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CLINTON TWP. North Hunterdon High School is celebrating 50 years of existence, and this past Lion football season celebrated 50 years of North football, the golden anniversary of the Golden Lions.

Last week's 26th annual "Milkcan Game" victory over arch foe sister school Voorhees officially ended the 51st year, as the Lions finished with a 5-5 mark.

The official record over those 51 seasons standing at 215-216- 7, with 24 winning seasons, 23 losing seasons and four seasons when the Lions were just at .500.

It all began back in the fall of 1951 when North Hunterdon fielded its first football team, as old Clinton High School closed and North opened its doors. There was no football team at Clinton, but with the new ''regionalized'' high school on a hill overlooking then Route 30 and the old Goble Farm came football.

The game was all new to the kids that met at the new high school, except from some back-yard games. In that first season under coach Prentice Beers, the highlight would be a 6-0 win over Frenchtown High School (that would become Delaware Valley High School) in a 1-5 season.

Names on that first North football team with its green helmets with a single gold stripe, included James Ovady and Jack Tharp, and a promising sophmore starter named Dave Strain. That first season was the year that Netcong's John Gianantonio ran for 10 touchdowns in a 65-14 rout of "Regional", even before they were knicknamed the Lions. Gianantonio still holds the New Jersey High School all-time single-season scoring record in football.

A passage from that first North yearbook of 1952 noted that "under the leadership of coach Beers, North would be a dangerous threat in the future".

The second season North finished at.3-4 and for the first time in school history bested Flemington High School (which would become Hunterdon Central) behind the play of Tharp, Greg Wojdat and John Transue to start the North-Central rivalry. Strain, the school's first three-year letter-winner in football, would also earn third-team All-State honors in 1953.

The football team got its first winning season under then coach Paul Rickenbach in the fall of 1955 behind star Lion halfback Tommy Langston with a 5-1-2 record. Langston rambled for 10 touchdowns in the eight games, a new school record, averaged over six yards a carry and over eight tackles a game. His exploits earned him "First-Team All-State" honors, North's initial first-team All-State player. Other standouts on that first winning team included Frank Cozze, and big tackle Paul Likus.

That winning year started a string of good seasons under coach Rickenbach with marks of 7-1 in 1956 and 1957, and a mark of 6-1-1 in 1958. Richenbach also had seasons of 6-2 in 1959 and 5-3 in 1960. In nine years as head coach Rickenbach went 38-30-4.

Names from those golden years of football at North included the Paulus brothers, Bruce, John and Ed. Bruce still holds the Lion school record for longest punt, an 86-yarder against Bordentown in 1955.

In 1957 Curt Conover set the Lion school record for longest punt-return for a TD of 98 yards against Hunterdon Central, while Bob Clawson set the school record for longest TD run from scrimmage, a 99-yarder against Metuchen in 1958.

Those marks still stand today in the North record book. Conover went on to coach at Glassboro State College, while Clawson played baseball at Rutgers with Jeff Torborg as his roommate on the team.

Other names from those years were Cal Blessing, a quick halfback that held the school 100-yard dash mark as well in track. Defensive wiz Kenny Langston, and the Keller brothers Chick and quarterback Gerry Keller had super seasons in the late 1950's. Gerry Keller went on be a successful head-coach at both Bernards and then Hunterdon Central.

Lion football was a family thing back in the early days, with the Gromlowicz brothers, Kenny and Joe, two standout players, as well as the Langstons, the Paulus brothers and the Convovers.

Another name from the late 1950's was Charlie Patkotchis, a Franklin Township kid that went on to play football at Syracuse. He had two sons that later played at North, Scott and Brad, and both played Division I football, with Scott at Rutgers and Brad as a senior team-captain at Syracuse. Both were super offensive linemen.

Len Lane Era
The 1960's started well for the Lions as Len Lane took over as head coach the season of 1962, and his Lions rolled to a 7 -1 mark, with the lone blemish a loss to unbeaten Highland Park led by Rich Polacastro's four second-half TD passes. Po1acastro went on to break all the Rutgers University passing marks.

The 1962 team won the County title with a huge 42-12 win over Hunterdon Central, and wins over Delaware Valley, 28-( and South Hunterdon, 28-0, with names like quarterback Bobby Brannan, tackle Paul Goble (North's first state champion wrestler at heavyweight in 1963), tackle Steve Whitehead (who also held the North basketball single-game scoring mark for a while with 39 points), halfback Sonny Zborzney, split end Bop Kulger, big tight end Paul Wilbur and rugged fullback Gene Detweiler. Center Gene Sevi, and guards Rob Plenge and Al Owens gave the Lions a huge and mobile offensive line.< Detweiler was a sophomore fullback on that team scored four touchdowns against Central. He went on to become captain of the Colgate College football team, and at fullback blocked for All-American tailback Marvin Hubburd, who went on to star for the Oakland Raiders in the NFL.

North fell on some hard times in the late 1960's and early 1970's, with just three seasons of 4-4 to show for it. In coach Lane's final season as head coach he had a senior halfback named Parker Snare, and he went on to set just about every North offensive record.

