RBC Column: Evolution of a Champion
EAST RUTHERFORD - A dream that started for Red Bank Catholic in relative obscurity on a dusty practice field on White Road in Little Silver way back in 1999 came to vivid life under the bright lights on the grand stage at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.
Fifteen years ago, a former RBC star quarterback named Frank Edgerly was hired by long-time athletic director Joe Montano and took over as head coach of his alma mater at all of 28 years old, vowing to return the Caseys to relevance. They had not even won a division title since his senior season in 1989 and had not reached a state final since 1980.
This was before the age where transferring was so rampant that a non-public school could become a contender overnight by importing a mercenary army of established players from other schools, so the building was done the old-fashioned way, brick by brick. The thought of the Caseys competing with the juggernaut North Jersey parochial programs would've had people stifling laughter back then considering that just getting to .500 was the initial goal.
No one was laughing on Sunday night as roars rained down from the Caseys' faithful at MetLife Stadium after they stormed to the program's first NJSIAA title since 1976 with a 45-20 wipeout of top-seeded Delbarton in the Non-Public Group III championship game. Edgerly and his staff laid the foundation during his tenure from 1999-2008 and current head coach Jim Portela and his assistants have taken the Caseys to new heights to cross the finish line.
Edgerly is now a wide receivers coach with the Cleveland Browns, so his concern was more with Andrew Luck on Sunday, but his alma mater is always in the back of his mind.
"He called me last night from Cleveland in the hotel before the game,'' Portela said. "It meant a lot to me that with everything he has going on that he thought to call me. I have a good friendship with him, and I think that he certainly set a good foundation for us, and we took the ball and ran with it."
"It feels great,'' said Miami-bound senior linebacker Jamie Gordinier. "Now we can prove to the state that we can win a state championship. It's everything I thought of and more."
When Edgerly first began the rebuilding project, the initial goal was just to get back on the Shore Conference map. That plan started to build steam in 2004 with the emergence of a star running back from Atlantic Highlands by the name of Donald Brown, who is RBC's all-time leading rusher and now plays for the San Diego Chargers after being drafted in the first round by the Colts in 2009. Brown became the only running back in school history to have a 2,000-yard season for the Caseys in 2004, when they finished 6-4 and earned a reputation as an exciting, high-octane offensive team with a player casual fans would make the trip to Red Bank to see.
"Since Donnie Brown was here I've been watching the games and going to the games,'' said senior linebacker Nick LaGrippo, a Colts Neck resident who blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown against Delbarton. "Now to actually be here on the turf at MetLife and win a championship is amazing."
Brown also jumpstarted what has become an assembly line of FBS recruits coming out of RBC, as he went on to star at UConn, where he led the nation in rushing in 2008. In 2005, the Caseys won their first division title since 1989, steadily climbing up the Top 10 rankings locally. By 2008, they had two more division titles under their belt and had ascended to the final No. 1 ranking in the Shore Conference with a 9-1 season in which they went unbeaten against Shore competition.
While Edgerly's reputation was as an offensive mastermind, the Caseys had also begun to attain a reputation as a relentless, hard-nosed defense with a smashmouth front seven that swallowed up opposing running backs and terrorized quarterbacks thanks to Portela, who was the defensive coordinator. By that point, they had earned the ultimate sign of respect for an up-and-coming non-public program - people grumbling that they were getting too good to play other publics and pointing out that they still hadn't done anything in the state playoffs against other parochial teams with the same advantages as them.
When Edgerly left in 2009 to pursue his NFL dream by taking a job as a scout with the New England Patriots, the reins were turned over to Portela, who has been with the program since 2002. In 2010, the Caseys won a share of another division title, but again made a first-round playoff exit with a 65-34 loss to perennial power Bergen Catholic. By that point, the chorus outside the program was growing louder that for all the high rankings and FBS recruits and division titles, the Caseys couldn't get it done in the postseason despite the fact that no one had given their program even a second thought only a few years earlier.
As their profile increased, so did their facilities, as a $12 million fund-raising effort resulted in an artificial turf field being installed at Count Basie and their weight room was dramatically overhauled in addition to the gym to rival that of a Division III university.
In 2011, they finished No. 1 in the Shore for the first of three straight seasons and blasted Pope John XXIII 42-6 to win their first state playoff game since 1997 before bowing to Delbarton in overtime in the semifinals while winning a then-school-record 10 games. The cycle continued in 2012 and 2013, as the Caseys once again went unbeaten against Shore Conference teams yet lost twice in the Non-Public Group III semifinals to state power St. Joseph's-Montvale.
The semifinals seemed destined to be their glass ceiling, leaving them perennially stuck in the limbo between lording over the Shore Conference but never being good enough to silence the North Jersey naysayers claiming there was no way a Shore team could compete with their big boys. Portela trained his players to have tunnel vision, ignoring the criticism from the outside because the goal remained to get to the end and finish it.
