Before his team took on New Providence in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship game last Saturday at the New Meadowlands Stadium, Lincoln head football coach Robert Hampton knew that his team had to play pretty much perfect football to knock off a perennial state playoff contender with a legendary coach in his final game.
Unfortunately for Lincoln, that didn’t happen. The Lions were far from perfect and they paid the price, falling hard in their first appearance in a state championship game in nearly three decades, losing 21-8.
It gave New Providence’s legendary coach Frank Bottone a victory in his final game as head coach after 334 wins and 44 years. It was Bottone’s sixth state championship as head coach at New Providence. Bottone announced his retirement from coaching earlier in the season.
Hampton knew that his team had to play a mistake-free game and it didn’t take long for the opposite to take place. A penalty, the first of an astounding 13 on the day, killed the Lions’ first possession and first chance to score. A turnover, an interception of a Ronald Butler pass as the Lions were driving for the game’s first score, became an instant touchdown for New Providence, when David Bartletta returned the pick 86 yards for a touchdown, giving the Pioneers a 7-0 lead with 3:35 left in the first period.
“That was a monster of a turnover there,” Hampton would say after the game. “I really thought we were going in there. I still don’t know who Ronald was looking at on that pass.”
“That turned the whole game around right there,” Butler said. “I thought I could make a play there. It was a bad pass and my mistake.”
Instead of taking the lead, the Lions were in a hole that they could never climb out of.
Lincoln dodged a few bullets in the first half, like Butler bobbling a ball in punt formation on fourth down, then making a mad dash for the first down marker, only to fall a few inches short at the Lincoln 21-yard line. The play was believed to be catastrophic at the time for the Lions, but they got out of trouble when the Lions’ defense stiffened and a New Providence field goal attempt failed.
But the Lions dug a deeper hole for themselves when New Providence scored another touchdown right before halftime on an 8-yard run by Vinny Fuschetto with just 39 seconds left before intermission.
Lincoln was faced with a 14-0 deficit. The Lions had come from behind in the past, so there wasn’t a defeatist attitude on the Lincoln sideline. Hampton brought his team together on the sidelines for a few minutes before they went into the locker room, telling them that the game was far from over.
The message must have hit home, because the Lions were an inspired team when the second half began and finally got their offense going. Ty Stevens broke free for a 22-yard run, but went down holding his knee. Deshawn Goodwin then stepped in and gained nine yards on one run and seven on another and there was definitely life on the Lincoln sideline and with the faithful in the New Meadowlands Stadium stands.
The Lions marched all the way down to the New Providence 5-yard line, but on fourth-and-goal, Butler’s pass fell incomplete, ending the scoring threat and deflating the Lions’ hope of bringing home Jersey City’s first public school state championship since Lincoln won a Group III crown in 1981.
“I still thought we had a chance if we scored on that first drive,” Hampton said.
“We had the momentum going there,” Butler said. “That really hurt us.”
The Lions had another chance when Butler hit Anthony Jackson for a 36-yard pass, but that drive stalled as well.
With three minutes left in the third quarter, New Providence delivered the dagger. On fourth-and-nine, lanky 6-foot-9 quarterback Jack Cole hit P.J. Vigilante with a 29-yard touchdown pass, pushing the Pioneers’ lead to an insurmountable 21-0.
Still, the Lions didn’t quit. They marched down the field and this time, they finally got into the end zone, with Goodwin scoring on a 9-yard run and Butler hitting Jackson for the two-point PAT pass with 8:53 left, cutting the lead to 21-8.
The Lions had another chance to carve into the lead, but a holding penalty and an illegal block call pushed the Lions to an unfathomable and unattainable fourth-and-38 play, which of course fell short. Not many teams have plays to make that kind of distance on fourth down.
“The penalties killed us,” said Stevens, who ended his Lincoln career as the school’s all-time leading rusher, collecting more than 3,400 yards in his tenure. “Because of the penalties, we played most of the game on their half of the field. We made too many mistakes. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. It’s demoralizing when you’re playing from behind, but we just had to fight back. I think we did everything we could do.”
Butler was also visibly upset after the game.
“It really hurts,” Butler said. “I don’t know what to feel right now, because we really hurt ourselves more than anything.”
As the Pioneers were celebrating the idea that they sent their legendary head coach off into retirement with a state championship trophy in his grips, the Lions all stood and wondered what might have been.
“No question, the penalties hurt us in key parts of the game,” Hampton said. “It’s painful, but they’re kids. Things like that happen. I don’t think we came here and laid an egg. I’m proud of them. They didn’t quit. My biggest concern was that they wanted to send Coach Bottone out as a warrior and that’s what happened. They were very inspired to play for him.”
Hampton praised the play of Goodwin, who was clearly the best player on the field.
“He stepped up like a man today and tried to carry us through,” Hampton said. “We tried to ride Deshawn Goodwin all the way. It didn’t work.”
Hampton wasted little time thinking about the future.
“But this isn’t the end,” Hampton said. “We’re going to reload and come back. We got a little taste of history and that’s going to help me now in the building. Other kids are going to want to play football now, because these kids went to the Meadowlands and played their hearts out. It was a beautiful ride and these seniors are going to be missed. But the book is not closed on Lincoln High School football. We’ll be back.”
One can only hope it won’t take another 29 years for another chance to dance with a little slice of state glory. Hampton definitely has the program moving in the right direction. The key is building on this journey and not turning it into what Hampton best describes as “one-hit wonders.” That remains to be seen.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.