He scored five TD's and finished with 38 points in that game alone with a 42-yard field goal and five extra-point kicks. He finished the season with 14 touchdowns, a new school mark at the time, and led Central Jersey in scoring. He went on to play three varsity seasons at Montclair State College, where he was a starter for the NCAA Division III National Champ Indians with a win in the Knute Rockne Bowl held in Atlantic City's Convention Hall in 1971. He played at Montclair under legendary coach Clary Anderson.

In 1971 the Lions went 4-4 behind the running duo of Phil Exley and Mike Galizewski. That season included a huge 14-8 upset win of Hunterdon Central, and a 6-0 win over South Hunterdon with a diving last second TD catch by Tom Snyder from soph Mike Lusardi. Lusardi, a lefty, went on to become a high school All-American pitcher in baseball for the Lions, and still holds most of the school pitching records. He went on to be an All-American at the University of Wyoming. He is currently a scout and chaplain for the major league Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL.

North also went 4-4 in 1973 as the Spinks brothers, Grant and Glenn led the Lions, and Mike Exley came back from a season-long injury to score three touchdowns and run for over 200 yards in a 20-8 win over Belvidere in the final game to get to the .500 mark. A coach named Fritz Halfacre changed North Hunterdon's image a little in the early 1970's. Halfacre came to North after stints at Hunterdon Central, and then Emmaus in Pennsylvania, and North won the DRC Conference title with a 7-1 mark in 1974, with the only loss to Central. Senior Pat Bartnett and soph Dave Smigelsky shared quarterback duties that year. The next year was North's best in school hisotry, with a State Championship season in 1975 as the Lions went a perfect 10-0 to take Central Jersey Group 3 honors with a 27- 18 win over Franklin Township in the sectional finals.
Names on those two Halfacre teams reads like a who's-who in North football history, with Dave Smigelsky, Randy Morton, Andy Regitz, Pat Bartnett, Chris Sevi, Paul Chistianson, Mike Greiner, Ken Andrews, Hal Burton, Ken Buttram, Kevin Nagie, Bob Bartnett, Tony Nastasi, Jeff Pierce, Brett Hudnett, Ray Virgilio, Dean VanArsdale and Mike Oleniacz.

That was the season that standout quarterback Dave Smigelsky, who went on to be an All-American punter at Virgina Tech and then to the NLF with the Baltimore Colts, Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons, broke his collarbone in a wild win over Hunterdon Central.

Junior backup Bob Bartnett stepped up to lead the team in the final three wins, including playoff wins over Howell (14-6) and then Franklin Township. That was a story all by itself.

Halfacre coached just two seasons at North with a combined 17 -1 record, and left his mark. He went to join the newly constructed Voorhees High School the year after as head of guidance.
Two assistant coaches on his staff, John Smith and Don Somma, would become head football coaches at North in later years.
After the State Championship team of 1975, in came a new North football coach as defensive coordinator Don Somma took over the reins of the Lions, and came away in his first season with a 6-3 mark.

Led by an MVP performance from senior quarterback Dave Smigelsky, the Lions won the first battle in what would become the annual "Milkcan Game" with Voorhees, 31-8.

Somma's final of three seasons as head Lion coach was a good one, with an 8-3 mark, and a two-game spin into the State Sectionals, losing to JFK Iselin in the finals, 23-6. In seven games that season, the Lions allowed one or fewer TD's with three straight shutouts and rugged junior tailback Brad Hudson broke the single-season TD mark with 14.

Elizabeth High School made coach Somma an offer he couldn't refuse, and in came a new head coach the following year. John Smith, the offensive coordinator on the 1975 state championship team, took over the head coaching reins in 1975 and the Lions rolled to the DRC title, and a 9-1 mark, losing to Somerville in the State Sectional semifinals in Giants' Stadium.

That year the Lions played perhaps the greatest game in North history, a thrilling 36-34 win over 10-1 Hunterdon Central before some 6,000 people at Singley Field. The Devils went on to win the CJ4 State Sectional title over Matawan.

Central got a 380-yard passing day from Brian Greif, 12 catches from All-American end Billy Wallace and 10 catches from tight end Steve Gibble, and the Devils still could not win.

North was led by a record setting 44 carries by Hudson, who finished with 179 yards rushing and three TD's, the Lions pulled off the upset. Hudson scored 14 more TD's that season.

North also got three interceptions by senior safety Scott Skripko in the game. He had a school-record 11 that season that still stands. And, Tom Angstadt booted 31 of 32 extra
points, and a then school-mark five field goals, and Alan Brewster heaved 10 TD passes that season. Angstadt went on to kick at Rutgers University.

Smith stayed just three seasons too, and moved on but had a 7-2 mark in 1980 as Angstadt booted a field goal to beat Central, 9-7, and have five more field goals that season.

Coach George Greiner, a legend at Bridgewater-East as head coach of three consecutive unbeaten seasons, came to North Hunterdon in 1982, and in his second season the Lions went 72, with a super defensive team with three shutouts.

