By Andrew Tredinnick, Sean Farrell, Nick Gantaifis, Jane Havsy and Darren Cooper


USA Today Network New Jersey


SPARTA -- A hint of sadness sunk in for Sparta athletic director Steven Stoner as he stood alone on the turf adjacent to the high school under the glow of the school's new state-of-the-art lights that can be flipped on with a touch of an app and flicker to celebrate a touchdown.


“The stadium should never be quiet,” Stoner said, “and it was.”


After talking with several administrators at Sparta, the lights turned on at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 military time) on April 20, and every double-digit spot on the scoreboard was occupied by a “20.” The video board bore the message “We Are #SPARTANSTRONG.”


The idea came from a story shared on Facebook by Stoner’s cousin who works at a Texas high school, where schools began lighting up their football fields each night as a gesture of hope and support for the graduating class and healthcare community in late March.


“I’ll tell you, standing in an empty field with the lights for 20 minutes is kind of surreal,” Stoner said. “You never have that experience. You never see that. You always see the stadium packed with excitement and energy. It was a sad feeling standing there and seeing the lights turn on, but you knew you were doing it to try and raise hope for the kids.”


The lighting was broadcast on Facebook Live and viewed by more than 4,000 people. During the stream, Stoner urged the community to turn on their porch lights and shine flashlights into the sky.


“Without being able to see it live, through the comments and the number of people who viewed it, it really seemed that the town came together to light up the sky for the seniors,” Stoner said.


The spring season was expected to be a memorable debut for the Spartans boys and girls lacrosse team on the brand-new turf field which opened last August. For years, sloppy preseason conditions on Sparta’s grass surfaces at Veteran’s Field forced those teams to resort to practicing everywhere from in the school’s parking lot to the gym and countless games to be rescheduled. A new diamond was about to be made available at Veteran's Field for the baseball team.


Just when those challenges had seemed to be alleviated, the coronavirus halted the Spartans’ home debut. That’s one of the reasons Stoner wanted to light up the field.


“Both of our lacrosse teams and our baseball teams were scheduled to play on a brand-new field this year,” Stoner said. “Unfortunately some of the seniors watched them both be built and some of them might have got a chance to play on it in a fall sport, but for both lacrosse teams they miss out on that turf field now that they’ve watched build.


“We just started brainstorming ways of celebrating the seniors, like so many people are doing across the country. This is what we’ve done so far and hopefully we can continue doing things now.”


Now, with the #BeTheLight campaign going nationwide, high school schools across New Jersey are illuminating their fields on Friday nights. Stoner said he is hoping that he can light the field at the end of every week for the remainder of the school year to continue to support the Class of 2020. He is still seeking approval from the district's superintendent.


Elsewhere in northwest New Jersey, Jefferson and Lenape Valley are both participating in the campaign to turn on their stadium lights for their seniors.


#BeTheLight campaign spreads


One of the closest neighborhoods to The Valley Hospital is about to get a little brighter. So too will towns all across the country.


The stadium lights at Ridgewood High School will be turned on at 8:20 p.m. Friday as part of a national campaign to honor high school seniors. The lights and the scoreboard will stay on for 20 minutes and 20 seconds to show support for the 2020 class during the coronavirus shutdown.


It's part of a national trend that will illuminate fields across the country at the same time each week. More than 35 high schools in Bergen County have already signed up for the #BeTheLight campaign.


"It's about creating solidarity throughout the county, but also to show that Ridgewood stands behind all the seniors," principal Dr. Thomas Gorman said. "We know that they are losing out on some of the more cherished seasons, school year and celebrations."


Fields like the one at Ridgewood have remained empty this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


The spring sports season was temporarily shut down on March 18 and will not resume unless schools are re-opened. The NJSIAA has promised to do whatever is possible to save the season, but the clock is starting to run out. Senior athletes may never get the chance to finish their high school careers.


"We're just trying to honor them and show that we're thinking about them," Gorman said.


