Monday, December 7, 2009
East Brunswick Football: State Champions!
I've been having a lot of trouble with my home computer lately. As a result, my posts have become infrequent. I apologize.
But I had to find a usable computer and post. And not because of the Nets finally breaking their 18-game losing streak.
Dear Old Alma Mater, East Brunswick High School, Da Bears, won the Central Jersey Group IV football championship on Saturday afternoon, defeating Brick Memorial 9-0 in a snowstorm at the College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State College) in the Trenton suburb of Ewing.
This is the 4th time the Big Green have been State Champions in football. Well, Sectional Champions. New Jersey has definitive champions, or at least group champions based on enrollment, for every sport except football. But we'll take it.
In the system that was in place until 1973, sectional champions were chosen by which team had the best won-lost record. In 1966, and again in 1972, E.B. finished 7-1-1, and was declared co-champions. To this day, I don't know who the other co-champions were in either season. I do know that, each time, the one loss was to South River, generally considered our arch-rivals between the 1960-61 schoolyear (when we began varsity-level sports, with the football program starting the following year) until 1975-76 (when, due to the severely-reduced enrollments at South River and some other schools due to new schools opening, they were dropped to a new league).
In 1974, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) instituted the Playoffs, and that season only the top 2 teams qualified. From 1975 to 1997, the top 4 did. Since 1998, it's been the top 8.
We reached the Central Jersey Group IV Championship Game in 1984 and 1985 (losing both times to J.P. Stevens, the '84 game a heartbreaker where our undefeated season was lost by 1 point), and lost in the Semifinals in 1980 (under deeply scandalous circumstances to Raritan High of Hazlet), 1987 (an Ice Bowl blowout by Old Bridge, then known as Madison Central), 1988 (another blowout by Madison), 1990 (a thriller against Trenton Central) and 1994 (a close loss to Piscataway filled with bogus officiating). We lost in the Quarterfinals in 1998 (falling way behind against Manalapan but almost coming all the way back).
We just missed qualifying for the Playoffs in 1977 (winning our 1st 5, then tying our next 2 and losing our last 2), 1978, 1981 (missing largely due to a Rain Bowl loss to Cedar Ridge, the since-closed other Old Bridge school), 1986 (my senior year at EBHS, that really burned me up), 1992, 1995 and 1996. In each of those seasons, had the 1998-present setup been in place, we would have qualified. Would we have won the Central Jersey Group IV title in any of those seasons? I'm still convinced we would have won in '86, but that's my own bias. I don't think we would have won it all in any of the others.
Ironically, the 2 times we've won it all in the post-1974 Playoff Era, we didn't need the extra 4 seeds. In 2004, we got the 2nd seed, and beat Brick Township in a tight contest, then Hillsborough in a mind-bending overtime thriller, and finally upset Jackson Memorial at Rutgers Stadium, 17-14, to finally throw the monkey -- nay, the 800-pound gorilla -- off our backs. To make it even more amazing in hindsight, Jackson Memorial (then usually referred to as just "Jackson," since Jackson Liberty was still being built) had won the previous year's title, and would win the next year's title. It was the only game they lost in those 3 seasons.
But after 32 years of waiting (20 for me), filled with shocking collapses, dodgy refereeing, bad weather and coaching brainlocks -- I'm talking defeats of Redsoxian or Cubbish or Buffalo Billsian proportions -- we'd finally done it. December 5, 2004: A date which lives in ecstasy.
Just once. Like fans of other teams that are said to be "cursed," I said, "Just once. Just let them win it once in my lifetime." I'd waited 20 years. When we finally won it, I thought it would keep me satisfied for the next 20 years. As it turned out, I only had to wait 5, before the footsteps of our diminutive but come-up-big quarterback Matt Mariano were followed in. (Yankee Fans will not be surprised to know that our big winner was named Mariano. Of course, he's Italian, not Panamanian.)
Coach Marcus Borden, known in the Eighties for a superb passing attack, has for 20 years now run an option offense, similar to the wishbone, calling it the flexbone. Running it these last two seasons was quarterback Mauro Tucci -- whose father, Mauro Sr., also happens to be my parents' doctor. It's a good family. Although I have to question the sanity of Mauro Jr. and the other E.B. players who played the whole game in short sleeves. Only a few did, but, seriously, they must've seen too many old Green Bay Packer films.
Anyway, we were the 4th seed, despite losing a late-season game to Brick Memorial, the defending CJ IV Champions, who only got the 6th seed. But under the current system, being the 4th seed gave us a home game in the quarterfinals, where we beat West Windsor 27-0 in a steady rain. The Pirates aren't a bad team, but they couldn't get anything going, and Tucci, Mike Weber and Jared Lynch ran all over them, while our defense, led by the brothers Anthony and Nick Gudzak, shut them out.
