BOUND BROOK, NJ – New Providence’s first year head coach Art Cattano had the extremely simple task of replacing a New Jersey football coaching legend when he was tabbed to replace the irreplaceable Frank Bottone on the Pioneers’ sideline before this season. Bottone not only created the Pioneers’ football program in 1963 – its first year of varsity competition came two years later – but he built it into a well-run, well-respected regional football power. Last season, in his final game on the New Providence sideline, Bottone coached his beloved Pioneers to a state championship in what was his 334th and final victory. Yet the search for his replacement never left the locker room. Bottone handed over the reins to the program to Cattano, an assistant coach on his staff the past 32 years.

“Art was always my first choice,” Bottone told the Star-Ledger over the summer following Cattano’s hiring. “He’s a homegrown boy. He’s been with the whole program as a player and as a coach. He was the best choice.”

If one were to grade Cattano on his performance three games into the 2011 season, there would be little debate. The man who now doubles as the head coach of both the Pioneers’ football and basketball teams – he’s won 391 games and a state championship of his own on the hardwood – has passed the test of the first quarter of the season with flying colors. The Pioneers are 3-0 and are fresh off a dominant victory over the Bound Brook Crusaders Friday night at LaMonte Field, 46-7.

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Right now, New Providence looks to be on the fast track back to New Meadowlands Stadium, thanks in large part to an absolutely punishing ground game. Led by senior running back Dave Barletta, the Pioneers are essentially running an updated version of the same Wing-T offense that Bottone ran for years. Yet it was Cattano who – as the team’s offensive coordinator during last season’s state championship run – tweaked the Wing-T and came up with the “Spinner” series of plays that have sort of turned the Wing-T into more of a zone read, triple option type of attack.

Barletta’s numbers in the running game are absolutely mind-boggling and it’s no surprise that the big, strong senior (6-5, 205) has already given a verbal commitment to play football at Fordham next season. So far through three games, Barletta has only carried the ball 29 times, yet he has amassed 341 yards rushing and four touchdowns. The means, each time Barletta carries the ball, he averages just under 12 yards per carry, an absolutely ridiculous number. He’s also averaging 113.6 yards per game, a tremendous number which is made all the more impressive considering he is carrying the ball less than 10 times per contest (9.6 carries per game) and rarely takes a snap off as he is one of, if not the best, linebacker on the team.

Against Bound Brook, Barletta put together a seven carry, 103-yard, two touchdown performance and played tremendous defense for the Pioneers. But perhaps his most impressive play of the night was a kickoff return that he initially botched. The conditions were wet and sloppy throughout the entire contest, though Bound Brook’s brand new FieldTurf surface did very well in the elements, and both teams had early issues hanging onto the ball. Neither team was able to pass much at all – the Pioneers completed only 2-of-11 passes and also threw an interception – and NP botched its first two extra point attempts because it couldn’t hold onto the wet football.

After the Crusaders’ lone highlight of the evening – and absolutely stellar touchdown run by Michael Johnson during which he bowled over two would-be tacklers and outran the entire Pioneers’ defense to the left corner of the endzone – Bound Brook kicked off. The kick was low and knuckled hard before hitting the ground about five yards in front of Barlettta, who was standing at about his own 20 yard line. Barletta was up so far because the Crusaders were penalized for excessive celebration after Johnson’s touchdown run which resulted in the kickoff being moved back 15 yards from the 40 to the 25. After the ball bounced off Barletta’s hands it rolled all the way into the New Providence endzone. Barletta chased the ball down, turned around and saw several Crusaders directly in front of him. Instead of trying to down the ball, Barletta came out of the endzone and turned what should have been a huge loss into a 40-plus yard return. His surprising speed and deft footwork for a big man have been great assets for both Barletta and his fellow offensive teammates this season.

Derek Singer kicked off the scoring for the Pioneers when he burst through the line and hit paydirt after a 13-yard scamper. Barletta’s first TD came in the form of a two-yard plunge just minutes later. Quarterback Mike Marchesano scored NP’s next two touchdowns, from one and seven yards out respectively. The Crusaders were down 26-0 before Johnson’s scoring jaunt and as far as points went, that was all Bound Brook would muster on the night.

Barletta opened the scoring in the second half with a 53-yard TD run that put the game well out of reach and signaled the end of the night for the Crusaders. Singer scored again from six yards out just a few minutes later and Chris Contrado finished the offensive explosion with a six-yard scamper. Cattano called off the dogs in the fourth quarter and his second and third string reserves finished off the clock in the fourth quarter, the only period in which New Providence didn’t score.

All told, t he Pioneers finished the night with 230 yards rushing on 37 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. In all, nine different Pioneers carried the ball and four different players scored touchdowns with Barletta, Marchesano and Singer each scoring multiple touchdowns. It was a convincing performance by a unit that has continued to roll against its out-of-conference schedule.

Through one-quarter of the season, things look great for Cattano and crew, but the Pioneers’ new head man has been coaching long enough to know that you never look back to the game you just played, nor do you look ahead of the next game on your schedule. Luckily, New Providence is being guided by a man who has been mentored by one of the best high school football coaches this state has ever seen. If there is one thing the Pioneers’ players can count on it’s that their head coach will stay on-task, on-message and on-point.

That combination, along with a truly dominant ground game, will certainly go a long way in helping New Providence successfully complete the final three quarters of Art Cattano’s first-year football test.   

Right now, the grade’s an A+. As they say, there are only two ways to go from the top and at this point, the only “downhill” in NP’s game is the power running of Barletta and Co., right over, around and through the opponent’s front seven.