The moment was more inevitable than magical. At least it was for Bernards coach Jon Simoneau, who’d decided it was time for a freshman to play with the big boys.
Two days before Bernards’ Week 7 game with Pingry in 2009, Simoneau informed tackle Zach DeLeon he would be starting against the Big Blue.
“We got tired of him beating up our starting tackle and Zach hasn’t given it up since,” Simoneau said.
DeLeon had dominated with the freshman and junior varsity teams and was then asked to work out with the varsity. He remembers getting work with the goal-line team.
“I remember it was two nights before the game that he told me I’d be starting, it was definitely just amazing to find out that I was going to play, that I was going to get my big chance,” said the 6-foot-1, 260-pounder, considering Bryant, Columbia, Monmouth among other colleges.
His elevation was somewhat symbolic to a Bernards’ turning point. The Mountaineers were 0-6 when he joined the varsity, then 0-7 after a 13-12 loss to Pingry. A week later it was 0-8 after a 31-8 loss to Johnson at Olcott. In those couple of weeks, classmate Jon Diamond joined him with the varsity.
A 35-13 victory over Roselle Park featured a 60-yard touchdown run by Jason Travaglini that was orchestrated by DeLeon and Diamond blocks.
“It was a 14 dart,” said DeLeon of the play call.
“That first win we did a lot of running behind those two guys,” said Simoneau, adding that DeLeon hasn’t allowed a sack in his career. “We started to break some long runs.”
Simoneau said the two were especially mature for their age and both hard-working. More members of the class of 2013 were on the way — quarterback Devin Ray, who has broken just about every program passing record, and athletic John Maddaluna III, whose father, John, was the cornerstone of CJ I title teams as an All-State back in 1969 and ’70. Seniors Jason Deblaso (OL-DL), Phil Garubo (OL-DL) and Greg Bolton (C-LB) are three-year starters.
“We’re spoiled, we’ve got a very, very good core,” said Simoneau.
Being compared to legendary teams in school history, chasing their milestones was unthinkable just a few years ago after that 1-9 season in ’09. Bernards moved to 3-7 in 2010, then 7-3 last year, winning the Mid-State 38 Hills and qualifying for the North 2 II playoffs.
“It’s been like a complete transformation since we started, you see the difference and we feel like a family now,” said Diamond. “There’s cohesion and confidence.”
One thing that especially hurt last year was the last-minute 10-7 first-round playoff loss to Chatham at Olcott Field. DeLeon recalls some of the crowd having left early, believing the Mountaineers had won their second playoff game, and first since 1997.
“I want it so bad for them to get this done,” said Simoneau.
The special group is something Simoneau appreciates. DeLeon and Diamond are part of a special core of seniors who believe that they let something rare slip away last season. Diamond rushed for 313 yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries and caught 11 passes for 223 yards. He converted 24 extra points, tied for the team lead in tackles with 59 and had four sacks. DeLeon had 38 with three sacks.
“They love and understand the game,” said Simoneau. “And they haven’t missed any time. Zach missed the Del Val game last year because had a 102 fever and Jon’s very, very hard working at everything he does.
“These kids are diligent, they do everything they need to do to get better,” he added.
Diamond, who will play lacrosse at the University of Vermont, also wrestles and will leave Bernards with 11 letters. He’d also like a ring, something a Mountaineer football player has never gotten in the 39-year playoff era. DeLeon, who also plays baseball, was on the team last spring that lost in the sectional final to Madison.