It only seemed logical that the football team would be spending a lot of time at Jannarone Park this week.
It’s an artificial turf field and the Vikings will be playing on turf when they face Cranford in the North 2, Group III state final on Saturday morning at the Kean University campus in Union.
In another way though, it seems natural—even magical for some of the Vikings to practice here while getting ready for the big game. It is where many of them learned to play football when they were members of the Little Vikings, the town’s youth program. Why wouldn’t you want to prepare for the biggest football game of your life in the place that gave you your start?
“We were the first team ever to play here,’’ said , who has been playing football since the third grade. “We lost but still it feels like home. We’ve all been really close for a really long time. I think that contributes to how well we play well together."
Youth programs are the backbone of the public school sports teams. Feeder programs are where young players learn the game. The Little Vikings have nine youth teams in all ranging from Kindergarten Flag Football to a Varsity Level squad for eighth graders preparing to play in high school. Competing together all those years provides a special bond for players that can only help a team reach a championship game.
“It has a huge effect on what we do—it’s one big program,’’ Parsippany Hills coach Dave Albano said. “As coaches we hold clinics for their coaches and our kids help out with those kids. It’s enormous. With all those kids, they grow up here they play Little Vikings and they want to move up. I don’t lose many kids at all to the parochial schools. The coaches here on the Little Viking level stress coming here and they stress staying home and playing for your hometown.’’
There are some youth programs that nearly mirror the varsity programs of their high schools. Albano doesn’t go that far but he does insist on certain things that the youth players are taught at an early age that gives them a good foundation to build on.
“At that level I always tell them to teach the basics—the fundamentals of running and blocking and tackling,’’ Albano said. “We change at the high school. We will run some of the same plays and use the same cadences and things like that but as far as running our offense or our attack defense, I don’t expect them to do that. I always tell (the coaches) to do what you are comfortable teaching.’’
Parsippany Hills felt comfortable running the offense in his first year as a varsity quarterback because much of it was in the Little Vikings playbook. The camaraderie and friendships built over the years that may be more valuable than knowing the plays. Simms can easily rattle off the names of his former Little Vikings teammates: Mike Comerford, Joyce, Mike Pietrowicz, Shawn Pound, Andrew Cupo.
“I feel like this team really started in Little Vikings,’’ Simms said. “It’s the same core group of guys that have been playing together for the longest time. I feel it really helped us in bonding and knowing that we can play for each other. We’ve been playing together for so long.’’
The Little Vikings also provide a clear link to the Parsippany Hills teams of the past. Senior lineman Mike Pietrowicz has always thought of Jannarone Field as a second home.
“I think the group of seniors now, are the winningest group to go through the Little Vikings,’’ Pietrowicz said. “It was a lot of fun to see how much we’ve progressed.
"It was always fun to go to games and see what other teams were doing from first grade up to eighth grade. You learned a lot. The coaches that we had were hard-nosed coaches but they knew what they were doing and the playbooks we use now, we started using back with the Little Vikings so we were able to learn the plays back then. There were some of the same calls actually. We were able to start a tradition there and bring it back here.’’
Pietrowicz regularly went to the games to see the outstanding varsity teams in 2005 and 2006 that reached the state finals. Over the years he learned a lot from the Parsippany Hills varsity football players who held clinics for the Little Vikings.
“I think that we were more of an advanced program because they did teach us the right technique,’’ Pietrowicz said. “We had players from Parsippany Hills come down and coach us. They would teach us what Coach Albano was teaching them and help us down here.
“Timmy Schorling was one of the coaches. He was a captain of the 2006 team. Kevin Perrini was also a lineman then and they taught me for a bunch of years. I was able to learn from them and now I’m where they were.’’
Not everyone on the varsity team played for the Little Vikings. Some like captains Danny Hardwick and Will Smith were soccer players who wanted a chance to see if they could pick up football and play it at a high level when they got into high school.
Others took up football later on or played for the youth program at times than stopped and picked football back up for the high school years. However, once they picked up their helmets and pads those players were accepted at the high school level as if they played in the youth program all along. Either way there’s no doubt that the Little Vikings have influenced this year’s team and contributed to its success.
“There are definitely a lot of good memories here,’’ senior linebacker Andrew Cupo said. “We’ve had very high expectations since the preseason. Hopefully we are living up to them heading to the championship game. I feel like we were a very close team and this whole season has made us grow even closer together.
“We were the first team to play on this field. It was good to come back here as seniors on the varsity and finish up our high school careers—hopefully as state champions.’’