By Cheryl Conway
The 18 seniors on the Hopatcong High School Varsity football team plan to graduate next year, but their hard work, dedication and chemistry may resonate on the field in seasons to come.
The football season for the Hopatcong Chiefs ended on Friday, Nov. 15, after the team lost 44 to 27 in the first round of the state playoffs against Hasbrouck Heights. The Chiefs football team, an eight seed, was up 27 to 21 during the last five minutes of the game.
With home field advantage, and Hasbrouck Heights being a one seed, undefeated team, Hopatcong knew the game would be a challenge but the Chiefs “gave everything they had,” says HHS head football coach Jerry Venturino. Hasbrouck Heights, “They were a very good team; they had a very powerful offense,” he says.
Venturino says “we didn’t give up with the time we had left; with two minutes left, we continued to play. It’s unfortunate it didn’t work out for us in our favor,” he says.
But as far as the season goes, the Chiefs team was successful finishing with a 6-3 record, and making the state playoffs three years in a row. Venturino credits the team’s success partially to the seniors who have played the game together for so many years.
After putting four years into the program, the seniors “changed it and put it on the winning track,” says Venturino, in his first year as head coach.
“They were a talented group of kids,” says Venturino, fourth grade teacher at Durban Avenue Elementary School. “Their willingness to want to be great, made them succeed. They were doing it day in and day out; effort in the weight room. They always won; when they were going, they kept going. Their chemistry; they played together forever. They believed in one another. They wanted to win for each other. They were truly brothers.
“Winning becomes contagious,” Venturino continues as he looks ahead to next year. Their hard work and dedication has rubbed off to the underclassmen. They know what it takes to get back into the playoffs. It’s not about getting knocked down; it’s about picking yourself up.”
Besides having a winning season in the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference, Venturino says the other accomplishments of the HHS football team was its “four wins in row; first time we’ve done that.”
The defense backs also broke the school record this year by having the most number of interceptions. “They had 12 interceptions by week six,” says Venturino, and the record was 11 interceptions. The varsity team also had 11 kids that got All League recognition awards this season.
Venturino’s goals for upcoming seasons are “to always compete and make it to the next level,” to get back to the playoffs, get back into the weight room, find that leadership. “Eighteen kids leaving, that’s a big group,” but by creating that football family, there will be “new leaders and seniors for the team.”
As “a student of the game” most of his life, Venturino is confident that his knowledge, experience, leadership, organization and motivation will help to maintain a winning tradition at HHS, where he graduated from in 2002. When he played for HHS back in 2001, the Chiefs won the state championship for the first time in school history. Venturino also played at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.
This year, he implemented a new philosophy- The Team- that was shared by the team and throughout the school community.
“The team, the team, the team has been six words we live by,” says Venturino. From the sign in the locker room that players hit as they walk by, to the towels that say “the team” that were sold at games, Venturino says this new philosophy has helped “understanding your role and doing it 100 percent.”
It teaches the kids to stay “even keeled,” keeps them grounded to be “not too high” when they are winning and “not too low” when they are losing. When he says, ‘The team, the team, the team,’ it “brings it back home as to what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
Cynthia Randina, Hopatcong Superintendent of Schools, says “The players know that everything they do is for ‘the team’; making sure they do well in school, representing the team in a respectful manner on and off the field and working hard when they are on the field. The vibe from the stands transcends onto the field, whether it’s the band playing the garbage cans, the student section cheering with painted faces or the fans with their horns at the ready. It creates an atmosphere like no other.”
Thomas Vara, HHS athletic director, says “overall it was a very successful season.” With a new head coach, “there’s growing pains,” and concerns with the transition, but with Venturino being on staff, his “great work effort, energy and philosophy,” and 18 seniors returning- “there was no loss; we had a great group coming back.
Venturino, “he is energetic, organized,” and younger which helps the kids to “buy into his system,” says Vara. “He is a hard worker; he spends a lot of time paying attention to detail; things are done right.”
Vara also applauds the booster club for its fundraising this year, the team’s winning record, and academics as well as sportsmanship being a priority.