What kind of kid is Notre Dame High senior Sam Ponticello?
He’s the kind who walks one of his teachers—who is battling breast cancer—out to the field during the halftime ceremonies of the Irish’s Pink Out game. The kind who joins ND’s Catholic Athletes for Christ and who hung on every word when Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell visited in early November. The kind who led the charge when the Irish performed community service at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. The kind so concerned about other people that his teammates call him the “Team Dad.”
And yet there is a different side to this caring, young St. Gregory the Great parishioner.
He likes to hit people. And he does it well.
A three-year starter as a hybrid safety/linebacker for the Irish, Ponticello helped anchor the defense on a 7-2 Notre Dame team that shared the West Jersey Football League Capitol Division title with Trenton, and reached the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III playoffs.
The Hamilton native was tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 51, and served as a captain for the second straight year.
“He’s an intelligent player,” coach Marc Lordi said. “He takes to coaching really well, he always watches extra film and has extra questions for us, after meetings before practice, after practice. He always knows where he’s supposed to be and where his teammates are supposed to be. He’s just a tough kid. He comes up and he sticks his nose in there and just makes a lot of tough, hard-nosed plays for us.”
After a year of playing flag football, Ponticello started tackle at the relatively late age of 12 when he suited up for the Hamilton PAL Cowboys.
“My dad played in high school,” he said. “The love of the game is always being around it and having family who always played. It brought me to try it and it all worked out.”
For three years in PAL, he played running back and “I didn’t play a lick of defense.” Arriving at Notre Dame as a freshman, he decided to try and go both ways.
“But as time took its course I ended up being more vocal on defense and I really devoted more time to defense,” he said. “I loved playing defense. I fell in love with just hitting people and not getting hit.”
After playing for the freshman team, Ponticello became a varsity starter in the first game of his sophomore year, quite by accident.
“I wasn’t starting the first game of the season, but the refs actually didn’t show up that night so the game was moved to that Saturday,” Ponticello recalled. “Our starting strong safety got hurt on the third play of the game, and I went in and never came out again.”
And had the refs shown up Friday?
“I do think it would have been different,” Ponticello said.
While he was happy to be playing, Ponticello did not enjoy the losing as Notre Dame went just 5-15 during his sophomore and junior seasons. It was another parallel with his dad’s career.
Guy Ponticello was also a Hamilton guy who played football for McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic Academy) in the mid-1980s. Like his son, he was a strong safety who wore number 42. Also like his son, he played for some bad teams. The two would compare and lament about their squads’ fortunes up until this year, when ND broke through.
“Of course it was tough,” Ponticello said. “It’s always tough when you’re losing. Everyone wants to win. Our coaching staff was so great. Even though we were losing, they made it fun; made us still have the family feeling we had.”
Because of all the losing, Lordi felt a great sense of accomplishment for his seniors this year, happy that they were able to go out winners.
“I couldn’t be happier for Sam and all the seniors to get a seven-win season when all their friends were telling them they were gonna win two games,” the coach said. “They’ve been through a lot, they were freshmen when we had a six-win season, and we graduated a lot from that team. A lot of them were thrown into the fire and started as sophomores for the first time. We had 15 year old kids out there playing for the first time against 18 year olds.”
And while it was frustrating, it was also a time to learn the lesson of hard knocks.
“They had two years of a rough patch,” Lordi continued. “We told them it’s about life, you stick to it when times are hard, and good things will happen. They stayed the course, they started lifting harder and harder, they came back more and more prepared and this year was emblematic of their persistence.”
Ponticello was one of the guys emblematic of that group, as he was an outstanding team leader along with quarterback Rob Buecker.
“He’s the best,” Lordi said. “They joke with him in the locker room that he’s the team dad. He’s always looking after everybody else, making sure the young guys are taken care of, making sure everything’s put away, making sure the locker room’s cleaned up. He does everything you want a team leader to do.”
It’s a role he takes pride in.
“I’m always trying to look out for guys,” Ponticello said. “I love it. Guys always come to me whenever they need anything—advice, help with anything. Even if they’re going to talk to a teacher, they want to run it by me first to see if what they’re saying is alright. I try to take care of everybody.”
He is also looking to take care of himself as he searches for a college. Lordi feels Ponticello could make a good Division III player, but Ponticello is looking at academics first in his quest for a business career. If the school he likes has a program he thinks he can play for, he will approach the coach.
And while Ponticello’s high school career is over, two others from Hamilton still have a season left. Twin brothers Cortaz and Coleon Williams both had outstanding seasons for the Irish. Had they all stayed in public school, they would have met on Thanksgiving as Ponticello lives in Steinert’s district and the Williamses live behind Hamilton West.
“They’re great kids,” Ponticello said. “Even more off the field than on the field. Every time you see them in the hallway they’re always saying hi to you, always have smiles on their face. Their involvement and motivation is unbelievable. Just to see them, and how they work, that really motivates and pushes the rest of the team.”
Something Ponticello knows all about, since he does it so well.