Hudson Catholic shoots for first-ever state grid title

Lou Zampella is Hudson Catholic through and through, straight to the bone.
Zampella was a totally undersized defensive back for the Hawks back in the early 1990s, back when the program wasn’t exactly a world beater. He returned as a dutiful assistant coach for then-head coach Rob Stern, probably one of the hardest working assistant coaches around.
And Zampella was there when the Hawks had their lone chance at state glory, when he served as the defensive coordinator for the Hawk team that faced Holy Cross of Delran in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 state title at Rutgers Stadium in December of 2008, falling 7-0.
“When Rob was here, the goal was to win the state championship,” said Zampella, who returned to his alma mater four years ago to take over as head coach. “That’s what we were always striving for. We were so close that one time.”
Now, the Hawks are there again, taking on the legendary program of St. Joseph of Hammonton, a school with a record 24 state championships and 32 state title game appearances, in the Non-Public Groups 1&2 championship game Sunday at Rowan University with kickoff slated for 2:30 p.m.
“When I first took over, it felt like it was 100 years away,” Zampella said of reaching a state championship game. “I knew it was going to be a rebuilding process, just breaking down the different culture that existed. To have the program again in that same spot in just four years took a lot of hard work. Now that it’s happened, it’s like ‘Wow.’ But our goal wasn’t just to get here. Our goal was to win it. We’ve come this close and now we want to finish the job.”
Zampella said that this year’s 10-1 record and state championship game appearance means a lot to him personally.
“There’s a lot of pride involved,” Zampella said. “I went to the school. I’ve coached here for a long time. When I first took over, the program was down. I never thought I’d come back to Hudson Catholic as the head coach. It all happened spur of the moment. But there’s pride, a lot of pride.”
Plain and simple, the NJSIAA did Hudson Catholic a huge injustice by putting this game against St. Joseph at Rowan.
Hudson Catholic has to travel more than two hours to get to Rowan to play the game. St. Joseph is traveling about 20 minutes.
Plus, something has to be done about St. Joseph fudging its enrollment numbers to the state. There is no way that a school with 250 kids could put 85 of them in uniform to play football. It means that more than a third of the entire student body in the school plays football. That’s just absurd.
So it’s nice that St. Joseph has all these state championships, but legitimately, they should be in the higher bracket, facing schools like DePaul and Delbarton and not Hudson Catholic.
Zampella isn’t going to get caught up in that right now.
“I was pretty surprised when I heard the game was at Rowan,” Zampella said. “I thought we’d be at Rutgers. But I can’t really worry about it. Hell, if we had to go to Alaska to play for a state championship, we’d do it. I can’t worry about the travel and all the other stuff. I was a little upset at first, but I had to get over it. I couldn’t let it become a distraction and it won’t. It is what it is. I can’t cry about it. It’s a great opportunity wherever the game is.
Added Zampella, “We’re playing a team that has won 24 state championships. We can use that as motivation. It’s one of the better programs in the state. They have a very good coach [Paul Sacco]. They have very big, tough, physical kids who know how to win. They have good skilled kids. They don’t have many weaknesses.”
The Hawks have their fair share of talented skilled kids. Marcus Dunn has fit in nicely as the starting quarterback. Khashawn Decker, Syheim Simmons and Malcolm Stewart are three of the best backs around with speed to burn.
Lately, the Hawks have been getting big play production from Johnathan Barber, who broke off a 70-yard run against Montclair Kimberley in the sectional semifinals and a 60-yard jaunt against St. Mary’s of Rutherford in the first round of the state playoffs.
“We have a lot of depth at that position,” Zampella said.
The Hawks started their 2015 season with six straight shutouts. The 10 wins set a new school record for wins in a season. It’s been a tremendous campaign, but the biggest challenge lies ahead.
“I feel good about our work ethic,” Zampella said. “We all know it’s not going to be easy. We can’t make mistakes. If we’re in the game in the fourth quarter, then that’s all I can ask for. Get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game. I’m expecting a war. I think it will come down to the fourth quarter.”
Zampella has taken this program from a 3-7 team he inherited, a program that had three consecutive 2-8 campaigns before that, to 5-5-1 his first year, 5-5 his second, 7-3 his third and now 10-1 in his fourth and best season. He’s done a remarkable job.
“I’m so caught up in finishing,” Zampella said. “I want to finish the job.”

Hagueini’s picks

Two weeks ago, the old wide one with the turban and wand was perfect, going 4-0 in the state sectional semifinal picks, pushing his record this playoff season to an impeccable 8-1.
Now, here are the final selections of 2015. Remember, you can’t use these picks for monetary wagering, unless it’s for a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a 32-ounce black cherry soda with your Uncle Looie.
Hoboken vs. Brearley, North 2, Group I: It’s very rare that an 8-3 team goes out and knocks off an undefeated foe. It’s been a great run for the Red Wings (two words), but Brearley has been hell bent on winning it all. Brearley 28, Hoboken 12.
Hudson Catholic vs. St. Joseph (Hammonton), Non-Public Group 2: The Hawks have a tough task traveling for two hours to face a program that has won more state titles than anyone else in state history. It’s almost too Hoosier-ish to be real. Don’t see it. St. Joseph 35, Hudson Catholic 12.
Lincoln vs. Raritan, Central Jersey Group II: Hagueini still doesn’t understand how Lincoln of Jersey City is in Central Jersey. Hagueini wasn’t a good geography student at all and has no idea where places like Barbados and Guam are, but he does know that Jersey City is northern New Jersey through and through. But the NJSIAA has placed the Lions in Central, so they’re Central. This is a championship that has been in the making for 34 years, since the only state title the school won in 1981. There were close calls in 2010 and last year, but this is the year the trophy comes back to Jersey City. Lincoln 35, Raritan 21.
Let’s see what happens. It should be an exciting weekend of football at Kean and Rowan. It’s a shame that none of the locals made it to the Meadowlands, but that’s for another day. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached at

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