They’ve kept close tabs from a distance, with each successive Red Bank win rekindling memories from back in the day. They were even honored at halftime of a game in early October, but the current Bucs were only 3-0 at the time, with so much yet to prove.
But on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, unbeaten Red Bank will have a chance to win the school’s first NJSIAA sectional championship since the undefeated 1975 team completed what was dubbed the “Impossible Dream” season.
“Right now we are very proud of the way they’ve persevered after all those losing seasons. But they believe in one another, and what they’re doing is amazing,” said Cookie Lewis, the star quarterback on the last title team, whose older brother, the late Ty Lewis, went on to coach the Bucs.
“People call me and send me articles about what they’re doing, and it’s remarkable,” said Bob Strangia — who coached the Bucs to three undefeated seasons between 1971 and 1975 — from his home in Hobe Sound, Florida.
Four decades removed from the Bucs taking the field against Rumson-Fair Haven, it was Strangia who was awakened by a knock on his door at 6 a.m. on a beautiful Saturday morning. When he opened it, Lou Vircillo, his offensive coordinator, was standing there.
“I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” recalled Strangia of the hours before they hosted Hightstown in the Central Jersey Group II final. “He said, ‘I knew you couldn’t sleep, either.’ So I get in his car and he drives me to the cemetery, which doesn’t even open until 7.”
The cemetery was Mount Olivet in Middletown. And Vircillo, a young coach who idolized Vince Lombardi and his teachings, would often make pilgrimages to Lombardi’s gravesite with small groups of players. He didn’t make a big deal about them, using the trips as teachable moments on football and life.
“(Strangia) had never been there before,” Vircillo said. “He was surprised. And he was taken aback, and he was emotional.”
All these years later, Strangia still gets a little misty talking about that moment.
“We were there for 10 or 15 minutes, and I was a little choked up,” Strangia said. “Then I said, ‘Lou, it’s the strangest thing in the world, but I think I hear Vince talking to me. And he’s saying, “Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball.” ’ ”
So that’s what they did, rolling up 348 yards on the ground in their epic 46-44 win over unbeaten Hightstown in Little Silver, in what many still consider the most entertaining NJSIAA playoff game ever.
The Bucs never punted. And after Hightstown’s Brian Ishman caught a 24-yard touchdown pass with 2:16 to play, it was linebacker John Semliatschenko who knocked quarterback Mike Radics out of bounds at the 1-yard line on the two-point conversion.
Lewis finished with 115 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, while throwing for 80 yards and two more touchdowns. Albert Ashton led the team with 118 yards, while junior fullback Tim “Tex” Johnson hammered out 85 yards, scoring twice.
This time around, the Bucs are led by receiver Sadiq Palmer, who has 1,043 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs; quarterback Jack Navistsky, who has 11 touchdowns passing and five on the ground; running back Alim Godsey, with 910 yards and 13 TDs; and linebacker Chris Outterbridge, with 90 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Instead of Hightstown, it’s a top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven team that’s won the last two Central Group II crowns.
“It’s good for the community and good for the school and, most of all, good for those players,” said Lewis, who will be in attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium. “Those guys have really stepped forward this year. My mother and brother still live in Red Bank, and I’ve gotten to three games so far, and I’m really looking forward to Saturday.”
“It’s a tremendous thing, and we’re all rooting for them to pull it off,” said Vircillo, who replaced Strangia in 1976 and led the Bucs to back-to-back division crowns — their last two until this season — before guiding Lacey to four state championships.
And now, 40 years after that inspirational trip to Lombardi’s grave, a new group of Bucs find themselves in position to create a legend all their own.
Staff writer Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org
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