Three-sport standout becomes second straight Viking; fourth in six years to earn honor
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When A.J. Nocciolo moved from Bloomfield to North Arlington, just before Nocciolo was to begin sixth grade, he felt a little out of place.
Luckily, Nocciolo’s family moved right across the street from a school playground, so the best way to make new friends in the new neighborhood would be through the one thing he felt most comfortable doing _ playing sports.
“I loved playing baseball back then and I could see the new kids weren’t really welcoming me, because they thought I was much older,” Nocciolo said. “I was a lot bigger than everyone, but when I told them I was only 12, they let me play. I started to hit a lot of home runs and although I really didn’t fit in, I made friends with everyone.”
Nocciolo’s first sport was baseball.
“I always played baseball,” Nocciolo said. “My father was a good baseball player. He was a good pitcher.”
Nocciolo gained some attention as a basketball player in middle school.
“He was an outstanding basketball player,” North Arlington High School head football coach Anthony Marck said. “He scored 52 points in a grade school game. That’s when I first noticed him. You could see the pure athleticism in him.”
As it turned out, football became Nocciolo’s main sport, but it took a while for Nocciolo to find his true position.
“When he first came to us, he was a lineman, because he was too big to play anywhere else,” Marck said. “But I knew he was a skilled position player.”
So Marck first put Nocciolo at tight end.
During one early practice, a frustrated Marck unleashed a diatribe at his players.
“He turned around and yelled, `Can anyone here throw a football?’” Nocciolo said. “Everyone laughed, but I raised my hand and asked if I could go in at quarterback. He let me go in and I dropped back and let it go.”
The ball traveled 60 yards in the air.
Later that year, North Arlington was scrimmaging against Kearny in a 7-on-7 drill.
“I hit Jimmy Roman with a pass in the corner of the end zone,” Nocciolo said. “I knew with Jimmy’s speed, he could beat his defender, so I put the ball in the back of the end zone and he caught it.”
“I just wanted to see what he could do and he threw a deep pass, some 35 yards, to the back of the end zone, on a corner route,” Marck said. “He said that he looked off the other receivers and threw it there. I told the coaches right then that he was no longer a tight end.”
Nocciolo spent his last three years at North Arlington as the Vikings’ starting quarterback. Even though he stood 6-foot- 3 and weighed 240 pounds, which constitutes a lineman in most NJSIAA Group I schools, Nocciolo was a signal caller, a rare one at that.
“He was definitely a oncein- a-lifetime athlete,” Marck said. “As a former quarterback myself, I wondered if I would ever coach a player like that. But he was everything I wanted and more.”
In his senior year, Nocciolo threw for 2,045 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also rushed for 378 yards and scored five touchdowns. He was also a tenacious defensive player from his linebacker slot, collecting 31 tackles.
Nocciolo also played basketball, averaging 10 points and 13 rebounds per game.
After not playing baseball since his freshman year, Nocciolo returned to the baseball diamond last spring and played third base, batting .450 for the season.
For his efforts, Nocciolo has been selected as the 2012-2013 Observer Male Athlete of the Year. Nocciolo received his award recently from Observer General Manager Robert Pezzolla.
Nocciolo becomes the second straight North Arlington athlete to receive the award. Tyler Krychkowski was the 2011-2012 recipient. Mike Gross (2007-2008) and Peter Santos (2009-2010) were also North Arlington athletes to earn the Athlete of the Year honor, which means that North Arlington has claimed the award for four of the last six years.
Marck had nothing but praise for his passing protégé.
“He worked at his craft 12 months a year,” Marck said. “I don’t know if there was a day where A.J. didn’t throw a football. But he was an athlete first and did whatever it took to help the team he was on. I think we’re fortunate in North Arlington to get kids who are truly dedicated and in order for our teams to succeed, we have to have kids play more than one sport. It’s a credit to A.J. for being able to play three and do well in three. He just loves to compete and is the ultimate competitor. It was a pleasure to see what the kid could do every single day.”
David Walsh, who recently resigned as the head boys’ basketball coach at North Arlington, also had praise for Nocciolo.
“He knew what it took to be a better athlete and knew that it took a lot of work,” Walsh said. “He might not have been the best basketball player, but he was going to give 100% every single day. He had a nice mid-range jump shot, but his best shot was the 3-pointer. But because of his size, he knew he had to mix it up down low. He was big enough and tough enough to get the job done and that was a big plus for us.”
Walsh believed that Nocciolo’s basketball prowess came easy.
“He just loved to play and liked to play our style,” Walsh said. “He wanted to be a part of our program. He could have easily found something else to do, but he wanted to play basketball. Playing those three sports isn’t easy. I think he realized that being idle is bad. It’s smarter to be active. Free time is a coach’s enemy. I can say that I had some of the best athletes in North Arlington over the last 20 or so years.”
Walsh did coach all four Observer Athlete of the Year recipients.
North Arlington head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono was happy to have Nocciolo back on the diamond last season.
“He was always mentally ready to compete and he brought that attitude to the baseball team,” Marcantuono said. “He’s a tough kid, a great kid, a superior athlete. He told me that he really missed playing baseball and wanted to come back.”
Nocciolo knew that there were no guarantees for playing time in baseball, especially after sitting out two seasons.
“He told me that I had to earn it,” Nocciolo said.
The first game of the season, Nocciolo took an 0-for-4 collar.
“He went right back into the batting cage after that game,” Marcantuono said.
“I must have been in there for an hour or so, hitting balls,” Nocciolo said. “I promised him that I wouldn’t go 0-for-4 for the rest of the season and I didn’t. If I didn’t get a hit, I worked hard to get it the next at-bat.”
“I think he had 10 multi-hit games,” Marcantuono said. “For someone who didn’t play baseball for two years, that’s phenomenal.”
Nocciolo did receive a lot of attention from major colleges, but because of his grades, he will head to ASA College in Brooklyn, a junior college that has sent several players to major Division I colleges, including Gilbert Pena, who went to the University of Mississippi and recently signed with the Green Bay Packers.
“I want to compete at the Division I level and prove that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Nocciolo said. “I just want everyone to know that I’m always a Viking and I’ll always bleed blue. I was able to give my all every day and that’s important to me.”
It’s safe to say that Nocciolo is more than welcome in his neighborhood now as one of the finest all-around athletes the school ever produced.