RUTHERFORD — The final basket of Mark Zielinski’s basketball career at Rutherford still resonates 30 years later.
Teammates, coaches and fans vividly remember his 15-foot jumper with four seconds remaining that gave Rutherford a come-from-behind, 60-58 victory over Burlington City in the Group 2 final in 1985.
The 1984-85 Bulldogs were honored at halftime of Rutherford’s 34-30 victory Saturday over Bergen Tech, and Zielinski playfully was reminded that his game-winner was the only shot he made at Brendan Byrne Arena, now Izod Center.
“I tell people that it was a testament to our teamwork that we won even though I wasn’t hot from the field that day,” said Zielinski, 47.
Zielinski was one of seven Bulldogs players from a 28-1 team to attend Saturday’s ceremony. He was joined by fellow starters Tom Zacharias, Matt Shannon, Dave Brooks and Jack Sullivan, and reserves Mike DiTommaso and Carl Stopper, as well as coach Bill Whitney.
It was a testament to the Bulldogs’ resilience that they bounced back to win a state title after losing in what many call the greatest final in Bergen Jamboree history: a 68-64, double-overtime loss to Demarest.
The 1984-85 Bulldogs are one of only three small schools from Bergen County to reach a Jamboree and state final in the same season. North Arlington was first, winning the 1955 Bergen title and losing in the Group 1 final. Bogota was the last, winning the 1990 county title and Group 1 crown.
It can be argued that the 1984-85 Bulldogs were among the smartest teams in North Jersey history. Zielinski, Zacharias, the team captain, and Shannon attended Columbia.
“This team was good athletes, good basketball players, and very smart,” said Whitney, 58, who lives in Rutherford and teaches health and physical education at Paramus. “It was a bright group, and they could catch on to things.”
“We all had our roles and we understood them and we really loved playing together,” said the 6-foot-2 Zielinski, whose role was rebounding, setting screens and scoring in the paint. “The whole team had a basketball IQ about them, and we could make adjustments to different situations. And part of that credit has to go to Coach Whitney and [assistant coach Spencer] Mayfield, because they didn’t just teach us basketball plays, they taught us how to play basketball.”
Those Bulldogs were so emotionally drained following the double-overtime loss to Demarest in the Jamboree final that they almost lost in the first round of the state tournament. They had to rally from a double-digit deficit to defeat Secaucus.
Rutherford trailed Burlington City, 58-54, with less than two minutes remaining, and Zacharias admitted, “Having lost in the county final, and now you’re going down to the wire again, you’re thinking, ‘Are we going to get anything?’ ”
With less than a minute remaining and the score tied at 58, Zielinski drew a charge and “I was as proud of that as my basket.” The Bulldogs held for one shot, and Shannon was supposed to take it, but he was double-teamed in the left corner and passed to Zielinski at the left elbow. Even if he had missed his seventh consecutive shot, Zielinski is convinced the Bulldogs would have won.
“We were a team that had a great deal of perseverance and mental toughness,” said Zielinski, now a teacher and basketball coach at North Brunswick. “So if I had missed that shot, somebody else would have picked me up in the overtime and made some shots to win the game.”
As part of Saturday’s ceremony, Rutherford broadcast the original championship-game audio introducing the starting five. The final was broadcast on New Jersey Network. Zacharias gave a VHS tape to Tom Potor, head of the schools’ Hall of Fame, and Potor gave it to his son, Sean, who edited it.
“Today is a great day to be a Bulldog,” said David Frazier, Rutherford’s athletic director and a graduate who watched the 1984-85 team win the title while an eighth grader. “Bringing these guys back to show what friends can do when they play hard together and work together, it’s something we’ll never forget.”