Montclair State Football Reclaims NJAC Glory With North Division Title

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Published May 31, 2021
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The Montclarion
Red Hawks junior safety Brennan Ray runs down the sideline. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

The Montclair State University football team’s season looked much different this year than in the past, but their ultimate goal was still accomplished as they took home the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) North Championship.

Head coach Rick Giancola talked about his team’s success this year despite all the challenges.

“I saw a football team that was determined to find ways to deal with the COVID[-19] situation, regardless of how many adjustments they had to make, while also keeping themselves safe and healthy both here and at home,” Giancola said.

The Red Hawks huddle up before their scrimmage against Wesley in March 2021. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

The Red Hawks huddle up before their scrimmage against Wesley in March 2021.
Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

The Red Hawks started their season at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, on March 13. In control for most of the game, the Red Hawks scored the first 21 points of the game and won in impressive fashion, with the final score being 41-12.

The win was highlighted by senior cornerback Zahir Wilder’s 93-yard opening kickoff touchdown, the second-longest in program history. Wilder earned Special Teams Player of the Year this season after averaging 49 yards per runback.

“Over the years I worked extremely hard to get to the position where I am today,” Wilder said. “Without my brothers blocking for me I don’t know if I could’ve made it happen, so I want to thank them for trusting me and knowing that I will get the job done. I believe it was only a matter of time before I took one back for a touchdown, because over the years I returned a few kicks for over 70+ yards just never made it to the touchdown.”

Red Hawks senior defensive back Zahir Wilder returns the opening kickoff for a touchdown during the Red Hawks season opener against Kean on March 13. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

Red Hawks senior defensive back Zahir Wilder returns the opening kickoff for a touchdown during the Red Hawks season opener against Kean University on March 13.
Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

Unfortunately, the Red Hawks dropped a heartbreaker to Wesley University, 20-13. After a rushing touchdown by senior captain/quarterback Ja’Quill Burch that cut Wesley’s lead by seven, the Wolverines made two defensive stops in the fourth quarter and sealed the victory.

However, the Red Hawks bounced back in a big way, clinching the NJAC North Championship with a 28-0 victory over William Paterson University.

A standout performer in that game was sophomore running back Abellany Mendez. He scored two running touchdowns in the second quarter, rushing for 111 yards in the game and 187 on the season with four touchdowns.

Red Hawks sophomore running back Abellany Mendez tries to get past a Wesley defender during their March 20 contest at Sprague Field. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

Red Hawks sophomore running back Abellany Mendez tries to get past a Wesley defender during their March 20 contest at Sprague Field.
Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

For his efforts this season, Mendez was named NJAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year, the first Red Hawk to win the award since 2010 and the fifth in program history.

“It’s a great accomplishment but it’s something that you don’t settle on,” Mendez said. “I look forward to accomplishing and achieving more.”

Mendez and Wilder were not the only players to take home postseason honors. Junior safety Zack Zaccone was named NJAC Defensive Player of the Year and legendary head coach Giancola received Coach of the Year honors. In total, 16 Red Hawks were selected to the NJAC all-conference teams.

For Zaccone, winning Defensive Player of the Year is something he has been working toward for quite some time.

“After I had an outbreak season [last year], I sat down with my defensive coach and had a meeting with him and we both agreed that next year I had the potential and attitude to win NJAC Defensive Player of the Year,” Zaccone said. “So winning this award wasn’t just for me but my teammates and coaches. It’s an honor and huge achievement for me for winning NJAC Defensive Player of the Year.”

Red Hawks junior defensive back Zack Zaccone and Wilder tackle a Wesley player trying to run upfield. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

Red Hawks junior defensive back Zack Zaccone and Zahir Wilder tackle a Wesley player trying to run upfield.
Photo courtesy of Nicolette Lepore

Despite a drastically shortened season that saw the NJAC football conference split into two divisions, the Red Hawks’ mentality this season was to walk away as champions regardless of the circumstance.

“When a few things changed throughout the league, my mindset didn’t and I don’t believe my teammates’ mindsets changed either,” Wilder said. “That’s why we were able to send my senior brothers out as NJAC North champions.”

Throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all of Montclair State’s athletic programs have battled the pandemic valiantly. This year’s football team is just another example of how resilient these Red Hawks have been during such turbulent times.

“I have never been involved in a coaching situation that had so many twists and turns,” Giancola said. “Every day there seemed to always be an issue that would disrupt the planning and the organizing of the day’s practice. I will remember the heartbreak of our players when they found out about someone in their family being positive and how it affected his life. I will always remember how our football family rallied around each other to help and support their teammates in a time of need.”

Giancola believes the pandemic has provided him an important lesson.

“I will remember that the game of football and athletics is not about only winning but it is about the relationships that are created and the bonding and the brotherhood that is established for the rest of our lives,” Giancola said.

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