A few years ago, when the revolving door known as the head football coaching position at Hudson Catholic was spinning once again, the school’s administration turned to one of their own to take over the coaching reins.
But at the time, Lou Zampella, a Hudson Catholic alumnus who played football for the Hawks during his playing days and was a long-time assistant coach under Rob Stern, turned down the offer.
So the school turned to a slew of others over the last few years. They tried a former Rutgers University assistant coach, Chris Demarest, and that didn’t work. They went to a former New York Giant All-Pro player in Leonard Marshall and that was a disaster.
Last year, it was Colin Eckert’s turn and while the Hawks made some strides, posting a 3-7 record, they still weren’t as competitive as they were when Stern and Zampella were a coaching tandem together.
With Stern and Zampella leading the way, the program went to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 state playoffs on a regular basis and played for the 2008 state title at Rutgers University, losing to Holy Cross of Absecon, 7-0, in the Group 2 title game.
Basketball coach Nick Mariniello has taken over as the athletic director this year at Hudson Catholic and he was faced with his first taste of adversity, when Eckert resigned as head coach last week.
This was going to be Mariniello’s first hire as an athletic administrator, so he had to make sure it was a good one, a solid one.
“Because of the timing, I was obviously behind the eight ball,” Mariniello said. “As soon as Colin told me he was resigning, I knew that there was only one person I could reach out to.”
Mariniello’s first call was to Zampella, who has been the defensive coordinator at Union City High School for the last two seasons.
“I knew Louie was an alumnus,” Mariniello said. “I knew that he had coached here, played here. I knew he was a hard-working guy and I felt if we were going to take the next step, it was going to be with Louie.”
The 37-year-old Zampella, a native of Hoboken who played football at both Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s College for Stern and then went on to coach at both locations with Stern, believed that the time was right to go back to his alma mater.
“First and foremost, there’s a new administration in place, making a new start,” Zampella said. “The school is on its way back up. That’s what made me take it this time. I was excited about it.”
There was only one slight obstacle. Zampella is a full-time firefighter in the Mile Square City, so he had to be able to find a way to juggle his work commitments and coaching.
One of the bridges to seeing the scheduling through was telling Mariniello that he needed to hire another Hudson Catholic and SPC alum – and ironically another firefighter – as his associate head coach.
Jon Wasielewski, the former Hudson Catholic standout quarterback/linebacker who had been an assistant coach at Bayonne the last few seasons, had to be a part of Zampella’s staff. Wasielewski is also a firefighter, working in his native Bayonne.
“With my schedule, time is pretty tough, but having Wasielewski as the associate head coach is a huge help,” Zampella said.
The two coaches met with the new Hudson Catholic principal, Rich Garibell, last week. On Monday, Zampella was introduced to the returning Hawk players as the new head coach.
Incredibly, Zampella will be the fifth head coach at Hudson Catholic over the last five years _ Stern, Demarest, Marshall, Eckert and now Zampella. A high school football program simply cannot be successful with that much turmoil and transition.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of transition,” Mariniello said. “But with Louie coming back and bringing Was back, I think that problem has been solved. This was my first hire and it had to be a big hire. Football sets the tone for the entire school year. It’s obvious that we’ve struggled over the last few years. We had to be able to get more support back for our program, instill some more school spirit. With the success Louie had as a coach, at Hudson Catholic, then St. Peter’s, then Hudson Catholic and Union City, he was the right choice. Without a doubt in my mind, he’s the guy. He’s the one I wanted. There’s no reason why we can’t do what we used to do in football.”
Zampella feels like he’s ready for the challenge of being a head coach.
“The reason why I made the move is that Hudson Catholic has always been in my heart,” Zampella said. “I went here and played here. I spent seven years as the defensive coordinator here. I feel confident now with the people in place, that the school is moving in the right direction. I’ve always believed Hudson Catholic is a sleeping giant. I know it can be done. I’ve seen how successful Hudson Catholic could be.”
Zampella said that his only regret was leaving the Union City program.
“That was one of the hardest factors in all of this,” Zampella said. “Leaving Union City was tough. The program is on the rise. Wilber Valdez [the Soaring Eagles’ head coach] has done a great job there and the kids are tremendous. It was great to work with Wilber and the kids. I enjoyed my time there.”
Zampella knows that it won’t be easy trying to turn the Hawks’ program around, like he was once able to do with Stern a decade ago.
“For one, we have a major issue with the timing,” Zampella said. “We have to instill an offense and a defense. We want them to be fundamentally sound. But as long as we get better every day and we’re disciplined enough where we don’t beat ourselves, then I expect us to be competitive. We just have to put in the hard work.”
If that’s the first obstacle, then Zampella clears it with ease. There is no harder worker in the business than Zampella. There were countless times over the years where Zampella would put in his shift with the Hoboken Fire Department, then head up to either Hudson Catholic or Union City to break down films into the wee hours of the morning. The hard work part will be easy for Zampella. It’s up to the kids to follow suit.
It will also help that Zampella is just like the other Hawk players, simply because he was once one of them. He was an undersized defensive back who feared no one. He’s not coming from a major college or the NFL. He’s coming from their own backyard.
“I think it extremely helps, because I’ve been in their shoes,” Zampella said. “I know what they’re going through. I can interact with them because I know what’s like. I can relate to them.”
Zampella knows that the program sorely needs to have some sense of permanence, that the coaching revolving door has to stop spinning.
“I think continuity is very important,” Zampella said. “I want to be here for a while. I like when people tell me I can’t do something. It makes me work harder. I think the hard work will take care of itself.”
One thing is for sure: Hudson Catholic has one of its own calling the shots now. That in itself is a step in the right direction.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.