For 18 Red Hawk players, this past Saturday’s exhilarating 27-20 victory over New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) rival William Paterson Pioneers signaled the last occasion they would ever clip on their pads and march out onto Sprague Field donning red and white.
After enduring a rocky 2017 campaign, the season finale arrived and revelries of Senior Day were on tap with fourth-year players embracing their loved ones out on the turf. Amid a sunny sky albeit chilly temperatures, the upperclassmen were ready to lead their troupe out for one final crusade and conclude their collegiate careers on a high note.
“It really didn’t hit me until the clock hit zero,” said senior defensive lineman Nick Volpe. “That’s when the realization that I’ll probably never play this game again after 16 years set in.”
“During pregame, I knew it was my last game and I really wanted to make a statement to leave off here at MSU,” Volpe said.
Volpe indeed stamped his mark with an emphatic statement in the form of an interception return for a touchdown early in the first quarter, propelling the Red Hawks to a 14-0 lead, spryly lunging at William Paterson quarterback Cornelius Kitchen’s telegraphed screen pass. The Freehold, New Jersey native read it like a book, bobbling the ball around to himself, corralling it and coasting into the end zone before darting to the sideline to animatedly celebrate with his mobbing teammates.
“We were practicing screens all week,” said Volpe, a Colts Neck High School alumnus.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I want to pick one of these off,’ and right from the snap I read it perfect, jumped it and took it back,” Volpe said. “It probably was one of the best football moments I’ve ever had considering it was my last game and my whole family was there. It honestly was just an unreal feeling to go out on.”
The defense and special teams were undoubtedly the driving force behind the Red Hawks’ win, accounting for all the team’s points. And that came as no surprise bearing the cohesive defensive unit laden with senior playmakers. There’s no reason to think this tight-knit team would not rise to the occasion in their final game.
“With the past few seasons being as tough as they have been, I’m sure there are many negative things one could think of to describe their teammates,” said senior captain linebacker Joshua Betts.
“However, that’s not what we do around here. I feel like those trials and tribulations only helped unify us as a group,” said Betts, who led the Red Hawks with eight total tackles. “Seeing that the guys next to you wanted to win just as bad as you did allowed us to develop this brotherly love we have for each other.”
After the Red Hawks soared to a commanding 20-0 edge, the Pioneers slowly crept their way back into the contest. Needing to dig deep, defensive coordinator Todd Agresta challenged his players to make for a crucial stand. With the scoreboard showing 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter, it set the scene for senior defensive back Tyquese Jackson’s curtain call.
“I told Coach [Agresta], ‘Don’t even worry about it. Watch this’,” said Jackson, who already recorded an interception earlier in the game. “Then on the very first play of the drive, I was able to make a break on the ball and return in for a touchdown,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s trusted his instincts, jumping the route on Kitchen’s pass attempt and bringing it back for 32 yards for an interception return for a touchdown, which proved the deciding score.
“On my first interception, my teammates explained how I should have ran in the opposite direction because there was no one there,” said Jackson, a graduate from Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High School.
“I remembered that insight as I caught the ball and cut it back for six,” Jackson said. “I was craving for a touchdown throughout my career here at MSU, and to achieve that in my very last game was a great feeling I will never forget.”
Following another touchdown to cut the Red Hawks’ advantage to a mere seven points, the Pioneers were threatened with under a minute remaining in the game at the Red Hawks’ 33-yard line. Yet once again, a senior rose to the occasion as defensive back Michael Stradford sealed the deal with an interception with 30 seconds left on the clock. The Red Hawks then entered victory formation and knelt to ice the game.
With the final whistle blown and the jerseys hung up, the seniors on defense can now only reminisce upon moments of their tenure at Montclair State. Capping off their careers in Red Hawk Country by avenging a loss to their bitter enemy the year prior only made it sweeter.
“Montclair State football has really been all I’ve known since I got here back in 2014,” Volpe said. “What I’ll miss the most is putting on my pads and heading out there with some of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. Meeting so many quality guys along the way and making memories with them was just a great experience.”
The emotion of the seniors on defense was palpable just watching in the stands this season. The memory of each spell-bounding tackle and interception along with the teammates’ communal roars of intensity will reverberate for years down the road at Sprague Field after their departure.
“This group of seniors are special,” Jackson said. “I would go to war with any of them on any given day. We all have been [so close] since freshman year. We stuck around and never gave up throughout our four years together. Even when things were bad, everyone came to practice ready to work and kept fighting no matter what.”
Wherever life may guide this core group of seniors outside of football, they can be assured that the bonds they formed among each other are imperishable.
“Win or lose, you knew you left it all on the field for your brothers and that they had done the same for you,” Betts said. “There’s a very selfless energy about these guys and I appreciate them for that. Always.”