Hamilton West and Steinert have done it in baseball and soccer. Hamilton has done it in boys and girls’ basketball. Nottingham and Steinert did it in softball. Steinert did it in cross country.
But never, ever had a Hamilton Township high school won a state championship in football. Never, that is until Dec. 8, 2012—a date that will forever burn brightly in the annals of the township.
Technically, Nottingham’s 35-24 win over Neptune that day did not provide an outright state championship. It was the Central Jersey Group III sectional title.
But it’s as far as you can go in football and is considered a state title by every football team that wins it. So, the Northstars have added their name to the list of state champions from Hamilton.
They also became just the third school in Mercer County to ever win a state football crown. Ewing and Notre Dame have each won twice. The Irish were the last to do it, in 1989.
And Nottingham did it in the most impressive way possible, by defeating three straight teams from the powerful Shore Conference that traditionally beats up on Mercer County schools.
“I got a little tired of reading about the Shore Conference,” coach Jon “Big Dawg” Adams said. “It’s been in my craw for a long time because we’ve always battled them tough.
“Against Freehold Boro, we had no quarterback, and we went there and had them on the ropes for most of the game until (Freehold’s) Ricky Tyson made some great plays. We battled the Shore for a long time. This year, we went down and scrimmaged Southern Regional and (Greater Middlesex Conference power) Old Bridge. We took on some tough dudes this year.
“We ended the (Mercer) drought. Now everybody knows we can all do it if we work hard and get a good group of kids. This was a statement for everybody that it can be done.”
It was done under some harrowing circumstances, as the season started with Adams having to undergo kidney surgery for cancer in June. He came through it with flying colors, showed up at early practices in the August heat and inspired his players and coaches just by being there.
“I knew we had a great group of kids back in January when we met for the weight room and started putting things on paper,” Adams said. “I wasn’t going to miss it.”
Neither were the players who, in one way or another, all said the same thing after beating Neptune: “we knew we could do this.”
The season started with six straight wins, including five shutouts. The only score in those games was one touchdown against the Stars second-string defense.
Next up was the “Game of the Year” against Allentown, which was a thrilling 24-21 contest won on a late field goal. Nottingham then had to wait three weeks to play again due to a bye and Hurricane Sandy, but it would not taste defeat again.
The ‘Stars won over Hopewell, then wiped out a 14-0 halftime deficit to beat Manasquan, 21-14, in the first round of states. Nottingham shocked the physical visitors by beating them at their own game with a bruising running attack.
Next came the regular-season finale against Notre Dame, which Nottingham defeated for the first time since 2005. Then it was back to the playoffs and the Northstars slugged their way to a 7-0 win over Long Branch, again beating a Shore team by attacking its strength.
The state final at The College of New Jersey was a thing of beauty. After grinding out wins over their first two playoff foes, it seemed the Northstars might try to do the same against Neptune, if only because the Fliers had the most explosive offense Nottingham would play all year.
It stood to reason the ’Stars would want to maintain possession in order to keep the ball away from Neptune. So what happened? Nottingham had two 66-yard touchdown passes in the first half and a 53-yard touchdown run in the second.
Once again, it was a case of Adams telling the Shore teams, “Anything you can do, we can do better.”
The Northstars’ defense was again solid. It allowed four touchdowns, but the defensive pressure from the front seven forced talented quarterback Ajee Patterson into numerous overthrows when he had open receivers.
“We were pushing him out all game, our whole defense,” linebacker Ryan Malagrino said. “They were scoring on us, but we were giving them a fight. They didn’t get by us without a fight.”
And Nottingham began winning the fight in the trenches with its pass rush.
“We put pressure on him,” said defensive coordinator Frank Gatto, who also won two titles in the same role at Notre Dame. “It’s a little different when you’re under duress. He got rid of a couple passes early. He had to because people were breathing on him.”
Defensive lineman Jake Andrejcik got tremendous pressure up the middle.
“We saw on film that not a lot of people got a pass rush on the quarterback,” Andrejcik said. “He’s a great quarterback and if he sits back in the pocket all he’s gonna do is pick your defense apart, so we just put pressure in his face. We used some stunts on the line and it ended up working.
“We tried to get people in his face and we put our hands up because he throws sidearm a little bit. We wanted to try and either knock some down or force him to throw it high, and it worked out.”
Defensive end Zach Mesday, who was the 12th Man TD Club’s Co-Defensive Lineman of the Year with Enock Asante, agreed that pressure was a must.
“Our defensive line is relentless,” said Mesday, who set the school record with 19 sacks. “Every single game is like that but today we felt we had to step up more than we usually do, and we did just that.”