Movement reaches North Jersey


The idea has taken off ever since Becton superintendent Dr. Dario Sforza opened his email a few weeks ago. A Becton parent found out about the movement from a relative in Missouri and inspired Sforza to bring it to New Jersey. He then reached out to other administrators in the area and even got the NJSIAA to take notice.


"I think the lights will light up most of the town," said Waldwick principal Kevin Carroll, who got the idea from Sforza.


"There's a possibility that we will get not only every high school in Bergen County, but as many around the state as possible," Sforza said. "It's been such a heartwarming tribute to our senior class."


Sforza was ahead of the game when he lit up the skies in East Rutherford back on Apr. 17. Since then, a number of seniors have driven to Riggin Field on Fridays – all while practicing social distancing.


The Becton school district has been devastated by COVID-19, including the loss of staff member Javiera “Javi” Rodriguez, but Sforza has also seen the community come together. A Becton relief fund has raised thousands of dollars for families affected by the pandemic.


"This senior class, at the very least for Becton, but also all over Bergen County and the nation, have some of the most resilient young men and women that I've ever met," Sforza said.


"For them to be able to go through something like this and come out stronger than ever before, they'll be able to deal with any obstacle that life throws at them. For them to remain positive during such a tragic national crisis is really going to set them apart."


Pequannock pride


When athletic director Brian Silipena first read about the #BeTheLight campaign, he immediately thought it was a great idea for Pequannock High School.


By the next morning, principal Richard Hayzler was on the phone with Silipena ironing out the plan of action.


“There wasn’t any hesitation," Silipena said. "It’s the least we can do for all our seniors and community who have been through so much. Our principal sent out an email to our student body and community and let them know that Pequannock will be participating. We’re all happy to be a part of this.”


Unlike most schools, Pequannock will not be turning on the lights on their football field, but rather will illuminate adjacent Memorial Field beginning this Friday night and every Friday throughout the school year.


Memorial Field, controlled remotely through Musco Lighting Control-Link, a remote facility management system, will light up at exactly 8:20 p.m. (20:20 military time).


“We’re in a unique situation in that we can access Memorial Field's lights remotely,” Silipena said. “I can do this from my home through my computer. The lights will stay on for 20 minutes, 20 seconds and will turn off automatically.”


The school is asking that all households with seniors either turn on their outdoor porch lights or place a candle or light in a front window to show that a senior lives there.


Community is key


Roxbury High School will participate every Friday until June 19. However, since the stadium is far from any main roads, the recreation department may also get involved.


Horseshoe Lake's fields will also be lit up on Friday nights. It will bring "a real community feel" to the celebration, according to high school principal Dominick Miller, while increasing the likelihood of proper social distancing.


Since Morris Knolls High School doesn't have field lighting, Denville is planning to light up Gardner Field instead. However, business administrator Steven Ward is waiting for the current construction project to upgrade the lighting system with computerized controls to be completed. That will enable the field lights to be accessed remotely.


"We're trying to find different ways to pay tribute and recognize our seniors," Miller said. "There's not much we can do besides posting things on our website and social media. This is something the community can see."


A bright Knight


The #BeTheLight initiative in New Milford will be a bit different.


New Milford has old-school lights that still need to be switched on by hand.


“It’s a new field, but old lights,” laughed athletic director Joe Ricciardelli.


Ricciardelli was hoping to shine the lights every Friday and not just recognize the 2020 senior class, but everyone who has fought in the battle against COVID-19. He hopes to shine the lights in recognition of multiple groups in New Milford, including the teachers, first responders and medical care workers.


He will have to physically flip the switch, but it’s a small gesture to indicate the big efforts made by so many.


“I don’t want anyone to be forgotten,” Ricciardelli said. “We have all lost someone close to us. There are people in our town who have done incredible things for people who have been sick. This is a small way of showing everyone we appreciate them who is a part of New Milford and Bergen County and part of the state.”