“We don’t get hit. We HIT.”
Although Greeley’s Football Team may have entered Homecoming against Peekskill with an 0-4 record on the season, star running back Michael Meringolo would never let that show. As he paced up and down the sideline repeating this phrase during the pregame to pump up the team, one thing was abundantly clear: Greeley was going to give it everything they had on Friday night. From the time the team started getting dressed and hyped up in the locker room alongside blasting music, to the time the players banged their helmets against the lockers and mosh-pitted in celebration five hours later, Greeley was motivated, focused, and ready to prove that they belonged. Throughout the six hours I spent behind the scenes with Greeley’s Football team on Friday, I learned a lot about one team’s mission to prove themselves, to persist amid adversity, and to come together as one in an effort to get their first win of the season.
4:30: Pregame Prep Begins
The team begins to trickle into the locker room at 4:30 PM. Up until Assistant Coach Woolard speaks to the team at 5:40, the players are for the most part on their own in getting dressed, stretching, and getting treatment in the trainer's room. Michael Meringolo is one of the first to get taped up in the trainer's room, as the running back knows he’s going to take a lot of hits later that night. Quarterback Brent Rosendorf first gets heat applied to his shoulder in the trainer’s room, before going to stretch in the fitness center. As the players get ready for the game, Head Coach Kearns and his assistants sit in Kerns’ office, working on the game plan and discussing their strategy for the night’s game.
5:40: Team Comes Together For the First Time
At precisely 5:40, the coaches enter the locker room for the first time, as the team, either completely or partially in uniform at this point, convenes in the open space of the locker room. Coach Woolard focuses the team for the first time. His fiery speech is powerful and impactful, and it lights a spark under the Quakers that makes them ready for battle. “That field out there tonight,” Woolard passionately preached to his players. “That’s your time to take out all your anger!...This is your time! That’s what this sport is all about!....On that field out there, I better see you give everything you got!”
5:50: On-Field Warmups
Following the speech, the special teams march out onto the field for pregame warmups. They run a lap around the field, and begin working on putning, field goal kicking, and punt returns. Following the special teams warm up, the entire team stretches together for around 20 minutes, led by senior captain Danny Meringolo. Following the team stretch, the players break out into position groups. The offensive and defensive lines warm up facing off against each other, led by Offensive Line Coach Felice, who emphasizes footwork and technique. “At the end of the day, the game of football is won or lost in the trenches,” Felice says to me afterward. It is clearly a major point of emphasis for the entire coaching staff, as Head Coach Kearns is constantly chirping throughout the game on the sideline about the play of the O-line more than any other position.
Following the positional warmups, each position group is given a pep talk by its leader. Jacob Weitzman, Greeley’s Offensive Guard, delivers a passionate speech to the offensive line group just before the team heads back into the locker room before kickoff. “Why can’t we be that line that everyone says wow - we’re about to [get dominated] by Greeley. Why not us? Why not? This is our chance to show them who we are. Let's leave it all out there.”
Though it is clear that Greeley senses opportunity in a game against another struggling team, Peekskill appears to feel a similar way about the Quakers. During warmups, I ask a Peekskill player about how he feels about facing Greeley. “I’ve never been less scared of a team in my life,” he answers. As Greeley and Peeksill head back into the locker room before kickoff, it was clear that both teams were motivated and expecting a victory.
6:40: A Special Pregame Speech
Upon the completion of the on-field warm ups, Greeley promptly exits the field and heads back to the locker room, as the swarms of fans mulling around the terrace next to the field make way for the team to pass through. The team returns to the locker room in dead silence, as the players sit down and wait for Coach Kearns to begin his speech. This isn’t an ordinary pregame speech for Kerns, however, since tonight Greeley is honoring the 50th anniversary of the 1969 undefeated team. Many of the players from that team are in attendance for tonight’s game, many of them back at Greeley for the first time since their graduation. As the current Quakers sit in silence, Kerns goes to retrieve the former players, now in their late 60s, and brings them into the locker room. Kerns then begins his speech to the team.
Although Kerns is mild mannered when talking to his team, and he doesn’t have an edgy or fiery side to him as he speaks, he is remarkably captivating and effective. When he speaks, the team listens intently and responds to his message.
