Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year: Point Beach’s John Wagner
The game everyone will remember at Point Beach is the historic 12-7 victory over Shore Regional for the program's first NJSIAA sectional title, but the seeds for that landmark win were sewn during the regular season.
The final motivation was then provided by former New York Giants offensive lineman and Super Bowl champion Shaun O'Hara.
Point Beach had come off a 7-3 defeat at the hands of Spotswood on Sept. 28 for its first loss, and head coach John Wagner was going to find out about the resolve of his team.
"We had a real nice season up to that point, and I said after that (Spotswood) game, this will make or break our season,'' Wagner said.
The Garnet Gulls roared back for a dominating 40-14 win over a Mater Dei Prep team that had started 3-0 for the first time since the 1980s. It was a lesson that came in handy when Point Beach lost its second game, 31-0 to Shore Regional, only eight days before it had to play the Blue Devils again in the Central Jersey Group I final.
"We go to Shore, and we lay an egg,'' Wagner said. "Before we left the field we said to these kids, this game is over just like Spotswood is over. Losses happen, but this next one is for a state championship.''
Barely over a week later, the Garnet Gulls turned the tables, stunning the Blue Devils 12-7 at The College of New Jersey to win the program's first state championship since the inception of the playoff system in 1974. With the adjustment of a six-man front on defense, some different individual match-ups at the line of scrimmage, and a rejuvenated running game led by junior Joe Wegrzyniak, the Garnet Gulls made school history. It culminated the remarkable turnaround for Point Beach under Wagner, who has been selected as the Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.
A little extra motivation the night before the game was provided by O'Hara, who filmed a personalized 30-second clip for the team thanks to a connection through Point Beach video coordinator Kevin Lutz. Every day during the week, Wagner had given his team another example of a squad that lost to an opponent during the regular season and came back to beat them for a state title. He capped it with the video in which O'Hara spoke about how the Giants stunned the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl after losing to them in the regular season in 2007.
"He says, 'When we played Patriots first time, they beat us, and when we played in the Super Bowl nobody gave us a chance, but then all those dreams of an undefeated season for them were ruined by us,''' Wagner said. "Then he said, 'You guys haave to understand that when you line up against Shore next time...,' and man did that get their attention because that's when they knew it was personalized and not some generic speech."
Point Beach sent a signal early on that it would be a different game by driving 70-plus yards and taking up nearly the whole first quarter, even though the Garnet Gulls didn't score on that possession. Their defense then forced a three-and-out, reinforcing the belief that things would be different this time around. Junior Joe Wegrzyniak ran for 138 yards in the win, clinching the victory with a 20-yard run in the final minutes to also help Point Beach tie the school record for wins (10) that it set last season.
Wagner is no stranger to winning a state championship, having previously carved out a Hall of Fame career at Roselle Park, where he went 150-92-2 and won two state titles before coming to Point Beach in 2011. In his three seasons at Point Beach, his teams are a combined 28-6, which is more total wins than the Garnet Gulls had in the previous decade combined before he arrived.
This victory was particularly emotional for Wagner given what transpired last season, when the Point Beach community was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy and the Garnet Gulls suffered a heartbreaking 17-14 loss to eventual champion Florence in the Central Jersey Group I semifinals after starting the season 10-0. They graduated a stellar backfield from that team of Kyle Samaritano, Andre Cochran and Danny Tighe, the last of whom led the Shore Conference in rushing. Rather than take a step back, they regrouped to win the whole thing.
"Basically, I'm going to remember this as a three-year period,'' Wagner said. "The first group bought in, then we had the disappointment last year between the storm and the tough loss to Florence. It was a long winter. Because of the circumstances, emotionally I don't think I was ever that drained before. You relive so many things after that (Shore) game. Kids on the field were crying, and so were parents in the stands."
Point Beach turned the tears of sadness from last year into tears of joy this season for a year the team at the smallest public school in Ocean County will never forget, and a big reason is the Hall of Fame coach who has taken a perennially struggling team from the bottom all the way to the top.