It’s not easy for any high school football player to endure a coaching change nearly every single year.
But that’s what unfortunately had been taking place at Hudson Catholic. The program had a revolving door of head coaches. One coach comes in, another leaves, almost on a yearly basis.
So when Lou Zampella took over as head coach at his alma mater in the summer of 2012, he wanted to bring a little bit of stability and continuity.
Zampella, a former standout player at Hudson Catholic, then later St. Peter’s College, finally returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach, helping to lead the Hawks to its lone appearance in a state championship game in 2008. He was brought in late last summer to take over the program.
The result was a 5-5-1 record and a return to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state playoffs. The Hawks even won their first round game against Morristown-Beard before falling to eventual state champion St. Joseph’s of Hammonton in the sectional semifinals.
The energetic Zampella returns for his second year as the Hawks’ head coach and appears like he’s going nowhere soon. The revolving door has finally stopped spinning.
“I think it’s much easier this year,” said Zampella, who is a Hoboken firefighter. “The kids know what’s expected of them. They understand the sacrifice involved. We’re changing the culture in that the kids have to know what it takes to play here. It definitely helps that I know the kids now and they know men. They understand the situation and their daily business.”
Zampella has tried to instill a blue-collar worker mentality with the Hawks.
“They understand the hard work, the discipline and the sacrifice,” Zampella said. “They went to the state playoffs last year and won a state playoff game. They can see that the hard work definitely paid off.”
Zampella likes this year’s version of the Hawks because of their work ethic.
“I feel we can possibly be better than last year,” Zampella said. “We’re young and inexperienced in some spots, but the older kids have become better leaders than what we’ve had. We have talented kids. If we reach our potential, we could be pretty good.”
Zampella is deciding whether to use senior Reilly Mackenzie (6-1, 190) at quarterback, or turn the reins over to promising freshman Kalief Crawford (6-2, 190).
“Reilly does a good job of running the game,” Zampella said. “He’s a leader. Kalief is very talented and has a great disposition. He’s a great leader for a young kid.”
The Hawks have a plethora of talented performers in the backfield and most of them are very young.
Miguel Stewart (5-7, 165) is the lone senior among the running backs. Sophomore Malcolm Stewart (5-7, 150), Miguel’s cousin, is a sophomore, while Syhiem Simmons (6-1, 190) and Thashawn Decker (5-7, 150) are only freshmen.
“There’s a lot of promise there,” Zampella said.
Senior Mike Simone (5-11, 185) and sophomore Satchel Moore (6-2, 175) are two quality pass catchers. With the depth at running back and the talent at wide receiver, the Hawks have a lot of offensive firepower.
Senior Jose Tapia (6-2, 200) and junior Thomas Slippe (6-0, 185) are sharing time at tight end.
The Hawks have some size and experience on the offensive line, with seniors James Ventre (6-2, 275) and Bryant Gilliard, Jr. (6-0, 255) both returning at tackle. Senior Justin Austin (6-3, 255) is a newcomer, but he’s earned a starting slot at guard.
“He’s a player to watch,” Zampella said.
Senior Joseph LaBrutto (5-11, 260) is the center and junior Kamau Laguerre (5-11, 200) is the other starting guard.
Defensively, the Hawks use Slippe and Laguerre at defensive end, with Gilliard and LaBrutto at defensive tackle. Junior Isaiah Thornton (6-2, 230) is also getting time at defensive tackle.
Simmons and Tapia are steady at linebacker, but Zampella can call upon four others to see time at linebacker.
Junior Ricky Mohammed (5-11, 205), sophomore Alfredo Vera (6-0, 215) and freshmen Ethan Zayas (5-7, 155) and DaShawn Mohammed (5-10, 160) are all vying for time at linebacker. Not many teams outside of St. Peter’s Prep can call upon six different linebackers.
Junior Raevon Floyd-Bennett (5-6, 145) and both Stewarts are interchangeable at cornerback. The safeties are sophomore Stephon Andrews (6-0, 175), who started last year as a freshman, sophomore Javeon Ensley (5-9, 160) and Moore.
Hudson Catholic hasn’t had that much talent, depth – and especially youth – in ages.
“I think we have a good group of kids,” Zampella said. “The talent is there. Some of that talent is raw. But these kids have the potential to be good. Again, right now, it’s only potential. It needs to be developed. But we have a chance to be pretty good.”
The Hawks open the 2013 season this weekend against Newark West Side. If the cards fall correctly, then Hudson Catholic can make plans for a return trip to the state playoffs and the school can actually hold on to a football coach.
Zampella lives and breathes Hudson Catholic football. He’s the perfect fit to be in the head coaching position there for many years to come.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.