For Mater Dei, faith helps heal the sting of defeat in state championship game
The Mater Dei Prep football team came excruciatingly close to winning a state title Dec. 7 at Rutgers University, as a gutsy comeback fell just short in a 27-25 loss to DePaul Catholic in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III title game.
It was the kind of heartbreak that’s tough to get over, but head coach Dino Mangiero, his staff and the Mater Dei faculty have instilled an inborn defense against such disappointment.
“When bad things happen, count on your faith, count on your mental toughness,” Mangiero said. “Being a Christian and being a good Catholic is probably the number one thing we try to emphasize. Be respectful, have great character. It doesn’t matter how big or strong you are; it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’re not a respectful person. You’re not gonna get very far in life if you don’t understand that. That’s really what we’re teaching here. That’s why we say number one is character development, number two is academic development and number three is football. We call that the Mater Dei way.”
Photo Gallery: Mater Dei vs. DePaul Catholic championship game
Number three has been pretty successful since Mangiero took over. In his four years at the helm, the Seraphs have been to the state final all four seasons, winning it all in 2016.
Mater Dei, which finished 8-4, avenged last year’s championship game loss to Red Bank Catholic with a 10-3 victory in the Group III semifinal. The Middletown school trailed DePaul 20-6 at halftime and pulled within 20-12 when Alex Brown found Clarence Lewis with a 48-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-12. But the sophomore quarterback suffered an injury on the pass and left the game for good. Things appeared bleak when DePaul went up 27-12 midway through the third quarter.
Senior Isaiah Noguera took over for Brown and nearly engineered an upset. His 35-yard run set up Malik Ingram’s 3-yard touchdown run, and Naran Buntin scored on a 51-yard run to make it 27-25. The 2-point conversion run failed, and DePaul was able to hang on for the win. Noguera did not complete a pass but rushed for 103 yards on eight carries.
“For the past three or four weeks, we’ve been giving him a lot of reps,” Mangiero said. “We did a little wildcat with him. He’s a seasoned kid. He knows the offense and he knows what our plan was.”
As for his team’s resiliency in coming back, Mangiero compared it to a Yankee Hall of Famer’s approach to pitching in tense situations.
“Mariano Rivera said, ‘It was purely my ability to pitch the next pitch,” the coach said. “‘If I gave up a home run; pitch the next pitch. If I struck a guy out; pitch the next pitch. It was my ability to let the past go in the moment and concentrate on the next pitch.’ I’ve told our team that story many times, and we use the example of flushing it. Just flush it and go to the next play. We talk about being mentally tough. They say football is 90 percent mental, and 10 percent physical and that’s what we try to teach.”
That attitude was apparent throughout the season as Mater Dei dealt with several ups and downs. The biggest “down” was a three-game losing streak that dropped the Seraphs record to 4-3. They responded with four straight victories to reach the championship game.
“We either played great or played poorly,” Mangiero said. “We had games with 14 or 15 penalties; against DePaul we had two or three the whole game. It was a real Jekyll and Hyde kind of season. We either came out and looked really good or made a lot of mistakes. Let’s put it this way, we had to work for every single thing we got.”
A huge bright spot was Brown, who completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,720 yards and 15 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Ingram, who is being looked at by Indiana, Army, Navy and several other Division I schools, rushed for 1,480 yards and 20 touchdowns. Lewis, who’s headed for Notre Dame, caught 39 passes for 648 yards and five TDs. Buntin rushed for 209 yards, caught 19 passes for 320 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
Defensively, Khurram Simpson, who is ticketed for James Madison, and Dominick Giudice each had over 50 tackles, while Simpson had a whopping 18 sacks and Giudice added 14.
And with at least six players moving on to Division I colleges, Mangiero still considers it a quality season despite the playoff loss.
“I’ve never let wins and losses determine the success or failure of our season,” the coach said. “The first year when we won the championship, I told the kids, ‘Don’t let this be the defining moment of your life. Be a productive, hard-working citizen. Get a great education. Get a career, and not just a job, that will make me that much more happy than winning a football game.’ That’s what we do around here. We try to develop guys be successful in life, not win a couple of high school football games.”
Much of that comes back to observing faith. Mangiero noted that his players were all at church Dec. 9 to observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that they pray at least twice a day. In his mind, faith and Christianity provide the umbrella that everything else huddles beneath.
“It really is,” said Mangiero, who attends St. Mary Parish, Middletown. “We’re just trying to keep everything in perspective and understand all the lessons football can teach. To be responsible, accountable, always be humble and hungry and live life on an even keel. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Count on your faith during tough times. And when things get really good and you have a great game or you do really well on the SAT … don’t think you’re better than other people. It’s all encompassing. We try to develop the whole person, mind, spirit and body. That’s the mission of a good Catholic education.”