Phil Anastasia: Fucetola and Williamstown enter elite territory

Coach Frank Fucetola leads his Williamstown players through warm-ups for practice. The No. 1 Braves face a hungry No. 3 Cherokee squad Friday night. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Coach Frank Fucetola leads his Williamstown players through warm-ups for practice. The No. 1 Braves face a hungry No. 3 Cherokee squad Friday night. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 28, 2013

When the buses pull up and the players step out, Cherokee will be looking for more than just a victory over Williamstown on Friday night in a clash of Top 3 teams in The Inquirer's Top 25 rankings.

The Chiefs will be looking for validation.

The irony of that will not be lost on Williamstown coach Frank Fucetola and others close to the Braves program.

The team from Gloucester County with the ankle-deep tradition of postseason success suddenly has become the large-school standard for South Jersey football.

After missing the playoffs two years in a row, Cherokee will go to Williamstown looking to prove this season's senior-laden squad is a legitimate contender for both the West Jersey American Division and South Jersey Group 5 titles.

Timber Creek and Eastern both will play Williamstown in the next few weeks - and both will look to avenge 2012 defeats and cement their credentials in 2013.

"Now we're the hunted," Fucetola said, with a mixture of pride, wonder, and wariness.

This is what Fucetola and Williamstown administrators wanted when they pushed - harder than folks from any other school - for the 2010 creation of the West Jersey Football League.

This is what they saw when they looked at the future: a home game before a huge crowd, a battle of Top 3 teams, a tradition-rich program such as Cherokee coming to town for a matchup loaded with championship implications.

No school wanted the WJFL more than Williamstown. No coaches and administrators were more dogged in their pursuit of tougher games, better competition, the chance to look eye-to-eye with the likes of Cherokee and Washington Township, Timber Creek and Eastern.

It's a mistake to look at what the Braves have done and overlook the significance as well as the struggle. They've changed the South Jersey football large-school landscape - moving the capital (for now, anyway) into deep Gloucester County.

But as No. 1 Williamstown prepares to host No. 3 Cherokee, it's important to remember that Fucetola and the Braves took the long road to this showdown.

It's important to appreciate how hard these guys worked to get to this place, and how much adversity they overcame.

"It wasn't easy," Fucetola said. "It was a lot of work."

This is Fucetola's 18th season at Williamstown. After his first eight, his record was 28-46, including a 3-7 mark in 2003 low-lighted by a 53-7 loss to Group 2 Overbrook.

But even after the Braves turned things around, they kept banging their head against a glass ceiling in the playoffs. They were 8-0 and lost, 31-0, to Cherokee in 2005. They were 7-1 and lost, 24-20, to Eastern in 2007. They were 9-0 and lost, 30-21, to Cherokee in 2009.

"It was so frustrating," Fucetola said. "In '05, we were good, but we weren't at Cherokee's level. But we had Eastern in '07 and let it get away. We were better, in my opinion, than Cherokee in '09, but we turned the ball over."

The book was out on the Braves: good regular-season team (in the old Tri-County, anyway) but no serious threat to Olympic Conference powers in the playoffs.

Even after the creation of the WJFL, Williamstown struggled in the postseason, losing to Oakcrest in the first round in 2010 and then - in perhaps the most maddening loss in a series of maddening losses - blowing a 17-0 lead in a 42-23 home loss to Washington Township in 2011.

That was Williamstown's last loss.

The Braves have won 15 in a row. They are the two-time WJFL American Division champions as well as the defending South Jersey Group 5 champions.

They have become everything that Fucetola and his assistants and all those former players and everybody else close to the program dreamed they would be: the team against which Cherokee and Shawnee and Eastern and every other large school in South Jersey football can measure itself.

They only seem like an overnight success. It actually took 17 years.

Phil Anastasia: Game of the Week

Cherokee at Williamstown

7 p.m. Friday.

Records: Both teams are 2-0.

Rankings: Cherokee is No. 3 in The Inquirer's Top 25,

and Williamstown is No. 1.

Last year: Williamstown, 33-16.

Coaches: P.J. Mehigan, Cherokee (96-27 in 12-plus seasons); Frank Fucetola (110-63 in 18-plus seasons at Williamstown; 129-75 overall in 21-plus seasons)

Outlook: Cherokee's potent passing game, led by senior quarterback Trevor Osler and tight end Jake Powell, will test Williamstown's defense, and the Chiefs' senior-laden lines will challenge the Braves' inexperienced fronts. Williamstown relies heavily on its veteran backfield of quarterback Doug Banks and running backs Marques Little and John Chamberlin.

Pick: Williamstown, 20-17.

- Phil Anastasia



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