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Bill Fitzgerald fulfills head coaching dream at Seton Hall Prep

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Bill Fitzgerald said he played practically every sport growing up whether it was football, basketball, baseball or a little bit of lacrosse. His family would move to Montville where Fitzgerald attended elementary school before eventually moving back to Hoboken. For Fitzgerald, it was football that was on his mind 365 days a year due in large point to his father who played and coached the sport.

“My father grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and they didn’t have football at his high school, so he played sandlot football and parlayed that into junior college in Texas and then playing Division II in Colorado,” said Fitzgerald. “A guy from Brooklyn heads all the way out West. He came back and coached at a couple of different places including Merchant Marines/Kings Point and George Paterno, Joe’s brother was his boss. He was also an assistant at Secaucus (High School) in the 70’s and early 80’s and took some time off when my sister and I were born and then went back in the 90’s and had a successful career at Secaucus and two years with the (New York) Giants and two years at Dumont and now helping out at Seton Hall Prep.”

When it came to deciding which high school to attend, Fitzgerald had a long-standing relationship with St. Peter’s Prep head football coach Rich Hansen, as an aunt of Fitzgerald was the cheerleading coach for a couple of years.

“I was going to games since I was nine years old and knew it was going to be a Catholic high school,” Fitzgerald said. “My Catholic faith is given to me by my parents’ and education is very important to them as me and our connection to Coach Hansen is why it all happened. I played under Coach Hansen for four years and just a tremendous experience in my life and when I was playing for St. Peter’s Prep it was not what it’s now and we went through some tough times together. Me being the quarterback and him the head coach. The quarterback and head coach either get too much credit or blame. We bonded together after some real adverse situations and still have a good relationship and still talk constantly. A little different now we are peers, mentor and mentee and huge influence in my life.”

Fitzgerald continued to play football while attending Union College. Academic wise, Fitzgerald graduated in 2003 with a degree in Psychology. Fitzgerald also graduated with a Master’s Degree in Special Education from New Jersey State University. With his future up in the air, it would be one phone call that changed Fitzgerald’s life.

“My head coach at Union College John Audino said the head coach at Utica College Mike Kemp called who I knew very well and coach of mine at the Joe Namath Football Camp when I was in high school and my Dad helped run,” said Fitzgerald.

“I went up there for two years as a graduate assistant and they gave me housing, meal plan, small check and I got to coach the wide receivers and go out recruiting. A full-time coach for two years and learn the ins and outs of the game and really important to my development and learn the overall game and how to be a coach and teach it. A couple of guys were older than me and would have been my teammates the year before and a real challenge and gained a lot of confidence from that.”

Returning home to New Jersey would be another vital connection that landed Fitzgerald a job at Dumont High School for two years. “St. Peter’s Prep had just won the state championship in 2005 and Chris Andreadis was the offensive line coach when I was playing at St. Peter’s prep and he got the head coach job at Dumont and asked me and my Dad to go with him.”

On the move again, Fitzgerald ended up back at his alma in St. Peter’s Peter where he enjoyed successful 10-year run as the quarterback coach/offensive coordinator. The Marauders offense averaged near 30 points per game, while reaching four Non-Public Group 4 Finals and in the 2014 championship season the team average 45.5 points per game. Fitzgerald played a pivotal role in the development of quarterbacks such as Brandon Wimbush (UCF), Johnathan Lewis (Rutgers) and Massai Maynor (Navy).

“In 2009 we had Raphael Ortiz who was First-Team All-State and Brandon Napoleon went on to play at West Virginia,” said Fitzgerald. Because of these guys is the reason why I’m here now. Tremendously talented, very coachable, and you don’t always find that and they were willing to learn and try new things and willing to fail and because of those things they succeeded and very proud of them.”

Having played and coached at St. Peter’s Prep plus coached in the Bergen County All-Star Game and in 2008 and Semper Fi Game in 2014, Fitzgerald felt in 2018 he needed to challenge himself again and become a head coach. That is when the opportunity at Seton Hall Prep came calling and Fitzgerald was eventually named the 15th head coach since 1930.

“A great experience at the Semper Fi Game where Joe Burrow was our quarterback and also Kyle Shurmur who is the son of Pat Shurmur,” said Fitzgerald. “They flew me out as well as three guests and I brought my mother, father and one of my sisters. They comped the room and food and I got to meet such great coaches.”

“We were really doing good things and talk about kids challenging themselves in the weight room and on the field and felt I was hypocrite if I didn’t step up and challenge my mettle and see if I could do this thing and become a head coach.”

“I thought I could offer the program something and they were gracious enough to give me the opportunity and meant a lot to my family. It’s a great place, academic institution and has a tremendous football tradition. Our athletic director Larry Baggitt who gave me this opportunity. My mother is Italian and she is emotional but it meant a lot when I was named the head coach. My Dad was a high school/college coach and nice we could share the same experience and know my family is proud because we are a football family.”

