By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
If there was anyone who headed to Kearny High School last Friday night and expected to see a high school football game and saw nothing instead, you weren’t mistaken.
The Kearny High School Board of Education and administration decided to cancel its scheduled game with St. Peter’s Prep because, after meeting with head football coach Pete Llaneza, they felt that their players were in danger if they played the Number four-ranked team in the state.
“They (the Board of Education) asked for my opinion and I told them how I felt,” Llaneza said. “I wasn’t ready to allow my players to get hurt. I wasn’t going to play kids who were unprepared to play against some who will be playing major college football. It was all about the safety and well-being of our players. I care about our kids. I’ll take the hit on this one. I’ll take the heat. My concern is with our players. What would have happened if someone got hurt?” But injuries can always happen in football, regardless of the opposition. Football is a sport where injuries take place. A football player takes the risk of getting hurt every single time he puts on the helmet and shoulder pads, even in practice. Injuries are unfortunately a part of the sport no matter who you’re playing.
Llaneza’s decision not to play the game against St. Peter’s sends an awful message to everyone.
He might not want to admit it – and got angered when the idea was approached Friday after news of the cancellation filtered down – but it sends out a message that his team was afraid to play.
Now, did the Kardinals have a numbers problem? Even Llaneza admitted he had 35 kids able to play Friday, but some of those were a little banged up.
When a team forfeits a game, it’s usually because they don’t have sufficient enough numbers to play. It’s not because they’re not competitive enough to play. So the numbers problem was not an issue.
Llaneza said that his team would play the next scheduled game this Friday against Union City.
Well, what gives there? Are we picking and choosing which games we’re going to play? Hey, we’ll play Union City, but we can’t play St. Peter’s, because they’re simply too good and someone could get hurt.
Hate to say it, but that’s an absolute crock. You cannot decide which games you want to play and which ones you don’t want to. That’s not how football works. If your team is not competitive enough, you line up and play the game regardless.
What did the cancellation say to the players who busted their tails in practice all week? They went through a week’s worth of preparation, some 10-12 hours of their time to get ready to play – and then sat and watched as the rug was collectively pulled from under their feet.
Here’s a novel approach: Did anyone, from Llaneza on down to interim superintendent Ron Bolandi, ever think of asking the players how they felt about playing?
I would bet that every single kid would have voted to play, regardless of the outcome.
After all, it’s their right. It’s their sport. It’s not the sport for officials and administrators and elected officials and even football coaches. It’s a sport for the players.
Yet, a decision to cancel a game and make these kids look like scared and frightened children was made without their consent? They’re the ones who have to put the uniforms on next week, travel to Union City and face the scorn of being the team branded as “too chicken to play.”
Did anyone ever consider that?
Bolandi defended the action of cancelling the game.
“When you have a game like this and you’re playing kids who don’t know how to block and tackle and putting them in harm’s way, then there’s no question we were doing the right thing,” said Bolandi. “My concern was the safety of our young men.”
Bolandi said that he received calls and e-mails from parents and from Board of Education members that were in favor of the decision.
“The parents were very concerned,” Bolandi said. “They were asking me not to play the game.”
Bolandi was asked if he was worried about the perception Kearny will have from now on.
“I don’t care if we get a black eye from this,” Bolandi said. “All of it goes out the door if a kid gets hurt. No boxer wants to throw in the towel, but sometimes, it happens.”
There were ways to work around this situation. The officials could have been warned about the possible mismatch, so they could take the clock management into their own hands. The coaches could have agreed to go easy because of the disparity in talent. There were better ways than to cancel on the last day.
Llaneza said that he had his concerns about playing St. Peter’s last week, especially after the Marauders mauled Memorial, 77-7. Memorial is coached now by Oscar Guerrero, the man who Llaneza replaced as Kearny head coach three years ago, when Guerrero decided to go back to his high school alma mater.
Llaneza said that he first reached out to St. Peter’s head coach and athletic director Rich Hansen about cancelling the game last Sunday.
“But he said that he wanted to play the game because it would be hard to find a replacement at this point,” Llaneza said.
So if Llaneza had the concerns and the desire to cancel last Sunday, why was there a wait until Friday to pull the plug? He said that he needed to wait to get approval from his superiors.
Waiting until the last minute to decide just made a bad situation far worse.
There’s also the factor that Prep brings a ton of fans with them to their games. The ticket gate could have been more than $5,000, easily the biggest crowd for a Kearny football game in ages.
“That was the furthest thing from my mind,” Bolandi said. “My concern wasn’t the revenue. It wasn’t winning or losing. My concern was the kids’ safety.”
While Llaneza and Bolandi were in concert about cancelling the game, Kearny athletic director John Millar was not.
“I am extremely disappointed about this,” Millar said. “I was in opposition of cancelling the game. It contradicts everything I wanted to do. We should have played the game. What do you tell your team? That you’re not good enough to play? If we played, imagine the credibility we could have gained. We could have been so proud.”
Here’s the last point. If you’re going to decide that you’re not competitive enough to play one game and worried and concerned for the safety of your players, then you might as well pull the plug on the entire season.
Because let’s face facts. The same fears will have to be addressed this week when the Kardinals are scheduled to face Union City, a big, strong, athletic team with sights on competing for an NJSIAA Group IV state championship. Do you cancel again?
If they decided to discontinue the program and end the season, then this cancellation makes sense. Right now, it does not. If you are going to continue to play, then that game had to have been played.
Bolandi said that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of discontinuing the season.
“The entire season now bears the issue and it’s a decision that has to be considered with our coach and athletic director,” Bolandi said.
A couple of things are very important here. First, Kearny’s football program cannot fairly compete with the other schools in the new-fangled Hudson County Interscholastic League and certainly not with the bigger schools in the National Division like St. Peter’s, Union City and North Bergen.
It would make perfect sense for Kearny to try to separate from the HCIL for football alone and try to go independent. It would also make more sense to face local schools in similar situations, like Harrison, Belleville, North Arlington and Queen of Peace. Make it a five-school round robin and then find four other independent games elsewhere.
The Kearny Board of Education should then institute a true feeder program, teaching kids how to play football in grammar school gym classes, then forming some sort of a travel team program for the sixth-through-eighth graders.
If those things happened, then there would never be a reason to cancel and forfeit football games.
If they don’t happen, then why bother? Just eliminate football altogether.
“If we’re not going to do it the right way, then don’t do it at all,” Bolandi said. “Maybe this forfeit will have a positive come out of it.” Maybe – if the powers-that-be see the light and make the necessary changes. If not, then the debacle of Friday night is just a sad mistake with nothing good coming out of it.
The losers in all of this? The group of dedicated, hard-working, willing-to-learn young men who gave of their time to play the sport of football. They were denied that chance last Friday night and simply put, that’s just wrong.