NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - When New Providence head coach Frank Bottone gathered his team together after a late-August practice this preseason and announced to them that this would be his 48thand final year as the Pioneers’ head man, emotions understandably ran high. Bottone decided to do things this way so that his impending retirement would not be a distraction to his players once the season got underway. For the past several years, reporters and supporters alike had been forecasting Bottone’s retirement, similar to the way media types and fans of Pennsylvania State University do every season with legendary Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno. Yet unlike Paterno, Bottone decided that this would be his final season at the helm and rather than have his players answer questions about whether they thought their coach might retire at the end of the season, the only head football coach New Providence has ever known put all the speculation to bed before the first game was even played.

Bottone’s players have rallied around their coach all season and Saturday’s victory over Verona proved just how dangerous a team the Pioneers can be when their backs are pressed firmly to the wall. Down 13-0 at halftime, New Providence came out of the locker room and utterly dominated the second half of their NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 1 semifinal game against the visiting Verona Hillbillies.

“It was an all-around effort,” said senior running back Vinny Fuschetto who carried the ball 23 times for 116 yards and two second half touchdowns. “We were down 13-0 [at halftime] and we knew in the locker room we were going to come back. We came back and now we’re going to Giants Stadium.”

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Bottone added: “We were hurting ourselves [in the first half], missing blocks and missing tackles. The second half we got back and boy, once we scored our kids, they knew we were back in it and they got all souped up. They did it last week [against Hoboken] and they did it this week, a little closer this week, but they stick together and they hang together and they don’t quit.”

Saturday’s match-up was certainly a tale of two halves, for both teams. For as dominant as Verona was during the first 24 minutes of game time, New Providence turned the tide and controlled the final 24. The Hillbillies held the Pioneers to just 53 total offensive yards in the first half yet the Pioneers – behind Fuschetto’s slick moves out of the backfield and improved offensive line play up front – rushed for 121 yards in the third quarter alone. While Verona quarterback Matt Rosenfeld was firing strikes all over the field in the first half, including touchdown tosses to Billy Meade from five yards out in the first quarter and a two-yard perfectly thrown fade to Bobby Kaslander as time expired in the first half, the Pioneers were stuck in neutral and turned the ball over three times.

Yet just as was the case last week against Hoboken, the Pioneers came roaring back in the second half and while some coaches scream, shout and verbally explode in an effort to fire up their players, Fuschetto insisted that there were no such outburst from Bottone and his coaching staff.

“Nothing [was said at halftime]. We just knew we could come out and beat this team in the second half, so we came out and beat them,” Fuschetto said.

The Pioneers began the third quarter with a 73-yard touchdown drive that was a display of play-calling and execution. Fuschetto finished the Pioneers’ opening drive of the second half with a four-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-goal from the 4 yard line. The big play of the drive was a highlight-reel 53-yard rush by Fuschetto that seemed to spark New Providence’s sideline and fans. It became clear from the moment Fuschetto crossed the goal line that this was a different Pioneers’ team than the one that had left the field at the end of the first half down touchdowns and seemingly confused and in disarray.

After New Providence’s defense forced a three-and-out by Verona on the Hillbillies’ ensuing possession, the Pioneers marched right down the field again. This time, 6-foot-6 quarterback Jack Cole took a keeper in from a yard out to tie the score at 13-13 where it would remain after the Pioneers’ PAT was blocked.

With momentum fully behind Fuschetto, Cole and the rest of the Pioneers, Kaslander returned the ensuing kick-off 40 yards to the Hillbillies 45 yard line. On the next play, Rosenfeld slipped a bubble screen out to Kaslander and Verona’s all-purpose threat scampered 53 yards to the Pioneers’ 2. Rosenfeld then snuck forward on three straight plays; the third and final keeper resulted in a Hillbillies touchdown from the half-yard-line. However, special teams failed Verona as a high snap resulted in a failed PAT which made the score 19-13 with just over two minutes to play in the third quarter.

If there were any questions about the closing ability of the Pioneers after their amazing, come-from-behind win over Hoboken a week ago, Bottone’s team not only answered those questions, but they permanently put them to rest after a fantastic three-minute stretch of football in the fourth quarter against Verona. Down 19-13 and watching Verona push the ball up the field, the Pioneers’ defense delivered a big blow when it forced Hillbillies’ running back Cooper Neale to fumble just 10 seconds into the final quarter. New Providence fell on the ball at the Verona 31 and eight plays later, Fuschetto slammed the ball across the goal line after taking a direct snap at the 1. The Pioneers took their first lead of the game after Bobby Fay’s extra point attempt sailed through the uprights.

“Vinny carries us every week. Vinny is the most consistent at that,” Bottone said about his star offensive player. “We use him everywhere, at quarterback and running back. It was a great team effort when we came out and if we’re going to single somebody out, it’s definitely Vinny again. He carries us on his back, but our line did a great job, too.”

After Fuschetto’s go-ahead score, the Pioneers’ defense took over the game. Clearly energized by taking a late lead, New Providence defenders were flying all around the field and making plays. With 5:21 left in regulation, Verona took over for what would be their final drive of the game. The Hillbillies got as far as the New Providence 36 yard line, but Rosenfeld’s fourth down pass fell incomplete with 1:47 left in the game. The defensive stand set the stage for Fuschetto to kill the clock and give the Pioneers and Bottone another remarkable playoff win in 2010.

“Fourth quarter, we shut them down and that was big. We were changing up the defenses a little bit in the second half and mixing [the coverages] up a little bit probably helped,” Bottone said. “We got momentum going and you know what? It’s peaks and valleys in this game. Sometimes you’re up here, sometimes you’re down here but fortunately, we stayed up here for most of the second half.”

With 47 seconds standing between the Pioneers and a trip to New Meadowlands Stadium and a berth in the sectional championship game, New Providence faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 45 yard line when Bottone called a timeout to gauge his team’s feelings on how they should go about icing the game. After about five seconds inside the huddle, the choice was clear: The Pioneers would put the ball into the hands of Fuschetto and go for it fourth down. Pick up one yard and the game was over. Get stuffed and the dangerous Verona offense takes over inside Pioneers’ territory with just under a minute left to try to get into field goal range for the win.

Fuschetto picked up six yards. Game over.

“We were debating [on the sidelines] whether we should kick and try to pin them down there, but they’re too dangerous. They can score from anywhere. And [my players] all wanted to go for it [on 4thand 1], so I said, ‘OK, let’s go,’ and we did and we got it,” Bottone said.

As the New Providence student section rushed the field to celebrate with their football team, Bottone accepted congratulatory handshakes and hugs as Fuschetto embraced first his family, then his girlfriend and finally mugged for the camera with his teammates. After several close playoff losses the past few years, there is just something about this New Providence team that feels like they won’t be denied. They are not only playing for themselves and a chance at championship glory, they are playing for their coach.

“This is the best feeling ever, the best feeling ever. I mean, it couldn’t be better,” Fuschetto screamed after the game as he celebrated with his teammates. His coach, while much more subdued, yet clutching a game ball as if this were his first playoff win and not his 29thsaid simply:

“Maybe it’s our turn now.”

In two weeks, when his team takes the field at that sparkling, brand new billion-dollar football palace in East Rutherford, the entire state of New Jersey will find out if it is indeed the Pioneers’ time. It will certainly be the last time for Bottone as a head coach and judging by the way his team has rallied for him over and over again this season, the Pioneers will do absolutely everything possible to make sure their legendary head coach enjoys just one more day in the sun.