From principals to players, the Nottingham and Steinert high school communities have Oct. 27 circled on their calendars.
At 7 p.m., the first night varsity football game ever played at a Hamilton Township public high school will take place when the Northstars visit the Spartans; giving the Battle of Klockner Road an added electricity.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Steinert Principal Nate Webber said. “I originally started out at Nottingham, I know a lot of people over there and a lot of the coaches. Jon Adams, Frank Gatto. It’s going to be a great evening for Hamilton Township.”
Nottingham Principal Frank Ragazzo agrees. “I think it’s great for the community to be able to be outside for ‘Friday Night Lights.’ That’s what it’s all about,” he says.
With Lawrence recently upgrading its facilities, the three Hamilton Township schools, Princeton and Trenton High are the lone schools in Mercer County without lighted fields (although Princeton has an all-sport turf surface). It is the age-old story in the township — and rightfully so — that if one school has something, the other two must have it. Talks have taken place to install a lighted turf field at a neutral site for all three to use, but nothing has come of that yet.
Thus, Steinert Athletic Director Steve Gazdek has watched Princeton rent portable lights for one game each year and decided to try and do the same at Steinert. The proposal was nixed by the school board several years ago.
“We had everything ready and the board and (then-superintendent James Parla) shot it down,” Steinert coach Dan Caruso said. “I can’t tell you why.”
Gazdek approached Principal James Fazzone last year and the wheels were again put in motion. When Webber returned as principal this year, he and Gazdek saw the project through.
The lights will be up for a week, starting Wednesday Oct. 25. The freshman football game between the two schools will be Wednesday, a band competition Saturday and the JV game Monday. Several other events were waiting to be approved by the school board.
As a Jackson resident living in Shore Conference territory, Gazdek sees first-hand the excitement Friday night football creates.
“It’s Friday Night Lights, it’s throughout the country,” the AD said. “We want to try it. We’re doing it with Nottingham now, but we’re trying to get the whole community together and get all the high schools involved. As far as our high schools are concerned, it’s gonna be huge.”
Gazdek did extensive research in getting prices from various businesses and settled on United Rentals. The cost was not finalized by mid-September, but the only cost to taxpayers is for game security, which is expected to be increased to six township police officers.
The money for the lights comes from Steinert’s football and band booster clubs and the Student Government Association. Other funding will come from concessions and the 50-50 sales, which should be big.
Gazdek said that this is not a reaction to the township night soccer doubleheaders being played at the new Cowell Field in Veterans Park.
“It wasn’t like that at all,” he said. “This was in our minds last year and it just became the right opportunity. We actually talked about not just football but other sports. It would have been hard to do soccer on the field just because of the lines on the field, getting the goals over. So we talked to Jeff Plunkett to get the night games over at Veterans Park and keep it in Hamilton Township. So that’s something for soccer and this is going to be the football thing.”
The decision was made that it should be a township opponent. Since Steinert-Hamilton traditional holiday matchup could not take place on Thanksgiving night, the choice was Nottingham.
“Nottingham, in many ways, gets the short end a little bit because they don’t get the Thanksgiving Day game, so now they get this first night game between Steinert and Nottingham,” Caruso said.
Caruso approached Northstars coach Jon Adams to see if he would be all right with playing at night, which was akin to asking a kid if he wants to spend a night at Santa’s private workshop.
“As the longest tenured football coach in Hamilton Township, I can say firmly that this is long overdue,” said Adams, now in his 28th year. “I’m glad to see football finally getting the chance to shine. I find it quite upsetting that our sport is one of the few that does not get to have night games. I was part of two between township schools and both times the place was packed and there was tremendous excitement and enthusiasm demonstrated by all three schools. I personally want to thank our current board of ed for their support of this venture on behalf of the Northstar Nation and parents.”
The previous township night games were Nottingham-Hamilton at The College of New Jersey in 1999 and Nottingham-Steinert at McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic) in 2000. This will be the first where one side is actually the home team.
“Just knowing it’s the first night game at Steinert in football history, it feels pretty good; I’m pretty excited for it,” Spartan star player Jordan Morrison said. “It’s just a whole different atmosphere than playing on Saturday afternoon. It should be fun for both teams. The stands are gonna be full. It’s gonna be nice.”
It should also be a financial success. Caruso scouted a Lawrence night game and noted the Cardinals crowd was three times larger than what he had ever seen there.
“Hopefully the township sees this is a positive thing, and it’s a money maker,” Caruso said “You’re gonna triple or quadruple the gate for a Friday night game. I’m really excited.”
Gazdek and Caruso admitted this is not just for the current players, but also an audition to get some sort of lighted football facility in the future.
“It would be great because then the whole township would get involved,” Webber said. “It would include all the students and all the schools.”
“I would love it,” Ragazzo said, while taking in the Nottingham-Steinert soccer doubleheader along with a huge crowd Friday, Sep. 15. “Look around here, this is great. I think it would be great for the community to bring everyone together. We have a superintendent (Scott Rocco) who’s all about bringing the whole district together so I think that would go right along with it.”
Plunkett, who has been extremely pro-active toward rec and high school sports since taking over as rec director, does not rule anything out. It could take time, however.
“We are always open to new ideas,” Plunkett said. “But the current focus is on our new skate park being constructed, a new artificial putting green at our golf center and a new special needs playground behind the municipal building.”
Until that time comes, Adams will continue to bang the drum for a lighted facility for football and lacrosse, which he feels will pay for itself.
“Build it and they will come,” Adams said. “You can host all the youth games. You can have band and cheerleading competitions there. We need night football, we want night football. The gate from these games will pay for the site. Heck, you could host the state playoff games if you do it right. We have access to both 95 and the turnpike. What we do not need is another warehouse or mall. We need a place for our kids to go on Friday and Saturday nights where we can build school pride.”
That place will be Steinert on Friday night, Oct. 27, and Caruso cannot wait to be on the sidelines as a home coach under the lights. He played in Burlington County, where football lives on Friday nights.
“A night football game is a community event, it’s for everyone,” he said. “Even people who don’t like football come to night football games because it’s something to do in the town. It’s a community event on a Friday night. It’s good for young people, it gives them something to do on a Friday night that’ positive, not negative. It’s the way high school football is supposed to be played.”