Football Preview: Mounties football helps athletes achieve college dreams
PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF
by Andrew Garda
High school coaches tend to also be teachers, especially in Montclair. Across the Montclair High School sports landscape, you will find coaches who work at many of the schools in the district.
That’s as true about the Mounties football team as it is anywhere else.
Offensive/defensive line coach Eugene Kline teaches at Hillside Elementary School. Co-defensive coordinator Pete Ramiccio teaches at Glenfield Middle School. The other half of the defensive coordinator duo, Jamie Bittner, works at the high school. Jeff Lawton teaches at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. And head coach John Fiore teaches physical education and health at the high school.
The benefit of having coaches of any sport come from within Montclair’s school district is that they get to know the kids and often have known the kids for a very long time by the time they attend the high school.
Their interest and care apply to all the students, but of course especially to the football team.
Each of the coaches works hard to make sure their players put full effort into their education, keeps track of who needs extra help, makes sure they get it and generally make sure the student part of student-athlete gets the emphasis.
Naturally, the end goal is to make sure the students put themselves in the best position possible to get into college.
It’s in that arena where having a coach like Fiore has really helped.
Last season saw 22 out of 23 seniors on the team head off to college, 16 of them continuing to playing football and six of those receiving scholarship money to do so.
That’s an impressive percentage, one which looks good even when compared to Montclair’s overall percentage of students attending higher education. According to the MHS school profile for 2017-2018 found on the district website, MHS sends 83 percent of its students to four-year colleges, with another 3 percent attending two-year colleges.
Making it into college is one thing, while playing sports at the collegiate level is another, sometimes tougher nut to crack.
You have to keep the players focused off and on the field and you also have to cut through the white noise of every other player, parent and coach trying to get college recruiters and coaches interested.
According to Rutgers University head coach Chris Ash, Fiore does an exceptional job at doing that.
“What he does for the kids is, he is in constant communication with college coaches,” Ash said on a recent phone call. “He builds a relationship with guys to the point where, coaches like myself can trust him. When he gives a recommendation on a player, you trust his recommendation because you have a good relationship with him.”
Getting that heads up from the coaching staff at Montclair helps Rutgers out as well. They know other schools are heading to New Jersey to grab talent, and getting a head start because of a phone call by a local coach is a big deal.
“I think John does a great job for us, communicating with us and staying on top of his players. And I know he’s that way with a lot of [college] coaches, but he does a great job for us. He’s a huge ally of ours in terms of communicating about his players, and educating his players about what we’re doing here in our program.”
That kind of communication and those kind of relationships helped Mountie players land at all levels of college football, whether it’s 2015 grad Elijah Robinson at Boston College, 2018 alums Elias Ottens and Finn Jensen at Union College, or current seniors Charles Murphy Jr. and Willie Matthews, who hold Rutgers scholarship offers.
Josh Allen, a 2015 MHS grad, parlayed his football career into a scholarship at the University of Kentucky, where he is poised to set himself up to be selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
When Allen transferred back to Montclair from Alabama prior to his senior year, he was an offense-only player. Fiore saw a defensive player, though, and discussed making the switch, which the coach felt could help Allen get recruited.
After an outstanding season, Allen was still looking for that big offer.
“I didn’t have a ton of offers,” Allen said. “Maybe because Rutgers didn’t offer. and people thought if they didn’t offer an in-state kid, maybe something is wrong with them.”
Allen did get an offer from Monmouth University, which he accepted.
“Then a week later, [Fiore] called my phone right before school and was like “Yeah, the University of Kentucky is coming in today and they want to offer you and give you a scholarship.” I’m like ‘Kentucky?’ Kentucky in the SEC?”
Allen met with Fiore and coach Derrick Ansley after class. By the time they were done talking down in Fiore’s office, Allen was a Wildcat.
“All I know is, I got that offer because of Coach Fiore and his connections to other coaches,” Allen said. “Getting my name out there, and never giving up on me even though I was committed to Monmouth. He was still was putting my name in other people’s ear and now I’m here. So, I thank him for that.”
Getting the players that attention is never a simple process, though.
Fiore’s days tend to start early, arriving at school around 6:45 a.m., often with players and students who might otherwise have a hard time getting to school.
The schedule can change year-to-year, but the bones of it are the same. Fiore teaches five periods, per day. When he isn’t teaching, Fiore is often on the phone to college coaches and recruiters.
Last year, he had second period off, and “I’d call coaches to get them to come here and see our kids,” he said. “During the season, I might go over film, the practice script, things like that.”
Fiore often handles a study hall or two during the year, often writing hall passes for kids who want to see teachers for extra help.
“The Montclair teaching staff is amazing. All of them will tutor kids, teach them during lunch. There’s always a place for our kids to go, “ Fiore said. “I can’t compliment the Montclair teachers enough with their due diligence and the hard work that they put in.”
By the time period seven or eight come around, Fiore is usually waiting for recruiters at the high school. If none are scheduled, he heads to the field house to prep for practice and make more phone calls.
“Everyone is sending HUDL film to college coaches. Parents, kids, grandparents. Everyone,” he said. “[College coaches] simply lack the time to watch it all.”
So Fiore uses his connections to get on the phone with a position coach and have them watch tape with him over the phone so he knows his player is getting a proper evaluation.
“Football is the only sport which is recruited from high school,” Fiore said. “The rest of the athletes get recruited through club and AAU teams. We’re a different animal.”
Fiore said that it’s especially important for some of the kids he has playing football who might otherwise get left behind.
“The achievement gap is what is really important,” he said. “Athletics is an extension of the school day. Some of our kids, without athletics, wouldn’t be here every day. There are kids that go to Bucknell, West Point, Columbia and then there are kids who have to go to JUCO and prep schools and who grew up like I did. So how do we benefit that population? I think the football program affects the achievement gap in a very positive, and big, way.”
All of that work helping players get to college and making MHS a destination for college recruiters is on top of Fiore’s work as president of the New Jersey High School Football Coaches Association, and as coaches’ liason to the North Jersey Super Football Conference.
For Fiore, it’s far more simple than all that, though. In his opinion, his job is to work with the administration to make sure the kids are served and given every chance to succeed.
“Teaching classes, coaching football and getting kids into college,” Fiore said as his cell phone started to ring. “That’s what I’m about.”