A year ago, when Dwayne Williams took over as the new head football coach at Marist High School, he was instantly besieged with two questions.
“The first question was, ‘When are you going to bring back the Marist-Bayonne football game?’” Williams said. “The second was, `What are you doing on the wrong sidelines?’”
You see, Williams is Bayonne High School, through and through. He still refers to Bayonne as “we.” It’s hard to get that Bayonne out of the system, removed from the bloodstream, especially since Williams was one of the best running backs to ever wear a Bayonne uniform, graduating in 1978, then moving on to the University of Iowa.
So for someone with the strong Bayonne background to actually coach at the enemy school down Kennedy Boulevard was almost unthinkable. And this wasn’t just any ordinary Bayonne High grad coaching the nemesis Royal Knights. This was Dwayne Williams, who is simply Bayonne High royalty, a true Bayonne legend. With the football tucked under his arm, Williams was like an orchestral conductor, creating heavenly sounds.
It would be almost the equivalent of Derek Jeter retiring and going to manage the Boston Red Sox.
But Marist gave Williams the opportunity he had been longing for, ever since he returned from Iowa some 30 years ago.
Williams was an assistant coach at his beloved Bayonne, as well as Ferris and a brief stint at St. Peter’s Prep. For more than a quarter century, Williams was a dutiful and respected assistant coach, paying his dues every step of the way.
However, Williams never got the chance to be the head man. For some reason, Williams was passed over when head coaching positions opened up.
So when former Marist athletic director Larry Arico stepped away from coaching football and offered his coaching job to Williams, there was no hesitation.
“The way I looked at it, this was my opportunity to be a head coach,” Williams said. “I thought I deserved a shot.”
Williams guided the Royal Knights to a 3-7 record in his first season a year ago. Posting a 3-7 record had almost become commonplace at Marist. It was once a program that had a habit of winning.
With gridiron legends like Jackie Moore and Gene Pagnozzi each enjoying highly successful tenures as head coaches, the Royal Knights were Hudson County royalty, making 15 appearances in the NJSIAA state playoffs, advancing to five title games and winning the Parochial Group 2 state title in 1994 under the tutelage of Pagnozzi.
However, in the last decade, the Royal Knights have struggled, posting only one winning season, a 5-4 campaign with Arico calling the shots back in 2005. Marist played to a combined record of 28-59 over the past decade. Not exactly world beaters. And certainly not the level of excellence that the program had grown accustomed to in years past.
After the 3-7 record last season, Williams saw some hope. He also didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“We won our last game last year against Morristown-Beard [by a 50-14 score], so that made me believe that things were going to change,” Williams said. “I also got to see how well [Marist baseball coach and athletic director] Ron [Hayward] did with the baseball team and I knew it was just a matter of time.”
In the spring, Hayward guided the Royal Knights to the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship, the school’s first baseball state title in almost 20 years.
“A lot of that had to do with hard work and dedication,” Williams said. “We just had to get the kids to believe that they could do it, that it was possible. All they had to do was look at the baseball team.”
So Williams introduced his players to the weight room, where they got bigger and stronger.
“I remember the first practice after I got the job, we had 10 kids in the weight room,” Williams said. “Now, we had 25 or so. I could see it in their eyes that they were hungry.”
Williams also had a special guest come in and talk to his players, a former teammate of Williams’ at Iowa. It was none other than Bob Stoops, the head coach at the University of Oklahoma. Jay Norvell, one of Stoops’ assistants at Oklahoma and another former teammate of Williams, also met with the Royal Knights.
“Before then, I don’t think the kids realized that I was once a player,” Williams laughed. “At first, the kids didn’t believe it was really Bob Stoops. But the kids started to buy into it big time. There was a big-time family atmosphere. I think they all saw the way that Marist came back in baseball and they believed they could do it in football as well. They took it upon themselves to start this year on a good note.”
The Royal Knights won their first game of the season against Immaculate Conception of Montclair by a score of 40-0. The second game was against Sussex Tech. Final score? 40-0. That’s called playing with a purpose, outscoring the opposition by the tune of 80-to-0.
There were three straight losses to Hoboken, Lincoln and St. Anthony. In years past, those setbacks might have sent the Royal Knights reeling toward another ho-hum 3-7 campaign.
“But we were talking state playoffs from Day One,” Williams said. “We made the seniors accountable for what the rest of the team was doing.”
One of those seniors is fullback/linebacker Will Robinson.
“We always had faith,” Robinson said. “We knew we would get there. It might have been a rocky road, but we fed off the experiences we had and pushed together.”
Aaron Smith is a senior, a Jersey City kid whose family has deep roots in Marist. His cousins, Otis Best and Jalen Shelton, played football at Marist.
“There’s a lot of pride in my family,” said Smith, a quarterback, safety and linebacker. “I’ve played baseball all my life and the rest of my family played football. I came to the football team and wanted to bring the same energy we had during baseball season.”
Darryl Black is another Jersey City product, a senior who plays wide receiver and strong safety.
“Marist was always the school for me,” Black said. “It didn’t matter that the football team didn’t win that much. I figured that maybe my class could pick things up. And we figured that if the baseball team could do it, then we could do the same thing.”
Last weekend, the Royal Knights faced Hudson Catholic in a crucial game for both teams. The winner could punch its ticket into the NJSIAA state playoffs.
The Royal Knights were ready for their return to glory. They steamrolled the Hawks, 34-0, and clinched a berth in the upcoming NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 state playoffs, the school’s first trip to the postseason since 2005.
“This team is blessed,” Robinson said. “It seems like a dream come true.”
“We all said that we would get to the state playoffs by our senior year,” Black said. “We made it.”
Williams knows the road ahead won’t be easy. But at the very least, the Royal Knights are in the playoffs and have a shot of moving forward.
“Without a doubt, this is one of the happiest moments of my life,” Williams said. “To finally get a head coaching job and then take the team to the state playoffs means a lot.”
The good news is that the majority of the team, including standout running back D’Ondre Robinson and the entire offensive line, are all juniors. They’ll be back next year. Robinson had a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown last week against Hudson Catholic.
“These kids all feel it,” Williams said. “They believe in it. They now go into every game thinking they can win. It’s a good feeling. The job isn’t over yet. We can’t just be happy by getting into the playoffs. We have to keep working hard, playing hard.”
But when the game was over, Williams certainly had a sense of satisfaction.
“It did feel good,” Williams said. “I have to admit it.”
For some reason, winning always has a way of making everything feel pretty good.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.