Spotlight Thursday: Struncius Family Tradition
Point Beach sophomore Sean Struncius has seen the scrapbooks, watched the old films, looked at the painted football in the glass case in the hallway of the high school and heard the old stories.
Now he feels it's time to fill a blank scrapbook, create some other films to watch and have some new stories to tell.
"Everyone always would say great stuff about my dad, but he doesn't brag about it to me,'' Struncius said. "It does drive me crazy to always hear about his success sometimes because I have to try to live up to it.''
First-year head football coach John Wagner may not know all the history of the Garnet Gulls' program, but the veteran coach who built multiple state championship teams at Roselle Park does know one thing when it comes to coaching at Point Beach.
"It seems to definitely be a good thing to have a Struncius around when it comes to the playoffs,'' Wagner said before laughing.
On Saturday, fifth-seeded Point Beach travels to top-seeded Asbury Park, which beat the Garnet Gulls 24-8 during the regular season, for an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I semifinal. The last, and only, time the Garnet Gulls made a trip to the state championship game was when Sean's father, Paul Struncius, was slinging it as a quarterback for Point Beach in 1982.
While the elder Struncius is remembered more for the aerial attack he directed as a senior while running the then-cutting edge West Coast offense, it was actually his junior year on a star-studded, senior-laden team 29 years ago when the Garnet Gulls made their only state final. They lost 25-14 to Middlesex in the Central Jersey Group I championship game after a 29-22 win over Green Brook in the semifinals, back when the playoff brackets only included four teams.
Point Beach's 34-12 playoff win on the road over fourth-seeded New Egypt last week marked the first time since the elder Struncius was playing that Point Beach won a playoff game, and marked just the second playoff win in school history. Sean Struncius, a starting sophomore center, was part of an offensive line that paved the way for Point Beach to jump out to a 24-0 lead with a punishing ground attack in the Delaware Wing-T offense and not look back to tie the school record with its seventh win of the season.
Just like that, playoff victories have become a Struncius family tradition and the one common thread linking two rare occurrences at Ocean County's smallest public school.
"I'm really excited for Sean,'' said Paul, who is the school's all-time leading passer and played collegiately at Lafayette. "I try not to overwhelm him in any way with historical football because what teenage kid wants to hear about that? He's seen the scrapbook. I'm just happy for him and his friends because it's a real solid group of kids.''
Sean Struncius was indoctrinated into Point Beach from the beginning, serving as a ball boy while the Garnet Gulls were coached by Joe Fitzsimmons, who led them to their last division title in 1997, and then Nick Giglio, who is now the head coach at Red Bank Regional. Paul has been a volunteer assistant for the last 11 years, so football and Point Beach have been a shared passion between the two.
Coming up through the Pop Warner ranks, Sean and his friends witnessed a bleak stretch of Garnet Gulls' football. Between 1983 and 2001, Point Beach made only four playoff appearances, and then had a 10-year drought up until this season. From 2006-10, Point Beach went a combined 10-40, including a pair of 1-9 seasons, to become an afterthought in the Shore Conference football scene. Meanwhile, Struncius and his Pop Warner teammates were churning out one winning season after another at the youth levels, dreaming of the day they could restore the Garnet Gulls to glory.
"Seeing them struggle was tough,'' Sean said. "I always wanted to get to high school and show that my generation, the team that I was on, could turn it around for us. I've been playing with a lot of these guys since Pop Warner, and we all had that same goal.''
One thing the two Strunciuses can certainly agree on is where the turnaround began.
"Coach Wagner definitely came in telling us we could win,'' Sean said. "He is a great communicator. He said we could do special things, and look what we have done so far.''
Back to the Playoffs
After initially retiring from coaching after a tremendous career at Roselle Park from 1981-2005, Wagner got the undeniable urge to coach again. He knew all about winning at the Group I level, as his Roselle Park teams went 150-92-2, winning nine Mountain Valley Conference division titles and back-to-back North II, Group I titles in 1992-93. It just so happened that Point Beach had an opening after former coach Steve Sasse stepped down following the 2010 season.
"I needed to coach again,'' Wagner said. "I really missed it. I was going to every high school game there was and just watching, so when the opportunity presented itself with a Group I setting, I had to do it. I'm very familiar with the ins and outs, trials and tribulations of coaching in Group I, so that's not a challenge to me. I'm used to that.''
He was able to get the group of eight returning seniors to buy into the program early, and the team met daily at 7 a.m. in the weight room in the summer. The numbers grew with each passing day, and Wagner could tell he had some solid seniors like quarterback Christian Martino, wide receiver/defensive back Mark Jurkowski and defensive tackle/running back Cody Coleman as well as a talented group of juniors that included running back/defensive back Andre Cochran, running back/linebacker Kyle Samaritano and the do-it-all Danny Tighe.
"All I heard was that they're nice kids, but they just don't win,'' Wagner said. "I just felt if we got organized and believed in what we're doing, good things would happen.''
