SUMMIT, NJ – There are quite a few significant dates in Summit’s glorious – and lengthy – football history. 1921 is a special year not just because the first radio broadcast of a Major League Baseball game by KDKA in Pittsburgh helped to birth a new medium of communications, but because Summit High School played its first varsity football game, an 18-0 loss to Orange. In 1928, the Hilltoppers won their first Suburban Conference title and in 1959, Summit captured its first state championship. Three more state championships would follow over the next 14 years including one in 1973, the year Summit was ranked the No. 1 football team in the state of New Jersey. State championships followed in 1976, 1980, 1988, 1993 and twenty-one years after being named the top high school football team in the whole of the Garden State, in 1994 under the direction of head coach Ray McCrann, the Hilltoppers beat Mendham, 26-8 to cap off a glorious 10-1 season and bring home their ninth state title.
There is no doubt that these accomplishments – along with 29 conference championships and unforgettable players like Willie Wilson, Kevin Schroeder and Torrie Fogg to name just a few – are the hallmarks of a venerable and respected varsity football program. Yet by 2006, the numbers and dates had become significant for futility rather than victory.
During that dreaded 2006 season, the Hilltoppers fought their way through the worst season in school history. Summit finished 0-10, yet it was only one loss worse than the 2005 season, a dreaded 1-9 campaign during which the Hilltoppers remained winless all the way up until the season’s final week. And though that season-ending victory was then-head coach George DiGrande’s 100th career victory, no one could have foreseen it being his last as the head man on the Hilltoppers’ sideline.
But fate is a funny thing. After the Hilltoppers muddled their way through that winless 2006 campaign, the decision was made to relieve DiGrande of his coaching duties. It was time for a change and the search was on for a new head coach, though expectations at the time were no doubt tempered by the fact that the Hilltoppers had lost 24 of their previous 30 games. Summit had not experienced a winning season since 2003, when the Hilltoppers went 9-1-1 and won the Iron Hills (Hills Division) title before falling in a disappointing, turnover-filled playoff game to West Essex.
No doubt the playoffs were the furthest thing from the minds of anyone associated with the Summit football program when the decision was made to hire former Hanover Park head coach John Liberato. In 1999, Liberato nearly led the Hornets to an NJSIAA North 2, Group 2 state championship before his team fell to Pequannock, 14-8. After eight years as the head man at Hanover Park, Liberato returned to his alma mater New Providence, and spent four more years under legendary coach Frank Bottone as an assistant. It was Liberato’s second stint as an assistant coach for the Pioneers after stellar wrestling, football and baseball careers there as a student. With the Summit offer on the table, Liberato was drawn to the challenge and in March of 2007, the Summit School Board hired him as its new head football coach.
Liberato hand-picked his own staff before the season and they immediately got to work installing a powerful, fast-paced offensive attack and a stifling, gang-tackling defensive system. Liberato’s first season started out rough, but that was to be expected. You don’t turn a 0-10 team into a state champion overnight. The Hilltoppers finished 3-7 in 2007, but the seeds of success had been planted with Liberato’s first team. Though they may not have known it at the time, Liberato’s first group of seniors had begun a process that remains intact on the Summit sideline today – upperclassmen taking ownership. That first batch of seniors under Liberato’s tutelage showed youngsters like Matt Rea, Joe Jaskolski and Dwaine Dabney how to work hard, how to prepare for games and even practice, and on a smaller scale, how to win.
When the 2008 season rolled around, there was a sense that Summit would no longer be a doormat. Though they hadn’t had a non-losing season since finishing 5-5 in 2004, the Hilltoppers had young talent and though it took a while to get the wheels moving, once they did, Summit took off. Dabney rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 13 times. Rea punched the ball into the endzone 14 times a variety of ways and Jaskolski took over the starting quarterback job. After losing their first two, Summit rattled off four straight wins and finished the regular season with a 4-5 record which was good enough for a playoff berth and though they had given up 40 points in a loss to Liberato’s old school, Hanover Park, just two weeks before, in their playoff meeting, the Hilltoppers stunned the Hornets, 16-6 in the biggest upset of the first round. Liberato had bested his former team and though the Hilltoppers lost a heartbreaker, 32-28 to Governor Livingston in the state semifinals the next week, Summit was clearly a team on the rise.
