MetLife Miracle: North Bergen wins thriller
For the first time in two days, the noise that had cascaded off the walls inside MetLife Stadium ceased. The ball had long exited the fingertips of Sergio Rodriguez, who released it just in time before being mauled at the 22-yardline on fourth down with no time on the clock and his team down by five points.
Meanwhile, Debray Tavarez tracked its trajectory from the start, sprinted his way into the end zone with that blue New York Giants carpet under his feet, and opened his eyes.
Oddly enough, Rodriguez, Tavarez and North Bergen’s legendary head coach Vin Ascolese engaged in the same act simultaneously as the ball floated into the center of three Montclair defenders.
Somehow, someway, Tavarez held on to the biggest reception in North Bergen’s history and lifted his team to an improbable 14-13 upset of top-seeded Montclair in the sectional championship on Saturday evening.
Tavarez can’t recall what went through his head when he grabbed what will likely go down as the most storied leaping catch in any NJSIAA football title game. He didn't know he'd be the talk of the town when the cerebral Rodriguez rushed to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball before the clock melted to zeroes and the season expired.
But being a centerpiece of the MetLife Miracle, he won’t forget that.
“I saw it, and the first thing I said was, ‘I’m getting that ball,’” said Tavarez, whose squad was as much of an underdog as any in a state-title game. “But that’s the receiver’s job – catch the ball, baby. It just goes to show that anything is possible.”
To fully grasp how wonderful this storybook ending truly was, you have to understand the bonds that kept the Bruins together through a season that had the look of something very different than a championship run.
North Bergen entered this weekend with an 8-3 record – far from the glistening one-loss resumes other finalists showed up with – and at times seemed doomed throughout the fall. The team dropped two of its first three contests, were stomped by St. Peter’s Prep, and let two-point games slip by against Union City and Peddie late in the season, but still found a way to garner an invitation to the North 1 Group 4 playoffs.
Things didn’t get any easier. In the opening round the Bruins stole a 20-14 overtime victory against Passaic Tech. Then they escaped in overtime once again against Union City in the semifinals, 10-7. The Little Engine That Could never ran off track.
Finally, the dream run ended the only way it should’ve for the Ascolese family. It was the picture nobody thought was possible on this night, this splendid night when coach Vin stood in shock at midfield, eyes filling up with tears, listening to the cheers of his community that packed the lower levels.
“I can’t describe it. It’s a miracle,” Ascolese softly offered. “This beats anything I’ve ever done. It’s a miracle.”
The 73-year-old, who still maintained his spot as a strong and influential figure on the sideline despite battling cancer, stated this would be his final season. Win or lose, he was walking away from the game. His grandson, Vinny, is the team’s star linebacker and was hoping to leave on a joyous note, too.
Everybody got their wish.
But all eyes were on Big Vin, who leaves carrying 359 career wins, 12 county titles and seven state crowns in his pocket.
What a way to go out. It was only fitting. Vin Ascolese, as big as the moment, forever a giant on the sidelines, walking off the field a winner. What a wonderful miracle.
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter