By Steve Spiewak
Last year, all over St. Peter's Prep's locker room and work out t-shirts, head coach Rich Hansen plastered the phrase "The Ring is the Thing." Those five words grew to take on a significant meaning for the Jersey City, N.J., football team.
The ring was the NJSIAA Parochial Group IV state championship ring, which St. Peter's earned with a hard-fought, come-from-behind 22-15 victory against perennial powerhouse Don Bosco Prep at Giants Stadium in December. The ring also helped the team garner a No. 1 ranking in the Tri-State area, according to MSG.
This season, while the ring is still the thing, the Prep football squad has its eyes set on even loftier goals: competing for a national title.
"We're trying to win a national championship," said star linebacker Will Thompson, whose sheer football talent and unquestioned leadership skills have made him a prized recruit. Boston College, Maryland, and West Virginia are among the schools vying for his services.
"We're in that position in the preseason rankings," said head coach Rich Hansen, acknowledging Prep's No. 15 ranking in the Sports Illustrated preseason poll. "We're not worried about talent, or speed. This whole summer is about building team chemistry. When you get to a certain level, all the teams have talent, but chemistry is what puts teams over the top. It's the intangible that has so much to do with success."
If St. Peter's does make a run at a national title, it will unquestionably be due, in large part, to strong team chemistry.
"It's wonderful. On the field and off the field, we help each other out, with things like homework, lending someone some money.we're like a family," senior Shariff Harris said.
Harris transferred from another high school before last season, but was quickly accepted into the football "family." Harris himself is a legitimate Division I-A prospect at running back, though he was a backup last year to All-State standout Kee-Ayre Griffin. He is also drawing interest from Maryland, as well as Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
One anecdote in particular from 2005 stuck out in the players' mind as a demonstration of the camaraderie so present within the team. St. Peter's had the ball on the opponents' goal line, when suddenly, then-junior offensive lineman Rich Brennan lost his pre-game meal. Fellow offensive lineman Emerson Huaranga called a timeout, much to the chagrin of Hansen. After receiving an earful from the coach, Huaranga merely replied, "But coach, I care about him."
Joe Valenti, a potential Division I-A recruit who emerged to be an important contributor at linebacker late last season, also sees the football team as a close-knit unit, recalling a specific moment in the weight room.
"I was doing max lifting on bench press. There were about 30 guys around me, all clapping and cheering. It was like something out of a movie. You don't have that at other high schools," Valenti said.
This support and dedication are even more evident on the playing field. Recently, on a hot July day, 80 players attended a summer workout, virtually every player on the varsity, junior varsity, and freshman level.
"Coaches encourage us to look out for one another," junior Will Hill said. "Training camp made us pull ourselves together through a lot of team drills."
Hill, who will play quarterback, wide receiver, and free safety this season, is perhaps the most talented player on a team loaded with offensive and defensive weapons. Entering his junior season, he has already drawn interest from elite football schools, including Florida and Michigan, and is receiving recognition as the state's top junior.
Hansen, no stranger to gifted players, described the 6-3, 195-pound Hill as one of the top three most talented players he has ever been around. Despite his early success and tremendously bright future, Hill stays humble, and points to Thompson as the team leader.
"He's very passionate, a great motivator," Hill said.
Perhaps the reason the team has gelled so nicely can be attributed to its unity within diversity. Looking like a microcosm of the school itself, the team is an eclectic blend of players from Jersey City and Newark, with suburban students commuting in from up to 75 minutes away.
Transcending geographical and socioeconomic differences, the team truly seems to have become family. Sophomore Nasir Oliver spoke about how competitive the practices often become, mentioning that emotional scuffles between the players eventually built even stronger bonds - much like real families.
"At the end of the day, we come together, like brothers," Oliver said.
Just as in real families, brothers may quarrel sometimes, but will always defend each other against outsiders. This year's St. Peter's Prep football team has come together, seemingly ready to take on any competition New Jersey has to offer.
With high hopes for this season, the quest for a second ring and a national title begins at the same place where the quest for the first ring ended, at Giants Stadium, this time against The Delbarton School, a top New Jersey program. There, on Sept. 9, the season will begin, like all things related to the team, as a family affair.