“Any of these guys [he points to the former players standing beside him] would switch spots with you in a second, to get one more Friday night out there on the field. A lot of things are going to keep happening in your life. But football- that won’t last forever. You can’t hit like this forever. Tonight is for you. That’s your field. That’s your flag. And you gotta find that extra degree tonight. Let’s go make everyone who ever wore the orange and blue proud. It’s showtime. ”
7:00 It’s Showtime
After Kerns concludes his speech, the players line up in two organized lines, and run out onto the field. Though the Greeley fans ultimately showed up in large numbers for homecoming, many were socializing and not in the bleachers for kickoff. However, the players are so locked in to the game that they barely notice anything going on around them, including the crowd.
The game begins with a quick three-and-out for Greeley, but no one on the team appears to be too frustrated; instead Rosendorf shakes it off and encourages the offense to have confidence for the next drive.
Coach Kerns has a remarkably even demeanor during the game, and his emotions never run to high or too low throughout the contest. Midway through the first quarter, with Greeley’s offense stagnant, Kerns dialed up a trick play in which Rosendorf passed it backwards to a receiver, who threw it downfield. The play failed miserably, and it resulted in a bad interception for Greeley. Kerns showed no emotion after the play, and stayed supportive of his offense as they came off the field, without letting a hint of frustration seep out. And although he remained supportive throughout Greeley’s struggles, Kerns was also cautiously optimistic when things were going well. During Michael Meringolo’s 40 yard punt return early in the second quarter, as the rest of the sideline jumped up and down in celebration, all Kerns muttered was “don’t screw it up” as Meringolo was racing down the sideline.
In the first quarter, before Meringolo kicked it into gear and established himself as the hands-down best player on the field, Kerns was still attempting to excel in the short passing game, which was a point of emphasis in the game plan he and his staff devised earlier in the week. On a third-and-long in the first quarter, Rosendorf rolled to his left, and receiver Jackson Goldblatt was wide open, with nothing but green grass ahead of him. However, the pass was a bit out in front, and Goldblatt stumbled to make the catch, but it wasn’t long enough for a first down. The two shared an exchange on the sideline following the play:
“I got to make a better throw on that play, but you gotta stay on your feet. That’s on both of us,” Rosendorf told Goldblatt. “Yeah, that’s on me. If I stay on my feet there I’m going all the way,” Goldblatt responded. “It’s all good, let’s pick it back up next time.”
After this sequence in the first quarter, however, the Quakers passing game would no longer be needed to propel the offense. This game turned into the Michael Meringolo show.
Meringolo finished the game with 18 carries, 188 yards, and four touchdowns, and Kerns kept dialing up runs, pitches, and direct snaps to Meringolo, since Peekskill had no answer for it and Meringolo kept picking up massive yards on nearly every attempt. Interestingly, however, I noticed the coaches and teammates on the sideline were equally if not more enthusiastic about the offensive line play than Meringolo’s effort itself. For instance, following an explosive 50 yard rush by Meringolo in the second quarter, which got Greeley down inside the 10 yard line, the Quakers’ sideline was screaming and jumping in celebration not only because of the run, but because of the downfield block by center Harrison Ginsburg, in which he hustled downfield and made a key block on a Peekskill defender to clear up space for Meringolo to continue rushing forward.
9:30: Let The Celebration Begin
From there, the game turned into a domination from Greeley, and the Quakers finally played with the intensity, effort, and tenacity on both sides of the ball the the coaching staff had been searching for all season long. As Defensive Coordinator Spillane said to the team after the game, “I think some of us learned how to tackle tonight!” which was met by loud cheers from all the players assembled in front of him.
Following the game, the team huddled around senior captain Danny Meringolo. The very first thing Meringolo did, before saying anything else, was credit the scout team for helping the team prepare. “None of this would have been possible without you guys, so keep working hard in practice and keep it up because we need you guys too.” In addition, Danny’s brother Michael had a few words for the team before they went back into the locker room as well. “We have two choices,” Michael said. “We can be satisfied and mess around in practice, and just be happy with this win. Or, we can improve, keep working hard, and get ready to go [beat] Pelham next week.”
After the team left the field, they went directly back into the locker room, where many of the players banged anything they could find anywhere, just to make the most possible noise, and they soon mosh-pitted in the back corner of the locker room. This was the same place where they stood five hours earlier, but what felt like a lifetime ago, putting on their equipment and trying to get focused and locked in for the game ahead of them. As Coach Kearns said to his players following the game, “you guys better have fun and enjoy this win, but don’t have too much fun. We still have a whole lot of work to do.” And it’s true - Greeley does still have a lot of work to do. The team’s record on the season is still 1-4.
But on this Friday night, in front of the largest crowd of the season, against the most beatable opponent on their schedule, Greeley Football was on a mission to prove themselves. Consider that mission accomplished.