There was a time when changing the head football coach at Hudson Catholic became an annual affair.
There was the highly successful Rob Stern, but he departed after the 2008 state playoff run.
But in succession, there was Chris Demarest in 2009 and the former Rutgers assistant coach who led the Hawks to a 2-8 record.
To give the program a little star power in 2010, the school turned to former New York Giants All-Pro defensive end Leonard Marshall and Marshall proved in a hurry that he was not head coaching material, being shown the door after a 3-7 season.
A year later, the school went with an outsider, former Mount Olive head coach Colin Eckert and although Eckert made positive strides (and was clearly more of a head football coach than either Demarest or Marshall), he was not asked to return after his lone 3-7 season in 2011.
If you’re keeping score, that’s four different head coaches in four years. That’s not exactly enacting continuity. Imagine what that did to the players who survived playing for four different coaches, four different coaching philosophies and styles. It must have made those kids’ collective heads spin like a top.
However, in 2012, the school decided to make a move toward one of their own, namely alumnus Lou Zampella.
Zampella was a standout player for the Hawks. He later served as a dutiful, hard-working assistant coach to Stern during the program’s best years, including a berth in the Non-Public Group 2 state championship game against Holy Cross in 2008.
It was a move that totally made sense. The school didn’t need a college assistant or a former NFL star or a former high school head coach to turn the program around. They just needed one of their own.
Zampella guided the Hawks to a 5-5 record a year ago, including a return trip to the state playoffs.
As the 2013 season began, the Hawks had higher expectations, mainly because of an influx of young and talented skilled position players.
“The younger kids developed faster than we could have imagined,” Zampella said. “I’m a little surprised with how fast they developed. Our goal was to get back to the state playoffs.”
Zampella knew that he also had a good crop of returning seniors, guys who bought into Zampella as a head coach and were ready to do anything and everything.
“We were senior-dominated up front,” Zampella said. “That was the core of the team.”
So guys like Bryant Gilliard Jr., known affectionately as B.J., stepped to the forefront and led the younger guys.
“He makes all the plays on defense and is a good offensive player,” Zampella said. “He’s our best player.”
Then there’s center Joe LaBrutto, who anchors the offensive line.
“He’s our foundation there,” Zampella said.
James Ventre, a two-year starter, and Justin Austin, a first-year starter, have added senior experience. Miguel Stewart is a standout cornerback and running back. Jose Tapia is the tight end.
“Jose is the heart and soul of the team,” Zampella said. “He’s our emotional leader.”
But the talent of the Hawks lies within the very young skilled players.
“The younger players had to get accustomed to high school football and high school life,” Zampella said. “The seniors helped them along. It was a big transition for the younger players.”
Malcolm Stewart is a sophomore. He wasn’t supposed to be the quarterback, but when promising freshman starter Khalief Crawford went down with a knee injury early in the season, Stewart became the impromptu signal caller.
“Malcolm was the tailback for the first game, but he was forced to play quarterback,” Zampella said. “He was willing to do anything for the team. He made a great transition after never having played the position before. It speaks a lot of his character.”
Stewart rushed for 178 yards and four touchdowns in the Hawks’ 48-14 win over Montclair Immaculate Conception last weekend.
Another key freshman running back has been Khashawn Decker, who Zampella calls “one of the fastest kids we’ve ever had at the running back position.”
“He’s literally as fast laterally as he is running forward,” Zampella said. “I’ve never seen that before. He’s a big player for us.”
Another freshman is Shyien Simmons, who rushed for 236 yards and three touchdowns in the Hawks’ 40-6 win over Marist two weeks ago.
“He’s just very talented and done a tremendous job so far,” Zampella said of Simmons.
So the crux of the Hawks’ backfield is comprised of three freshmen and a sophomore, all of whom have contributed right away for the Hawks.
“It definitely bodes well for the future,” Zampella said. “We have a lot of kids who can do a lot of things. It makes us hard to defend.”
And it’s made for such a great season for the Hawks, who have a 5-3 record and will make a second straight NJSIAA state playoff appearance.
“I think it’s been a great season so far,” said Zampella, whose team closes out the regular season this weekend against North Bergen. “We had some turnover from last year, but we were excited about the new kids coming in.”
New kids combined with a familiar head coach leads to more success down the road for Hudson Catholic football. And there’s no need to look for another head coach. Zampella’s been in place for two years and plans to be around for much longer, giving the program the stability it sorely needed.
That may be the biggest step of all, putting a stop in that revolving door of head football coaches at McGinley Square.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.