The culture of Fort Lee High School sports is changing, from the way all the sports teams pull for one another, to the way the cheerleaders, the marching band and the football team have come together to bring spirit back to the school.
So says Billy Straub, a 1992 graduate of Fort Lee High School and current head football coach, and student athletes and others seem to agree.
“This place is changing, and you guys may not realize it, but I think the seniors that are here are the reason it’s changing, and it’s changing for the better,” Straub told a group of senior athletes he gathered in a high school classroom after the FLHS Athletic Booster Club recently hosted a “Senior Appreciation Night” for fall athletes. “Maybe our seasons weren’t as good as last year; maybe we didn’t have as many wins as we want, but things are going in a positive direction.”
Cheerleader Hailey Klein, football players Mario Jacovino and Masaru Yamaguchi, soccer players Lucy Dell’Aquila and Cody Elkhechen, volleyball player Hannah Cirone, tennis player Ann Stillman and cross-country runner Renee Mattesich, all seniors at Fort Lee High School, sat down with Patch after the event to discuss school spirit.
Athletes in certain sports like tennis and soccer, whose games are played right after school when other teams are practicing or playing their own games, and cross-country, which doesn’t have home meets, said they didn’t necessarily feel the support that the football team enjoyed in spite of a 2-7 season this fall. But most of the student athletes agreed that their senior class is very close, and said that closeness has been a contributing factor to an increase in school spirit.
“Our senior class is very close, and that plays a big role because we’re friends with people in other sports,” said Bridgeman quarterback Mario Jacovino, who grew up in Fort Lee but went to Catholic school before returning to FLHS for his junior and senior years.
Tennis player Ann Stillman, who admitted she doesn’t see a lot of athletes from other sports at her matches because they do take place right after school, agreed with Jacovino about the senior class being particularly close, a sentiment generally shared by the other athletes whose sports aren’t usually as well attended as Friday night football games.
“When we need to come together, we do it well,” Stillman said. “And because we’re so close, we end up showing great interest in our friends’ sports and bringing along other friends.”
Jacovino said he used to go to football games as a kid and made note of the small crowds and relatively few people cheering on the Bridgemen, but that the last couple of years have been different than he remembers.
“For at least a few home games, I saw crowds that were unbelievable sizes for our school,” he said. “Especially this year, school spirit has blown up, and it has something to do with student council; they’ve done just so much to enhance school spirit.”
Hannah Cirone said the volleyball team doesn’t typically fill the stands for their games, but that, thanks in part to being a “closer grade,” one particular match this fall was an exception.
“Our first states game, we played Lakeland at home, and the gym was packed,” she said. “And they were actually watching and enjoying themselves and cheering.”
The team beat Lakeland, and Cirone said, “I think that helped—having fans backing us up and getting us pumped up.”
Cheerleader Hailey Klein has seen what she called a “progression in school spirit” from a unique vantage point.
“Cheering on the sidelines, it’s an incredible feeling looking into the crowd and seeing a bunch of our fans cheering for the team, cheering for the cheerleaders and also for the band,” she said. “The band got really into the football games this year. It became much more exciting, especially when the games were exciting.”
Klein said some of the football players even came to see a cheerleading competition this year, something she truly appreciated and something she said pushed her to do better.
“I did a single; I was out there alone, and the first thing I saw was the group of football players sitting up in the corner cheering,” she said. “And it made me really happy.”
Masaru Yamaguchi was one of the football players who attended the cheerleading competition. He said he believes that because so many people come to see football games, “We should do the same thing for them.”
Harry Welte, now in his 32nd year as a band director, said one of the keys to increasing school spirit is that coaches and band directors need to “understand each other.”
Welte said that he and assistant band director Joseph Picone have that kind of relationship, especially with Straub. In fact, Welte and Straub have made it a tradition before every football game that the team, the cheerleaders and the marching band march in together as a unit.
“It’s kind of unique; you don’t see that kind of cooperation around,” Welte said. “We’ve usually had a good relationship, but none better than really, really recently.”
Welte, who said there are 155 kids in the band program, also said, “There hasn’t been a great sense of school spirit for many years.”
“I don’t really know why that is, but the last few years, we’ve just made sure the band, the cheerleaders are just the best of buds,” he said. “We really respect those guys. [Straub] is a gentleman, and the boys just play their hearts out, and they’re just good, good kids. There’s a mutual respect there, and it’s just grown more and more and more over the last few years.”
Another contributing factor to the increase in school spirit, according to many of the players and coaches, was the formation last winter of the “Fort Lee Fanatics.”
Freshman volleyball coach James Puliatte, who also coaches basketball, started the group based on his experiences as a member of the “Mountaineer Maniacs” during his time at West Virginia University (WVU). He said the Fanatics started out with 40 or 50 student members, who received t-shirts and free admission to all the winter events as part of their membership, and that it grew to about 80 kids this fall. Puliatte said he’s hoping to expand the group to include all seasons and all grade levels, just like at WVU, where he joined the Maniacs during his first year.
“That’s something we want to do with the Fanatics is next year hopefully start it with the incoming freshmen,” he said. “It’s good because you’ll have kids nine through 12th grade all sitting in the same section of stands interacting where they might not normally interact.”
Puliatte, who said he’d ultimately like to get the Fanatics to at least one of every home game and even some road matches, added, “I think a lot of times people use ‘school spirit’ when it’s really ‘school pride.’”
“When you have pride in something, you really have an attachment to it,” he said.
Straub noted that he would like to see the school spirit or school pride combined with a tradition of winning, but he also said winning isn’t everything.
“Not everybody can win a championship, but everybody can have a rewarding experience playing sports,” Straub said. “High school sports are about the friendships you make and you’ll always have.”