Although Mesday earned a big award, Nottingham’s defense was definitely the sum of all its parts, including linemen Mesday, Reggie Charles, Mario Boswell, Andrejcik, Clayton Sary and Travys Brown; linebackers McGovern Gabriel, Wroway Williams, Devin Thompson and Malagrino; and defensive backs Josh Lajuenesse, Saquan Hampton, Albert Ogogo, Jamir Jenkins, Joe Kparway and Tevin Williams.
“Everybody contributed,” Gatto said. “All the defensive coaches did a great job. Their quarterback was phenomenal. Everyone contributed, we gave up (18) points in the first half and we made adjustments. The kids were upset, and they came out in the second half and did a great job.
“They couldn’t block our guys man-to-man. We handled the run very well, mixed the defenses up and the kids executed.”
“They were really quick, but went speed with speed, power with power; we were equally matched,” Lajuenesse said. “When we got beat by big plays we didn’t dwell on it. We called it amnesia. We just worried about the next play.”
Offensively, Nottingham had more big plays than Neptune, which was a frightening big-play offense all season. Luke Westerberg threw 66-yard touchdown passes to Jameel Bailey and Jamar Butler in the first half, while Jenkins returned an interception 85 yards on an incredible run.
“Had to be the best interception return I’ve ever seen,” said long-time Notre Dame coach Chappy Moore later that night.
In the second half, Nottingham got a 53-yard touchdown run from Clyde Huntley. And playing with a lead, the Stars grinded out a long drive to run clock and got a one-yard run from Westerberg. The play to Butler, on which he caught the ball on the sideline at the 50 and ran it in, came out of the Steinert playbook from last year’s title game against Neptune.
“It was the same play, we used the same route,” Adams said. “I want to thank coach (Dan) Caruso for sending that tape over. As soon as I saw it, I saw how they adjusted their secondary, nobody ran with the slot.
“Jamar was wide open going down our sideline. Luke under-threw it a little bit because he had to rush the throw, and he had a little bit of pressure. Jamar did the rest and ran down the sideline and scored.”
Nottingham held a 21-18 lead at halftime thanks to three missed PATs but Adams knew that wasn’t going to hold up.
“We knew we had to go after them,” the coach said. “We couldn’t sit back and sit on a three-point lead.
“This wasn’t like Long Branch. Long Branch wasn’t going to throw the ball over our head and score quick. They were gonna pound us. So we had load the box, keep it physical, play it tight, don’t make a stupid mistake and give them an opportunity.
“But against Neptune, we just had to let it all hang out. If we don’t score points, we’re not wining this game. I really felt four or five touchdowns is what we needed.”
Five is what they got, thanks to an offense that truly was a galaxy of ‘Stars.
Start with quarterbacks Stephen Adams and Luke Westerberg, who alternated series until the championship game when Westerberg got too hot to sit down. But Adams played as much a part in getting Nottingham to the final and will be back next year.
Receivers were Butler, Bailey, Daviyon Davis and Bryan Butchon, who all got their touches. The running backs featured Alexis Santiago, Lajuenesse, Williams and Huntley. Tight ends were Mesday, Dave Colon and Kylik Self. The fullback was the underrated Nick DeMarie, who was as good a blocking back as anyone in the county.
But the key was the offensive line, which was the major question mark at the start of the season. Chuck Parker did a great job taking over for four-year starter Matt Hedden, while Aaron Levinson, Aaron Comacho, Mackenzie Henry and Mike Sherif all developed throughout the season.
“My line coach, Ryan McDermott, came up with the idea of starting Mackenzie Henry at left guard,” Adams said. “He did a great job as a sophomore and played his butt off. I knew we had something, we just had to get the line to gel.
“I was worried about offensive line, and I was concerned whether our kids would buy into the team concept and understand ‘Your moment will come and when it comes make the most of it.’ That’s what they did. That’s so important.”
And it led to the greatest football win in Nottingham and township history and one of the greatest in Mercer County history.
“This championship is for everybody in Mercer County, everybody in our school,” Adams said. “We just wanted it.”
Most off all, the players wanted it for Adams, whose courage in the face of cancer was inspiring to the entire program.
Amidst the zillion Facebook congratulations Adams received after the title, none was more fitting than that of former player Monroe Tolbert, who posted:
“Shout out goes to Coach Adams…He beat out cancer, he beat out the shore and he beat out all the odds. He’s an example to everyone what the meaning of Hope and Faith is.”
And that hope and faith, coupled with a group of excellent assistant coaches and talented, gutsy players, was the perfect recipe for a state title.