Five prior times during the 2019 high school football season, the St. Peter’s Prep Marauders went into the fourth quarter of a game trailing. And four of those occasions, the Marauders found the mettle, the intestinal fortitude to somehow claw their way back and win the game.
For those who are not math wizards (present company included), it means that the Marauders’ success rate in coming from behind to emerge victorious stood at a staggering 80 percent.
In today’s day and age of statistical analytics – just try watching a Major League Baseball game without some obscure and bizarre analysis of a stat – it’s safe to say that an 80 percent success rate is pretty darn good.
That’s why the head coach of the Marauders, the veteran legend known as Rich Hansen, didn’t flinch when the Marauders trailed rival Don Bosco Prep recently in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state championship game, the granddaddy of all New Jersey state title games, at MetLife Stadium.
The scoreboard might have read Don Bosco 14, St. Peter’s 7 with just five minutes left in regulation. Hansen was not overly concerned. He knew that the Marauders had done it before.
Throw out the fact that the Marauders really couldn’t do a single thing offensively against the Ironmen for the entire game. Other than Cody Simon’s brilliant, almost mind blowing 75-yard punt return for a score in the early stages of the game, the Marauders couldn’t sniff the end zone throughout the cold night in the Meadowlands.
Hansen remained steadfast in his belief that his never-say-die bunch of Marauders could somehow do it again, this time in front of approximately 7,000 avid football fans in the Mecca of all sports edifices in the Garden State.
“We were having a war with them,” said Hansen, who has been through his share of grid wars over his stellar 32-year as the Marauders’ head coach. “We had two tough games in the state playoffs against Notre Dame and St. Augustine’s that made us sweat and we were able to come back. Those are the types of games you want to have in the state playoffs. Those two games really helped us out.”
Plus, Hansen was a little annoyed that the Ironmen were ranked No. 1 in the state before the game, despite the fact that Bosco had lost four games in the regular season – one of those games against the Marauders back in October.
On Oct. 12 at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium, the Marauders rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat Don Bosco, 26-22. So there was a past precedence in the Marauders’ favor.
It meant nothing to the pundits and prognosticators – present company included – who picked the Ironmen to win the rematch.
“The media stuff was in their corner,” Hansen said. “The games we played all year were proving ground for our character and culture. We were going on the path that we had to travel in that section. I wasn’t concerned about being behind. We found a way to win all year and we found a way to win in the playoffs. All we had to do was win by one [point].”
So the Marauders got the ball back for what was thought to be their final try at cracking the Ironmen’s stiff defense. And Hansen liked his chances with the ball in the hands of Tajhamell Bullock.
Although it’s hard to believe that he’s still only a junior, Bullock developed brilliantly all season to the point you would think he was a 22-year-old college senior.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Hansen said of Bullock. “People forget he’s a junior. I think it’s unfair the criticism he receives. The kid is special. A true sign of greatness is that he makes everyone around him better. I felt good about our chances, especially with our backs against the wall. I really felt good. We had a shot. We just had to keep playing. It was just a matter of time. Our defense was playing well. All of it was predicated on playing good defense.”
So the Marauders put their collective faith in Bullock, like they did with their defense all night.
The Marauders marched down the field and Bullock scored the 5-yard touchdown run, the Marauders’ lone offensive score all night, that brought the Marauders to within a point at 14-13.
In Hansen’s mind, there was no thought of kicking the extra point and tying the game for a potential overtime showdown. No way, no how.
Exactly 30 years ago, in 1989, with their first-ever state title within reach, Hansen elected to go for the two-point conversion against St. Joseph of Montvale. Hansen reached into his bag of tricks and called for a halfback option pass by Paul Mulcahy – whose son now graces the Rutgers University men’s basketball program as a freshman in Piscataway – to give the Marauders the 22-21 victory and the school’s first state crown.
Now, 30 years later, the school’s fifth state title there for the taking, Hansen rolled the dice once again and went for two.
“I thought if we missed, we could get the ball back,” Hansen said. “But we had two plays we thought we were pretty good at down there. We had them on the ropes.”
Sure thing. Hansen called for an end sweep by receiver Jelani Mason, who managed to beat the Ironmen defenders to the end zone.
“Jelani made a great play,” Hansen said.
Sure did. Mason’s two-point run gave the Marauders a 15-14 lead with 2:23 left in the game. Just like 30 years ago, all that was needed was one point more than the opponents.
The Ironmen weren’t done. They marched down to the Prep 26-yard line and for all intents and purposes, they were readying to trot Justin Frey out to kick a potentially game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. Frey is considered by many to be the best placekicker in the state and is already fielding NCAA Division I scholarship offers as a punter and kicker.
Frey could easily nail 43-yard field goals in his sleep.
“That was their game plan,” Hansen said. “That’s sound strategy.”
But before Frey could line up for the 43-yarder, the Ironmen were called for delay of game. The 5-yard penalty was huge, because the kick became a 48-yarder, which isn’t a breeze for a high school kicker.
As Frey stood poised to kick the Ironmen to the Promised Land, Quintin Lemon, who had been whistled for three holding penalties on punts earlier in the game, redeemed himself in a huge way. Lemon got in on the kick and ferociously blocked it. The ball bounced on a hop to Avery Powell, who scooped it up and raced 66 yards for the game-sealing touchdown with just 44 seconds left.
“Avery’s real fast,” Hansen said. “No one on the field was going to catch him.”
Imagine that – the Marauders scored two touchdowns on special teams to win the state title. Simon, the All-American linebacker, turned a brilliant play into a touchdown in the first quarter.
While approximately six Don Bosco defenders stood around, waiting for the punt to roll dead to down it, Simon alertly scooped up the ball and raced untouched for the touchdown that put the Marauders on the board early.
“We wanted to put Cody back there for some kicks because of his sure hands,” Hansen said. “I said to him, ‘If you feel you have something, take it.’ In games like this, it was a one-shot big play and we got it.”
So it was Simon early and Powell late that did the trick and gave the Marauders their fifth state title, joining the ones earned in 1989, 1994, 2005 and 2014.
“This one was special, because everyone had given them [Don Bosco] the silver spoon,” Hansen said. “It was supposed to be a coronation, even though we went in 10-1 and had beaten them. In fact, we had beaten them seven times in a row.”
There was some talk that Hansen might walk away from coaching, that this might have been his swan song. It wouldn’t have been a bad way to say sayonara, with a state championship.
But Hansen promised that if he was retiring, he would have said something.
“People have been asking me that question,” Hansen said. “I’m going to do what I do, relax and enjoy this one a little. I’m going to get through the holidays and see what happens. I’m still young [59 years old] and I still feel good. Plus, there are only a handful of coaches to reach 300 wins.”
There was a hint that Hansen plans to stick around for a few more seasons. Hansen now has 254 career wins with 65 losses and one tie. Incredibly, Hansen is now in a tie with the legendary Joe Coviello for the second most wins for a coach in Hudson County history, trailing only North Bergen legend Vince Ascolese, who had 359 before his death in 2014.
That was the hint that Hansen hopes to remain as the head coach at Grand and Warren for the next few years. After all, he does have Tahjamell Bullock for another year. Maybe there’s hope for a repeat.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to Jim’s Hudson County Sports podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.