No one deflects praise quicker than John Liberato. As I covered the Hilltoppers throughout their magical 2009 state championship season, after every 30-point win, after every masterful coaching display, Liberato would never take any credit for his teams’ success. As Summit racked up a record amount of points en route to a school-best 12-0 record and state championship, the head coach who in just three short years had turned the Hilltoppers from winless basement-dwellers to undefeated champions would repeatedly point to his players or assistant coaches as the reasons why Summit was able to do what they done, accomplish what they had accomplished.
“I have had a great bunch of coaches. Any one of them could be a head coach at another school,” Liberato told me Wednesday night, two days before his Hilltoppers look to capture their second state title in three years and cap the best-ever three-year record in school history. “They’re a great bunch of teachers and they teach the game well. It’s the right mix, the right people in the right place at the right time and we have a lot of fun. It’s the same group of guys since Day One when I got here to Summit. I would absolutely support them if they got an opportunity to go [become a head coach elsewhere], but I think they’re comfortable here in Summit. They love the kids and they love community.”
Even after he stood on the field at old Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands and celebrated with his team after they beat Orange, even after he was named the New York Giants 2009 Lou Rettino High School Coach of the Year, Liberato waved and motioned wildly toward the Summit fans – nearly 10,000 had made the trek though the weather outside was below freezing and made even more biting by those famous Giants Stadium winds – as if to point out their impact on the game and to thank them for helping the Hilltoppers to victory that night.
It is still the same today. Liberato’s unending stream of compliments both to Summit High School and its surrounding community are not only genuine, they’re heartfelt and refreshingly sincere. It is never about lip service with Liberato, in any phase of the game, in any phase of life and you know it’s because of this that he – and his players – want to bring home that trophy on Friday and hand it over to the people of Summit more than just about anything.
“The community has been hugely supportive [of me since I was hired] and they were great [during the 2009 state title run],” Liberato said Wednesday night. “And right now they’re very excited the opportunity [the team has to] play an undefeated Madison team at Kean University on Friday night and I think it’s going to be a great community event.”
The 2010 season was bittersweet. Undefeated during the regular season for the second straight year with a 9-0 record, it looked as if the Hilltoppers were going to breeze through the at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. Yet a controversial call in last year’s first round playoff game – a rematch against Orange, no less – sent the game to overtime where Summit fell at home for the first time in 21 games. The seniors lay down on the field and cried. Not only was their streak over, but they felt as if they had let down each other, their underclassmen teammates, their coaches, their head coach, their community.
Liberato didn’t see things that way. Why would he have chosen to look at that loss with anything other than his trademark positive outlook? His returning players shared his viewpoint and also his hunger. Entering the season, the Summit game on opponents’ schedules was no longer an easy win. Far from it, in fact. The one-time bottom-feeders were now everybody’s biggest game and once again, Summit ran through the regular season undefeated. Their third straight 9-0 mark during the regular season. 27-0 for Ryan Bringewatt and Stefano Stadlinger, the senior team captains, Bringewatt the creative and effective quarterback and the beast linebacker Stadlinger.
“It’s not me. It’s not even about me,” Liberato said Wednesday night after his next to last practice before the Hilltoppers face Madison on Friday night. “It’s what we’ve all accomplished together. Number one, it’s the coaching staff. Number two, it’s the community and the school. The most important thing, though, is the investment our players make in the five years leading up to this point. Each group takes ownership of its season, works extremely hard and makes that commitment to lead and also to pass it down to the next class. That’s a lot of time and energy in the off-season.”
If there are two things Liberato knows intimately, they are time and energy. The former three-sport star, tabbed to resurrect a once-proud football program on life support, brought discipline, patience and took the time to re-energize not only the Hilltoppers you see on the field in front of you, but those sitting in the stands and those at home all over area. For Liberato, this game and its historic implications is about everyone and everything but himself. One more win puts the three-year mark at 31-1 with two state titles which would best the 25-1-1 mark that has stood in the Summit record book since the 1971-73 seasons.
Those were the Willie Wilson years and for the man who played 19 seasons of big league baseball, the man who made his Major League debut just three years after he set the Summit single-game rushing record with 238 yards against Millburn, rest assured – Coach Liberato is not only coaching his team and attempting to win this championship for them, he’s doing it for every Hilltopper that’s ever strapped on the pads or cheered from the sidelines or sat in the stands and watched their older brother play the game.
John Liberato wants this championship more than anything, for everyone other than himself.