After graduating a starting backfield that accumulated more than 2,800 yards of total offense, Old Bridge High School football coach Anthony Lanzafama entered the 2013 campaign with cautious optimism.
“It was ugly at times in the preseason,” the fourth-year mentor said earlier this year of his inexperienced team’s spread option attack, which surprised everyone but Lanzafama with a stunning 35-19 season-opening upset of three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville.
“I just promised the kids: ‘Trust us. It’s going to come.’ “
Lanzafama, through impeccable preparation and keen attention to detail, wound up leading Old Bridge (7-3) to its first Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division title and to a second consecutive NJSIAA playoff berth for the first time in a decade.
He is the Home News Tribune’s 2013 Football Coach of the Year.
The coaching legend for whom he played and who he succeeded – New Jersey Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame mentor Bob DeMarco – said, “It (the division title) was something that eluded us.”
“For him to win it this year is a real credit to him, his staff and his players.”
DeMarco, who oversaw the merger of the former Madison Central and Cedar Ridge programs into Old Bridge High two decades ago, knew he was turning the gridiron squad over to the right man in Lanzafama, his former star quarterback and a 1996 graduate of the school.
“As soon as he got out of school, I knew eventually he was going to be a head football coach,” DeMarco said of his former assistant (2001-09) who teaches social studies at Old Bridge.
“There wasn’t any doubt. It’s rare to have someone that commands that respect at a young age, and he did that as an assistant early in his career. Right away (upon DeMarco’s 2009 retirement), I would hope that he would get the position.”
Lanzafama took over the Knights shortly after the school district renovated Lombardi Stadium, installing state-of-the-art lighting, artificial turf, field-length metal bleachers behind both sidelines and an outstanding press box.
He elevated the program to new heights in 2012, helping Old Bridge end a six-year NJSIAA playoff drought, post its first winning record since 2005 and advance to a sectional semifinal for the first time in a decade.
Lanzafama implemented wildly successful “Theme Knights” for home contests, with a different event designed to unite the school community. Activities included Senior Knight, Youth Football and Cheerleading Knight, a season-opening tailgate party and a “Pink Out” for breast cancer awareness that helped raise more than $5,000 for charity.
“Friday night football games became community events,” Old Bridge High School Principal Vinnie Sasso said. “Certainly he deserves a lot of credit for coming up with the idea and bringing all these people (together).”
Lanzafama’s first assistant, Kevin Roberts, who previously served on DeMarco’s staff, said Old Bridge was able to replace its entire starting backfield because his new boss made sure the newcomers were “mentally and physically ready to go at anytime.”
The offense was under the direction of rookie quarterback Nick LaVecchia, who rolled up 1,472 yards from scrimmage and set the school’s single-game passing mark, completing 12 of 14 attempts for 161 yards against Middletown North. LaVecchia finished 32 yards shy of Old Bridge’s single-season record of 904 passing yards.
Lanzafama meets with his players in and out of season, monitoring their academic performance and being available to discuss any personal issues.
The words “trust, character and sacrifice” are the motto of Old Bridge football. “He lives that motto,” Sasso said of Lanzafama. “For me, he is building men, not just football players. He’s doing it based on those three characteristics they bought into.”
Old Bridge’s only regular-season defeats were a 17-16 setback to Piscataway and a 9-0 loss to J.P. Stevens, which capitalized on six turnovers. The Knights were the only area school to defeat two teams – Sayreville and Monroe – that were ranked No. 1 in the Home News Tribune Top 10.
The NFL Giants named Lanzafama their Coach of the Week following Old Bridge’s stunning upset of Sayreville, a victory that enabled the Knights to win the division title outright over the Bombers, who finished with an identical 6-2 record in the Red, because of a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Old Bridge dropped a 24-0 first-round playoff game to Hunterdon Central, which went on to win the Central Group V championship, before defeating East Brunswick to win the school’s first division title.
“Maybe it wasn’t a state championship,” Sasso said. “But look at where we’ve come in just a few years
“It’s just another example of the growth of our football program.”