The atmosphere before kickoff this past Saturday at Sprague Field was filled with optimism. After all, it was the Red Hawks’ home opener and there was plenty to be enthusiastic about. The team came in riding the wave of a dominating 24-0 victory at Southern Virginia the week prior. But that hopeful mood came crashing down as the final whistle blew.
The Red Hawks fell to their New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) foe Christopher Newport, 16-8, in a sloppy affair. As Montclair State somberly filed out of the stadium, the inescapable rattling noise of the disappointed fans’ sluggish steps pounding the metal bleachers echoed. They departed on a dreary note instead of the once cheerful outlook three hours beforehand.
Despite the loss, the pep band struck up a final tune as the crowd exited. The Red Hawk players – drenched in sweaty defeat following a game in the scorching heat that only intensified on the field. The players congregated for their postgame ritual, kneeling at the midfield emblem awaiting a speech from head coach Rick Giancola.
As the 10-time NJAC Coach of the Year award winner began to address his squad, Giancola abruptly turned around. He gradually headed towards the ensemble of instruments playing in the stands. As he neared the fence on the track to grab the band’s attention, Giancola sternly gazed up and signaled with his hand across his neck to cut the music.
It’s unknown to those who were not in the huddle as to exactly what Coach Giancola said during his visceral reaction. Giancola, who is amid his 35th season in the Montclair State football program, certainly did not mince any words later on regarding his team’s underwhelming performance.
“When you turn the ball over six times with four interceptions, two fumbles and have nine penalties assessed against you, it’s pretty difficult to win,” said Giancola.
Minimizing penalties has been a tough task for the Red Hawks so far this season. Giancola made it clear that it will be an aspect to hone in on during practice this week.
On what turned out to be the most crucial drive of the game, Christopher Newport took over at their own 11-yard line at the 7:31 mark in the third quarter due to a botched hold on a would-be 32-yard field goal attempt by Montclair State’s junior kicker, Hunter Daly. If the Red Hawks had capitalized, the score would have been cut in half, 6-3.
The Captains marched down the field for another touchdown, making the score 13-0, thanks to four penalties for a total of 40 yards that equated to two first downs. Yet, Giancola alluded that not all the penalties were obvious, such as junior linebacker Mauro Altamura’s, who led the Red Hawks with 12 tackles that day, 15-yard pass interference call.
“Some of the penalties are questionable – like a pass interference call – in terms of what an official sees and how he interprets the play,” said Giancola.
“What he sees whereas to what we see after we take a look at the tape the following day may vary. Most of the time they’re right. Sometimes they’re wrong. But offside penalties and lining up in the wrong formation are solely on us. Those are the things that we can control and we must go over those on the sideline to make sure that they don’t happen again.”
The penalties aside, the Red Hawks had a rough time generating offense altogether as sophomore quarterback Ryan Adzima struggled by throwing two interceptions before being relieved by backup quarterback John Apicella at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Apicella valiantly tried to rally the Red Hawks to a comeback win, completing eight passes for 132 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Coach Giancola did not go out on a limb to say that there is a controversy brewing, but was straightforward in stating that the starting role will be earned by whoever wants it more.
“Well, right now we’re back to normal practice,” said Giancola. “We’ll see how we practice and see how the young men go through practice and make a [decision] Friday or gameday.”
Coach Giancola could not stress enough how vital efficiency in the red zone is.
“Well, certainly we have to play better in terms of the penalties and turnovers,” said Giancola. “We have to be able to get the football in the scoring zone. I think we were in the scoring zone twice and came away with no points with a missed field goal.
“So, when we get into the situation where you have an opportunity to score we have to point to our guys and say, ‘Look, this is important. Once we’re in there we gotta execute.’ We’re gonna emphasize that in practices during the week.”
Coach Giancola also stated that because games are decided in the trenches, the ability for his players to adapt on the fly is essential.
“When the defense is playing well, we obviously have to control the line of scrimmage,” said Giancola.
“They did a lot of moving, slanting and twisting. Those are tough things for an offensive lineman to deal with. We did it fair but not well enough. I think this week we’re going to see some of that again with Kean. They’re not gonna just sit there and let us come at them and block them.”
Coach Giancola has been around the block and knows what motivational buttons to push for the Red Hawks to get back on track this season, starting next week at home against rival Kean University at 1 p.m. This week will prove if his players are up for the challenge.
“They have our film and we have their film so it’s not gonna be a secret,” said Giancola. “We just gotta be prepared better for it.”