JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Things are popping up in Downtown. Once considered an urban jungle, Ward E of the state's second largest city (pop. 240,055) is jumping.
Shiny office complexes and high-rise condominiums have sprouted. Trendy restaurants are opening and there's a hop in the step of the urban genteel.
Two decades ago, the nondescript building, which now houses the brain trust of a high school football powerhouse, was stuck amid gritty streets of aging factories and tired store fronts.
When the real estate developers entered, so did urban renewal. In real estate terms, it's known as gentrification. The rundown neighborhood of historic brownstones was getting a facelift.
The St. Peter's Prep Marauders, No. 23 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 football rankings, are also thriving.
Practicing on a swath of Field-Turf, wedged between Van Horst Street and Marin Boulevard, it is a chilly afternoon. The nearby Hudson River waterfront provides a late autumn breeze and whir of the sleek new train on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail buzzes the end zone.
Will Hill, a slash-type player, stands at midfield confidently running the passing drills. Hill, the all-everything player ranked No. 2 in the ESPN 150, fires a left-handed spiral tighter than a pig's tail.
"We need to get the ball in his hands as many times as possible whether it's by design or not," said St. Peter's head coach Rich Hansen of Hill, who is listed as quarterback-running back-wide receiver-safety-return specialist.
The Prep, the colloquial for the all-male Roman Catholic school conducted by the Jesuits (since 1872), is on a collision course for the third straight year with No. 16 Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey) in New Jersey's Non-Public, Group 4 (large-school classification) championship.
State officials estimate 25,000 will congregate Saturday (1 p.m. ET) at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford for a meeting of 11-0 teams seeking more than a state title.
Understand a lot hinges on the outcome. The winner will remain ranked nationally in the HIGH Elite 25. Locally, the winner takes home hardware as New Jersey's and the Tri-State's top-ranked team.
The previous two state finals between the schools were games of polarization.
Don Bosco capped a perfect season in 2006, thumping the Marauders, 41-0. After leading 7-0 at halftime, the Ironmen, led by quarterback Matt Simms (son of Phil Simms and now a freshman at Louisville) and defensive lineman Justin Trattou (now at Florida), poured it on.
"You always remember the losses more than the wins," Hansen said. "They rode the shoulders of their offensive line and knocked us around."
The budding rivalry was taken to another level in 2005. The underdog Marauders appeared done, trailing 15-0 in the first half. When Hill, a sophomore, helped rally The Prep to an improbable 22-15 victory.
Tied 15-15 late in the fourth quarter, Andrew Booth's 63-yard interception return produced the deciding points, but the Marauders needed a last-second goal line stop to record the The Prep's first state title in 11 years and an perfect season.
"We didn't see that coming," said Don Bosco's lineman Logan Siska of the 2005 final. "We just didn't."
There's an uneasiness heading into the game, bad blood if you will. Siska insisted the fans, students and alumni from both schools trade barbs in internet chat rooms, creating a breeding ground for cyber smack.
Both coaches danced around the negative incidents which have fueled the rivalry.
"No comment," Hansen deadpanned.
With that the gauntlet was dropped.
The rap beats of Lil Wayne blasted from a car stereo outside Granatell Stadium. The Don Bosco players use the trunks of their cars as a makeshift locker room. It's the same routine middle-aged men repeat -- usually coming directly from work -- in parking lots before recreational softball games.
"It's tradition here," said senior two-way lineman Siska. "The seniors usually park closer to the field and the younger players on the other side of the (parking) lot."
Granatell Stadium sits on a plateau in tone Northern Bergen County. The park-like setting is home to the defending state champions, an all-male Roman Catholic school conducted by the Salesian Society of St. John Bosco. There's collegiate feel to the 35-acre campus, which includes a pond, several academic buildings, a throwback gym, and Holy grottos.
No urban renewal here, just suburban sprawl.
Nearly 40 players are dressing in the parking lot less than three days before a date with their blood rivals, St. Peter's. Those already dressed recline in their cars -- ranging from SUVs to high-priced models -- as the heavy bass lines provide a soundtrack for the penultimate practice day.
Minutes before the coaches arrive, the players instinctively retire to the field, launching a staccato of thundering cleats.
The Bosco football factory was open for business.
Greg Toal, the head coach of Don Bosco, lords over the nationally known program. In nine years, Don Bosco has shed its second-class tag. To wit, an appearance on ESPN, oodles of student-athletes playing for major programs and the NFL, and a gear deal with Reebok.
Toal entered with a winning pedigree, cobbled at small schools Saddle Brook and River Dell (Oradell) and then transformed a sleeping giant, Hackensack, into a state perennial power. At Hackensack, he garnered five consecutive Group 4 sectional championships in seven years. (Note: New Jersey public schools do not compete for state titles. Instead four sectional champions are crowned in four classifications or groups.)
Toal's Hackensack club annually competed in the same league -- Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League -- as the likes of parochial schools Don Bosco, St. Joseph Regional, Paramus Catholic and Bergen Catholic and had success against them.
In 1999, he was hired at Don Bosco. There weren't any mandates from school officials, but it was tacitly understood "to develop a consistent winning program," Toal said.
His Ironmen have peeled off 23 straight victories since falling to St. Peter's in 2005. Since his arrival the Ironmen have reached the state final all but one season, claiming three championships. (Note: Don Bosco has won six state titles since the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association instituted playoffs in 1974.)
"Make no mistake about it this is a big, big game, but our No. 1 rivalry game is Bergen Catholic," Toal said. "The national program stuff was never planned; it just happened. In the beginning we had to beat Bergen Catholic and St. Joseph's if we wanted to be good.
