BY ANDREW GARDA
While Montclair High School football team members are still wrapping their heads around the sudden leave of absence of head coach John Fiore due to an ongoing family matter, when they return from the mandatory “dead period” from Aug. 2 to Aug. 6 they will have a familiar face at the helm in the person of Pete Ramiccio.
Ramiccio has been with the team since Fiore’s arrival in 2010, first as a defensive backs coach, then as co-defensive coordinator with longtime MHS fixture Jamie Bittner in 2014, before finally becoming the associate coach in 2016.
“I actually came into Montclair a year before John did, but I was still the defensive coordinator at Fair Lawn my first year [in the district],” Ramiccio said. “So, I was doing the ‘teach-Montclair-coach-Fair Lawn’ thing. Then when John came in, I was able to get on the staff.”
Ramiccio credits John Porcelli, who was Montclair’s athletics director at the time, with getting him a foot in the door.
“Coach Porcelli had a relationship with my AD at Fair Lawn, and he knew that I was teaching in Montclair and kind of connected us,” he said.
Before teaching at Glenfield Middle School and being a defensive coordinator at Fair Lawn High School, Ramiccio gained a lot of football experience at the collegiate level.
He began as an undergraduate assistant at Syracuse University before coaching tight ends and wide receivers at Iona College, a Division I FCS school.
The connections Ramiccio brings to the table in terms of contacts with football personnel at both the collegiate and high school levels will be a resource he can tap as the season progresses.
“Listen, you’re only as good as the people around you, right?” he said. “I’m very fortunate not just to have the network, but to have the different personalities and coaching styles of all the people I’ve worked with.”
With all the different ways to attack a problem — whether it be a game issue, a practice issue or a grade issue — Ramiccio knows he will benefit from the advice others can provide.
“It’s really very fortunate to have the ability of knowing, well, something in this area of the team isn’t going right [and] I know that I can call this person,” he said. “Or if we’re having a practice issue, an organizational issue, I know I can go this way. Or how do we arrange our meals or things like that? I know I could go [one] way, but it’s kind of nice to have different opinions depending on what may be the trouble.”
He’ll also have an experienced staff returning, filled with coaches who have been with the team for a long time. Bittner, Eugene Kline, Dan Roberts, Michael and Anthony Maffuci, Aubrey Lewis, Michael Kornegay and Henry Wilson are among the veteran coaches coming back. Joining them is a face Mountie faithful haven’t seen since 2018 — Pat Leonardis, who will be taking over offensive coordinator duties.
Leonardis last worked with Charles Murphy under center in 2018, but really made noise when he worked with Tarrin Earle, who led the Mounties to an undefeated season and sectional championship in 2017.
“We’re very fortunate, in addition to having all the pieces, we are bringing back a key piece as well,” Ramiccio said of Leonardis. “He’s going to run the offense, which is a huge help. It kind of allows us to keep more continuity.”
Another thing that will help the Mounties with continuity is that Ramiccio had been running the off-season program for most of the spring and summer to begin with.
“You know, coach [Fiore] has been handling his situation, so his attendance has been kind of infrequent at practice,” Ramiccio said. “So, he had been kind of delegating a lot of things to me already. I’ve been in the weight room every day, with the kids on the field through June and July.”
That doesn’t mean there will be no adjustment for the team to make — for example, the tempo Leonardis tends to run on offense is going to be quicker than it was under Fiore — but overall those adjustments will likely be minimal.
That’s going to be a key to a successful Mounties season, given the difficulty of the schedule. Things start off serious right at the beginning, when the Mounties take on East Orange at Rutgers’ SHI Stadium on Friday, Sept. 3.
While fans may see it as a big test, Ramiccio sees it as a big opportunity.
“We’re playing a rival, we’re playing on a big stage,” he said. “We’re going down to Rutgers. You know, it’s a chance for exposure for the kids. And I mean, what better way to start the season than that?”
While the circumstances are difficult for Ramiccio and the Mounties, the interim coach is excited for the season and the opportunity to coach the winningest high school football program in the state.
“I’m very excited and I feel very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be a head coach for as long as I can remember. I just wish that maybe the circumstances, you know, were a little different. I hope that everything’s OK [with Fiore’s family].”