SCOREBOARD

Patience, persistence pays off for Patriots; Forced out of action for a month, Secaucus roars back to topple Wallington

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Peter Weber
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Veton Tolaj
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Peter Weber
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Veton Tolaj

Charlie Voorhees is a man with a ton of responsibilities, so much more than any hard-working man, husband and father should bear.

You see, Voorhees is the head football coach at Secaucus High School. He’s also the school’s athletic director.

Recently, Voorhees added the duties of being the football chairperson for the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference, handling tasks like rules administration and scheduling. Voorhees also serves on the football committee for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, helping the state’s governing body make decisions about the sport.

When you add the duties of being a father of two autistic sons, Voorhees has so much on his plate that it’s a wonder that his dining room table hasn’t toppled over.

In a normal year, Voorhees has to juggle all of those hats. In a pandemic year, the workload would almost seem to be just way too much for any sane individual to withstand.

So the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis didn’t do Charlie Voorhees any favors.

When the NJSIAA instituted all of its rules for the 2020 season – meaning no state playoffs, constricted schedules combined with health and safety precautions – Voorhees thought he was going to be able to tackle the tsunami of duties.

“At first, I thought we were going to be okay,” said Voorhees, who has been coaching football at Secaucus for over a quarter century and has been the athletic administrator at the school for the past 10 years. “But I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been really hard.”

Instead of starting practice in August, the NJSIAA mandated that practices couldn’t start until September 14. Then there was a two-week break for safety reasons, with all the fall sports athletic teams returning to practice the last week in September to prepare for the start of the fall schedule the first week of October.

Right before the Patriots were supposed to play their first game of the football season October 2 against North Arlington, the COVID crisis reared its ugly head. North Arlington had two players test positive for the virus, postponing the season opener for a week.

“At Secaucus, we did everything right,” Voorhees said. “We did daily tests and temperature checks. We cleaned everything down. We kept kids out of the school. We made sure we were safe.”

The Patriots finally got on the field Oct. 9 to face a tough foe in Cresskill. The result was not kind, as the Patriots took it on the chin, 41-6.

The madness was then set to begin.

On Tuesday, Oct. 13, Voorhees received word that the entire school district was being shut down for COVID precautions after a middle school student tested positive.

“We then came back to practice on Oct. 22,” Voorhees said.

One day later, Oct. 23, more of the same. The entire district was shut down once again. Some Secaucus teams were pulled off buses and told that they couldn’t head to competitive events. The Patriots were kept away from practice for two more weeks until Nov. 7 and not able to play again until Nov. 14.

“There’s nobody to blame,” Voorhees said. “It’s just what happened.”

The Patriots had to keep a stiff upper lip – but it wasn’t easy.

“It was horrible,” said senior quarterback Veton Tolaj. “From the start, it was tough, but [Coach] Voorhees kept ups together.”

“It definitely hurt, especially for a senior like me, because I spent a lot of time in my room organizing my thoughts.” said senior lineman Zachary Pascarello.

“I spent the whole offseason preparing for my senior year,” said senior linebacker Peter Weber. “I thought that maybe I wouldn’t get the chance to put the pads back on again.”

It meant that the Patriots were away from the practice field from Oct. 22 through Nov. 7, a total of 27 days. In the middle of a football season, that’s an absurd break.

“From a football standpoint this season, all we were trying to do was improve on what we were doing, developing our younger kids, because we basically have a very young team,” Voorhees said. “But all of that went right out the window. From that point, we just went into survival mode. You had to wonder how many kids would come back.”

To a man, the Patriots were a very resilient bunch.

“We were not quitting,” said senior tight end/defensive end Aidan Velez. “We never give up. Voorhees always tells us to never give up and always fight.”

The players received instructions via Zoom meetings to stay in shape during the time off.

“They stayed together,” Voorhees said. “I’m very proud of them. No matter how difficult it got, they stayed together. And they legitimately did it on their own.”

During the time off, Voorhees had to wear his administrative hats and worry about being an athletic director and NJIC official. There was scheduling and re-scheduling. There were disappointing cancellations. In these trying times, there wasn’t much more that anyone could do, even a superman like Voorhees.

“All we wanted to do was get back on the field,” Tolaj said. “Winning was secondary. We just stuck with it because we wanted a chance to play. I’ll tell you what.  There has never been a more resilient bunch of guys than this team. That’s the way we’ve been taught, to never quit, never give up, to keep fighting.”

On Nov. 14, after a month away, the Patriots returned to the gridiron to face Wallington.

“When I walked out toward the field, I felt like a little kid again in the park,” Voorhees said. “I felt like we were choosing up sides and see who’s going to play.”

The game begins and the Patriots are soon in front, 7-0. But things got worse when junior running back John Young suffered a leg injury and was out for the game.

“When a team like ours loses one guy like John Young, it’s like losing seven guys, because he does everything,” Voorhees said. “We didn’t have another guy to play fullback. We had no idea what we were doing. We were sending kids into the huddle with a play and sending them back out.”

The Panthers scored three straight touchdowns to go ahead, 21-7 at the half.

“I had no idea what the score was,” Voorhees said. “I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’”

The Patriots stayed close thanks to two rushing touchdowns from sophomore running back Aly Marzouk and a two-point conversion, cutting the lead to 21-15, but Wallington scored again to take a 27-15 lead into the fourth quarter.

“At that point, I had no idea what the score was,” Voorhees said. “I just hoped we stayed within distance.”

With seven minutes left, Tolaj, who was briefly knocked out of the game with a knee injury, hits sophomore wide receiver Alex Constantino with a 25-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-11 play that cut the lead to 27-22.

“That’s when I knew what the score was,” Voorhees said.

The Patriots got the ball back with five minutes left and it was Tolaj-to-Constantino again, this time for 56 yards. Marzouk added the PAT run and the Patriots somehow had a 30-27 lead with 4:03 left.

“I told them that the game wasn’t over,” Voorhees said. “We had to play defense.”

Wallington drove down the field for what appeared to be the game-winning drive, but then sophomore defensive tackle Massimo Iacopelli saved the day, collecting a sack on the game’s final play to preserve a 30-27 victory.

“Big Mass made the play of his life,” Voorhees said of his 285-pound tackle. “He came off a block and ran to catch a guy on the 14-yard line.”

Remarkably, it was the first time that the Patriots played on the new FieldTurf surface at the high school field. The Patriots, through their trials and tribulations, had a win after waiting a month for it.

Voorhees was drained after the game, as were a lot of the players.

“Nobody lost this game,” Voorhees said. “That’s how I felt. We all played hard. It was emotional, no doubt. Our kids didn’t want to leave the field. I just told the kids to never quit, to just keep going. All coaches say it, from the NFL down to Pee Wee. But we actually lived it. Our kids didn’t quit and I’m proud of that.”

“It’s so gratifying that we came away with the win,” Pascarello said. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Weber agreed.

“It was amazing,” Weber said. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had playing football. It definitely was great.”

And one definitely for the memory books.

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, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely former American Basketball Association All-Star from Jersey City Gerald Govan.