Shore Football Community Lends a Hand to Storm Victims
As the Shore community continued to sift through the devastation of Hurricane Sandy on Saturday, the state of the Shore Conference's football programs was as varied as the damage across Monmouth and Ocean counties.
Several teams went to work helping their communities, from players on undefeated Lacey assisting residents in their town and nearby Bayville, to members of the Wall team going door-to-door in storm-ravaged Belmar nearby to help, to the players from undefeated Point Beach helping local residents in any way possible. Even bitter rivals like St. John Vianney and Raritan, who are scheduled to play each other on Friday, came together to help. Players from both schools assisted with storm relief efforts in collecting donations in the Staples shopping plaza on Route 35 in Hazlet.
"It was an amazing thing to see as a coach and former Rocket, as well as someone who lives in this area,'' said St. John Vianney assistant Jeff Papcun, who played at Raritan. "These kids were supposed to be battling on the gridiron this weekend, but instead they are coming together as one to help support their community.''
Point Beach was among the hardest areas hit, with several players losing their homes or having them suffer catastrophic damage that will take a great deal of time to repair. A group of players and cheerleaders headed around the school's sending district on Saturday, helping residents do everything from remove ruined refrigerators to water-logged couches.
"We had a few players lose homes, and we have some that are not even back in town from being evacuated yet,'' said head coach John Wagner, who lives in Manasquan and is in his second season as coach.
The NJSIAA moved all games from this weekend to next weekend and postponed the start of the playoffs for a week. Point Beach, off to its first 8-0 start ever, luckily has a bye week, so it will not play this coming weekend, either. Its first game will be a home game against an undetermined opponent in Central Jersey Group I as it seeks its first state sectional title. Wagner said the high school currently has power and the school is tentatively set to be back in session on Wednesday or Thursday.
"It's crazy in that we're not going to play for three weeks, but right now it's a good thing,'' Wagner said. "Right now we're focusing on the kids being together with each other. They're all telling war stories about their houses. We came out here (on Saturday) to help because these people have been so great to us the last couple of years, so we want to let people know that we thank them and want to help.''
Those looking to donate to the recovery in Point Pleasant Beach, food donations are being accepted at St. Mary's-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church on Bay Avenue and at the Presbyterian church across the street. Brave New World is also accepting clothing, food, and supplies.
While Wagner and his Garnet Gulls have been able to come together, right up the road in Monmouth County, Manasquan still has areas that are completely flooded with residents not even able to return to their homes yet or only being allowed a brief time by authorities to grab what they can because it's not safe.
"I have a couple kids who lost their homes, and others who will have to rebuild due to flooding and mold,'' said Manasquan coach Jay Price, who also played at Manasquan. "It's been pretty emotional. I had a kid move in next door to my house and I saw him with one garbage bag of clothes because that is all he had.
"The only thing you can do is fall back on what you know. We went through 9/11 and to a lesser extent, Irene last year, and football became a welcome distraction because it's a common focus of energy."
Price said he has seven or eight players who are still out of state after being evacuated. Meanwhile, there have been other sinister problems to deal with as much of the coastal area of the town remains in deep water. Price, who also is part of the Manasquan Fire Department, said they have kept a boat at the firehouse because looters are coming in on kayaks and canoes to rob damaged houses. That has been counterbalanced by a massive amount of donations of food, blankets and more by the community at the firehouse.
"The outpouring of support from the community has been awesome,'' Price said.
In a depressing symbol of the storm, the sign for Vic Kubu Warrior Field, named for the late Manasquan coaching legend, blew off the scoreboard and broke into pieces on the field. Manasquan is still on for a crucial Class A Central game at home on Saturday at 1 p.m. against another school hurt by the storm, Rumson-Fair Haven. The Warriors need the win to cement a state playoff spot, and Rumson is currently unbeaten. There is a practice scheduled for Monday, according to Price.
"I think (the broken sign) caught the kids by surprise, and it was a little emotional,'' Price said. "We'll make sure it's back up for Saturday. We'll rise up and get back from all this stuff.''
Rumson-Fair Haven, has four players whose homes were severely damaged and could be lost, as well as multiple players with nearby family members who suffered major losses. The West Park neighborhood right near the Sea Bright Bridge was particularly hit hard.
There are nearly 30 players in the program who are still out of state after being evacuated, whether it's in Pennsylvania with relatives or places like Vermont in vacation homes, according to head coach Shane Fallon. The grandfather of one player also died of causes unrelated to the storm at the same time as the player and his family were dealing with the aftermath.
"I don't know where they all are because communication is so hard right now,'' Fallon said, echoing the sentiments of many Shore Conference coaches. "I get a sense from the kids that's it's a good thing we didn't do football (last week).Their mind was focused on something else, so it was better to be with their families and help their neighbors."
A little further north up the coast from Rumson, the Bayshore area was decimated by the storm, particularly Union Beach, Keansburg and Keyport. In Keansburg, there are arcade games from the boardwalk that washed up in the middle of neighborhoods four blocks inland, and numerous homes have been destroyed or flooded beyond repair. Donations are currently being accepted at Bolger Middle School.
"I've got kids that are still evacuated, and kids who lost their homes, clothes, and everything that they had,'' Keansburg head coach Brian Kmak said. "The kids that we were able to get together went around town helping to pick up debris yesterday and try to move some of the big stuff.''
