field goal that capped the scoring.
Incredibly, after all this time, the state's third oldest rivalry, dating back to 1919, now stands at 40-39-9 in favor of Emerson. Next year's game will be the last, as the two schools will merge in time for the 2008 season, ending the Thanksgiving Day tradition.
"We're separated by one game," Rotondi said. "It's a little too early to think of the last game. Maybe it will settle in more next year. I am ready for next year, because we'll have a full compliment of players in the backfield. Life goes on. Eventually, the one school will be a good thing, because we'll have a viable, legitimate program when the two are put together."
But a tradition will end, and that's sort of sad...
Congratulations to Jason Laing of Dickinson, Francisco Carrada of Emerson and Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Adrian M. Lagos of Memorial for being selected to participate in the New Jersey Soccer Coaches All-Star Festival in Kearny this weekend. The three will be among 35 of the state's top players performing in the All-Star tournament...
St. Dominic Academy has hired former Ferris basketball player Reggie Quinn as the new head basketball coach. Quinn had been coaching at the Jersey City Boys and Girls Club...
North Bergen softball ace Tiara Smith has signed a national letter of intent to play softball at Felician College in the spring of 2008...
Now, it's time for the final appearance this fall of the old wide one, the round mound of renowned, the turban-wearing Great Hagueini, whose predictions for the state playoffs have been less than stellar this year.
Splitting the last two picks (correct on St. Peter's, wrong on Hoboken), Hagueini's mediocre mark now stands at 5-4 for the playoff season. That's about as awful as the smell of the turban after a hot summer afternoon and no trips to the laundry.
With one game left, here goes nothing. Remember, this pick cannot be used for any wagering except perhaps an egg salad sandwich on rye and a birch beer with your Uncle Looie.
St. Peter's Prep vs. Don Bosco Prep, Giants Stadium: It's No. 1 Prep against No. 2 Bosco in a showdown for state supremacy at the Mecca in the Meadowlands. It's what everyone has been gearing up for all season. St. Peter's Prep has been hoping to end the 2005 season at Giants Stadium, begin the 2006 season there and end the 2006 season there as well - all with victories. It could very well happen.
Although the mighty Marauders have looked less than invincible in their last two outings against Seton Hall Prep and Hoboken (both teams were able to run the ball right at the Marauders), we still feel that when it comes to a big game, it's best to have big-game players on your sideline.
And the two best players in the game will both wear St. Peter's Prep uniforms, namely Shariff Harris and the best all-around player in the state (and the best ever seen in this corner) in Will Hill.
Harris is the X-factor and Hill is the Y-and-Z factor. They both will make enough big plays to carry the Marauders to their second straight state championship. St. Peter's Prep 28, Don Bosco Prep 21. We'll see what happens and we'll have a full game report in next week's editions.