The highlight of that season was a 15-14 win over Franklin as Rod Spangler booted the winning conversion with no time left on the clock. Quarterback Mickey Serridge engineered an 80-yard TD drive with 1:23 left. They scored with four seconds left to tie. Spangler's kick won the game.

Greiner's 1986 team also went 7-2 with a superb offensive line led by senior tackle Bill Moore, juniors Jeff Gromlowicz, Vince Corsentino and Fritz Hessenthaler, along with big soph tight end Scott Patkochis.

Moore went on to be a starting offensive guard at the University of New Hampshire, while Gromolowicz was a starting guard at Yale. Scott Patkochis became a standout offensive lineman at Rutgers.

Making The Grade
Junior tailback Duane Grade bulled his way for 12 TD's, and sophomore kicker Joe Kugelman booted four field goals. One of them, a 51-yarder against Franklin, is still the longest in
school history.

Kugelman finished with a school career mark of 16 field goals, and became the only player to earn four varsity football letters.

Quarterback Bart Koehler threw for 260 yards in a win over Watchung Hills for a then school record.

Kugelman booted seven field goals for a school mark, Grade scored 14 TD's to tie a Lion school mark, and also recorded 11 quarterback sacks for a school record. He went on to be a standout linebacker at Montclair State University.

The Lions went 5-3-1 in 1987 with the only tie in "Can Game" history, a 3-3 game to close the season.

Senior halfback Mike Donnelly had a super season in 1988 with 13 TD's, but his team went just 3-6. Jack Parlo heaved 10 TD passes, with a 98-yard TD pass to Herb Vickery against Bridgewater- West still a school record.

Senior halfback Sean Ottaly scored 13 times but his Lions team went just 4-5 in 1989. Jack Benecke had three interceptions in a big win over Voorhees. Benecke went on to play for Army at West Point.

The 1990's
North started the 1990's with two 1-8 seasons, but a lanky and elusive tailback named Eric Tomczak scored 16 TD's for the Lions in 1992, and repeated the feat in 1993 when the Lions went 7-1-1 and just missed out on moving into the State Sectionals. Tomczak finished his career with a school mark 37 touchdowns.
That season defensive end John Latino tied the school record with 11 quarterback sacks in a season for the solid Lion defense.
Junior kicker Matt Hargrove hauled in a TD pass, and booted six field goals, including three in a win over Franklin that year and senior linebacker Matt Rayl broke all the North tackling records with 152. He went on to be a three-year starter at Kent State University.
Junior quarterback Mike Leonardi heaved a school record 16 TD passes in 1994, as Hargrove, Matt Lehman and Nick Bassamakopolis hauled them all in and Hargrove set a singleseason reception yardage mark. Hargrove went to Army, and finished as a varsity rugby player at West Point his final
two seasons.

Current head coach Dennis Haughey took over for coach Greiner after 14 seasons in 1996.
The late 1990's became the Chris Loftus era, as the junior scored five TD's in a win over Voorhees in the final game of the season, and came back as a senior to scored five more in 1997 against Voorhees in a wild 41-40 win, for the second most exciting game in Lion history. He finished with 15 TD's and set North marks for all-purpose yards, and total yards.

Senior quarterback Wes Martz threw 15 TD passes, and a school mark 275 yards in a 34-27 loss to Hunterdon Central and senior flanker Eric Burgoyne hauled in eight TD passes for a school record that still stands.

Four different players threw TD passes in 2000 for the Lions, as Brandon Perrine, Joe Ricco, Kyle Mandelberg and Scott Paragon did the trick.

Perrine won the first of his two "Can Game MVP" awards with a pair of TD's and 123 yards rushing in a 45-28 win after a switch from quarterback to tailback.

Perrine also won the MVP in the 2001 game with 134 yards on 24 carries, and a huge TD as North capped a 5-5 season. Senior Mike Irwin booted eight field goals for a single season school mark and tied the career record of 16.

Senior flanker Chad Hegstrom broke the school mark for pass receptions with 50 and reception yardage with 772.

Senior quarterback Joe Ricco threw for 1,209 yards to be one of just five Lion QB's with over 1,000 yards in a season. The Lions got to the State post-season for the second consecutive season in 2002, and won a post-season game for the first time since 1981. With the Junior Lions Middle School football program in place, a renovated and expanded North Hunterdon Lions' Den Field House, and a solid off-season program instilled by Coach Dennis Haughey, it is hoped that the next 50 years of North football will be off on a winning note.

Haughey is the 10th coach in the 50-year history of the program.

There have been some amazing games in the past 50 seasons, great kids, literally thousands of them passing through the old field house, originally built in 1954.

The names, all the brothers, like the Burton brothers of Lebanon, Paul, Hal and Rich, with Paul and Hal playing at West Point.

Brad Patckochis, who went on to captain Syracuse University's team as a standout offensive guard in his father's and older brothers' footsteps.

The Angstadt brothers, Folino brothers, the Kugelman brothers, the Donnelly family, the Langston family, the Tkacs, the Egans, the Gromlowicz boys, the Snyder boys, and the list goes on in the history of North football.

All those guys have one thing in common, being a North• Hunterdon Lion football player, in green and gold.

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