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Cooper: Teammates stay strong by a number

11/12/2011, 5:45pm EST
By DARREN COOPER record newspaper reporter



Cooper: Teammates stay strong by a number

Saturday, November 12, 2011

MOUNTAIN LAKES – Emotion ruled the day. Saddle Brook ruled the game.

Saddle Brook fans and running back Steve Longa wore No. 34 on Saturday to honor injured player Tyler Vitiello.
Saddle Brook fans and running back Steve Longa wore No. 34 on Saturday to honor injured player Tyler Vitiello.

Playing its first game since the serious neck injury to senior Tyler Vitiello, the Falcons put together a dominating performance, trouncing Mountain Lakes, 30-7, in the first round of the North 1, Group 1 playoffs Saturday afternoon.

It may have been the Falcons’ most complete performance of the year. Steve Longa rushed for 199 yards and three scores. Matt Dickman ran for 101 yards and defensive linemen Joe Camilleri and Kyle Bratyanski combined for 18 tackles.

“It was a very emotional week with Tyler,” said Bratyanski, “but we have to move on. That’s all we could do. We have another tough team coming up and that’s what we have to focus on next.”

Saddle Brook, now 10-0, tying a school record for wins, travels to Pompton Lakes for the semifinals.

Everywhere you looked at Wilkins Field, there were signs of Vitiello and his jersey number 34. Family friend Denise Thorne was busy at a table selling shirts with the motto: “Stay Strong #34.”

The Falcons carried a “Stay Strong” banner onto the field, and the Falcons’ crowd alternated chants of Saddle Brook with chants of T-Y-L-E-R. There was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Vitiello attached to the Falcons’ bench.

Mountain Lakes stenciled “TV 34” on the Falcons’ sidelines for the game and had a moment of silence before the game.

On the field, No. 34 was there, too.

“I went to the hospital and Tyler had his jersey there and we were talking and I saw the jersey and I said, ‘Can I have it?’Ÿ” Longa said. “He said, ‘Take it, man, I want you to have it. I want you to wear it.’

“I felt proud that he chose me to wear his jersey and I came out here with one thing on my mind: Play hard and play for Tyler.”

The job for Falcons coach Leo Ciappina this week was to channel that energy into preparation for the Herd. To a man, the Falcons talked about how hard they practiced.

“We knew they were a good team, we just had to put in the time and effort in practice and having Tyler in our thoughts helped keep us in it,” Ciappina said. “The attitude in practice was great and the focus in practice was the key to us winning today.”

“This week truly reminded me of summer camp practice because we came in on Monday, which is usually a light day, and we hit the sled for an hour,” Camilleri said. “It was all for Tyler. We all wanted to work extra hard to do it for Tyler.”

Vitiello is now recovering at the Kessler Rehab Institute in West Orange and has a positive prognosis. At the team dinner Friday night though, his parents talked to the team via Skype.

“I went to visit him the other day,” Dickman said. “He’s doing good. He’s special and he’s going to fight through anything.”

Longa said he went to bed Friday night thinking and praying for Vitiello. In the middle of the night, his cousin told him he was calling out “34! 34!” and came to wake him up.

“I didn’t believe him, but then I remembered,” Longa said. “I was dreaming about Tyler. I was trying not to think about it too much and just play football and [then] go to the rehab center and talk to him and tell him how it went.”

Longa scored on a 24-yard run late in the first quarter then went 45 yards to pay dirt in the second. Alex Fernandez scored on a jet sweep just before half for an 18-0 lead.

Saddle Brook was never seriously threatened and led 30-0 after Kevin Bottine’s 48-yard interception return. The rest of the game was spent watching the clock, listening for Pompton Lakes updates and wondering who was going to be the first to call Vitiello.

“I’m sure half the kids have already called him,” said Ciappina after the game.

Saturday was Saddle Brook’s first playoff victory since 2002. The Falcons are two wins away from the North 1, Group 1 championship and it’s hard to believe any team has a greater motivation.

“[Tyler] was a big part of our team, he still is,” Ciappina said. “He was one of those guys who didn’t stop working all during the off-season and when he went down, it really got to us and we wanted to make sure we represented him here with us today.”

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