Plus, it wasn't like the school didn't have talented athletes. The boys soccer, wrestling, baseball and basketball teams have all at least won division or sectional championships in the last two years.
"We were thinking, 'When is this going to come for us?''' Sean said. "Point Beach football was the only thing dragging behind, and we were thinking, 'No more.'''
Wagner also brought an offense that meshed well with Point Beach's personnel, as many of them ran the Wing-T in Pop Warner, plus they had three quality runners in Coleman, Samaritano and Cochran, with Tighe as another option.
The Garnet Gulls flew out of the gate with a 53-6 rout of Cardinal McCarrick to gain some quick confidence, but then lost 24-8 to Asbury Park in their second game. They were down 16-0 in the blink of an eye, but once they regrouped, they fought the Blue Bishops to the end, including registering five interceptions on defense, three by Jurkowski.
"The first time we played Asbury Park, I knew we weren't ready for that type of game,'' Wagner said. "They're big, fast and athletic, and that's some combination, but we settled in during the second half and were able to compete.''
"I think the turning point for us was definitely the second half of Asbury Park,'' Sean said. "That was our best half of football we ever played defensively.''
Following a 20-point win over Keansburg, the Garnet Gulls beat Keyport, 12-7, under the new lights on their home field at the G. Harold Antrim Elementary School to move to 3-1. Martino threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jurkowski with 1:56 left in the game to vanquish a team that had bludgeoned Point Beach by a combined score of 139-25 in the past three years, including a 55-0 wipeout last year.
That's when the echoes of 1982 started to stir.
After leading Middlesex 14-12 at halftime in the state championship game 29 years ago, the injuries began to pile up for a Garnet Gulls team that only had 24 players against a two-platoon Middlesex team that had nearly 60. By the end of the 25-14 loss, there were less than 11 on the field for the visitors. Despite losing what proved to be the only shot at a state championship in the school's history thus far, Paul Struncius can still remember the aftermath.
"As we walked off the Middlesex field, their fans and our fans both lined the field and gave a standing ovation to us for fighting so hard,'' Paul said.
That roar dimmed over the years, but was rekindled in similar fashion nearly 30 years later after that last-minute win over Keyport.
"The craziest thing was after the Keyport win,'' Sean said. "Hearing our crowd just letting out roars and cheers, that whole atmosphere was crazy. The whole team was real proud we could bring them back.''
"I knew the town was excited, but holy smokes, there were hundreds of people applauding after that game,'' Wagner said. "That reminded me of Roselle Park years ago.''
The Keyport victory was followed by a 20-7 win over previously unbeaten Middlesex and then a win over Mater Dei Prep to make it three in a row. By that time, there was full-blown football fever at the Beach. Former players from teams as far back as the 1940s sought the current players out to congratulate them, and letters and emails poured in from around the country from excited football alumni.
"Coach says success brings people out of the woodwork,'' Sean said. "We were all sick and tired of losing, and it's great to get the town rallying around us again.''
The combination of talent, desire, and Wagner and his coaching staff of Jeff Bower, Rich LaDuca, Bill Evans and Brandon Neary, plus Paul Struncius as a volunteer assistant, has galvanized the small town. From the beginning, Wagner was up front with the players that he will make changes during games if he thinks a certain player is being exploited by the opponent or not giving full effort, so it has been a team fueled by daily competition.
"I don't want kids to feel like if they make a mistake that I'm taking them right out, but if we're in mismatches, we will try to straighten out the mismatch,'' Wagner said. "If a player is not having a good game, I'm going to find someone who is having a good game. That's the way it goes.''
With a roster of 38 players, he also has tried to integrate younger players on special teams and in other spots so that there won't be a drop-off once the current junior and senior classes move on.
"I don't want to be a one-year wonder,'' Wagner said.
The goal is to earn the respect of opponents and let them know that no matter who is on the Point Beach roster, it's going to be a fight. Wagner can remember years when he grinded out 5-4 seasons out of Roselle Park teams that had no business winning that many games simply because of the "Panthers'' on the front of the jersey and the fear and respect it commanded.
"Coach tells us that people are going to have to respect the (Point Beach) shirt,'' Sean said.
"My memory from my team that is similar to coach Wagner's team was, 'Respect the jersey,''' Paul said. "Point Beach was hard-nosed back then. When teams came in and played against (former star) Steve Reid and other guys, you were going to get hit. That's what coach Wagner wanted to bring back to the Beach. We had to be tough again.''
After battling undefeated Dunellen, the No. 2 seed and a fellow CJ I semifinalist, in a 24-22 regular-season loss, the Garnet Gulls rolled 38-7 over Spotswood to set up the first-round game with New Egypt that triggered a 1982 flashback and had the name Paul Struncius back in the headlines again. Who knew that when the Garnet Gulls walked off the field that day at Middlesex all those years ago that it wouldn't be until Struncius's own teenage son was on the team that they would win another playoff game?
"I guess you never really think that about a program, especially a program that had a lot of other successful years,'' Paul said. "Fitzsi