By Cheryl Conway
While the final score was not the game plan for the Mt. Olive High School Football team, win or lose, it was how they played that truly matters.
From the athletes on the field and their coaches on the sidelines, to the fans in the stands and those watching on TV, the entire Mt. Olive community played a part with heart. The MOHS Varsity Football Team competed in the NJSIAA Playoffs Group 4 championship against Old Tappan on Saturday night, Dec. 2, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
After Mt. Olive was the first to score on the field that night, the game was tied 14 to 14 at half-time. A close game throughout, the Mt. Olive Marauders lost 31-28 against the Old Tappan Golden Knights. Its third title in program history, Old Tappan had an undefeated season.
To lose by only three points against such an accomplished team is impressive for Mt. Olive, and so too is the team’s overall performance this past year, many commented.
“Old Tappan went to three state finals; everyone was expecting them to blow us out,” says MOHS Head Varsity Football Coach Brian O’Connor of Flanders. “This was not the case. There’s no question of their effort and heart in this game. Our guys fought their butts off. We were kind of dominating the first half. They got a field goal, we got a touchdown.”
In his second year as the head coach, O’Connor commends the turnaround in his team’s record.
MOHS finished with 10 wins and two losses this past season, compared to last year’s one win and nine losses. The last and only time MOHS competed in states, was in 2002 when the Marauders won a state championship title against Jefferson.
“The turnaround in our football team has been nothing short of amazing!” says Mt. Olive Superintendent of Schools Dr. Larrie Reynolds. “You could sense the enthusiasm for our team after the first few minutes of the first game this year. My heartfelt thanks go out to Brian O’Connell, our new coach. He and his staff have been able to do what many people thought impossible; make Mt. Olive a true contender in the sport of football.”
Reynolds says, “I had heard ahead of the game, that Old Tappan was a top rated team in the state; that they had never been behind in any game this season, and that they had star quality players in their skill positions. Therefore, I was a bit anxious. I wanted our kids to show well. Boy! Was I surprised! After the first touchdown, I began to think that we would win the game. After the second and third TD’s, I was even more hopeful. The last drive down the field was so exciting! It appeared that momentum was on our side.”
Amazed by the team’s performance, David Falleni, director of Athletics at MOHS, says “This has been an amazing journey for our football players and coaches. Anyone who goes from 1-9 in the previous season to 10-2 this year and making the state finals has done an unbelievable job. Great job by all! One of the best high school football games I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of.”
O’Connor credits his team’s success to leadership, talent, mindset and character.
With a roster of 60 players, “We had some great senior leadership” and “some talented players,” says O’Connor, who served as head football coach at Wayne Valley High School for 12 years before coming to MOHS.
The “team as a whole bought into making the commitment and sacrifice to each other,” he says. “They bought into winning; they got sick of losing.”
The big thing: “changing culture and mindset of the players,” he says. With more team bonding over the summer and during the year, off season training in the weight room, “all year round, all year long, students made a commitment for change. Hard work really pays off.”
While skill is important, O’Connor says character is rated just as high. MOHS football “has a lot of kids with tremendous character.”
Senior Liam Anderson, starting quarterback for the team, agrees with this year’s progress.
“I think one of the main reasons behind our team’s success was how hard we worked in the off season, and the senior leadership all throughout the season,” says Anderson.
“I was impressed with how my team never gave up even though there were times during the game when we were down, or there was a penalty, or a mistake, we fought hard until the end,” Anderson adds.
While disappointment comes with loss, O’Connor finished the season quite pleased.
“They played well,” says O’Connor, “had some unfortunate mistakes, some bad plays” but remains “very proud of their overall effort and performance.”
His players listened to his motto he stressed all season and that was “Forget what you heard” as far as having a losing record. “Believe in yourself, believe in your team.” His players did just that and turned the program around.
“We are going to be a caliber championship football team every year,” says O’Connor. As far as losing in states, he says, “They’ll look back and reflect on the experience and what they accomplished here. It was very exciting for them. It’s something they will always remember.”
Anderson says, “The atmosphere was incredible. It is something that I’ll never forget and it was a dream come true. Just looking at the whole season and making it to MetLife after a 1-9 season, it teaches us that if you put in the work, and if everyone on the team buys in to one common goal, special things will happen.”
One can only grow from the opportunity.
“This past game gave me experience in a big game environment,” says Anderson. “During big games nerves may come into play, and mistakes will follow because of it. But if you just relax, focus on the game, and try to have fun, no matter how big the game is it is always an enjoyable experience.”
The experience will long be remembered by the community as well.
“We sold 2,200 tickets at the high school but think there were far more at the game; probably more than 5,000 people sat on the MO side; nearly twice the Old Tappan audience,” says Reynolds. “The school district sent five buses to transport the band, cheerleaders and other students.”
The township also rented two busses, charging riders $25 per ticket. Support also came from escorts from police, fire department and emergency vehicles in town.
Getting involved in the school district’s success was an accomplishment not to be missed.
“As a resident and representative of Mt. Olive who attended the game, it was one of the most exciting games I have seen,” says Mt. Olive Twp. Council President Joe Nicastro. “The enthusiasm and support from our parents and residents was unbelievable. I am very proud of the team. A thank you to all the players, cheerleaders, coaches and all that was involved with the season for what they accomplished and also what they did for bringing thousands together to watch and cheer them on.”
Mayor Rob Greenbaum even met with the football team prior to the game to speak to players and provide a catered dinner.
“I made the decision to cater the meal because I was so proud of what they had accomplished and wanted them to know how proud the community was of their accomplishment,” says Greenbaum.
“The whole day was great and the pride I felt, watching with what seemed to be the entire community was overwhelming,” says Greenbaum. “The accomplishment of making it to the finals was not the highlight but rather the accomplishment of the entire season culminating in the final game brought the community together and there was a feeling that permeated Mt. Olive that we were all family.”
The town and community support became a highlight of the overall experience.
“The police escort and signage in town about the team’s success was a thrill for me,” says Reynolds. “I so appreciate the way the town came out to support our high school kids. This showed that the game became larger than the game; it was about the cheerleaders, flag kids, band members, and players.
From cheering in the fans, to providing busses and even food before the game, O’Connor and the team were so thankful.
“The town and school were tremendous this year,” says O’Connor, adding that their support made it a lot of fun. The student section was great.”
Even after their “heart-breaking loss” when they arrived back to MOHS, the team received a police escort with fire trucks, police and paramedics. “They were all there. We are very appreciative of their support.”
The players even noticed.
“The amount of support that we received from the town was amazing,” says Anderson. “It truly made all of us on the team proud to be from Mt. Olive and proud to play in front of a great community.”
From the team’s success to the community’s support, Mt. Olive football may be seeing a revival.
“It re-establishes our football program and it has driven up the “Culture” here at the high school,” says Falleni.
“What we learned from this experience is that our student athletes have a never quit attitude,” says Falleni. “In addition, our students displayed great character and fight during the season and especially the State Final Game.”
Reynolds says, “I think the lesson here is that success comes only after hope has been established. Hope came to town with Coach O’Connell. Once we had hope, all we needed was a small victory. That came during the season. The victories led to faith. All of us had faith in our team. From faith for many sprouted belief. Most people developed a belief in the team, the school, and the community. It was terrific!”
As far as next season, O’Connor says “hopefully next year we will be back.” Although 18 seniors are graduating, many starters will be returning to play, “most of the offensive line.”
O’Connor concludes, “We are trying to build a program. Let’s reload. I do have high expectations for next year.”