Fort Lee High School sports coaches had the opportunity to pay special tribute to their senior athletes before their peers and parents Wednesday, when the FLHS Athletic Booster Club hosted a “Senior Appreciation Night” for fall athletes.
The booster club sponsors the event at the end of every sports season, according to club president Sandi Klein.
On Wednesday, the coaches took turns calling their senior players to the front of the high school cafeteria, where the event took place, and spoke a little about their teams and the seasons they had before mentioning a few words about each individual senior athlete.
Head football coach Billy Straub called his seniors “a special group to me” in spite of a 2-8 season in which the Bridgemen lost four games by a total of just 12 points, including a 36-35 loss to an undefeated River Dell team late in the season.
“I’ve been coaching sports for 17 years at the high school level, and … the seniors on this team made it a special feeling as a coach,” Straub said. “There was not one day during our season when myself or my assistant coaches dreaded having to go to practice.”
He said that was thanks to the senior leaders on the team and their collective personality.
Girls volleyball coach John Ziemba, whose team finished the season 12-13, said that the record was not indicative of the way the Lady Bridgemen played.
“We were very competitive in a very tough league,” Ziemba said. “We lost some really, really, really tough, heartbreaking matches and won some great matches.”
He also said his nine senior girls were “dedicated to the program and will be very difficult to replace.”
First-year girls tennis head coach Courtney Baiardi pointed out that of the seven starters from last season, only two returned this year, and that without the seniors “leading the team,” they couldn’t have achieved what they did.
“To graduate five girls from last year and go undefeated and win our league is quite a success,” Baiardi said.
Boys soccer coach Demba Mane, also a first-year head coach, said the team went 5-2 at home and 2-7-2 on the road.
“Coming into the season, I knew it was going to be a challenge for us,” Mane said. “But we played some very good soccer in the second part of the season.”
Philip Zappel, head coach of the girls soccer team, called the season a “very tough” one because of the schedule and competition his team faced.
“Despite coming in third place in the division, which maybe wasn’t exactly where we wanted to be, I have to say that these girls, this team, worked hard every single game, from the first whistle to the last whistle,” Zappel said. “It didn’t matter if the score was 1-0 or 8-0; everybody kept playing hard until the game was over.”
He added, “I think the reason that they were able to persevere through a lot of the tough losses was because of the leadership of this part of the team that’s standing in front of me right now.”
Cross-country head coach Ed Garrison, who is in his last year of coaching after 39 years, said, “I’ll always have that orange and black in my heart.”
“Our boys were fourth in the league,” Garrison said, noting the few seniors on the team. “It was a real rebuilding season; we finished second last year. But they did very well, and eventually they’re going to be great.”
He called the Lady Bridgemen seniors “a very serious bunch of girls.”
“I’ve coached many years of girls cross country, and when I compared back the records and looked at team times and performances, this, by far, was the best team I’ve ever coached here in Fort Lee,” Garrison said, adding, “Unfortunately, it was a year of seconds” for the girls.
“Everybody can’t be a winner, but we were winners beyond that, and they’ll always be winners in our eyes,” he said.
Yet another first-year head coach, Jacky Corcoran of a Fort Lee cheerleading squad that earned all-state honors at its first competition of the year, said her team was special to here precisely because it was her first year.
“I will never forget my first group of girls; they will always have a special place in my heart,” Corcoran said. “And this season would not have gone so smoothly without our seniors.”