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The goal for Paramus (N.J.) Catholic to repeat as New Jersey Non-Public Group IV champion was set by head coach Chris Partridge immediately following the team's 37-34 victory over Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic in December.
Led by uber-talented prospect Jabrill Peppers, the program finished No. 97 in the RivalsHigh 100 and atop the standings within the state -- ahead of more nationally known programs such as Montvale (N.J.) St. Joe's, Bergen Catholic, and Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco, which all rounded out the bottom of the national list.
The initial RivalsHigh 100 high school football team rankings for 2013 are being prepared for release at the end of the month, and since the conclusion of the last season Partridge has had time to set his sights higher.
"I don't really want to start talking about national championships yet, but if we are undefeated then I think we would have as good a claim as anyone," he said. "As a coach, I still need to make sure that we are going one game at a time -- and in all reality we need to take it one practice at a time -- but if at the end of the year we are undefeated I think that with our schedule and our talent it would be very justifiable to be in that discussion."
Paramus Catholic would be the second team from the state to take home the crown, following Don Bosco -- which won the 2009 RivalsHigh 100 title.
Like all previous champions, the program will have to earn it on the field.
The season opens with a game against Baltimore (Md.) Gilman before road contests against Morristown (N.J.) Delbarton and Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius to close September. Gilman and St. Ignatius will be nationally ranked in the preseason, while Delbarton will enter the year among the top 10 within the Garden State.
October does not bring a lighter a load. Paramus Catholic will take on a top five team from Delaware in Wilmington (Del.) St. Mark's before tests against Don Bosco and St. Joe's.
The November slate includes Washington (D.C.) Friendship Collegiate and Bergen Catholic before the playoffs start. In the postseason, a game against Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter's Prep and a rematch against Bergen Catholic or Don Bosco could await. Friendship Collegiate is a top 10 preseason program from Maryland, and Bergen Catholic and St. Peter's Prep will be in the top five from New Jersey to start the year.
Partridge said he knows he is ambitious but making this march to the top is part of a plan he put in place when he took over at his alma mater.
"We never wanted to be a one-year wonder," he said. "We won states after being less than mediocre, and now we want to go from being a contender to a consistent threat to win states and compete for national attention.
"We didn't take shortcuts, and we have gone step by step to get to where we are."
The roster is as talented as any in the country -- and it is not limited to Peppers.
The offensive line will feature Michigan verbal pledge Juwan Bushell-Beatty and Virginia Tech commitment Billy Ray Mitchell. It will have senior prospect Alec Bowman lining up to protect returning quarterback Steve Shanley. Bowman has been receiving interest from Connecticut and Boston College, while Shanley has offers from Buffalo and Central Michigan.
The offense will also have firepower on the outside with three-star receiver Tyrone Washington and slot player Dejon Harrison.
On defense, the group will lean on the strength of its line and Peppers in the secondary. Terrence Harris, Marcus Pantoja and Nick Flores will do their best to disrupt the opposition in the trenches.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said Peppers is the best high school football player to come out of New Jersey in the last decade and has a special quality to his game.
"Jabrill separates himself from so many kids -- even elite kids -- with his competitive desire," Farrell said. "He really reminds me of Percy Harvin in the respect that, when the stage gets bigger and his team needs him more, he is capable of becoming even better. When you are talking about one of the best players in the country on an every-down basis being able to pick it up even more, it is something to see."
For Paramus Catholic to make the kind of run Partridge believes is possible, he knows the team will need to knock off Don Bosco.
In the last 10 games between the schools, the combined score has been 482-24 in favor of Don Bosco. Paramus Catholic has been within 35 points only twice in those 10 games, and it has been shut out six times.
The 31-8 defeat it suffered last season was the closest contest in the series, and Partridge called it a turning point for the program.
"That Bosco game was the first really big game we played with expectations on us," he said. "And losing the way we did was an eye opener. We didn't know how to play and win big games yet.
"We learned from it, and the next week we beat St. Joe's. That was the most important step taken in the program's history -- even more than winning a state title in '97. We learned so much from those two games that I wouldn't change the outcome of that Bosco game because it helped us take another step and win that state title."
Through his own process, Partridge has grown respect for the way Greg Toal and the Don Bosco program have gone about the development into a national power.
"They did it and they went about it in the right order," he said. "There are four schools within a 15-mile radius that are all competing for attention, and I just believe you need to have a state title before you make the claim that you are a national player.
"I think that Don Bosco built itself by really having sustained, in-state success and then went out nationally. That team from Oradell didn't take that route. Those guys skipped the step of winning the state before saying they were a national power, and we didn't want to do that. We won the state title last year, and now we put the schedule together to raise our profile."
Partridge said he is fielding calls for next year and he hopes that, like Don Bosco, the success on the field continues to attract players to his program.
In New Jersey, many of the best programs are private schools and the Big North League is one of the most difficult in the country.
Each program battles for the best players in the state to join its ranks from an early age, and Paramus Catholic slowly has been climbing the mountain.
This year's roster will feature three players who transferred in to the school -- including Peppers, who left Don Bosco -- but it is loaded with homegrown, four-year starters.
"People want to knock us down right now," Partridge said. "We got Jabrill and two others, but the rest of our guys have been here and with us the whole time. We didn't get a single player when Paterson (N.J.) Catholic closed, and as we continue to improve I know the talk will continue.
"This is a special group -- and one I think will go down as the most special in PC history. They chose to come here when we were losing to public schools, and now we are in a place to beat Don Bosco and we have already beat that school from Oradell. They did something different and climbed a mountain. They set the tone for what PC will become."
Partridge said that what is behind this group is very good as well.
"We are very senior heavy this year, but I have a lot of really good juniors and younger guys," he said. "I don't let their information get out and I don't let them talk to college coaches as freshmen or sophomores because I want everyone to wait their turns, but they are very good."
To continue its push to the top, Farrell said, Partridge will have to continue with the influx of talent.
"Bosco is not going to roll over anytime soon and Bergen won't go quietly, so to keep up with them they will need to take advantage of this season and show that Paramus Catholic is the place to go," Farrell said. "When you have those two, plus St. Joe's and St. Peter's, there is always going to be a battle for the best players."
Partridge thinks he can win that battle.
"I think that what we are doing here is something that kids will want to be a part of," he said. "My personal goal is to send every kid I coach to college, and I like to see when guys like Billy Ray Mitchell can commit to his dream school, Virginia Tech, and when Jabrill Peppers and Juwan Bushell-Beatty can go to Michigan. It really is a great feeling.
"I think we walk the talk, and I think that this place is unique in the way we do things. We have a different philosophy in how we want to develop young men into big-time recruits, but I think we can produce just as many success stories as anyone."
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