There was less than a minute remaining on the clock of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship game last Saturday morning and the score between Hoboken and Shabazz High School (of Newark) remained tied at 7-7.
At that point, Hoboken head coach Lou Taglieri sent a message to assistant coach John Peluso through the team’s communication system.
“I said to John that in nine years of being a head coach, I’d never been in an overtime game,” Taglieri said. “He said, ‘Well, it looks like this one is going to be your first.’ ”
But the Red Wing players had something else in mind.
“The whole game long, they were defending the run,” said senior quarterback Donte Bass, who was knocked out of the game earlier with leg cramps. “They didn’t expect that we would throw the ball.”
With just 33 seconds left, Bass called a pass play to senior tight end DeShawn Reed.
“I did have a feeling,” Reed said. “We were running the ball so much that the pass had to be open. When it came time to pass the ball, we took advantage.”
Bass hit Reed with a 68-yard pass that put the Red Wings into scoring position.
“I knew that Reed was going to be open,” Taglieri said. “It was just a matter of whether we could block long enough to get him the ball. Bass made a move, threw the ball to Reed, who went up and got it. Then it was a foot race to the end zone, but he got caught at the 12-yard line.”
Two plays later, Josh Mercado scored on a 1-yard run with just 12 seconds remaining, giving Hoboken a thrilling 13-7 win over Shabazz to capture the NJSIAA North 2, Group I championship at Kean University.
The win enabled the Red Wings (9-3) to successfully defend the North 2, Group I title they won a year ago, giving the school consecutive state championships for the third time in the school’s history.
The state title was the ninth in the school’s history, extending Hoboken’s own county record. The school won state titles in 1980, 1994 through 1996, then 1998 and 1999, 2005, last year and this one.
The state championship almost didn’t happen. On the first play after Bass’ big pass to Reed, Mercado broke free, but he fumbled the ball at the 2-yard line.
“My head was down,” Taglieri said. “I remember asking Vinny [former North Bergen head coach Vince Ascolese] how he got through tough times, and he said that he said a prayer to St. Jude. I’ve carried that prayer card with me ever since. Lo and behold, when he [Mercado] fumbled, I said a prayer and that’s what happened. The prayer card was in my pocket.”
On the ensuing play, Mercado went into the end zone untouched and Hoboken had its state championship.
“It means a lot,” Reed said. “We got to do something that not a lot of high school kids get to do. Winning once was one thing. Winning a second time is a whole other thing.”
“It feels good to go down with some of the other great players in Hoboken history,” Bass said. “There’s a good tradition here.”
The first TD
Hoboken scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery in the second quarter, when Jarius Mills alertly scooped up a bad snap on a punt attempt and ran it in for the score.
The game remained tied at 7-7 until the fateful final minute.
The win caps an incredible season for the Red Wings, who had to overcome a series of injuries and illnesses, including major gall bladder surgery for the head coach.
“You don’t expect it, but this team had the will to win,” Taglieri said. “You don’t expect them to overcome the adversity, but they did. They knew they were going there to win the state championship. It’s almost surreal.”
Bass said that winning for a second straight time was a better experience.
“It’s a better feeling, because it’s my senior year,” Bass said. “Winning the first state championship was something special, but this year, it was a little more stressful. I had to make something happen.”
Hoboken is now planning a victory parade down Washington Street sometime this week.
For more about the Red Wings’ thrilling win over Shabazz for the state championship, read Jim Hague’s Scoreboard column on the inside pages of the Hoboken Reporter.