In an unprecedented move, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s executive committee voted unanimously last week to strip the North Bergen High School football team of the state championship it won last December, overturning an original decision made by the NJSIAA’s controversies committee in April.
Stating that it had to “send a message” that recruiting in high school sports was illegal and wrong, the 24-member panel decided that the controversies committee’s penalties against North Bergen were “too lenient” and forced North Bergen to vacate the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship the Bruins won at MetLife Stadium.
In a Hollywood-style ending, the Bruins won the state title by defeating Montclair, 14-13, on the final play of the game, a pass from quarterback Sergio Rodriguez to Debray Tavarez. The game capped an improbable comeback, as legendary coach Vince Ascolese announced he was retiring from coaching before the state playoffs began.
However, after a published report came out stating that North Bergen had illegally recruited two members of that team, safety Denzell Leitch and running back/linebacker Eric McMullen, the NJSIAA launched an investigation into the incident.
The investigation, which lasted five weeks and produced a report with more than 140 pages of information and documentation, proved that both Leitch and McMullen’s parents were given discounted rent in apartments owned by Ascolese’s family, but after deliberating for over a month, the controversies committee decided that North Bergen should not have to forfeit the state championship.
Montclair decided to appeal the controversies committee’s ruling, sending the matter to the executive committee for review.
The executive committee then met Wednesday morning and decided to overturn its own committee’s decision in a matter of 25 minutes.
It marked the first time that the NJSIAA voted to strip a football state championship from a school for a violation.
Needless to say, Ascolese was very disappointed with the ruling. He was unable to attend the executive committee’s meeting Wednesday because he was receiving chemotherapy treatments as he continues to battle bone cancer.
“I never recruited those kids, nor did anyone on my staff recruit those kids,” Ascolese said. “That’s the bottom line. This is a travesty of justice. There were five and a half weeks of testimony and deliberations and they rule in 25 minutes? There was no way they could have looked into the entire 140-page report. We won the game on the field. We beat a team that was a 35-point favorite. No one can take that away from us. No one.”
North Bergen school officials seem to agree.
“The North Bergen School District completely disagrees with this decision and is reviewing its legal option to appeal,” school district attorney Jack Gilman said in a statement. “The controversies committee, which actually heard the case and all the testimony, ruled that North Bergen should keep the title. The executive committee did not hear the testimony and had no real basis for disturbing the decision made by its own controversies committee. The North Bergen High School football team earned this championship on the field and the district intends to acknowledge it no matter what the executive committee says. Anything less would be unfair to the players who worked so hard to win and the community that rallied around them.”
In the original report, the controversies committee said that there “was no evidence that Coach [Vince] Ascolese directly encouraged the student to transfer” but that it was wrong for Ascolese and his family to be involved with enticing the two student/athletes to transfer to North Bergen. They gave the school a two-year probationary period for the alleged offense.