Regardless of what ensued in Denville on Saturday as Immaculate Conception was dominated by Morris Catholic in a 35-0 season-ending loss in a Non-Public, Group 2 first round playoff contest, the sport of football itself appears to be on steady terrain moving forward for the Montclair Catholic school which makes one of its most ardent supporters from the past half century quite pleased indeed.
At a school that had dropped football for five years after a player was paralyzed on Codey Field in 1963, the sport has experienced a revival of sorts thanks to the continued moral support and long-standing efforts of people such as Father Francis Burla, who along with school administrators, dedicated alumni, and area business leaders have kept the gridiron sport alive and moving forward for what is hoped to be many more years to come.
Add in the fact that IC itself came very close to closing for good in the summer of 2014 before alumni and others rose to the occasion to keep the doors open, and you have plenty of reason to take pride in a 6-3 season.
The 2019 campaign was highlighted by the return of an alum in John Finnegan who was part of the team in 1969 when football was brought back after its 5-year hiatus, and now in his second tour of duty as a head coach at his high school alma mater, he helping to maintain the lifeblood of the sport some 50 years after the ’69 team he was a part of played just three varsity games as the sport was slowly being revived.
And, although the 83-year-old Father Burla has since left the parish, retiring to The Monsignor Michael E. Kelly House alongside St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, his heart and mind still remain very much fully connected to IC football.
“I love Immaculate football,” said Father Burla. “I enjoy being around the team for each game, it’s been great to have ‘Finn’ back on the sidelines, and I look forward to getting together with all the coaches and other alumni for dinner as often as we are able to.
“Immaculate football is in good hands and the school itself is doing well, which is the most important thing of all!”
Ryan Horan, the school’s young athletic director, who was the head football coach last fall, was thrilled to learn this past spring that Finnegan, who had guided IC to 100 victories and two Non-Public playoff state championships (1994 and ’98) during his 17 years at the helm (1986-2002) before becoming the head coach and a teacher at nearby Seton Hall Prep, would be coming back to the Montclair parochial school he graduated from in 1973.
“Having coach ‘Finn’ come back to Immaculate has been simply tremendous for all of us,” said Horan, a Pope John graduate who has found a new Catholic school home base at IC. “When (IC President) Mike Malkinski reached out to him last spring about the possibility of returning when I was pursuing my master’s degree, I thought it was a fantastic idea and the program has benefitted greatly!”
The Lions put together a solid season highlighted by victories such as a 36-34 triumph over a Hudson Catholic team, and there were also narrow regular season defeats to both Morris Catholic (21-14) and Sussex Tech, both of which were certainly winnable games.