Despite a 5-6 record and 42-6 defeat to Bergen Catholic in the state playoff quarterfinals, Fitzgerald said there were many positives to take away from his first season as Pirates head coach. “It was a change in the way kids were used to doing things, that’s what happens when a new staff comes in and familiarity from years one to two helped expedite things on the field from an installation point. Practices were crisper, faster and better because kids knew what to expect. When we played Bergen Catholic no one in the locker room knew before if we could win the game.”

The expectations for Fitzgerald were not just relegated to the gridiron but academically and socially. “I’m a teacher by nature, spent 15 years before I got here in special education classes. I teach classes from 8 o’clock to 3 and then teach football from 3 to 5. We have three simple goals, I want the kids not just to be great citizens but want them to leaders in the school and community. I want them to be in the forefront and too may people take shots at football players for things they may do. I want our guys to be ambassadors for the game and be out in the front and lead and do things the right way and that’s important to me. I want our teams’ to have the best team GPA and that’s hard and have a lot of good student-athletes but we have football players doing good things in the classroom.”

Heading into the 2019 season and close to 20 seniors on the team, Seton Hall Prep flipped the tables going 8-2 including ripping off a seven-game winning streak before falling to St. Augustine 20-15 in the Non-Public Group4 Quarterfinals. Fitzgerald not only complimented the play and effort of the players but the rest of the coaching staff for a successful year.

“You are playing from games from September to November and you are doing a lot from January to August. You have a to have a good strength coach in which we did in Max Ruiz and alumni and he interned at Ohio State in their football strength program and brought that program to us where we are organized, safe and results are showing with the weights increased in our lifts and results on the field. Ed Stinson, the defensive coordinator and his résumé speaks for itself and brought tremendous stability to that side of the ball and game plan every week. Tom Falato is our special teams and offensive line and has a great connection with our kids and his approach has really benefitted us this year with five senior offensive lineman and developing the younger guys. John Peluso the linebackers/running backs coach, Scott Sheppard tight ends coach and helping out with Dominic Busby’s development this year. Carlos Pasols was a newbie this year and did a great job in the defensive backfield. John Merklinger has done a tremendous job for a number of years with player development.”

“Definitely a lot of positives, we were 8-2 and out of those 10 days out of the year we worked hard from January until the final whistle and it was a lot of different things from the weight room, speed training and leadership development program that was really good and I’m very happy for the senior class. They went through a lot, some down years and as sophomore 2-8 and they flipped it to 8-2. We checked one of those boxes sharing the United division title so I want our guys to celebrate those things and way we are teaching and going about our business is starting to pay dividends.”

“I tell our coaches and players that plays are fun but fundamentals are more important and the best teams I have been around and including this team are really good around fundamentals. We threw the ball over 200 times with only four interceptions, didn’t fumble the ball, blocked and tackled and what we stress to our players. Zander (Zebrowski) waited his turn, had two passes in his career and completed 72 percent of his passes that was just remarkable. Obviously very accurate as the numbers showed and did a great job running the offense and huge question mark going into this year. I knew that he had the skills throwing the ball and until you are under fire and you don’t know how people are going to respond and he grew in the first couple of games and really hit his stride at Paramus Catholic and came alive and went on a nice run after that game.”

“Matty (Colantuono) has been a starter a better part of four years and played quarterback as a freshman and did everything a skill position guy can do in returning kicks, run, catch and throw it. He really came into this year as a running back and new position for him and ran so hard. Dominic Busby led is in catches and played really well down the stretch. Nick Gullace averaged 22 yards a catch and big threat for us. You have to start with the five seniors on offensive line, first time we had 1,000 yard rusher in 10 years so that was a credit to those guys and we’re going to miss them.”

“Defensively Giye Jenkins was up there is the state rankings in interceptions and John Nicosia and Ryan Monteleone led us in tackles and Tyler Cook had a great year. Great leadership, program guys on defense and did their jobs and proud of them.”

Fitzgerald also pointed to the support from the administration, alumni and fans packing the Kelly Athletic Complex for home games. “A former quarterback in the 50’s in Monsignor (Michael) Kelly a big Seton Hall Prep supporter as there is and tremendous supporter of the football program. Headmaster Mike Gallo is a former football player and coach at Seton Hall Prep and tremendous example of what a Seton Hall Prep player will be they graduate here.”

“Our Gridiron Club and alumni have been great at the games and helping out with fundraising. The Kelly Athletic Complex is a great seat, from the Father’s Club snack stand to all the people selling apparel, Pirate Nation and parking. Each game we won during that winning streak the games got bigger and more attention on us and feeling in the school palpable and people were excited for Saturday afternoons at home and atmosphere was tremendous. We definitely gave the fans their money’s worth.”

“The wins and losses comes and go but the relationships last and what this business is about and best coaches will tell you that. So great to have a birthday or big win and get players from the past that send you a message or give you a phone call and congratulate you.”

“Football is a special game, all the time you spend together and kinship built up together and remember those things. Happy with the way the program is overall trending with the mindset we foster is one play at a time and if something good happens of we do it the next play and something bad turn a negative into a positive and kids did that.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil is the Rockland Boulders Beat Writer for DoubleGSports.com and also covers North Jersey High School Sports
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