When Wilbur Valdez led the Ferris High School football program into the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs back in 2005, the head coach figured that it was only the beginning of what the former Hoboken High and University of Miami standout truly believed would become an annual tradition at Ferris.
Valdez was certain that he had built a winning program and instilled a winning flavor at Ferris, one that Valdez was definitely accustomed to throughout his playing days.
So when the Bulldogs faced Warren Hills in the playoffs in 2005, Valdez truly thought that it was just a start. There was finally a program once again at Ferris, a reason to be proud come football season. The state playoffs would be an annual goal, a yearly occurrence.
Or so it seemed.
In each of the last four years, the Bulldogs have come ever so close to qualifying for the state playoffs, only to come up a power point or two shy of getting in. The Bulldogs won six games in each of the prior three seasons, and if the eight-team playoff bracket was increased to say nine teams, the Bulldogs would have been in.
Instead, they’ve been on the outside looking in each time.
Last Friday night, the Bulldogs faced a must-win situation against Lakeland Regional of Wanaque. And they did everything right, jumping out to a 21-0 lead at one point, then 28-7, then 35-21 in the fourth quarter.
“It was dominance,” Valdez said.
But much like their game against Nutley in the second week of the season, the wheels came off the wagon in a hurry for the Bulldogs and they dropped a 36-35 decision. In Game 2 of the season, the Bulldogs had a late lead, only to fall in perhaps the most bizarre contest of the season, an amazing 50-46 final score.
So now the Bulldogs own a 3-4 record and are currently 11th in the Group III playoff power point standings. Once again, the Bulldogs will be denied a state playoff berth. Valdez believes that if the Bulldogs defeat Paramus this weekend and Somerville loses, then the Bulldogs can still get in.
But that’s not the case. The Bulldogs need a lot more help, maybe even divine intervention.
It’s a late-season disappointment for a fourth straight season, one that has left Valdez scratching his head. If the affable Valdez still had hair, he would have pulled it all out by the roots by now. This one really stings.
“This was the worst of all,” Valdez said. “It was a combination of playing so well in the first half and making the effort. In the second half, we just fell apart. We had turnovers galore and you can’t do that against a quality opponent. Our pass defense totally broke down. I’m telling you, it’s always something.”
The loss and playoff snub has definitely left Valdez questioning himself.
“I don’t know if it’s a message from God or what, but for it to happen four years in a row?” Valdez asked. “I don’t know what to say, but of course, it makes me question if I’m doing the right thing. It makes me think if I want to keep going. Maybe I’ve taken this as far as it can go. There’s only so much one person can handle. It’s tough when everything goes against us like this.”
Valdez is an excellent young coach who has done things the right way since he took the job. He has eliminated kids who were troublemakers, regardless of their talent levels. He has worked diligently all year long and brought some of his former Hoboken teammates along as assistant coaches at Ferris.
But if things were a little different and the Bulldogs were able to hold the late leads against Nutley and then Lakeland, then Valdez would be able to sing the praises of his program, making it to the state tourney while playing a much tougher schedule.
Now, two last minute breakdowns have left a coach questioning his own ability.
“When the game was first over, I was really bitter,” Valdez said. “But after I watched the films, I realized we just didn’t play well when we had to. That’s why we lost. It wasn’t being unlucky or getting bad calls. We lost because we didn’t play well when we had to. That’s the bottom line.”
However, it doesn’t make the loss any easier to swallow.
“It’s just amazing to think how we broke down again,” Valdez said. “The ball never bounces our way. Things don’t go our way. It makes me think, ‘Did I do something wrong to deserve this?’ It’s just sad.”
Valdez was also quick to point out that there had been some erroneous reporting done all season, giving the wrong kid credit for scoring most of the Bulldogs’ touchdowns.
For some reason, it reached every paper that one player was scoring three and four touchdowns per game, but in reality, it was Valdez’s senior standout Bryant Worts.
“Worts scored four touchdowns against Lakeland, not the other guy,” Valdez said. “Worts now has 15 touchdowns this season. He’s been doing great things. But for some reason, it has appeared in all the newspapers that it was someone else. It’s Bryant Worts. He’s been doing everything for us.”
Worts was the Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 as a linebacker. He’s added running back to his resume this season and he’s been scoring at will, but just not getting the credit until now.
“He deserves all the credit,” Valdez said.
So Valdez will take his team to the field again this weekend. For all intents and purposes, they’re playing for pride once again. They’ll get paired with some other Group III team in a game that the NJSIAA calls a “consolation” game.
But there is no consolation, not after four straight years of the same thing. You don’t give your heart, your blood, sweat and tears for four full years and not feel the pain that comes with such heartbreak.
Valdez was hinting that he might walk away at the end of this season. He has a child on the way. He spoke of doing all he could.
If this does mark the end for Valdez, it’s a loss for the kids of Ferris and it’s a loss for Hudson County football, because not only has he been a great coach, but he’s a sensational role model to kids throughout the county, especially in downtown Jersey City and especially in his hometown of the Mile Square City.
Here’s to hoping that Valdez remains – and that he somehow gets the break he truly deserves.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.