The winless J.P. Stevens High School football team came into its Oct. 16 homecoming game with one-win East Brunswick High School believing it had a legitimate chance to finally record the first win of the season.
The game wasn’t close, though, as the visiting Bears administered a 41-6 defeat to bring their record to 2-3, while the struggling Hawks fell to 0-6 and clearly demonstrated they are still a program seeking to build a winning attitude.
Throughout the contest, the Hawks had difficulty containing quarterback Brendan Kennedy and the two feature backs, Al Fitzpatrick and Kyle Wiggins, both of whom rushed for over 100 yards and accounted for three of the team’s six touchdowns. After a 35-7 loss to Sayreville War Memorial High School in the season opener, the Hawks have surrendered 40 or more points in the last five defeats and have lost by an average margin of 32.8 points.
In a nutshell, J.P. Stevens’ problem is a lack of team chemistry. While the Hawks have successfully moved the ball, drives have stalled due to turnovers, dropped passes and inadequate blocking. Defensively, J.P. Stevens has been outsized on the line, paving the way for opponents to score like they have. Finally, it seems like 11 individual games are taking place on the field instead of the team playing like a cohesive unit.
Unfortunately, this year is not an aberration but the continuation of a losing streak that has lasted over a decade. The Hawks have not finished with a winning record since 2003 (6-4) and have not been playoff eligible since 2006.
Head coach Joe Riggi, a member of two state sectional championship teams (1984 and 1985, when the Hawks beat none other than East Brunswick, and was a sectional finalist in 1987) is the fourth coach in four years, and this is his second stint at trying to revive the program.
“I believe wholeheartedly that winning can be contagious, but so too can losing,” he said. “We have gotten away from what worked and the mentality that when we walked on this field, we were going to win. If we lost, we took it personally and couldn’t believe somebody beat us.”
Riggi said that now when players step onto the field is, their mindset is “Maybe we can win.”
But when his team falls behind, negativity prevails and games tend to spiral out of control.
To help change this culture, Riggi has brought back a lot of what he learned, and he has former players speak to the team about why J.P. Stevens was once a winning program. Ultimately, the coach said, it gets down to earning players’ trust. “That was something I learned from my coach here, Joe Gutowski,” Riggi said. “I still talk to him, and he’s given me valuable advice.”
The Hawks, members of the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Red Division, play their next two games on the road beginning with a visit Oct. 23 at North Brunswick Township High School (1-5 division and overall). That game is followed in two weeks by a trip to Shore conference foe Marlboro High School (0-6) Nov. 7, with the regular-season finale on Thanksgiving Day at home against Edison High School (2-3 division and overall).
J.P. Stevens will also be eligible to play a state consolation game either Nov. 13 or 14.
The Bishop George Ahr High School girls’ volleyball team is currently 7-9 and while it appears the Trojans are experiencing a subpar season, the record is actually a major improvement over the last two years.
Two years ago, Bishop Ahr finished 1- 15 and last season, the Trojans ended the campaign with a 4-14 record.
According to head coach Arlene Jaronczyk, the reason for the team’s success is team camaraderie.
“This is a hard-working, focused group, and that includes our non-starters,” Jaronczyk said. “Everybody has a worked together to achieve our goals.”
The coach said most strides have taken place with defending and hitting the ball.
“Our hits are more powerful, and we’re defending our position better,” she said. “Our serves have improved also.”
The starting lineup includes senior captains Brittany Woodson, setter (119 service points, 220 assists, 75 digs); and Kaitlyn Knurek, right side (115 kills); seniors Jasmine Blades, middle, Melissa Pokorny, left side, and Amanda Loubnan, middle (75 kills); and juniors Cassie Ng, left side, Niara Rowe, front left side, and Sarah Franczak, libero (120 digs).
Other players who have seen action include juniors Abby Crocco, Emily King, Gabby Loftus, Jennifer Sierra, Kayla Simon and Emily Turso.
The J.P. Stevens girls’ volleyball team has been one of the winningest programs in the GMC, and this year is no exception. The Hawks are 14-5, which comes on the heels of an 18-9 record a year ago.
J.P. Stevens has depended on an experienced lineup with 10 seniors and only one junior on the roster.
However, that lone underclassman, Sidney Lin, is a powerful server and leads the team in assists with 528 assists. The other returning starters include outside hitter Kayla Smith, who has 140 digs, and middle blockers Jamina Morris and Nina Carlsen, who have 132 and 107 kills, respectively.
Newcomers to the lineup include Rebecca DiSerio, opposite; Michelle Qiou, libero; Echo Wang, outside hitter; Kassy Valbrun, outside hitter; Jessica Xu, libero; and Sarah Farhan, opposite.