EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – As the clock ticked down on Saturday’s NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 1 championship game between New Providence and Lincoln at New Meadowlands Stadium, the estimated 3,000 New Providence fans who made the trip to support their Pioneers followed the band by singing the classic victory song, “Na, Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye.” Yet even though the New Providence faithful were serenading the soon-to-be defeated Lincoln Lions, the Pioneers’ championship victory did serve as a goodbye. With a 21-8 victory, one full of timely offense and suffocating defense by a Pioneers team that was intent on winning this championship for one man – head coach Frank Bottone – the outcome marked a bittersweet goodbye to the man who built the New Providence football program. The only coach the Pioneers have ever known was mobbed by his team at midfield. It was Bottone’s 334thcareer victory and his last. It was the perfect ending to a legendary career.
“Today was like a dream come true,” an emotional Bottone said after the game at midfield as he was surrounded by at least 10 journalists, three television cameras and microphones and countless recording devices. “To win a championship was their goal and they sent me out like a storybook ending. [The players] wrote the script and it was just perfect. I thank them for this.”
Unlike their nail-biting, come-from-behind playoff victories over Hoboken and Verona, the Pioneers led the entire game. New Providence displayed a stifling defense, one that would only allow one touchdown to a Lincoln team full of highly-skilled offensive players. In fact, Lincoln crushed Dayton, 42-14 in its playoff game just before taking on the Pioneers in the championship on Saturday yet from the opening kickoff, the Pioneers were flying around the field defensively.
The Lions took the opening kickoff but were immediately forced to punt after a three-and-out highlighted by Joe Ferratti’s big sack. The Pioneers looked poised to score after driving to the Lincoln 2, but quarterback Jack Cole had the ball knocked loose as he tried to reach for the goal line after carrying the ball on a designed quarterback carry. The Lions recovered but were held in check once again by the Pioneers’ defense and set up for a punt from their own end zone, but quarterback Ron Butler, who doubles as the Lions’ punter, had no room to punt and scrambled wildly around the end zone and somehow found his way through New Providence’s special teams for a 56-yard gain.
The big fourth down play seemed to shift momentum in Lincoln’s favor, but the New Providence defense came up with a huge play when David Barletta hung back, read Butler’s eyes and intercepted the quarterback’s pass and returned it for an 86-yard touchdown to put the Pioneers up, 7-0.
“It was kind of hard to read his eyes with the sun a little bit, but I kind of saw it so I went after it and I was able to get it and I just ran,” Barletta said of his 86-yard pick-six.
It was a lead New Providence would not relinquish.
While Lincoln continued to struggle offensively, the Pioneers put together a big drive just before the end of the first half that would provide all the cushion New Providence would need on the afternoon. Quarterback Jack Cole and senior running back and touchdown machine Vinnie Fuschetto worked in tandem as the Pioneers went 64 yards on 12 plays while taking 6:41 seconds off the clock. The drive culminated in Fuschetto’s six yard touchdown run just inside the near pylon with 39 seconds left in the first half. After Robby Fay’s extra point sailed through the uprights, the Pioneers held a 14-0 lead at halftime and the countdown to history was on for Bottone and his squad.
After halftime, Lincoln came out of the locker room on fire, determined to get back into the game. However, the Lions were matched at every turn by the Pioneers. Several times in the second half, the Lions would carve up big chunks of yardage, but New Providence’s bend-but-don’t-break attitude would not allow Lincoln to cross the goal line. The Pioneers used Fuschetto in the running game to eat up yards and take time off the clock, content to play conservatively on offense with a two touchdown lead, secure in the knowledge that their defense was playing too well to be beaten on this day.
For most of the third quarter, the teams engaged in a field position battle, but with 3:03 left in the period, Cole launched a perfect 30-yard touchdown pass to P.J. Vigilante immediately following a 40-yard run by Fuschetto that turned field position in the Pioneers’ favor. The long bomb caught the Lions completely off-guard as Vigilante got behind two Lincoln defensive backs to haul in Cole’s pass and slide across the goal line for the back-breaking touchdown. Again Fay converted the PAT and the Pioneers led 21-0 with just over 15 minutes to play in the game. Once again, the defense would answer the bell.
“It took a lot of heart, strength and a solid mindset [to beat Lincoln]. We knew we would need all three to beat them and we brought it into game and played a great game,” Barletta said. “Defensively, we played great, definitely as a team. Our front line did a great job in the first half of keeping [Lincoln’s offense] contained and when they tackled, the brought them right down. I would say we gave a great team effort. We played with a lot of strength in there, the linebackers and we were able to hold them down.”
Lincoln finally got on the board when Butler broke the plane after a 9-yard touchdown run with 8:53 left in the fourth quarter. The Lions went for two and converted and looked to be moving the ball well on their next possession, but the drive was derailed by two costly penalties – one a block in the back that negated a huge run by Butler – and a huge sack by New Providence’s Zach Troutman. After the Butler’s heave on 4thand 38 was completed just short of the first down marker, the clock-watching commenced in earnest and the chants from the New Providence fans got louder and more enthusiastic as everyone in the stadium sensed the magnitude of the moment.
Following the state championship trophy presentation, Bottone was surrounded by his team. Each player hugged the man that has meant so much not only to the New Providence community but for the game of football in the state of New Jersey. One by one, the Pioneers embraced their coach and thanked him, followed by a long line of former players and finally, Bottone’s wife Betsy found her husband in the midst of the celebration.
“Forty-four years ago, I won my first state championship, in 1967. Forty-four years later, I got another one. How about that,” Bottone asked the throng of media assembled around him. At that point, a reporter asked him about a particular play in the third quarter after Cole’s touchdown pass and Bottone, still smiling from ear-to-ear, answered:
“My head is spinning, I don’t even remember some of the plays in the second half. Right now, I’m elated. I can’t imagine this. If someone was writing a script for my career, to end it here at Giants
Stadium…you know, it was nice of them to go and build this stadium for me and my last game.”
And with that answer, Bottone embraced his wife and ended the interview and walked back to his team, content not only with the game’s outcome, but surely with a lifetime spent bettering a community, bettering countless young men’s lives and bettering the game of football. Though he was obviously joking about New Meadowlands Stadium being built in his honor, it is not a stretch to think that the next stadium to be erected on the campus of New Providence High School will bear his name.
Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to a man who built the New Providence Pioneers literally from the ground up.