The Semifinal put us in Sayreville, who'd beaten us 34-13 earlier in the season and won the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division Championship. (They'd also beaten Brick Memorial in the regular season, avenging their loss in the 2008 CJ IV Championship Game.) But Weber was hurt in that one. Due to scheduling quirks (including playing nearly the entire 2007 season on the road because Jay Doyle Field was being converted to FieldTurf), we've now played Sayreville away 5 times in the last 4 seasons. To make matters worse, from 1961 to 1990, 30 seasons, we played them 28 times and went 27-1; since 1991, we've played them 20 times and gone just 7-13. (It's still 34-14 us, a pretty good record.)
But we scored an early touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Then Borden ordered Tyler Yonchiuk, son of his former assistant (and former Edison High head coach) Gerry Yonchiuk, to squib the ensuing kickoff. Orders followed, but bad orders. It gave Sewerville a short field, and they scored, and got the 2-pointer to take the lead, 8-7. (That nickname isn't just trash talk on my part: The Middlesex County Sewerage Authority is actually headquartered in Sayreville. And their stadium really does stink.)
But on the final play of the 1st half, Yonchiuk kicked a field goal to make it 10-8 E.B. You should have seen the looks on the Bombers' faces. They could not believe they were losing a Playoff game on their own field. To their most hated rivals! They were stunned. We were in their heads, and the looks on the Bears' faces showed that we knew it.
Yonchiuk added a field goal in the 4th quarter to make it 13-8, and that was crucial, because it meant Sayreville needed a touchdown to win. And their final drive got down inside our 5, and their kicker would have been able to win it, turning 10-8 us into 11-10 them. Instead, they needed a touchdown to make it 14-13 (pending the conversion), but our secondary shut them down, and we won.
Amazingly, Brick Memorial, so long in the shadow of "big brother" Brick Township but now the defending Champions, upset Hunterdon Central of Flemington, and then upset their next-door neighbors (albeit in the adjoining County) Howell to set up a rematch with us in the Final. The regular-season game with BM was 37-34 them -- the most points we'd ever scored without winning in 49 seasons of varsity football.
The Final was to be a very different story.
Rutgers was playing West Virginia on Saturday afternoon, making Rutgers Stadium unavailable for State Finals. So TCNJ was used for Central Jersey Finals, and Kean University in Union for North Jersey Finals. There isn't really a large stadium in South Jersey, unless you want to count the 6,000-seat minor-league ballparks in Camden and Atlantic City, so the higher seeds hosted those games. (The first State Finals, in 1974, were held at the Atlantic City Convention Hall, now "Boardwalk Hall," with 17,000 seats but only enough space for an 80-yard field.)
Anyway, while Rutgers nearly came back from a 21-3 deficit but lost 24-21, the weather changed from steady rain to snow, with some wind, right before our kickoff. E.B. won the toss, and wisely decided to defer our choice to the 2nd half. We held Brick Memorial on their 1st possession, and I took that as a very good sign. And Lynch broke off a long run to put us in superb position. But we fumbled the ball away on the next play. So everyone knew this was not going to be another shootout.
The Mustangs had a lot of trouble, as both the artificial field and the ball were slick. Tucci later described the field as being like a skating rink, and several times I saw him click his heels. Not to try to get back to Kansas, or even to signal to his running backs, but to get the snow out of his cleats. He moved us enough to get into field goal range, and Yonchiuk booted it through. It was 3-0 Bears, and I had the sinking feeling that this might be it. That might be all the scoring. (We had a 6-0 loss many years ago, but never a game where both teams combined for less than that.)
At halftime, it was still 3-0, as our defense held, and the Mustang offense had all kinds of trouble, blowing a field goal attempt with 2 minutes left in the half. Strangely, while their center sent their punter some awful snaps, we didn't block any. We did get some great field position, but couldn't do much with it.
By contrast, Yonchiuk, our punter as well as our placekicker and kickoff man, didn't have any trouble with snaps, but had one of his punts blocked. Still, they couldn't take advantage. Joe Quaglieri, Pete Sorrento, and the Gudzak brothers were magnificent. I know, bad weather tends to hurt offenses, but advantage must still be taken, and my Bears did. And, let's not forget, Tucci and his offense had to play in the exact same weather that made the Mustangs struggle.
I've seen E.B. play football in bitter cold. I've seen us play in driving rain. I once saw a game suspended late in the 4th quarter, with us up by 2 touchdowns, when a thunderstorm was highlighted -- literally -- by a lightning bolt striking one of the light towers. (I swear, I'm not making that up: September 26, 1986, at Brick Township. You ever see 5,000 people run screaming for their cars? I have. The NJSIAA declared the game officially over 2 days later.) But as far as anybody can determine (and I asked people who've been around since the Seventies and even the Sixties), this is the 1st time in nearly half a century of football that E.B. has played in the snow.
