Wearing the bull’s eye is something that the St. Peter’s Prep football program has become accustomed to. Every other Hudson County team wants to knock the Marauders off, but none have been able to since 2000. It’s an amazing 14-year run of dominance within the confines of the Marauders’ home base.
The feeling is also mutual among other New Jersey squads. The Marauders are perennially one of the top teams in the state, always contending for the elusive state title. While the Marauders have not won an NJSIAA state title since 2005, they are always right there, evidenced last season, when the Marauders lost to Paramus Catholic in the Non-Public Group 4 title game at MetLife Stadium.
As the Marauders commence with official practices this week, they face another challenge _ this one expanding past the borders of the Garden State.
As the 2014 season kicks off, the Marauders will find themselves ranked among the very best teams in the country. One poll, the USA Today poll that is generally accepted as the premier poll in the nation, has the Marauders ranked at No. 10 nationwide. Another has the Marauders as No.12 and yet another has them at No.15.
It’s not unfamiliar position for the Marauders. After all, they ended the 1994 and 2005 seasons ranked among the top five teams in the country. They began the 2003 and 2006 seasons in the USA Today Top 25.
But when a national ranking comes out a month before the first game, it certainly opens some eyes and brings attention _ not to mention a bigger bull’s eye.
“It’s great that people feel that way about us,” said veteran head coach Rich Hansen. “We do have some talented kids. Our goal every year is to win the county and state championships, so nothing has changed. I guess this will catch the eye of some out-of-state teams. It’s nice that people can talk about it now. I say every year that no one can put more pressure on us than ourselves.”
A major reason for the Marauders’ national ranking is the return of two of the most talented players the program has ever produced.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who has already given a verbal commitment to Penn State, had a brilliant summer participating in camps all over the country. Wimbush, considered as one of the top five quarterbacks in the nation, engineered the Marauders to championships in the prestigious Rutgers 7-on-7 tournament, as well as the South Bergen 7-on-7 this summer.
Receiver/running back Minkah Fitzpatrick is also back for his senior year. While Fitzpatrick will do his share of damage on the offensive side, he’s being recruited by the University of Alabama as a defensive back. It’s extremely rare for a New Jersey player to get recruited by Alabama, so this shows how special of a player Fitzpatrick really is.
“We do have some talented players in the skilled positions, no question,” Hansen said. “I’m sure that having those two kids back help in getting the ranking. They definitely draw major attention to the program. But no matter how many players you have returning, you have to stay healthy. Depth is definitely important for the long haul.”
The Marauders also have Jordan Fox, a talented linebacker with his share of NCAA Division I scholarships, lineman Dave Tolentino, who is getting serious consideration from the United States Naval Academy, and scatback/return man Corey Caddle, who has already given a verbal commitment to Fordham University.
Hansen is trying to downplay the national ranking as much as possible. The national ranking also hints at one thing _ that the Marauders should be the No. 1 team in New Jersey the first time the statewide rankings are released.
“It really doesn’t change the way we’re preparing for the season,” Hansen said. “Although it’s flattering and it’s good for our program, I know it shouldn’t change anything how we operate. I don’t believe a ranking has ever won a football game. I don’t think some writer’s opinion has ever won a football game. It’s all flattering and nice, but it’s not going to shake us.”
Hansen said that he was encouraged by the team’s performance, especially Wimbush’s, over the summer months.
“I think we went 18-0 in 7-on-7’s this summer,” Hansen said. “Brandon is Brandon. He has improved in some aspects of his game. Minkah had a great summer and he’s ready for the season right now.”
So as the Marauders prepare for the upcoming season in a few weeks, they already have a distinction of honor. It might be nice for now, but it means nothing in December. No one cares where you begin a season in a ranking, but everyone wants to see who’s atop the rankings come the first week of December.
“I told the kids that this team is built to win now,” Hansen said. “We have the people in place to do something now.”
Now began with the first practice. It’s up to the Marauders to see if now can continue through to December and MetLife Stadium once again, only this time leaving as a state champion.
Then, the national ranking in August will mean something, if it’s translated into a ranking in December. The Marauders seem ready to handle the challenge.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.