It wasn't just where the Summit Hilltoppers finished this year that landed John Liberato one of high school coaching's highest area honors this week. It was where they started three years ago.
Last Thursday night at Giants Stadium, Summit High concluded a perfect season with a North Jersey Section II, Group 2 championship after beating Orange 28-19.
On Tuesday, Liberato was given the New York Giants Lou Rettino High School Football Coach of the Year Award, a prestigious honor that covers the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Liberato's award will be announced at the Giants-Eagles game this Sunday evening at Giants Stadium. The school will receive a $2,000 check.
"It's a nice honor to receive," said Liberato, a Summit native. "But it's not about me. It's about our kids and our community. That's what we've always been about. It's a product of what Summit's all about."
It would have been hard to envision such a high level of success on the horizon when Liberato left his assistant coaching job at his alma mater New Providence after the 2006 season to take over the Hilltopper reins. The once-proud program had fallen on hard times, winning just one game in 2005 and going winless in 2006.
"I didn't really worry about what had gone on before I got here," Liberato said. "I told everybody that. The only thing I cared about is what happens while I'm here and where this program is going in the future.
"I was very aware of the tradition Summit had in football, and the pride people had here in years past. Once we embraced that, we already had great kids here. They invested a lot of hard work and time in the offseason. It's great to see the kids getting the rewards from that investment."
Though Liberato was far from pleased with a three-win season in his inaugural campaign, he could see the foundation for success being laid by that year's seniors. He was already taking the long view of things, worrying not so much about one season, but about building a program.
An 0-2 start in 2008 seemed to signal the process would be a slow one, but behind a talented corps of juniors, including running back Dwaine Dabney and Matt Rea and quarterback Joe Jaskolski, the Hilltoppers win the next four games. Though they lost their final three regular-season games, Summit reached the playoffs, where they beat Liberato's former team, Hanover Park, to reach the semis.
The Hilltoppers came up four points short of a berth in the championship game in a 32-28 loss to Governor Livingston to finish the season 5-6.
"We were a team that was getting better and better and better," Liberato said. "That's always been our philosophy is, to be better this week than we were last week. The kids understood that going into this season."
With 25 seniors – many three-year starters, many supremely talented – returning for the 2009 season, expectations were understandably high. Liberato said he could see something special brewing as far back as summer workouts, in the dedication to training and to something else even more vital – team chemistry.
"You can't put a price tag on it," Liberato insisted. "The kids had a great time during the summer. It went by extremely fast, and it wasn't like it was work for me or for them. Even the coaches felt the positive vibe we had."
It started with a 42-0 romp past Hillside in the season opener. Blowouts would become a theme of the season as the Hilltoppers were rarely challenged on their way to outscoring their foes 520-147 in 2009. Liberato said the easy victories were never a concern as far as preparing his team for the more rugged competition come playoff time.
"We've always said it's about us," he explained. "Whether we won 49-0 or 48-28, it really didn't matter," he said. "What mattered was we needed to critique where we needed to improve and see the improvement in that area the following week. Because we were striving for the ultimate goal. We were on a mission and that mission was the state championship.
"And we weren't going to be finished until we completed that mission."
After going 9-0 in the regular season, Summit continued on that mission with a 55-20 romp past Ridgefield Park in the sectional quarterfinals before receiving its first real test in a 23-14 victory over Madison in the semis.
Though the Hilltoppers found themselves in a 13-0 hole right out of gates in the championship battle with Orange, Liberato said there was never any sense of panic, even though his team had not trailed all season.
"We just needed to be patient and calm down and do what we came here to do," he said. "It's a 48-minute mission; it's not a one-play mission."
Summit rallied for a 14-13 halftime lead and held on behind Rea's 150 yards rushing, including a game-clinching touchdown, as well as his blocks of an extra point and a field goal.
Liberato, who has a wife and two sons, both of whom play football at Summit, began his coaching career by winning a state championship as an assistant coach under his old high school coach, the legendary Frank Bottone. Liberato's first head coaching job was at Howell before he moved on to Parsippany, where he spent six years as the wrestling coach and as an assistant football coach.
He got back into head coaching at Hanover Park, where he spent eight seasons, before heading back to New Providence as an assistant from 2003-06.
Liberato returned to the place where he was born, and where his parents for 30 years owned Summit Seafood, when the Hilltopper head coaching position came open after the 2006 season.
Liberato said his lasting memory from this season will be the Summit community support he and his team received throughout the season, culminating in an 8,000-fan outpouring at Giants Stadium on Dec. 3.
"The most vivid memory I have of that night was during the trophy presentation, looking up in the stands and seeing 8,000 Summit people going nuts," he said. "It was really something special."