There is no question St. John Vianney went through a tumultuous period after head coach Mark Ciccotelli left the program on July 25 and Derek Sininsky was named head coach on July 27.
“It was definitely a rough situation for everybody, not just me,” Sininsky said. “Obviously, the kids were upset.”
Ciccotelli, in his only season at St. John Vianney, had turned what had been a middling program into a powerhouse. The Lancers had gone 10-1 in 2014, won the Shore Conference Class A Central championship for their first divisional title since 1982 and won a playoff game for the first time since 1982. The win total was the most in school history.
The players had also developed a close relationship with Ciccotelli.
So, Sininsky, the former head coach at Raritan, Monmouth Regional and Marlboro, whose teams had gone 30-60 under him, and the players had to get to know each other. There was almost a whole new coaching staff.
“My biggest thing with the kids was to be very understanding of what’s going on with them because of their emotions. They’re teenagers,” Sininsky said. “I was not there to be a hard-nosed football coach at that time. I wanted to be more of a dad at that time.”
It was not easy. The Lancers, who are enormously talented, had an up-and-down scrimmage season, capped with a loss to eventual NJSIAA South Group V finalist Toms River North in the final scrimmage.
Then, after a penalty-filled 30-21 win at Matawan in the season-opener, the corner had been turned. Senior quarterback Anthony Brown, who has made a nonbinding oral committment to Boston College, said after that game he blamed himself for a lot of the turmoil in August and said he had to assume a leadership role on the team.
The rest of the Lancers’ players also realized they could be even better than they were last year.
“Then, about halfway through the season, they ended up not just becoming big-time game players but great practice players,” Sininsky said. “That’s when we (the coaching staff) thought this could be a little bit more special than we thought.”
St, John Vianney (11-0), which has outscored its opponents 500-86, will attempt to win its first NJSIAA sectional or state championship since 1980 when it meets DePaul (5-6) Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III state championship game.
“Our kids, since Day One, have been thinking state championshiip,” Sininsky said. “Coach Hernandez (St. John Vianney assistant coach Eddie Hernandez, one of the holdovers from last year’s staff) has said, ‘You don’t want to feel the same way you felt last year (when the Lancers lost at Delbarton in a Non-Public Group III semifinal).’ This is one step further, but we need to finish it the way we’ve practiced and played all year long. It’s one last game at Rutgers.”
It will not be easy for St. John Vianney. DePaul is an extremely talented team, led by highly recruited senior running back Kareem Walker, who had been committed to Ohio State until he decommited from the Buckeyes last month.
The Spartans played a brutal schedule. Their losses are to three out-of-state teams, Non-Public Group IV finalists St. Joseph (Montvale) and Don Bosco Prep and Non-Public Group IV semifinalist Bergen Catholic. Four of the losses were by a combined 14 points.
DePaul’s two playoff wins, over teams that went a combined 17-4, were both by 27 points.
“They’re a lot like us — an 11-0 type of football team,” Sininsky said. “This is our best competition by far. My whole thing is we’re just looking at it as another game.”
St. John Vianney has defeated sectional finalists Rumson-Fair Haven and Raritan and sectional semifinalists Matawan and Red Bank Catholic. Only two of its games were decided by less than 10 points. Nine of its wins are by 30 points or more.
“It’s definitely been a one-time experience for me,” Sininsky said. “I’ve never had players like this from the quarterback right on through the whole roster. I’ve been very fortunate to be put in this situation. God had a plan, put me here, and we’re going with it.”
The turmoil of the late summer is just a distant memory from which the Lancers have grown from.
Steven Falk: 732-643-4267; email@example.com