Lou Taglieri vividly recalled the last time Hoboken played in an NJSIAA state championship game with a 10 a.m. kickoff.
“It was in 2008 and it was a disaster trying to get the kids there,” said Taglieri, the Hoboken head coach. “The kids stayed up late, playing video games all night. They weren’t ready to play the next day.”
The Red Wings lost to Verona, 13-12, on that fateful Saturday morning at Giants Stadium.
Needless to say, the lesson was learned before the Red Wings faced Shabazz for the North Jersey Section 2, Group I state title last Saturday.
“I wasn’t going to lose the game before it started,” said Taglieri, who had guided the Red Wings to state championships in 2005 and last year.
So Taglieri had a plan. He was going to organize a giant slumber party for the Red Wings, right in their facility at JFK Stadium.
“I got permission from the parents,” Taglieri said. “The Hoboken Office of Emergency Management was helpful in getting us 50 cots. Incredibly, in Hoboken, all you have to do is ask and you’ll find people willing to help.”
Assistant coach Vinnie Johnson spent most of the day Friday preparing a meal for the Red Wings, complete with chicken and mashed potatoes. So after the Red Wings practiced on Friday, they showered, dressed, then ate dinner together.
The custodial staff of Dave Roofe and Pat Vescuso made sure the cots were in place and the red Wings were placed in rooms according to class. One meeting room housed the seniors, another had the juniors. The sophomores and freshmen were placed among the weight room.
The team had meetings, then had lights out at 9 p.m.
“It was great for us,” said senior lineman Monague Younger. “We spend a lot of time together all year and this was great for us to spend our last few hours together. I wanted to spend that time with the people I love, my teammates, who cared so much about me. They’re all amazing. We had to be serious about playing on Saturday, so we all got to bed early and woke up fresh the next day. It was great for us to all sleep together.”
Senior defensive end/tight end DeShawn Reed agreed.
“It really helped a lot,” Reed said. “We got to know each other better and spend time together. It helped to create a brotherhood.”
“There was no way that I was giving this team a chance to lose the game before it started,” Taglieri said. “If we were going to lose, it was going to be on the field.”
The Red Wings had a 5 a.m. wakeup call on Saturday morning. The Hoboken McDonald’s donated breakfast for the team at 5:30. A police escort accompanied the team to Kean University in Union. Everything was done the right way.
However, the Red Wings were far from 100 percent when they arrived at Kean.
Starting right tackle Noel Gonzalez suffered a foot injury in practice prior to the big game.
“We had to shuffle things around again,” Taglieri said.
It was nothing new to Taglieri, who had to handle his fair share of injuries this season, including one to himself. Taglieri had to undergo gall bladder surgery in September, then had complications a few weeks later that required another hospital stay.
Earlier in the season, the Red Wings also lost key players Kain Dunham and Kenny Perry to season-ending injuries.
Younger had to move from guard to tackle and senior Dylan Gans, a running back last year, had to play guard. There was only one problem. Gans never played guard before.
“We had to do it,” Taglieri said of the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Gans. “He had to block a 340-pound kid.”
As the game went on, it was evident that it was a war. Shabazz scored first and then Hoboken countered with a touchdown on a fumble recovery by Jarius Mills. The game remained tied at 7-7 until the very final minute.
With 33 seconds remaining, the Red Wings went for it all. Quarterback Donte Bass, the inspirational leader of the team, found Reed wide open on an unexpected pass that went for 68 yards down to the Shabazz 12-yard line.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Bass went down with severe leg cramps.
“I couldn’t walk,” Bass said. “I thought I was done. But I managed to get back into the game.”
Bass returned just in time to be a hero, one who will be remembered for a lifetime.
On the first play after the big pass, running back Josh Mercado broke through the line and appeared to be headed for the game-winning touchdown. But Mercado fumbled the ball at the 2-yard line.
“I put my head down and remembered what [legendary North Bergen head coach] Vinnie Ascolese once said to me,” Taglieri said. “He said a prayer to St. Jude. I’ve been carrying that prayer card with me in my pocket ever since. I said a prayer to St. Jude and lo and behold, look what happened.”
Mercado managed to recover his own fumble. On the ensuing play, Mercado got the touchdown.
“He went in untouched,” Taglieri said of the score that came with just 12 seconds left. “It really was a surreal feeling. I remember thinking that this really couldn’t be happening.”
The Red Wings earned the 13-7 victory, enabling them to repeat as state sectional champions. It was the ninth state crown for Hoboken, tops in Hudson County, and the third title for Taglieri as head coach.
But this was probably the most rewarding of the titles, considering all that the Red Wings had to endure during the course of the season, including the coach’s serious illness.
“You don’t expect it,” Taglieri said. “You don’t expect them to overcome the adversity like they did. But they had the will to win. They knew they were going there to win. It really was like a story. I can’t describe it any other way. It’s a feel good story.”
The impact of the thrilling victory was not lost by the players.
“It really means a lot to do something that not a lot of high school kids get to do,” Reed said. “Winning one was one thing, but winning two times is a whole other thing. Hoboken has had such a great reputation of winning with great players over the years. It’s a great feeling to be considered with the other great Hoboken teams.”
It marked the third time that the Red Wings won consecutive state titles. They won three straight from 1994 through 1996 and then won back-to-back crowns in 1998 and 1999.
“Having both rings will represent a lot for me,” Younger said. “We all worked very hard for this. We didn’t win the state championship Saturday. We won it in the winter time, lifting, getting stronger, pushing ourselves to this goal. We’re state champions. We established that identity.”
And it all began with a slumber party the night before the big game.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.