Kmak had a meeting on Saturday, with only 12 players being able to attend and many still difficult to reach. Cell phone service is spotty or nonexistent in much of the town and there is still no power. Kmak is trying to organize a practice for Monday at 2 p.m. to prepare for the Titans' upcoming game against Asbury Park. Keansburg is currently 4-4 and has qualified for the Central Jersey Group I playoffs, and its game against Asbury Park does not count toward playoff seeding because it's Keansburg's ninth game.
"I think my kids want to get back and play,'' Kmak said. "The kids at the meeting were all seniors, and they want to get going again. I had the parent of one kid whose family lost everything on the first floor of their home from flooding who said she wants her son back practicing just to get a sense of normalcy again.''
Just up the road, Keyport organized an impromptu pick-up football game on Saturday just to blow off some steam after an emotional situation of helping teammates whose homes were destroyed. They also helped out at Keyport Central School next to the high school, which is accepting donations of food, clothing and blankets.
"Our fullback, Johnny Olsen, and our wide receiver, Greg Armstrong, live in Union Beach, and they lost everything, so they are staying at other players' houses,'' said junior quarterback Alex Thomson, who was alongside linebacker Nick Smutz. "Everyone went down to help out at Johnny's house, tearing up carpeting, molding, everything. Everyone is at least safe now in Union Beach, so we're trying to get ready for Shore Regional this week.''
Shore Regional, Keyport's upcoming opponent, is yet another team that has experienced a large dose of adversity. With players in hard-hit areas like Oceanport, Monmouth Beach and Sea Bright, the Blue Devils have banded together this week as well. They have won six straight and are trying to make a run at the top seed in Central Jersey Group I with a win over Keyport, which is already qualified for the playoffs and will be playing its ninth game.
Shore had a practice on Friday afternoon and another one on Saturday, according to senior defensive end Luis Bernardes.
"Coach (Mark Costantino) just wanted to get us out and active,'' Bernardes wrote in a text message. "A few players from the Oceanport and Monmouth Beach area did get hit hard and didn't attend practice, but we're doing our best to get back on track and focus on hopefully playing Keyport Saturday morning.''
Two coaches in similar situations to Kmak as far as trying to contact players are Asbury Park's Matt Ardizzone and Neptune's Mark Ciccotelli. Ardizzone said he has only spoken to one player since the storm hit and even has driven around town just trying to find his players. Most of the Asbury Park players live inland rather than right on the shore, so it was more power loss and downed trees that have affected the Blue Bishops.
"It's going to be really hard just to get everyone together for practice this week to get ready for Keansburg because it's just difficult to reach anyone right now,'' Ardizzone said. "We're trying to have a meeting at the school at 10 a.m. Monday. I think football can be something that can get a community and a town back together, so hopefully we can reach these guys because it's just crazy right now.''
It has been an especially emotional week for Ciccotelli and his older brother, Mike, who is the head coach at Keyport, as well as his other brother, former Scotch Plains coach Steve Ciccotelli. As the storm began to rage on Monday morning, their mother, Freda Ciccotelli, died at 87 years old around 11 a.m. at Mark Ciccotelli's home in Clark in Union County with the entire family there. She had been diagnosed with cancer only about a month ago.
"We were all there, and I held her hand as she took her last breath in the middle of the storm,'' Ciccotelli said. "It was obviously very emotional for us. I've spoken to a couple guys (on Neptune) through text messages, but trying to take care of that and everything with my mom, it's been nuts.''
While several Monmouth County programs have had trouble just trying to reach players, at some hard-hit areas in Ocean County it has been more about waiting and assessing the damage. Coastal areas in sending districts like Brick and Central Regional are still working through the initial assessment process, while other places have been inaccessible.
Residents have not been allowed back on storm-ravaged Long Beach Island because of safety concerns with gas lines and other issues. Several underclassmen and one senior on the team at Southern Regional live on LBI, and several other players had their homes suffer heavy damage in Beach Haven, according to Southern athletic director Chuck Donohue Jr.
"We still have kids that are all over the place who have damage to their homes or haven't even been able to return to their homes yet,'' Donohue said. "We had a meeting with the varsity (on Saturday morning) because we're just trying to give them some type of normalcy. Our community was hit hard, but our community is unbelievable. The shelter at Southern had to turn away donations because there was just too much.''
Southern is set to play Toms River East on Friday night in a Class A South game. Similar to the Rams, Toms River East has a handful of players who live in an area that was walloped by Hurricane Sandy - Seaside Heights.
"We have a few (players) that live over there,'' said Toms River East junior running back Matt Gudzak. "Everyone is OK, but their houses are completely flooded and some of them also lost their cars. We're just trying to come together at this point.''
Other nearby schools have provided refuge to those battered by the storm. While Barnegat wasn't heavily affected, many friends and family members have reached out for help.
"If you weren't affected, someone close to you was,'' said Barnegat head coach Rob Davis. "My house is a shelter right now for family of ours that live on LBI, and plenty of other players have people staying over. I've just been mass text-messaging to the players regularly to give them that sense of normalcy.''
That is what all the coaches hope this week is about. In the midst of homes underwater, schools being closed, and lives uprooted, football practice and a big game on Friday or Saturday could be the few hours that make things feel normal just for a little while.