"St. Joseph's had beaten us like 17 straight years until 2000 and the Bergen (Catholic) rivalry died off for many years. I'm proud to say we evened the all-time series them (Bergen Catholic) this year. Now there's one more game left."
Back in the war room, Rich Hansen and his coaching staff are devising strategies. Hansen is drilling his young assistants on Don Bosco's tendencies.
Scribbled on the grease board is an assortment of X's and O's with squiggly lines denoting offensive and defensive sets.
After quizzing the coaches, the coffee and doughnuts arrive.
"Good, it's going to be a late night," Hansen cracked, grinning.
More smiles: Will "The Thrill" Hill is in the room.
The jaunty Hill has earned folk status in New Jersey. He's the best offensive player; the best defender; and the most lethal return specialist. Simply put, "one of the greatest players in state history. There's an aura about him, but what really stands out is his competitiveness," Hansen said.
Hill's statistics should be eye-popping, but he rarely sees the field in the second half of games and played in the fourth quarter only three times this season.
"If Will played the entire game, he'd have broken every national record," Hansen said. "We don't do that around here, though. What comes around goes around in football."
For the record, the Florida-bound Hill has rushed for 781 yards and 17 touchdowns on 56 carries (14 yards per carry); completed 40 of 62 passes for 656 yards and five TDs; and has four receptions for 75 yards and a TD in 10 games.
"He's as good as it gets," Toal said.
Hill will be slotted as a safety at Florida, but could line up on offense, giving Gators' quarterback Tim Tebow another lethal weapon.
According to Hill's "exceptional'' evaluation compiled by Scouts, Inc., he's an impact college player:
• Possesses outstanding vision, seeing things quickly and has the stop-and-start ability to exploit small creases.
• Can play any skill position and will be an impact and game-breaking player in college.
• He is a deep threat at receiver, showing ability to consistently separate from defenders.
• On defense, he possesses great motor and can match-up with speedy wideouts; can defend the perimeter at cornerback to match-up in press because of his physical nature.
"Will has the build of a wide receiver or safety, but he could eventually be used at corner(back),'' said Tom Luginbill, the national recruiting coordinator for Scouts, Inc., which compiles the ESPN 150.
The Prep's main building is two blocks from the practice field. Hill, a 6-3, 203-pound sinewy package of energy is nattily dressed in school attire. He is a strapping player with dreadlocks and a boyish grin. There is a self-confident air when he enters the room.
Nicknamed "The Thrill" for exhilarating play, he is known to family and or coaches as "Binky."
"When Will was teething, he wouldn't give up his pacifier (or binky). He held onto it for a long time. The name has stuck." Hansen said.
His teammate, junior nose guard Darryl Green, is a soft-spoken, heat-seeking tackler with high-major aspirations. "My job is to clog the gaps," he said. "But Will, well, he's capable of putting a team on his back. He's the leader."
Hansen agreed with Green's assessment, but recalled an eerily coincidental conversation with Coach Randy Shannon of Miami.
After watching's Hill's junior highlight reel, they agreed Hill's game was similar to Sean Taylor, the former Washington Redskins' and Miami Hurricanes' safety who was slain earlier this week.
In 2000, St. Peter's hosted Gulliver Prep of Miami, starring Taylor, Florida's state player of the year.
"Kind of eerie isn't it," Hansen said.
The room fell silent momentarily.
It was back to work.
"I wish we were hosting the game," said Toal of Saturday's game at 78,000-seat Giants Stadium. "I'd like to see it at a high school venue or small college stadium. But ultimately it's about the players and this exciting for them to play where the pros play."
With Jets and Giants out of town this weekend, that opens the stadium for high school title games.
However, the December winds swirl inside the stadium, wreaking havoc on play. "Phil Simms told me about the winds. Phil succeeded because he threw a hard ball; that's not the case with an average high school quarterback."
"The place (Giants Stadium) holds special memories for me," Hill said. "We were the underdog in 2005 and won. Last year unfortunately we thought we were entitled to it (the title). We thought we had it won before playing it (the final). Afterwards I found out our (team) leaders were followers."
Hill isn't the only leader for The Prep. Junior running back Nyshier Oliver has made big splash. Oliver has rushed for 1,312 yards and 22 touchdowns on 122 carries for a gaudy 10.8 yards per carry average. His 132 points are tops for the Marauders.
"Naz (Oliver) has diversified our offense," Hill said. "He's had a big impact and I'm confident when he has the ball."
St. Peter's was rarely tested this year in winning a seventh straight Hudson County title. The Marauders edged Delbarton (Morristown), 22-15, in the opener at Giants Stadium and has averaged 50 points in two playoff victories. The Prep trailed Camden Catholic (Cherry Hill) in the quarterfinals at halftime, but eventually won, 59-21.
Don Bosco, which replaced all five starters along the offensive line, has also shown dominance. After opening with three consecutive wins against Philadelphia area schools, the Ironmen romped through their league schedule and over two playoff opponents.
Guy Germinario, Bosco's fourth year two-way player, knows the game plan.
"Ball control," he said. "We need to control the clock and limit their (St. Peter's) opportunities on offense.''
Germinario, who will likely play for a Patriot League school next year, is like a "member of the coaching staff he's been around so long," Toal said.
Germinario, junior quarterback Brett Knief and speedy sophomore running back Tony Jones comprise a backfield which given opponents' fits.
"I like what I see. This team has matured nicely," Germinario said.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.