Not that it wasn't also very cold. Thank God I brought gloves, or else I wouldn't have made it. (Two days later, those gloves remain soaked. At least my sneakers have almost dried out.) As it was, the combination of cold air, cold snow, and cold aluminum stands froze my feet.
There was an elderly couple, watching their grandson play, and they were bundled up in a blanket. A Bears blanket. A Chicago Bears blanket. Except we, the fans of the East Brunswick Bears, weren't sitting on frigid Lake Michigan, the way the NFL Bears do with Soldier Field. TCNJ is 3 miles inland, and there's a big difference between being on a Great Lake and being on the Delaware River. (Though when the wind comes blasting in off the Hackensack River, it sure makes the Meadowlands parking lot feel like Siberia.)
At halftime, the Brick Memorial cheerleaders started a snowball fight with our cheerleaders. It was all in good fun. But I couldn't resist going into my old "Crazy Mike" mode, and played on the theme of the opposing mascot, the Mustangs: "Let's send these horses to the glue factory!" And "Giddyup on outta here, horsie!" And, referencing the Ford sports car, "These Mustangs need a tune-up!" (Sorry, no "Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!" or "You're a horseshit team!" or even use of the word "gelding." This was high school ball. Different standards apply when you're yelling at kids instead of young men in college or seasoned professionals.)
Slowly and carefully, knowing that as long as we held the ball, they couldn't score, and that the lead meant that both the clock and the weather were our allies rather than Memorial's, Tucci led a 3rd-quarter drive that Bill Parcells would have loved. He got us to the 12-yard line, and then our offensive line opened a hole through which Santa Claus could have driven his sleigh. Mike Weber didn't need 8 reindeer to guide him through (although, in the cold, he may have had a red nose), and he scored a touchdown. Despite making the field goal earlier, Yonchiuk missed the extra point.
Still, with the snow continuing to fall, and the temperature still dropping, midway through the 3rd quarter, a 9-0 lead looked awfully safe. As it turned out, it was completely safe -- if you've got a defense like ours. In the 3 Playoff games combined, we allowed just 8 points, and even those 8 were the result of a bad kickoff. You just don't see that in the Playoffs. You particularly don't see too many shutouts in State Finals. But the Grizzly D was up to the task.
I used to have this fantasy, in the days before we finally won it all. I imagined E.B. finally making it back to the Central Jersey Group IV Championship Game, but it would be played at Giants Stadium, in bitter cold, possibly in snow, with that tin can's swirling wind making it even worse. Could we possibly survive in such a situation? Now, while the venue was different and the wind wasn't strong enough to be a factor, the fantasy had come close enough to coming true. And we were not only surviving, we were thriving.
The minutes counted down. The Mustangs were totally flustered. They had 2 drives in the last 6 minutes of regulation. And each time, one of the Gudzak brothers intercepted a pass, first Anthony with about 5 minutes left, and then Nick with about 2 minutes to go. In all, just 12 passes were attempted in this game, 10 by Brick Memorial, 2 by Tucci. None were completed, and 4 were intercepted (3 by us, 1 by them).
While the 2004 win over Jackson Memorial was not decided until the final play (a missed field goal), this one was pretty much ended by Anthony Gudzak's interception. Nick's almost seemed like we were piling on. (Not that I wasn't glad to have it. It could have been 9-6, or 9-7 -- 9-8 wouldn't have made an appreciable difference -- and they could have tempted fate and the snow with an onside kick and gotten into field goal range.) But an anticlimatic finish is acceptable when it's your team winning the State Championship.
Afterward, the players and cheerleaders made snow angels in the end zone. They didn't want to leave. We, the fans, however, wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. It wasn't quite Green Bay cold, but Chicago cold? Cleveland cold? Buffalo cold? On this night, Trenton cold was cold enough, thank you very much!
And while we're on the subject of gratitude, thank God nobody got seriously hurt. There could have been any number of injuries in this game. Yonchiuk took a little bit of a knock, but he played the rest of the game, and as far as I can tell, nobody was hurt to the point where, if there were another game the next week, they would have missed it. Those football players who will go on to play basketball or wrestle starting next week should be fine.
To Coach Borden, his staff, and his players: Thank you, gentlemen. You have made half a century of Bear alumni proud. You played superbly, and cleanly. You did it, and you did it the right way, holding your intensity without giving up an ounce of class -- not an easy line to walk, but you walked it, and you walked off with the title.
East Brunswick Bears
1966 1972 2004 2009
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