Before the 2008 high school football season began, Bill Sullivan really didn’t have high hopes and expectations for his St. Anthony football team.
After all, it was going to be the first varsity season for the Friars, after playing a junior varsity schedule a year ago. Although Sullivan had built other programs from the ground up, like Moore Catholic and St. Peter’s, both on Staten Island, this new venture marked a totally different challenge.
“We knew that this year was going to be tough,” Sullivan said. “Our best players are just sophomores. We basically have a bunch of young guys still learning the sport.”
So when the Friars broke from summer camp that was held in Wall Township at the Jersey shore in August, Sullivan had very modest goals.
“I told the coaching staff that I hoped to win a game or two and just be competitive,” Sullivan said. “I wanted to keep our heads above water. I knew as a staff that this was going to be tough.”
But Sullivan wasn’t going to back down to the challenge of making the Friars competitive in their first go-round as a varsity football team.
Sullivan, a retired New York City police officer, conducts his practices like an Army drill sergeant. You know he’s the one in charge every step of the way. There’s no need for the offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator to chime in with any pearls of wisdom. It’s Sullivan’s team. He’s in complete control as the team goes through the different plays and schemes.
Sullivan also has made the play terminology very easy for the players to remember. Instead of using numbers like most teams, Sullivan uses basic names, like names of women like Rose and Rhonda, Linda and Laura and dance steps like Tango. The complicated numbers are left for algebra class.
“We wanted to keep things simple,” Sullivan explained. “The last thing I wanted to do with kids still learning the game is to confuse the kids and make it difficult. We took the genius out of it and made it where the kids don’t have to think too much. I used the same formula at my other coaching jobs.”
Sullivan said that he learned that approach from respected coaches like long-time Army coach Bob Sutton and former Navy coach Paul Johnson, now at Georgia Tech. If it can work for the U.S. Military Academies, it certainly can work for the tiny school on Eighth Street in downtown Jersey City.
At practice, Sullivan makes sure to walk the Friars through the assortment of plays over and over, giving the term “football repetitions” a new meaning. They might have only played three varsity football games, but this already is a well oiled machine. It is a spirited learning session inside of a football practice.
And the players are listening to every single word Sullivan barks. They’re soaking up this drill sergeant’s knowledge about blocking schemes and formations. Needless to say, it’s a very impressive session.
The practice began with two teams sharing Gateway Field, but the other team was long gone and Sullivan was still at work.
“We try to get a lot in every day,” Sullivan said.
The players have to drag their equipment and schlep their way to Gateway three days a week, walking almost three quarters of a mile to and from practice.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Sullivan said. “There were other kids that were interested in playing, but once they realized how much work was involved, they left.”
Still, Sullivan has 47 players participating in the fledgling Friar program, more than most of the Jersey City public schools with much larger enrollments.
The Friars began their season against Nazareth High School in Brooklyn on Sept. 13 and there was instant success, with the Friars winning 42-0.
However, a week later, the Friars stayed close to home for their second game, taking on Memorial of West New York.
This was the Memorial program that was once immortal, coached by the legendary Joe Coviello and featuring players like Ed Lombardi and Gene Mancino, known throughout New Jersey as “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.” Memorial had the state’s longest winning streak, having captured 47 straight games in the 1940s and early ’50s. This is a program of historic proportion.
Unfortunately, Sullivan had no idea of the Memorial tradition. He did know it was a much bigger Group IV school, but the Tigers were looking for a game and looking for an easy win, so they invited the fledgling Friars to pay a visit to West New York.
“I figured we could go up there and show some people we can play football,” Sullivan said.
So Sullivan took the Friars to face a program that was once New Jersey’s high school version of Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers all rolled into one.
The result? St. Anthony 40, Memorial 12. Yes, the Friars had toppled Memorial in just their second varsity game ever.
“On the first play of the game, David Coleman got a hand off and he was off, going 64 yards for a touchdown,” Sullivan said. “I guess we showed we could play with the big boys. I think it proved to our kids that they can play and that their hard work could pay off.”
The Friars stumbled a little last week, dropping a tough 7-6 decision to Pingry, a private prep school in Martinsville.
“I told our kids that if you give up only seven points in a high school football game, you’re supposed to win,” Sullivan said. “We had opportunities to score, but our inexperience showed.”
But the Friars are 2-1 and right now stand atop the latest power point standings in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group I standings. They have games upcoming against Sussex Tech, Newark Academy, Dwight-Englewood and St. Joseph of the Palisades – all winnable contests.
And if they win those games, then the Friars will be headed to the state playoffs in their very first year. That could very well be the real “Miracle of St. Anthony,” not the popular best-selling story that was written about the school’s renowned basketball program a few years ago.
“We have to raise the level of expectations a little,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had to pick things up a little and that’s good.”
The Friars’ quarterback is sophomore Jake Barbaccia (5-8, 160).
“He can really throw the ball and is reading defenses well,” Sullivan said.
The backfield features the aforementioned Coleman, a 5-11, 190-pound sophomore who already has two 100-plus yard games under his belt and has returned an interception 90 yards for a score. Junior James Kelley (5-7, 160), sophomore Deshawn Goodwin (5-10, 160) and freshman Darryl Wilson (5-7, 140) all see time at tailback.
The fullbacks are senior Samouri Clegg (5-6, 225), who calls himself “Mr. Bowling Ball,” and sophomore Jidamon Sparkman (5-11, 190), who has the potential to be a truly great player.
Senior Jerry Panzu (6-0, 190) is the team’s wide receiver and has a chance to play football at the next level. Senior Jeff Davis (6-1, 225) is the tight end. Davis also plays basketball for the Friars. Wait, there’s a basketball team at St. Anthony?
The offensive line features seniors Chris D’Angelo (5-7, 240) and Dwayne Parris (5-1, 220), junior Justin Beaty (6-4, 170) at center (converted from wide receiver) and sophomores Khadeem Wilson (6-3, 210) and Dayvon Sebron (5-10, 205).
The defense features Clegg at defensive tackle and Sullivan sings the praises of the senior leader.
“He’s the guy that all the other kids look up to and listen to,” Sullivan said of Clegg. “He’s like a coach on the field.”
Davis, Wilson and sophomore Kevin Desravines (6-0, 195) are also defensive linemen. Sparkman, who Sullivan calls “a beast,” heads the linebacker corps, along with Coleman, Panzu and senior Andrew Reid (6-1, 210).
Junior Wesley Peterson (6-0, 155) and sophomore Sylvester Wright (5-10, 170) are the cornerbacks, with Goodwin at safety.
So the first season is going better than expected. The Friars already have two wins, one over a gridiron legacy.
“But we’re still taking it one day at a time,” Sullivan said. “We got knocked back to earth last week. We learned a lesson that we have to be ready every game.” If Bill Sullivan has his way, these kids will be ready, as long as they keep everything as simple as they have. It’s a recipe for success – one already reaping huge dividends.