HILLSBOROUGH: Unique experience ‘Down Under’

Erceg a football ambassador

By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
   Daniel Erceg hadn’t heard of the Down Under Bowl, but when the Hillsborough resident was invited to participate in it, he jumped at the chance to be an ambassador for his town, state and country.
   ”I thought it was crazy,” said Erceg, who will be a senior at Hillsborough High School. “I was blown away by the invitation. I wanted to go right away.”
   In its 25th year, the Down Under Bowl brings football teams from the United States, Australia and New Zealand together for a week of competition. Erceg spent seven days in Australia and two days in Hawaii on his way home as part of the experience that is run by International Sports Specialists, Inc. The trip centers around a football tournament but there are sightseeing highlights as well.
   ”When the opportunity arose, I was pretty excited for it,” Erceg said. “I was not even expecting it at all until I got the invitation in the mail.”
   Erceg took full advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. On top of enjoying the sights in Australia, his trip was topped off as he quarterbacked the Eastern Conference team to the Down Under Bowl championship win over the Western Conference.
   ”I feel like it did make it a little extra special,” Erceg said. “Winning the medal with first place on it made us stand out compared to teams that had second on their medals.”
   The Eastern Conference topped a team of Southern states in its semifinal matchup. Erceg’s Eastern team consisted of players from New York, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Maine. Erceg was the lone representative from New Jersey.
   ”The majority of them were graduating seniors,” he said, “and I was one of the only rising seniors.”
   Erceg earned the start at quarterback in a competition that began with three other quarterbacks. Two of them changed positions when they saw what they were up against, and Erceg found that his experienced helped him win the starting job in a setting that was a step up from what he’s seen.
   ”I feel like it was more challenging compared to last year,” Erceg said. “These kids are already graduating. It was like playing kids from last year — they were all talented.”
   Erceg has been playing quarterback since he took up the game as a 5-year-old. He grew up playing for the Hillsborough Dukes and Junior Raiders teams before coming to the high school. This year, he led the HHS junior varsity to a winning record, and he saw time for the varsity, including completing a 69-yard touchdown pass, the team’s longest of the season. This summer, he was invited and participated in the Blue/Gray football combine at the Philadelphia Eagles training facility. His experience helped transition him to what amounted to an all-star team.
   ”Like in Hillsborough and with a bunch of teams, you have a certain set of plays and they have to be run,” Erceg said. “We ran dives and easy options, so it wasn’t that hard of a transition, but the coach did put in some extra plays and we had to run those. Hillsborough did help.”
   In the game, the East relied on its run game, and the option attack was an integral part of it, but Erceg also had the chance to throw the ball. He helped to engineer their wins with his legs and his arm.
   ”I feel like I played pretty good,” Erceg said. “I always feel like there’s room for improvement, but I did well.”
   Erceg felt good about his team’s chances from the outset. He was part of a group that had no weaknesses as it came through with the championship.
   ”We thought we would come out on top,” Erceg said. “Our team was pretty stacked. We weren’t overweight in any one spot. We were about average in everything. We were balanced.”
   They began the trip in Brisbane, the site of the Down Under Bowl, but they also visited Sydney and when they left Australia, they got a couple of days in Hawaii.
   ”It was a lot of fun,” Erceg said. “I never knew half the stuff (about Australia) that I found out, like they drive on the different side of the road. I feel like they’re all backwards. Their accents, it’s exciting to talk to them.”
   The Americans explored the host country together while balancing preparing for the Down Under Bowl. Erceg made friends that he plans to stay in touch with through the year, particularly his roommates from the trip.
   ”We got to hang out with other teams,” he said. “We mainly hung out with our team so we got to know each other well and got good chemistry.”
   Erceg was thankful for the unique experience. On top of the international trip, it afforded him the opportunity to play football well before HHS kicks off pre-season practices Aug. 12. Erceg is looking forward to his senior season after a confidence-building experience in Australia.
   ”It does help me,” he said. “I feel like it warmed me up for the season this year. It got me focused.
   ”This year, coach hasn’t set a starting quarterback. We have a kid coming up from Florida this year and he’s supposedly pretty good. It should be good competition.”
   Beyond his final season at Hillsborough, Erceg is looking for the opportunity to continue to play football at the college level. He will spend this year looking for the right fit.
   It’s one of the new steps for Daniel Erceg, who this summer already was able to enjoy a memorable experience Down Under, one that he will treasure and would recommend to any future invitee.
   ”I think it’s for me, what I got out of it,” Erceg said. “I learned so much, new plays, new people, and how to run the option.”