By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MILLVILLE — No one will be like Millville High School head football coach Humberto “Bert” Ayala leading a team in the NJSIAA state finals at Rutgers University.
This is the first time ever, New Jersey will have a true state championship game in Groups 1 through 5 and non-public school divisions after having the North and South share the state titles for years.
Ayala’s Thunderbolts will play Northern Highlands for the NJSIAA Group 4 state title on Dec. 3.
Ayala, who was Millville’s offensive coordinator under Dennis Thomas, when the Thunderbolts won a state title under the old format last year, took over as head coach this year, with a huge target clearly on their backs.
After dramatic fourth-quarter comeback wins against Hammonton in the Group 4 South title game and ditto Sunday in the Group 4 state semifinals over Mainland Regional, Ayala makes his own history as the first Latino coach to lead a team to a true NJ state title game.
Ayala, who also served as Millville’s head girls’ basketball coach before taking over the leadership role with the football team this year, said on Sunday after the Bolts’ thrilling win that he was proud to be a role model for other Hispanic youth and others aspiring to reach greater heights.
“It’s great because we have a lot of diversity at our school,” Ayala told Front Runner New Jersey. “To represent the Latino heritage in this situation is great because it shows it doesn’t matter who you are, anybody can be in this position and achieve success. I’m just fortunate to have this opportunity.
“I would never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be here but I am, and now I’m going to cherish every moment of it.”
First, Ayala will prepare his team for its annual Thanksgiving Day game against rival Vineland, one, of not the oldest, high school rivalries in the country. Then, he will try to lead Millville to another state title at SHI Stadium on the Rutgers campus.
Ironically, Thomas left Millville last year to become an assistant coach at Rutgers.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Ayala, a Rowan University graduate. “It’s great for the city and it’s great for everybody. We’re happy to be representing South Jersey in that game. Either way, we would have had one team in there, so it’s a great situation all around.”
Ayala had big shoes to fill with Thomas, who led Millville to two state titles under the old format over five years. Ayala served as Thomas’ offensive coordinator for the last five of those years, helping mold his young players, many of them African American and Latino athletes, into leaders on and off the field.
Ayala told NJ.com when he was hired that Thomas had actually groomed him for the position.
“Coach Thomas always told me I would be the next one up,” Ayala told NJ.com back in June when he was officially hired. “He said he was grooming me, but I didn’t believe him. In hindsight that probably was his intention. I’ve been a head coach before. Obviously, football is magnified. I didn’t hesitate at all (to apply).
“Coach Thomas prepared me, and I have a solid coaching staff coming back to assist in the transition. If it’s running, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. We have a culture established and a path that’s sustainable, so we’re going to continue on that path.”
Ayala told Front Runner New Jersey that the team’s come-from-behind wins in the playoffs show the attitude they have tried to instill in them.
“It shows our resilience,” Ayala said. “It shows that we can fight through any adverse moment. Our guys fight through adversity off the field and on the field. Our guys are confident.
“When you’re confident, you can do anything. They believe in themselves and each other, which allows them to grind through and be successful in the end.”
Ayala said Millville’s season, where the Thunderbolts lost to Irvington and Lenape during the regular season, has been much tougher than last year, but he said it prepared the Thunderbolts for the tight games they found themselves in.
“We’ve been there before,” Ayala said of his team being in competitive contests. “We were there in every other game. We didn’t have an easy road. We had a couple of games where we put up 40 points, but outside of that, we had to battle all season in close games, so it helped us prepare for this.”
Before coming to Ayala, a health and physical education teacher on campus, previously coached at the former Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, now Camden Eastside, for three seasons. He also served as Eastside’s boys’ basketball coach at Wilson.
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