Nine years ago as a 25-year old coach, Jay Graber was determined to put a dormant football program on the New Jersey map.
So he took over at Allentown High School and transformed the Redbirds into a perennial NJSIAA playoff contender.
Now as a 34-year old, Graber wants to revive one of the state’s most historic programs, which has recently fallen on hard times.
The Matawan Regional Board of Education tapped Graber as Matawan Regional High School’s new head football coach in February.
Athletic Director Phillip Tyburczy made the decision after the Huskies’ former coach, John Kaye, stepped down following the 2018 season.
Graber, who still teaches special education and mathematics at Allentown, was not planning on leaving the football program at the only professional home he had ever known. But then he saw the Matawan posting on various coaching job boards, and he couldn’t resist.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to coach in the Shore Conference.”
Under former Matawan coaches Barry Rizzo (1956-1979) and Joe Martucci (1984-2011), the Huskies won a combined seven state sectional playoff championships. Both coaches also accumulated sterling records at the Aberdeen Township school, with Rizzo going 147-61-8 and Martucci finishing at 197-81-1.
Matawan experienced success under Kaye, too, winning the 2014 Central Jersey, Group 3 state sectional playoff title with a 27-7 victory over Carteret High School in the championship game.
But the program mostly struggled after that state victory. After finishing 7-4 in 2015, Matawan went just 5-24 the following three seasons, including a 1-8 mark in 2018.
Graber, a Point Pleasant native, was attracted to this winning tradition–and to restoring it.
“From Barry Rizzo to Joe Martucci to John Kaye, they’ve been able to build a strong, lasting program,” Graber said. “To be able to rebuild that tradition is exciting for me.”
It’s a new challenge for the veteran coach, though probably a less daunting one than the situation he faced at Allentown in 2010.
Graber was a young, first-time coach taking over a program that had not enjoyed a winning season in 43 years and that had never qualified for the state sectional playoffs. In nine seasons, all Graber did was go 61-34 and win the 2016 NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional playoff championship with a 41-7 triumph in the final over Brick Township High School, a long-time perennial power in the state.
It is a credit to how far the Redbirds came under Graber that the 2018 campaign, when they lost in the first round of the playoffs, 30-13 at Red Bank Regional High School, was considered a slight disappointment.
“Not a lot of people believed in what we were trying to do originally,” Graber said. “I’m very thankful I got that opportunity. I really enjoyed all the different kids I was able to coach.”
Though the Matawan situation is different, Graber’s Allentown experience still prepared him to take it on.
“When I got the Allentown job at such a young age, I didn’t know anything other than that I’d try to work hard,” he said. “I learned a lot along the way.”
Now he will apply those lessons to his new program.
“I’m just worried about getting the kids into the weight room and building toward a good summer,” Graber said. “Get the kids as prepared as possible.”