It’s the last year of Rich Hansen’s storied and legendary football coaching career at St. Peter’s Prep, but the veteran head coach is not doing anything differently in 2020 as he did when he became a head coach way back in 1986.
“Honestly, we’re saying the same thing now that we have said every year,” said Hansen, who guided the Marauders to an 11-1 record last year, including the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state title (the fifth state crown in his career) and the overall No. 1-ranking in multiple season-ending rankings. “The goals haven’t changed.”
But one goal will be different in this pandemic year, with the number of games shortened to six regular season contests before two crossover games and an added Thanksgiving Day contest. There will be no tangible state championship to shoot for. There will be no NJSIAA state playoffs this year.
“We’re just grateful that we’re playing football this year,” said Hansen, who in August announced his retirement from coaching after the 2020 season. “There was a time in March and April when I didn’t think we would be playing at all.”
So without a state championship to shoot for, Hansen and the Marauders will try to win all nine of their games in 2020 and let the chips fall where they lie. The Marauders already begin the 2020 season as the No. 1-ranked team in New Jersey.
“If you win enough games, you can finish No. 1,” Hansen said. “If you win them all, then there’s pretty much no debate. We just worry about ourselves. We know that we can play with anyone in the state and that’s all that matters.”
So the plan is to send Hansen into retirement with a bang.
“The kids all remind me a little bit,” Hansen said. “They say that you’re too young to retire. Or they say, ‘I thought you would stick around a bit.’ But it’s all in fun and they get it. It’s no secret now. If I didn’t announce it and it tended to linger, then the whispers would go on and there would be questions and it would fester. It’s one of the reasons why I did it when I did. Eventually, the talk will die. If the team is laser focused, it shouldn’t be a problem. But if it becomes a problem, then the focus isn’t where it should be.”
Of course, the focus should be on the Marauders, who have a ton of talent, a bunch of exciting offensive weapons and every reason why they could easily run the table this year.
The main reason for the excitement is the return of senior quarterback Tajhamell Bullock (6-foot-4, 230 pounds). Bullock was both the Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player last year as a junior.
Bullock completed 121 of 215 passes for 2,264 yards and 28 touchdowns, while throwing only seven interceptions. He also rushed for 481 yards and scored six touchdowns. He led the Marauders to five come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter, including the 21-14 victory over Don Bosco Prep at MetLife Stadium last December.
Since then, Bullock has announced his intentions to attend Virginia Tech next fall. He has a chance to cement his place among the best signal callers that have ever been produced at Grand and Warren. He just might be the best ever – and that is saying a lot.
“He’s playing for all the titles and accolades,” Hansen said. “He’s certainly in the conversation with the all-time greats. I just plan to watch him and enjoy him. He has such a calming presence with everyone. His talent level is special, and his skill set is off the charts and his leadership is unbelievable. He’s just a different animal than everyone else. He has the keys to the car. When you’re driving a Maserati, you need to make sure the keys are in the right hands.”
The Marauders also have a talented backup in sophomore Champ Long (6-0, 180), who transferred to Prep after a year at Fairfield Prep in Connecticut.
“Champ has a good feel for our offense,” Hansen said of Long, who will also be the team’s punter this season. “He has the ability to manage the offense and I hope he will play quality minutes this season.”
The main running back is junior Paul Lefkowitz (5-9, 225), who was one of 15 Marauders to earn Hudson Reporter All-Area last year, obviously along with Bullock.
Lefkowitz is a strong, powerful running back who gained 820 yards last season.
“He’s running really hard right now,” Hansen said after a scrimmage victory over Newark West Side. “He has a great attitude and a sense of motivation. He’s all business. I wouldn’t want to try to tackle Paul. He’s a physical guy.”
While Lefkowitz is the power, junior Sammy Slade (5-9, 180) is the speed. Call them this year’s version of Thunder (Lefkowitz) and Lightning (Slade).
“He has great speed,” Hansen said. “He catches the ball as well. He waited for his time to shine and now it’s here. We’re going to have him all over, because he catches the ball well. He’s primarily a running back.”
Another running back is senior Ethan Rodriguez (6-1, 225), who will serve as the Marauders’ short-yardage back.
“He has a world of talent,” Hansen said of Rodriguez, who has already given a verbal commitment to the University of Massachusetts.
The wide receiver corps is packed with talent, headed by senior Sha’Zir Sullivan (6-1, 190), who will certainly be a scholarship player come season end.
Junior Jaylon Sanchez (6-1, 180) made some huge catches for the Marauders down the stretch last season. Junior Fitzroy Ledgister (6-1, 180), who is already a well-respected sprinter for the Prep track team, is the fastest guy on a team of speed burners. Sophomore Zion Fowler (6-1, 170) has a great distinction.
“He might be the best athlete on the team,” Hansen said of Fowler.
Junior Kenny Soares (6-2, 220) is the team’s tight end.
The offensive line features a ton of returning players and a ton of size. It’s just a ton.
One of the tackles are junior Andre Oben (6-4, 285), who is the son of former New York Giants offensive lineman Roman Oben and brother to last year’s defensive standout R.J., who is currently at Duke.
The other tackles are senior D.J. Berry (6-3, 275) and sophomore Eric King (6-3, 275). King played last season at Marist, which has since closed.
The guards are returning starters Evan Scribner (6-3, 270) and Masin Cobb (6-3, 265) and the center is returning starter Aidan Montero (6-3, 280).
“It’s been a while since we had so many people back on the offensive line,” Hansen said. “To have three guys who started in high school football is a blessing.”
The placekicker is sophomore Nico Duarte.
Defensively, the Marauders are equally as talented, led by senior George Rooks (6-5, 270), a two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection at defensive end. Rooks is a major college prospect and will decide among Penn State, Michigan and Boston College very shortly.
Rodriguez is the other defensive end, with juniors K.J. Miles (6-4, 280), Bryce Rooks (5-10, 260) and sophomore Logan Barnes (6-0, 280) at defensive tackle. Miles was a starter last year and had major knee surgery midway through the season but is back and healthy this year. Bryce Rooks is the younger brother to George.
The linebackers are senior Dorian Clark (5-10, 235) and juniors C.J. Wesley (6-1, 190), Marc Pretto (6-1, 205) and Eric Perez (5-10, 200) all sharing time. Soares will see time here as well.
Senior Jordan Campbell (5-9, 180), junior Avery Powell (5-10, 175) and sophomore Ryan Adams (5-9, 170) are the cornerbacks. Powell was the hero of the state championship win over Don Bosco Prep at MetLife Stadium, returning a blocked field goal attempt for a touchdown.
Junior Christian LeBrun (6-1, 190) returns to his safety position. Senior Tyion Smith (5-10, 180) is the other safety. Smith was a running back last season.
The Marauders open the season at West Orange Oct. 2 and play Don Bosco Prep at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 1 p.m.
Needless to say, this will be another great season for the Marauders – one to send Hansen off with a blaze of glory.
“It’s a little overwhelming for me, for a lot of reasons,” Hansen said of his last year, which almost never came off with the pandemic. “No doubt, this was the result of a lot of hard work and meetings with a lot of people. But we’re playing. That’s all that matters.”
And if the Marauders are playing, chances are they’re winning.
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 the Hudson County Sports Podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, with this week’s guest being former New Jersey City University basketball coach Charlie Brown.