Story by Ella Brockway, Red Bank Regional student 

LITTLE SILVER— It’s a Monday afternoon in Little Silver. The skies are bright and blue, and the Red Bank Regional Buccaneers (5-0) are running through footwork and agility drills. Footballs lay scattered around the field as the Bucs practice behind the banners and flags of the stadium where, in four days, they’ll play what very well may be the biggest football game of their lives.

Head coach Nick Giglio claps and calls up the next group of players. He refers to his boys as men throughout the drill, and based on the way they’ve been playing recently, they are worthy of that title.

A day later, a different group of Bucs practice just two and a half miles across town. The sun is setting as the Red Bank American Youth Football Program (AYF) teams stretch and warm up. Through the warm-up chants and practice plays, it’s obvious who’s inspiring these nine- to thirteen--year old boys.

Eighth grader Tyquann Crawford calls the high school Bucs his role models.  “They were on this field too, and they’ve shown us that with a little bit of hard work, we can do what they’re doing right now,” says fellow eighth grader Elijah Jules.

Photo by Ella Brockway

What this RBR football team is doing right now is catching a lot of eyes. The team’s undefeated start is the best in the past fifteen years, and it shows just how far they’ve made it, both as a team and as a program. For the past decade the RBR football program has been known solely by its unimpressive numbers: the 0-10 season of 2008, the seven wins in four years from 2007-2010, and the 1-9 disaster of 2011.

“It goes back to our freshman and sophomore years,” says quarterback Jack Navitsky. “We knew what it was like to be at the bottom of the Shore Conference, and we’ve known since then that we wanted to be the kind of team that was undefeated and played in big games.”

This year is different. The Bucs have new numbers, and they’re using them to define themselves in new ways: 5-0, and the 16th of November.

The 5-0 start, thanks to big wins over Wall, Ocean and Raritan, has moved the team into the number 8 spot of the Shore Sports Network Shore Conference rankings, and additionally into the MaxPreps state rankings, where they sit at #14. The Bucs’ defense, spearheaded by senior defensive end Sean Naiman, is among the best in the conference, allowing only 34 points in five games. The offense, led by Navitsky at quarterback, averages 24.8 points per game, thanks to the work of wide receivers Matt Reardon and Teddy Mitchell, running back Alim Godsey, kicker Jack O’Connor, who made a name for himself with three field goals in last week’s win against Raritan, and wide receiver Sadiq Palmer--all seniors. Palmer, who made a non-binding verbal commitment last spring to Syracuse, has 16 receptions for 239 yards and three touchdowns on the season.

November 16th was not a date that many around the Shore Conference had circled on their calendar. Red Bank Catholic (5-0) has been a perennial powerhouse in the not just the Red Bank area, but also in the conference and the state as a whole. The past matchups between RBC and RBR have followed a similar pattern, with the Caseys winning the last nine games in the rivalry.

With both teams looking to stay undefeated, and fighting for control in the B North division (RBR is currently in first place), this Friday’s battle will be more than just a typical meeting between two town rivals. Palmer calls the atmosphere around RBR “exciting”, and says, “Everyone’s excited for this game...and we know we’re going to do it.”

“We’ve told our players to be themselves, and they haven’t let the moment or the situation take over,” said Coach Giglio. “They are taking control of the situation...and I think at the end of the day, that’s going to be enough.”

Regardless of the outcome on Friday night, there’s a million-dollar question on everyone’s mind. How did a team that’s spent so long in the shadows of their opponents end up here, in the top ten of the Shore and ready to try to prove even more people wrong?

The answer, unlike the question, is not so simple. This RBR football program did not begin in 2012, when the twenty-eight current seniors were freshmen. The story stretches back even further, to a time when these seniors who are being recruited and playing under the lights were just kids. Kids from different towns and different lives who were brought together by the game of football.

“[Red Bank AYF] has brought these kids all the way through the system,” says Scott Navitsky, the president of the Bucs’ AYF program that is based in Red Bank, Shrewsbury and Little Silver. “On that first team, we had eleven five-year-olds, and we started the team from there. I, or one of the coaches here, have coached almost every one of the guys on that team.”

For the past thirteen years, Navitsky has played a central role in creating a program that brings together three communities in a way in which no other sport can. The AYF program has grown from 75 kids in the early days to almost 200 this year.

“What this program does, is it introduces the kids from all three towns to each other, and so they all become friends at a young age when they never would have known each other,” said Navitsky. “They form a bond or a friendship that’s lasted, for the high school kids, thirteen years, since they were five-year olds running around with their flags.”

Tyriik Murad is a senior starting guard and defensive tackle for the high school Bucs, and on this Tuesday night, he’s sitting on the bench, watching the AYF thirteen-year olds practice, and giving them pointers as they go along.

“It feels good when they’re watching us play, because it feels like they’re out there with us and that we’re actually playing for them,” says Murad.

That’s the special part of this community and its football team. There are so many people sharing in the Bucs’ success this season--cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, even teachers who are former Bucs and feel the pride when they hear about the wins.

“I think that a strong athletic program has a huge impact on school spirit and school pride,” says RBR principal Risa Clay. “We always love our teams, but winning makes it that much sweeter.”

The school planned its first ever Homecoming Rally for before Friday night’s game to celebrate the recent success of football and other Buccaneer sports.

Players from Red Bank’s 1975 “Impossible Dream” team, which celebrated its forty-year anniversary this year and still remains the only Bucs football team to win a state championship, and from other teams of years past feel the energy that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

“Our guys take pride in their community, in their alumni, and in what they do, and they work at it,” says Giglio. “They’ve known where we’ve been, and they hear the stories of the past, and they’ve bought into wanting to be that team that they were years and years ago.”

A quick tour of the RBR campus points to the sporadic success of the Buccaneer football team over the past twenty years. The football team’s banner in the rafters of the gym hasn’t been updated in thirty-eight years, and the trophies for the eight division titles collected between 1943 and 1977 still sit in the glass display.

The main gate to the football field is covered with tributes to RBR alumni who continued their football careers after high school, and traded the maroon and white for the colors of schools like Miami and Michigan State.

These ghosts of players and legends past, from the members of that 1975 team, to one of the program’s most recent success stories, current Penn State Nittany Lion Garrett Sickels, echo words of encouragement to the 2015 team that will take the field Friday night. It’s not unrealistic to think that someday, players from this year’s team will get their own banners, and usher in a new wave of Buccaneers with big dreams and big shoes to fill.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon now. The grass is cut, the flags are flying, and the field is enjoying a rare moment of solitude that will be nonexistent in two days’ time.

The fans are ready. This team is ready. It’s been a long journey for these players, from the days of playing flag football as five year olds, to the 1-9 season, and every stop in between, but they’ve come here together, and with the community at their backs, they’ve made the impossible possible.

Mark Williams is an avid fan who watches the little Bucs practice every week. On this Tuesday, he’s in his usual seat on the bleachers at Count Basie Park with a smile on his face. He has been following the RBR football team since his freshman year at the school in 1975. He’s seen the highs and the lows, and now, he’s ready to witness the greatness he knows this team can achieve.

“We haven’t seen the type of atmosphere we have now in a long time,” he said. “That’s really the comeback right there. The community, we’ve been pulled back in. Now all we need is one more push, and we’ll be right there, as a whole.”

Story by Ella Brockway, Red Bank Regional student