The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s controversies committee ruled Thursday morning that the North Bergen High School football team will get to keep the 2011 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship the Bruins won in thrilling fashion last December at MetLife Stadium.
The seven-member panel, comprised of former and current athletic coaches, administrators and school administrators, decided not to penalize North Bergen by stripping the Bruins of their title, and rather levied a two-year probationary period on the program, where the school principal, athletic director and guidance officers will have to be monitored for future eligibility requirements.
“Today’s ruling makes me feel very happy.” – Vince Ascolese
The NJSIAA also ruled that the case is not eligible for appeal, that the decision made Thursday is final.
The final ruling determined that both parties were at fault, but there “was no evidence that Coach [Vince] Ascolese directly encouraged the student to transfer.” But they did determine that it was wrong for Ascolese and his family to be involved with enticing the two student/athletes to transfer to North Bergen.
“All of us in North Bergen are extremely happy that the NJSIAA has decided not to diminish the accomplishments of the student athletes who all worked so hard and showed so much dedication and determination in beating long odds to win the state championship last year,” Superintendent of Schools Robert Dandorph said in a statement. “The amazing journey through the state playoffs that these young men completed will be remembered in North Bergen for years to come and it would have been tragic to see that experience tarnished.”
Added Dandorph, “North Bergen High School will learn from these events and will remain diligent in making sure that everyone here is abiding by all rules and obligations, but right now, we’re ecstatic to see that the 2011 Bruins will be forever remembered as what they were, namely champions.”
The investigation into possible illegal recruiting began after the Bruins defeated Montclair, 14-13, last December 3, when they scored a touchdown on the game’s final play, a Hail Mary pass from quarterback Sergio Rodriguez to receiver Debray Tavarez, shocking the heavily favored Mounties, ranked as the top public school in the state.
A newspaper report by the Newark Star-Ledger stated that two members of that team were illegally recruited by legendary football coach Ascolese and brought to the school simply to play football and that after the season was over, they were no longer wanted by the program.
It was learned in the report that the two players, seniors Denzell Leitch and Eric McMullen, actually lived in apartments in a building owned by Ascolese’s family.
A dispute over rent led Ingram Leitch, the father of Denzell, to bring the situation to light by calling the Star-Ledger. Several articles were written about the events and the circumstances, leading to the NJSIAA’s investigation into the matter.
Several people were brought to testify in front of the committee in March and the decision was rendered Thursday.
Ascolese, who has since retired as both the head football coach and assistant superintendent of schools, was relieved by the ruling.
“Today’s ruling makes me feel very happy,” Ascolese said. “We said from the beginning that we never recruited the kids. They can say all they want, but we won and that’s all that matters. Today is a day of vindication. My wife [Pat] said it about 100 times. Because of this, we hadn’t had a chance to enjoy the championship. Now we can.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.