"I think we did a good job, meaning the coaching staff, the parents and the players, discussing what was going on," Stern said. "To put it in football terminology, we had a game plan. The kids had trust in us. I learned a lot about our kids and their parents. With all the talk going on, they all remained with us. We told them that they would all play football somewhere in the fall and they should just continue to work out with us until we knew for sure what was going to happen."
So while the talk was centered on the school's closing - an actual closing date was set for June 30 - the football players were hard at work, preparing for a season that was basically in the unknown.
"The kids still came to the weight room on a regular basis," Stern said. "We took a business approach. We just decided to let it all play out."
As it turned out, some influential alumni got together to raise the necessary funds to keep Hudson Catholic's doors open. The fundraising efforts were so successful that there are plans for the future as well, turning the school into a co-educational setting next year instead of being strictly for boys.
And yes, Virginia, Hudson Catholic still has a football team - and a pretty darn good one at that.
The idea that the school almost closed is almost a piece of ancient history now.
"It hasn't been talked about and we don't bring it up," Stern said. "I think the kids all handled it well. We didn't lose any kids from it and if anything, we gained a few kids from other schools. But the closing never really became a factor in what we do. We didn't stop doing what we do because of it."
Added Stern, "Now, we have a good football team and honestly, we have enough talent to be in the hunt from start to finish. We should be in the mix."
And after winning the program's first-ever NJSIAA state playoff game last November by defeating Pope John of Sparta, the Hawks are looking to make the next step - possibly winning a state football championship. The school's enrollment has dropped Hudson Catholic to Parochial (Non-Public) Group 2 status, giving the Hawks a better chance to win that elusive state crown.
"I'll be very disappointed if we don't get further [in the state playoffs] than we did last year," said Stern, who guided the Hawks to a school record of 9-2 a year ago.
Leading the way for the Hawks will be senior tailback Jason Hendricks (6-1, 190), who rushed for 1,300-plus yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Hendricks is bigger and stronger than he was a year ago and he's poised to have a stellar senior season.
"Jason's fit right in with our line of fine tailbacks," Stern said. "He's a special kid who every day shows why the bulk of the offense goes through him. Jason worked real hard in the off-season and put on some more weight. He's toned now and stronger. He even grew an inch or two. He's just well put together now. No question, he's our guy. The kid's a winner. He's a role model for everyone else."
Junior Steven Soto (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) has emerged as the new starting quarterback, replacing last year's starter Brian Eatman (6-1, 195). Eatman was thrust into the QB role last year and led the Hawks to the state playoffs. This year, Eatman will play more of a versatile role, lining up at receiver, running back, and sometimes quarterback, but having Soto on board gives Stern more freedom and flexibility.
"Eatman is a special kid and has really blossomed into a great football player," Stern said. "We have to use him in a lot of ways. Soto has been progressing well and doing a nice job for us."
The fullback is senior Julian McCall (6-1, 225), who is definitely an athletic specimen. "He's physically one of the most impressive players we've had," Stern said.
Although senior Angel Hernandez (5-7, 165) isn't as physically impressive as McCall, the speedy back may be one of the more versatile players in Hudson County. Hernandez, who earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors last year as a punter, also returns punts and kicks and plays a host of offensive positions.
"Pound for pound, he's one of the best players around," Stern said. "He can do it all for us, running, catching, playing defense, kicking. We have to find him ways to touch the ball."
The Hawks are impressive up front, with the largest Hawk player ever casting a huge shadow from his left tackle slot. Senior Kadeem Williams stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 330 pounds.
"He's an athletic kid who is able to do some great things," Stern said of Williams. "He just gets better every day. He's going to get a lot of looks from the colleges."
Senior Chase Whetstone (6-1, 275) returns to his starting left guard position. Senior Ralph Glover (5-9, 230) also returns to his starting slot at right guard. The remainder of the offensive line is comprised of juniors, namely center Rory Walsh (5-11, 240), right tackle Hector Garcia (6-0, 275), and tight end Robert Charles (6-3, 280).
On defense, Whetstone will man one defensive end slot, with either senior Paul Donnelly (6-0, 225) or Fabian McPherson (5-10, 235) at the other defensive end.
Garcia and senior Curtis Alexander (5-10, 230) are the defensive tackles.
At linebacker, McCall is a player to watch, along with Eatman, who has been moved up from the secondary. Sophomore Wilfredo Bustillo (5-8, 205) is the other linebacker.
Hernandez and Hendricks will man safety slots, with senior Melvin Davis (5-11, 170) and sophomore Damien Humphreys (5-7, 150) at cornerback.
The Hawks were dealt a serious blow when 2007 All-Area defensive back Nigel Mackey, who had 11 interceptions last season, including three in the victory over Pope John in the state playoffs, decided not to return to the football team this season for personal reasons.
The Hawks open the 2008 season with a home game against St. Joseph by the Sea of Staten Island, with the game scheduled to be played at Kane Stadium in Secaucus Saturday, Sept. 13. The Hawks then face Paramus Catholic in the second week of the season.
But it has the makings of a good season, one that could result in a possible state championship. Certainly different from the picture of last spring, which had the school closing. That didn't happen and Hudson Catholic is all the better for it. - Jim Hague