The lights around Donald Fioretti Field glowed brightly, visible from a few blocks away. The scent of a wood fire drifted through the crisp fall air, and the sound of pads hitting pads crackled through the air, mixing with the sounds of the marching band and the cheers of fans.
It was like any other home game on a Friday night in Point Pleasant Beach -- like the dozens of Friday nights Danny Tighe witnessed from his porch, just across the street from the field, which was again lit up with friends and family, watching as the Garnet Gulls beat South River, 44-6, in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I playoffs.
But this wasn't like any other Friday night. A few houses down from Tighe's house on Yale Street, chairs and drywall and pieces of brush formed a formidable pile in front of one house. On the side street at the north end of the field, there were several piles, all awaiting removal by the borough. And in the distance, darkened street lights hinted at power that still hasn't been restored, all reminders of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy less than three weeks ago.
Yet here they were on a Friday night in the Beach, playing football. It may have seemed trivial to some, but the Garnet Gulls are unbeaten this season. They are having the best season in school history. And for a community that's suffered greatly as the result of Sandy, rallying around what is, so far, a perfect season, is hardly trivial at all.
Danny Tighe was one of the lucky ones, he says. His home only suffered damage in the garage when the storm surge came in, flowing down the borough's streets, flowing across the football field at G. Harold Antrim School. Neighboring homes suffered greater damage -- evidenced by the piles of debris -- but teammates and members of the school family, which includes students from Bay Head, Mantoloking and Lavallette, had suffered even more. Some lost houses. Many have been displaced, forced to live with family and friends from Wall and Avon, Brick and even Red Bank, and then commute to school.
The football family, however, has helped them get through it. Coach John Wagner called the players together the weekend after the storm and had them help residents clean out water-damaged belongings.
"It was good to help," Tighe said.
Then they got back to the business of football, Wagner said. Getting everyone to practice hasn't necessarily been easy, but "football is football," he said, "you work with what you have."
"One player just made it back on Tuesday," he said. The player was welcomed with open arms. "It wasn't his fault he couldn't get there," Wagner said.
While school resumed on Nov. 8, the team was off last weekend. With the NJSIAA's postponement of all games the weekend right after the storm, that meant Point Beach had a three-week break between games.
Getting players focused after that break was Wagner's biggest concern.
"The school and the administration did a great job of getting the kids back to school as soon as we had power," Wagner said. "Being back with their friends and seeing that everyone was OK definitely helped."
Wagner's approach of taking one opponent at a time -- "We only have our current opponent up on the board, not the entire schedule," he said -- has helped as well, keeping the team from looking too far ahead all season, a trap that can be easy to fall into in a season such as this one, which is so different from the recent past, where a single victory in a season was more common.
Before last year -- Wagner's first as the Gulls' head coach -- when the Gulls beat New Egypt on the road in the first round of the playoffs, Point Beach had won just one other playoff game. That was in 1982. Tighe's father, Kevin, played for the team then. That also was the last time the Gulls had a home game in the playoffs.
"It feels good to be home, to be on our field," Tighe said. It has been a month since they beat Keansburg on Fioretti Field -- but it feels like longer because of what's happened in the weeks since. "I grew up over there, in that house with the porch," he said, pointing, "so being able to play this game here means a lot."
Even before Sandy hit, the town had rallied around the team, Tighe said, cheering their success.
"Giving back to our community (by playing well) feels good," he said. And Tighe certainly led the way, scoring three touchdowns, grabbing an interception and knocking down three or four more passes. Everywhere you looked, Tighe seemed to be there, putting a stop to the South River attack. Tighe had help, too, from Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran, who complete the running back trio that has given teams fits all season. On Friday, Samaritano had two touchdowns, including a 58-yarder to open the game, and Cochran had a 3-yard run that put Beach ahead 20-0.
It was Tighe, a 5-foot-9, 170-pounder, who drew attention all night, including the time he hauled a bevy of South River tacklers another 5 yards after the initial hit.
"We have a special group of seniors," Wagner said. "They've worked hard all year, and they believe in themselves now."
More challenges await. Point Beach hosts Shore Regional on Thanksgiving for the Shore Conference Class B Central division title, which would be the first for the Beach in well over a decade. The second round of the playoffs is set for a week later, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, with the sectional championships Dec. 7 and 8. Shore is the top seed in the section, so the potential exists for the teams to face off a second time.
Wagner isn't thinking that far ahead. He is concentrating on Thursday's meeting with Shore, and on keeping the Gulls' thoughts on that game.
"We've talked about that, about staying focused," Tighe said.
There are challenges that lie ahead, too, in their personal lives, as Point Beach and the entire Jersey Shore rebuild from Sandy.
But one day, one game, one opponent at a time, Point Beach is finding success -- the kind of success that gives a whole community a reason to cheer.