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June 21, 2011

Bergen Catholic chasing excellence, Don Bosco

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

DUNCAN, S.C. - Jack McGovern was not eavesdropping but he heard every word. He also heard the meaning each one carried.

"Well, that's not bad for Bergen," he recalled hearing as he left the stands at a game a few years ago. "We played with Bosco for almost three quarters."

The Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic athletic director was hearing his fan base giving up, accepting the fact that it had not only been passed, but now nearly lapped inside the state. He heard the goal to be the best in the nation, state - even Bergen County - had been reduced to a pipedream.

"It was hard," McGovern said. "I had been involved with the program for 25 years and to hear alumni leaving the game with that attitude, I knew something had to change."

There was a time - for most of the 90s - that Bergen Catholic ruled the rivalry. That faded around the turn of the century.

When McGovern saw the opportunity to make a program-changing hire atop his football program in an attempt to regain that glory, he jumped at the chance. Even turning to the enemy for help. McGovern hired former Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco athletic director and offensive coordinator Nunzio Campanile last spring to bring the fire back to the Bergen Catholic program.

It has worked.

Entering his second season as the head coach, Campanile already has changed the culture at Bergen.

"Before Nunzio came on board, the alumni were unhappy with where we were at," McGovern said. "The expectations changed immediately when he was hired."

But the results haven't.

Bergen lost both of its games to Don Bosco in 2010, extending its losing streak to the Ironmen to eight games. It has not beat its in-state rival since December 2004.

Campanile, though, feels the tide is turning.

"We played them tough in the state finals," he said. "It got people talking about us gaining on them a little faster than we were maybe supposed to."

That momentum and talk inside the state quickly shifted back to perennial power.

"About a week or so after the game, Bosco announced it was playing Mission Viejo [(Calif.) High]," Campanile said. "I went right to Jack and told him we need to ramp up our schedule."

From that conversation, an unlikely alliance was built.

Bergen Catholic and Don Bosco were going to partner up to take New Jersey football to the masses.

The two inked deals to play in Florida, with Don Bosco taking on Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee and Bergen playing Tampa (Fla.) Plant.

They also partnered to go up against teams from Ohio together. Bosco will play Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward while Bergen is waiting to finalize its opponent and location. It is between Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney, Akron (Ohio) Buchtel or Columbus (Ohio) St. Francis de Sale. The games could be played at Rutgers or at West Point.

"It is a competitive relationship," McGovern said. "Maybe professional is better. We aren't going to be going to dinner with them or anything like that."

It is also mutually beneficial.

"It makes financial sense for us to work together," Campanile said. "I am not sure that that makes us any less rivals or not, but the situation works right now."

The situation is also one that Campanile said is unavoidable.

"They keep beating us," he said. "That means they are ahead of us. We have to play these games to keep up with them. They can not play six games that mean something while we play two, especially when our two are against them."

It is a formula that McGovern admits to be true.

"In an effort to chase excellence you are going to run into Don Bosco," he said. "We do not need to self motivate because of those guys. We look at where they are and think that can be us. This schedule is a step in the right direction."

It is also a step in the direction of attracting players.

"Kids in this area have a choice of where to go," Campanile said. "If they see Bosco on television and making trips to play in Florida they are going to choose to go there. To be a part of that we need to make sure they have those same opportunities here."

The players are seeing the change.

"Coach is intense and aggressive," sophomore Garrett Dickerson said. "We need that and we feed off of it. He gets after everyone hard but he makes sure to build us up, too."

Dickerson's older brother, Cameron, graduated from Bergen last year and is now at Northwestern. The younger Dickerson appears to have similar future Division I opportunities with Connecticut, Northwestern and North Carolina all having early interest.

He is also on board with the Bosco business arrangement.

"We won't see them except for when we are coming off the field or onto the field," he said. "We won't be staying in the hotel with them, or going to dinner together that's for sure."

And McGovern is quick to refute those who say Bergen is getting the Bosco table scraps and playing the second-fiddle game.

"We are playing top-notch games, too," he said. "Getting Plant on the schedule and some of the other teams we have really put us at a risk to be 0-4 and miss the playoffs. Nunzio is okay with that, and so am I. We are of a like mind that it is time to step up and challenge the kids and challenge ourselves."

Part of the challenge is even getting the games that matter.

"Some schools can get competitive regional games," Campanile said. "Cincinnati, Louisville and Indianapolis can all play one another. Those top teams can all make a quick bus trip and play. For us, there still isn't that much in New York City or even Philadelphia. We have to look further outside the box."

When dealing directly with its biggest rival, McGovern and Campanile went quite outside the box.

"No one benefits from winning games 60-7," Campanile said. "I am sure there are teams that are happy to stay in this state, win their games and compete for a title but not ever get better. That isn't for us. We are prideful, New Jersey is a different place and we will see how this Don Bosco thing evolves, but right now it works for us."

"We believe it matters if you win; that is why they keep score," McGovern said. "It is not win-at-all-cost, but we want to win and we want to make our kids compete. We are chasing excellence here, and if there are folks in this program not chasing excellence it may not be the place for them anymore."

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