The word “rebuilding” has fallen out of use during John Passero’s tenure as coach of the Hawthorne football team.
The Bears have finished below .500 just once since 2010 and have qualified for 10 of the last 17 state tournaments contested.
When Passero took over in 2001, the program was coming off a 4-26 stretch. It took a few years to reach the playoffs, but when it finally happened in 2004, that ended a 17-year drought and started a run of sustained success.
So, it makes sense that the coach shies away from certain vocabulary. But this season presents a challenge.
“I hate saying ‘rebuilding’,” Passero said. “But when you replace when you have to replace 20-of-22 starters, it’s a process.”
The Bears have strong numbers (19) in their current junior class, which rivals the size of the group that just graduated. There are also 18 freshmen in the program.
“But in the other classes [sophomore and senior], we only have 13 total,” Passero said.
The good news: “Our sub-varsity got a lot of minutes last year in some of our varsity games. … It’s a big jump to varsity speed from the speed of the sub-varsity game on Mondays, so we’re trying to get kids moving a lot quicker, reading a lot quicker and blocking a lot longer.”
Passero is Hawthorne’s all-time winningest coach at 115-88-1, ahead of two men who combined to deliver three North 1, Group 2 titles in the 1970s: Tom DeMaio Sr. (82 wins) and Dennis Penna (57).
Although the Bears remain in search of their first sectional championship since 1978, a major milestone is on the horizon. They are four victories away from 400 all-time, having kicked off varsity play in 1934, and have an overall win percentage of .516.
Replacing 10 starters on both offense and defense will be a chore. The two starters returning are 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman Marquis Noel and 6-2 wide receiver Dominic Passero.
The former, a senior, may see more time on the offensive line this fall. The latter, a junior and the coach’s son, doubles as a placekicker. He made three field goals and 32-of-38 extra points last year.
“We have some other guys who got in with those varsity seniors that we lost, but that was kind of later on in the year,” John Passero said.
One thing Hawthorne has learned to do well is adapt. It featured a predominantly Wing-T offense during Passero’s earlier years and now uses multiple offensive formations.
“We’ll be a mix between ‘I’ formation – with two backs in the backfield – and three-receiver sets,” he said. “What we try to do is mold our offense around our players that we have, and not just stick to one thing.”
Returning to the playoffs will require steady improvement from the new starters, who will face some stiff competition in the revamped NJIC Meadowlands.
Hawthorne remains in a division with longtime rival Pompton Lakes, which will be the Week 2 opponent after an opener against defending Meadowlands champ Hasbrouck Heights. The team also reunites with old B-PSL foe Saddle Brook, up from the Union Division.
“The predominantly junior team that we have this year, they were the scout team the last two years for a very good football team,” Passero said. “Now, they need to become the starters and take some young kids – who we have in the freshman class – and mold them a little bit, kind of like the way were molded.
“Our expectations aren’t changed as far as playing to the last whistle and giving everything they’ve got.”
Sept. 1: vs. Hasbrouck Heights, 6 p.m.
Sept. 10: at Pompton Lakes, 1 p.m.
Sept. 16: vs. Saddle Brook, 6 p.m.
Sept. 23: vs. Park Ridge, 6 p.m.
Sept. 30: at North Arlington, 4:15 p.m.
Oct. 7: TBD
Oct. 14: TBD
Oct. 21: TBD
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