For weeks, the Wayne (N.J.) Hills football program went about its powerhouse program business as usual, as if nine players among its ranks hadn't been charged with assault. For long stretches of time, it appeared the school would be able to complete an entire state playoff slate with its full roster, despite a spate of public outrage over the fact that some key figures in the team's success on the field had been involved in a truly violent altercation off it.
In the end, something -- justice, karma or the effects of a growing mob mentality, depending on one's point of view -- caught up to Wayne Hills, with all nine players suspended from the school's New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association Section 1, Group 3 state title. Yet, in a twist, that didn't matter to the final score, with Wayne Hills emerging from the game with another state crown after a 15-12, come-from-behind victory against Old Tappan (N.J.) High.
"It was a huge challenge," Wayne Hills running back Dom Santoro told the Newark Star-Ledger. "We worried about who was at practice, not who wasn't. We just focused and did it."
If it's possible for a state title-winning performance to be overshadowed, that's precisely what happened on Saturday. Before the 7 p.m. kickoff at MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL's Giants and Jets, Wayne Hills pulled out all the stops to gain eligibility for the nine players who have been charged with assault, despite the upholding of their suspension by state legal and educational officials. Wayne Hills tried to mount a last ditch appeal effort with the state's educational board on Saturday, just hours after acting commissioner of the New Jersey state Board of Education Christopher Cerf officially upheld the suspension of the players.
The nine players were suspended in connection with the charges of aggravated assault after their involvement in a post-party brawl with students from Wayne (N.J.) Valley High, in which two Wayne Valley players were beaten and at least one was reportedly left unconscious in the street.
That last appeal fell short, and all nine players who were charged sat out what would be a final high school contest for many of them. Yet, perhaps galvanized by the trials and tribulations that have swirled around the program since the players' initial suspension was overturned by the Wayne Board of Education, the remaining Wayne Hills players found a way to fight past a tough Old Tappan program, breaking through with a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Olsen to Jeff Gignac with just 3:05 remaining to take the team's one and only lead of the contest.
That one lead was all it took for Wayne Hills to emerge victorious, with Olsen -- yes, he is related to longtime Wayne Hills coach Chris Olsen (who is pictured above) -- eventually taking a knee and reveling in the Gatorade shower that was deployed on his embattled father. Perhaps it was fitting that the pass was thrown by an Olsen and caught by a wide receiver who spent the entire season on the bench behind the suspended Andrew Monaghan, fighting for reps (Gignac had just five catches all season before his state title-winning grab).
"I just jumped up because I knew I had to get it," Gignac told the Star-Ledger. "Jump up and catch it was all I had to do because I was in the end zone."
The victory ensures that Wayne Hills will add yet another prestigious title in the state record books, yet this one clearly comes with an asterisk, both in terms of public opinion and actual results. While only one of the nine players involved with the October assault is known -- eight are still minors, and have therefore had their identities protected -- that player, starting wide receiver and special teams star Monaghan, played a significant role in the team's semifinal victory against Paramus (N.J.) High, a game in which Monaghan continued to serve as a team captain.
That decision -- and Monaghan and his indicted teammates' availability to play in that semifinal in the first place -- will likely come under scrutiny for ages to come. Still, by winning on Saturday, Monaghan's teammates who were completely unconnected to the assault proved one thing on their own: They could win a state crown without the help of players who many felt were being shielded for their athletic talent anyway.
For his part, Olsen feels those asterisks shouldn't be there at all, insisting that he will stand by his program's record of integrity, regardless of what the general public thinks.
"I put our program and what it stands for -- camaraderie, tradition, family -- against any other program in the country," Olsen told the Star-Ledger after his team's state title-winning performance.
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