LAWRENCE: Cardinals in the state final Saturday

”If you have anything scheduled for Dec. 7, cancel it now.”

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
   ”If you have anything scheduled for Dec. 7, cancel it now.”
   That’s one of the tweets circulating among Lawrence High School students, ahead of Saturday’s contest between the Lawrence High School and Hopewell Valley Regional High School football teams.
   At stake Saturday night is the Central Jersey Group III state championship. The game, which starts at 7:30 p.m., will be played at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township. Tickets for adults cost $5.50, and $2 for K-12 students and senior citizens.
   Lawrence High School’s football team is undefeated this season, and Saturday’s game marks the first time that the Cardinals have reached the state finals. The Hopewell Valley Regional High School team’s record stands at 9-1.
   ”It’s exciting,” said Lawrence High School Principal Jonathan Dauber. “This is huge. This is the farthest that we have ever gone. At this point, we are trying to enjoy the ride and support the football team and the coaches.”
   Lawrence High School’s football team has made it to the quarter-final round, but never made it to the semi-finals — let alone the finals — in its 47-year history, according to Rob Radice, the head football coach. He has coached the team for 24 years, including the last 14 years as the head coach.
   Coach Radice said he is proud of the team, which has amassed a 10-0 record this year. At the same time, he said, “we are treating (the playoff game) as an 11th game — as another chance to play football.”
   ”This is not bigger than life. In the end, (the winner) gets a nice little trophy that says you are the Section III champions,” Coach Radice said, adding that nevertheless, the team is excited and looking forward to the challenge.
   ”The offense and the defense (each) played a pivotal role. It doesn’t matter if you run or throw for 300 yards. It has been a ‘whole team’ approach. They have all been pretty selfless, which is a pretty big thing to ask of a 16- or 17-year-old. It’s all about the team,” he said.
   The chance to have a crack at the state championship is not lost on Coach Radice. Many coaches never get the opportunity for their team to participate in a playoff championship game, he said, noting that “this is a good place to be.”
   Athletic Director Ken Mason also acknowledged that earning a chance to try for a state championship is not easy, and the chances of having it happen again are slim. That’s why the team, the school and the community should just enjoy it now, he said.
   Mr. Mason praised Coach Radice, who has kept the football team focused. He said the coach is a true Cardinal, having graduated from Lawrence High School in 1986. Five members of the seven-member coaching staff under Coach Radice are also Lawrence High School graduates.
   Meanwhile, Mr. Dauber said there has been “a lot of buzz” about Saturday’s football game, which he compared to a “border war.” The two school districts share a common municipal boundary, and that also makes for a “very exciting situation,” he said. The two teams had been scheduled to play each other on Thanksgiving Day, but the game was canceled this year because of the championship game.
   Regardless of the football season’s outcome, “we don’t assess the quality of the program on wins or losses,” Mr. Dauber said. It’s about the growth and development of the team members. The makeup of this year’s football team has been consistent over the past four years, and they have grown.
   ”You have to stay focused. The final score (of a game) is the byproduct of commitment and follow-through,” said Mr. Dauber, who has coached high school sports.
   This football team has experienced its share of losses, and “it’s hard to be a good winner without losing,” the principal said. Through the experience of losing, “you grow as a team and as young men,” he said. Learning how to deal with adversity and how to persevere are lessons taught on the athletic field.
   Looking ahead to Saturday’s playoff game, Mr. Dauber said “nobody should hang their head,” regardless of the final score. Hopewell Valley Regional High School’s football program is relatively new, and the two teams are “pretty evenly matched,” he said.
   ”I’m really excited about it. I would like to be on the field, but I’ll just be a fan for the night,” Mr. Dauber said.