For the first time in their lives, senior captain Nick Carella and his Robbinsville High football teammates got to experience what they had only watched on TV and in the cinema.
“The atmosphere at our home games was something out of a movie,” Carella said. “There would be plays when we’d be driving the field and all I could hear were people screaming. I couldn’t imagine being another team coming
to our field trying to deal with the noise level and energy the town brought to the game. It was unmatched. Even on road games there were times our stands were louder than the home crowds.”
And why not? The RHS community had been waiting for this ever since the school opened. For the first time in program history, Robbinsville enjoyed a perfect regular season by going 9-0. It ended in unfortunate fashion when the Ravens were forced into an NJSIAA playoff play-in game with Allentown that ended their season, but that can’t detract from the Autumn of ’19 for the players, their family and their high-flying student section.
“The team was into it for sure, as was the school overall,” senior receiver/cornerback Colin Tonry said. “We had amazing support from the Robbinsville Flock. I want to shout out to the Flock Masters for all their work. But also the parents and the whole town got pumped up for the games too. It was a real blast, and I hope this is the start of something good for program and helps bring more success in the future.”
Receiver/running back/cornerback Shane Martin, a junior captain, sensed an energy from the start and felt it grow.
“People bought in early this year,” Martin said. “After we improved last year, more people came out to our games to support us and they were
enjoying the success of our season. They came to away games too, which hasn’t happened for this program in a while.”
And the on-field success had never happened before, as the nine wins shattered the record of six in 2006, when Robbinsville made its only other playoff appearance. It has been a steady climb since the Ravens hit rock bottom at 0-9 in 2017, which included a 33-0 loss to Willingboro in the season finale with just 16 players suited up.
Coach Andrew Patterson points to that day as start of the renaissance, as current seniors Danny Surtz, Carella, Connor Fitzsimmons, Matt Heverin and Dayyan Hamid all gutted out that game and were part of the rise to prominence. The Ravens improved to 4-6 last year and opened this season with a come-from-behind win at Manchester to light the fuse to a historic explosion.
“We had high expectations with a lot of returning veterans,” Martin said. “But we weren’t thinking about undefeated in the beginning of the year. We were confident with improving from last year’s record of 4-6 but I don’t think anyone was expecting 9-0.
“After our week zero win against Manchester, we had a lot of confidence going into the next week and with each win, it kept growing. We played every game like it was our last and left everything on the field each week. Going undefeated meant a lot to our seniors. Most of them went through very tough times with their first official varsity season ending at 0-9 but they kept working and they never gave up on us.”
Tonry played as a freshman and sat out as a sophomore before returning last year but said “we all own that (0-9 season) as a program.”
“I don’t know if anyone foresaw this,” he continued. “We just wanted to start winning some games consistently, executing the game plans, and then things started to click and off we went. It was obviously pretty awesome and special, as only like 18 out of 300-plus teams in New Jersey were able to accomplish the same. It really kind of became a mission for team once we got on a roll.”
The more they won, the more the excitement grew. Outside the school, however, were the inevitable scoffers who pointed to a schedule that included seven Group I schools and tried to denigrate the accomplishment.
“A lot of people were trying to bring us down but we didn’t listen,” Martin said. “Anything that was said or that was on social media was blocked out and we just focused on getting better. Every game was a business trip. No matter what people said, we stayed professional and classy.”
Carella wasn’t about to let anyone ruin his enthusiasm.
“After going through a winless season the way we did, it meant everything to the three- and four-year players to be able to turn that around,” the receiver/cornerback said. “Going undefeated in the regular season is tough to do no matter the opponents you play. Anybody who’s played football can agree with that.”
Tonry figured it just came with the territory and he’s right. Afterall, some people still think the Patriots aren’t all that good.
“If you have success, in anything it seems, you will always have haters, but that’s on them,” he said. “We beat all comers on the schedule, which included some other playoffs teams, so I think it stands for itself.”
Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, some people will remember the Ravens as the team that upended the playoff system. Although they finished 17th in power points in South Jersey Group II (the top 16 qualify), an NJSIAA ruling said that any undefeated team gets in the playoffs. Originally, the Ravens bumped Allentown, but because of sketchy wording in the ruling, Allentown was allowed back in, thus setting up the controversial play-in game just four days after Robbinsville beat Haddon Heights to clinch the WJFL Classic Division title.
“It was very weird,” Martin said. “We just came off a big weekend finishing 9-0 and we started to prepare for Wall Township. Before practice started on Monday, Coach Patterson called all the four-year seniors and captains into his office and told us about the play-in game. We were all excited to play Allentown because they’ve been a rival in every sport. The Monday we found out, we spent the whole practice watching film and preparing for them; and Tuesday was basically a full week of practice in the matter of three hours.”
In fairness, Allentown went through the same ordeal and emerged with a 24-10 victory (although they had one extra day’s rest); then had to play Wall four days later. Not good for all involved.
“It was a little tough,” Tonry said. “We played a late game on Saturday against a tough team in Haddon Township and didn’t have much time to enjoy it, or even recover before playing another game on Wednesday. We tried to make the best of it. One of us, as it turned out it was Allentown, played three games in 10 days which seems unsafe and not much fun.”
Fun, however, was what this season will be remembered for amongst the players and their supporters.
Much of it started with Surtz, who set a plethora of RHS career and season passing records. The three-year starter completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also rushed for 334 yards and 5 TDs, and had all the intangibles a quarterback needs.
“Danny wasn’t only a great talent but he’s a better teammate,” said Carella, who caught 17 passes for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to be our quarterback after all we’ve gone through leading up to this season.
“He was always looking to not only make himself better but also his teammates around him better. If you watch the film he’s always creating opportunities for big plays. If someone drops a ball he won’t hesitate to throw them the ball the next play, which shows how much trust he has in everyone. He was 100 percent team over everything.”
Surtz’s favorite receiver was Tonry with 26 catches for 452 yards and 3 TDs, while Giordano had 15 grabs for 263 yards and 4 TDs. Martin, Matt Cooper and Tien Siplin combined for 43 catches for 513 yards and a touchdown. Siplin was the team’s leading rusher with 709 yards and 10 touchdowns, giving the Ravens some nice offensive balance thanks to their offensive line.
Tonry felt, however, that what truly got the team over the hump was the performance on the other side of the ball. Robbinsville had four shutouts, including three straight at one point.
“The big difference this year was defense,” he said. “We’ve always had the skill players, but I know the commitment to defense is what really helped solidify the team and drove much of our success this year.”
Aaden Butler led the team in tackles with 62 (42 solo, 13 for loss), while Tonry was second with 59 (32 solo, 7 for loss) and Kyle Johnson third (58, 34 solo, 9 tfl). They were followed by Benat Quinn (42, 22 solo), Giordano (30, 20 solo), Connor Fitzsimmons (27, 14 solo), Matt Heverin (19, 18 solo, 13 TFL), Martin (27), Cooper (20), Surtz (17), Jaylen Gundy (16), Andy Neumann (11) and Dayyan Hamid (10). Heverin had a team-high 3.5 sacks and Fitzsimmons added 3, while Martin led in interceptions with 4.
It was truly a season to remember, and one that Martin hopes will spark more interest in football, leading to more athletes coming out for the team for his final season.
“I think the success of the program this year will raise a lot of interest for students to play,” he said. “I’m very excited for next year. We have a lot of returning players and I have confidence in the upcoming varsity players. The returning players will be able to help the kids that need to grow, I will be glad to work with the younger kids.
“Most students don’t know how great playing the sport is and how much fun you have. I joined as a sophomore after the 0-9 season and I had one of the best times I ever had playing a sport. The memories that you make with your teammates and things that happen throughout each season is something else.”
That is especially true for Robbinsville in the Autumn of ’19. The greatest ever in the Land of the Flock.