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Success is defined in a myriad of ways in the world of high school football. For some teams, it’s championship or bust. For others, it’s simply to have a winning record. For certain programs, just being competitive in every game is the main goal. Such is the nature of high school athletics in general.

There are programs within the Shore Conference that have the same championship aspirations and expectations every year and others who are just trying to get by. For years, Donovan Catholic belonged to the latter group. For much of their program’s history, the Griffins have been mediocre at best. While there have been some banner moments pre-2017 - a state sectional title in 1976, two division titles and a nine-win season in 1992 – there have been nearly as many one-win or winless seasons (11) as there have been winning seasons (15) in the history of Donovan Catholic football.

That is why what Donovan Catholic has accomplished over the past four years and specifically in 2020 is so impressive. Four years ago when Dan Curcione took the job as the Griffins’ 14th head coach in program history, the program was at rock bottom having just finished 0-10 for the second time in three years. In the four years since, Curcione has taken the Griffins from winless to fearless, from a laughing stock to a juggernaut.

The 2020 season wasn’t perfect for Donovan Catholic and didn’t feature a storybook ending, but the fact the Griffins were in position to finish the season as the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference – a previously unthinkable attainment – speaks volumes. For steadily turning a winless program into one of the best in New Jersey, Curcione is the 2020 Shore Sports Network Football Coach of the Year.

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This season was certainly not a disappointment for Donovan even if the ending was. The Griffins fell to Wall, 18-15, in the unofficial Shore Conference championship game when the Crimson Knights stopped them on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with under a minute left in the game. It was a crushing defeat given how close they were to reaching the top but in the days and weeks after when the team had the chance to properly reflect on what they had accomplished, they knew it was a special year.

“I’m really proud, especially for the players who have been with me for four years,” Curcione said. “They have done something that not a lot of kids do and that’s come to a school that was 0-10 the year before and stick it out through a lot of ups and downs and accomplish what they have. I couldn’t be prouder of those guys. Players win games and coaches are there to not screw things up, so hopefully I’ve done a decent job of that.”

Expectations were high for Donovan Catholic coming off a 9-2 season in 2019 in which they captured the Liberty Division title and reached the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 3 semifinals. With multiple three- and four-year returning starters and impressive talent all over the field there was a legitimate belief that the Griffins could be the best team in the Shore.

Through the first four games of the season, the Griffins were untouchable with wins over Brick Memorial (42-6), Toms River East (47-7), Toms River South (49-6) and Brick (33-0). Then came a test in the form of a Southern Regional team that featured one of the Shore’s best running backs and a stingy defense. After four straight blowout wins, the Griffins found themselves trailing 7-0 at halftime and 14-7 early in the third quarter before rallying for a 21-14 victory. The one knock on Donovan Catholic was that it could not get over the hump and win against a fellow ranked team, and the win over Southern answered a major question.

“That was the point I said we were ready to play some of the tougher teams,” Curcione said. “I went in at halftime and told them this is what you need. Was I happy with how we were playing? No, but that’s going to happen eventually. I told them they needed to play in a tight game and get used to that. Now we’ll see what you’re all about. It showed me we had a lot of poise under pressure.”

The following week, Donovan shut down a potent Toms River North offense in a 35-0 victory to finish the regular season 6-0. Next up was the defining stretch, a two-game postseason in a four-team bracket that also included No. 1 Wall, No. 3 Red Bank Catholic and No. 4 Mater Dei Prep in an unofficial Shore Conference Tournament. The Griffins had their eyes on a matchup with Wall, but first they had to get past a Red Bank Catholic program that has been among the Shore’s best for many years and handed Donovan a home defeat in 2019.

If the win over Southern proved whether or not Donovan could beat another ranked team, the Griffins’ 28-14 win over Red Bank Catholic proved they were one of the elite teams in the conference and one that could go toe-to-toe with the other non-public schools. Now, the Griffins were 7-0 and set up to meet No. 1 Wall in the Shore Conference title game.

Photo by Steve Meyer.

The night of Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, will be remembered for one of the best games in Shore Conference history, an epic clash in the first-ever Shore Conference championship game, even if it was not officially labeled as such. The Griffins showed toughness, poise and determination in rallying from a 12-0 deficit to take an 18-12 lead in the second half, but Wall authored its own rally to pull ahead and came up with an all-time defensive play to take the title.

The top spot wasn’t in the cards this year, but it took the eventual No. 1 team in New Jersey with an all-time defense to deny Donovan Catholic. The Griffins finished 7-1 and as a top-10 team in the state. Given its ascendence over the past four years, it’s now easy to envision Donovan Catholic as a championship team. Again, this was a program that was 0-10 four years ago.

“I am honored to be selected as coach of the year,” Curcione said. “It is a team effort and I have to mention all the support Father Scott, Dr. Gere, AD’s Joe Gomulka and Tom Moriau and the rest of the administration has given me. I believe I have a great staff that is just as big a part of any honor: Chip LaBarca Jr., Jack Nascimento, Dean Helstowski, Jon Power, Ryan Wells, Deano Helstowski, Sean McPherson, Mile Heilala, Eric Bruno, Bob Coates and strength and condition Coach Mark Deppen.”

“And I have to say, anybody who coached this year, this was not easy for anybody (during COVID-19) so my hat’s off to all the coaches. This is a great coaching conference so to accept any kind of award that recognizes me; there is a lot of really good football coaches in the Shore.”

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights. 

 

 

 

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