"It's nothing about shutting anyone up,'' Portela said. "We don't waste energy on the naysayers. We talk to our kids all the time. There's always going to be critics. The glory and the guys who should be proud of themselves are the guys who put themselves in the arena and battle. I wouldn't waste any energy on anyone who wants to nitpick us or say bad words about what we do."
The critics believed the Caseys would just repeatedly run into a North Jersey team, usually St. Joe's, that would send them back to reality in the playoffs.
"Well, they're wrong,'' said grinning RBC senior wideout/defensive back Nick Lubischer. "We beat St. Joe's pretty well, Bishop Eustace in the beginning, and now Delbarton. Can't say anything now."
Portela felt that if the Caseys could just continue to improve in two crucial areas, they could give themselves a shot to win it all.
"I think we needed to be as physical as the teams up north, and I think we finally got there,'' Portela said. "I also think we needed to have some really good playmakers."
Both of those aspects were on full display in RBC's dominating run to the Non-Public Group III title. They buried Bishop Eustace 62-7 in the first round and then made the whole state sit up and take notice with a 44-14 rout of three-time defending champion St. Joe's at Count Basie Field in the semifinals. Their physical offensive line manhandled St. Joe's to the tune of 333 yards rushing, and their top playmaker, junior quarterback Eddie Hahn, continued to dazzle.
However, the celebration after the win over the Green Knights was subdued, as the Caseys knew they weren't done yet.
"Coach Portela made it clear that the goal is to win a state championship, and St. Joe's was just in the way and we had to get rid of them,'' Gordinier said.
"It wasn't about beating St. Joe's,'' said senior two-way lineman Ryan Kroeger, a Fordham recruit. "It was about getting to the finals and finishing it."
They did just that on Sunday night against Delbarton, churning up 391 yards of total offense as Hahn, who already has an offer from North Carolina State, put on a show to augment his growing status as the greatest quarterback in RBC history. He was 9-for-10 for 234 yards passing and a touchdown and also ran for 47 yards and a score in the win. Lubischer, who had four catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, was asked what it finally took for RBC to get over the hump and end the state title drought, and his answer was immediate.
"My honest opinion?" he said. "Our quarterback, Eddie Hahn. He's unbelievable. He scrambles and he's athletic. He's a big playmaker."
Hahn directed the most prolific offense in RBC history, which racked up a school-record 543 points (45 ppg) to lead the Shore Conference and help the Caseys become the first 11-win team ever at RBC.
"This program has come so far, and we're going to keep striving to get better every year,'' Hahn said. "Coach Portela does a great job with keeping us grounded. It's just a great feeling to get this win tonight."
Ironically, in a season where the Caseys finally rose up and vanquished the North Jersey non-publics in their way, they won't finish with the No. 1 ranking due to a loss to top-ranked Jackson Memorial, which ended their 40-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition with a 33-27 overtime win during the regular season. The Jaguars won the Central Jersey Group IV title on Saturday night at Rutgers University.
"Not many people would want to say this, but the Jackson Memorial loss helped us a lot, and it kept us grounded,'' Hahn said. "Seeing them win a state championship last night against Middletown South made us more hungry for the state championship tonight."
RBC has had its share of No. 1 rankings, but they paled in comparison to the euphoria of Sunday night. Players and coaches don't have reunions in 20 years to reminisce about the time they finished ranked in the Top 10 of some local media poll. They have reunions to break out their rings and remember winning it all and drinking in that final roar from the crowd.
"From when Donnie Brown was here in 2005, when my brother (Anthony) was a freshman, and he graduated in 2009 after they lost to St. Peter's at Count Basie, to my senior class being the one to win it after 38 years, it's incredible,'' Lubischer said. "My brother has just been telling me to just keep going after it because the whole RBC community has been looking out for us and waiting for us to win."
The men who won the first RBC state title in 1976 after the advent of the state playoff system in 1974 are now in their mid-to-late fifties, but several of them were there on Sunday night, including assistant Harry Flaherty, whose sons all played for the Caseys. Star running back Lonnie Burgess, who is battling the ravages of Lyme disease that have left him using a wheelchair, beamed proudly as he leaned on a cane with the team in the postgame celebration picture.
"Lonnie Burgess came in on Friday and told us what it was like to win a state championship,'' Hahn said. "It's incredible, and I wouldn't want to do this with any other team."
Sunday's title was for all the players who have been part of the building process of the past 15 years and the ones who came before, and now this year's team takes its place in the RBC pantheon.
"It's just crazy, and I hope when I get older I can be standing here taking a picture with them when they win another state championship,'' LaGrippo said.
"It feels great being that team to set the tone for all the years going forward,'' Gordinier said.
The Caseys' humble beginnings seem like a million years ago. Now they are the gatekeepers of a championship, the ones putting themselves in the argument as a top-five team in the state, the ones other teams are striving to emulate.
"Last year there was a controversy of that team being the best (in RBC history),'' Lubischer said. "We were pretty good, but now this year it's a good feeling to know we are the best."
Somewhere in Cleveland on Sunday night, a proud RBC graduate and former coach took a moment to savor the feeling, too.