For more than 20 years, Joe Cucci has taken the Harrison High School bowling team to local lanes in the area and watched the Blue Tide generally come up on the short end of the bowling sheet.
Just two years ago, the Blue Tide won all of four varsity matches.
But last year, Cucci began to see the fruits of his dedication pay off a little.
“We were 12-8 last year,” Cucci said. “That was our second winning season. I’ve watched them develop over the years. They’re such a great group of kids. They’re wonderful to be around.”
Cucci usually gets kids to come out for the Blue Tide who have very little bowling experience, so patience is definitely a virtue.
“But I’ve watched these kids grow up, not just as bowlers, but as people,” Cucci said. “They would get together all the time before the season to bowl together. I knew that this year would be a different year.”
Senior leader Joe Ussery also saw the change in the Blue Tide this season.
“Everyone generally has a good time together,” Ussery said. “We really have a lot of fun. I think that helps with our progression.”
Cucci speaks highly of Ussery.
“He’s very friendly with everyone,” Cucci said. “All the other coaches in the school love him and the other bowlers look up to him and respect him. He’s a wonderful kid to be around.”
Ussery is also the top bowler on the team, with an average around 175 per game.
“I tried to see if I could get that average up a bit this year,” Ussery said. “That was my goal.”
Ussery reached his goal, improving by almost 10 pins per game.
Cucci started to see the progress of the Blue Tide early on this season.
“All of our kids started to bowl well,” Cucci said. “If one (bowler) was off, then another came along to pick the other one up. But they were consistently bowling above their averages.”
The camaraderie of the Blue Tide paid off this season, as they amazingly posted an 18-2 record, which was good enough to capture the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Patriot Division title.
It was the first time in Cucci’s 20-year coaching career that the Blue Tide captured a divisional title. The Blue Tide also finished fifth in the recent NJSIAA North Jersey 1A Sectionals that was won by Lyndhurst en route to the overall state championship.
The Blue Tide clinched their divisional crown recently with a solid win over Queen of Peace.
“It was a very emotional day,” Cucci said. “It was emotional especially since they’re such a great group of kids who are respected not only as bowlers, but as people.”
That is a point that Cucci wanted to drive home, the way that his team was adored and loved as young men and women, even after they leave the lanes.
Senior Felipe Henriques has also been a solid bowler for the Blue Tide for the past four seasons.
“He’s a lively kid with a good sense of humor,” Cucci said of Henriques, who owns a 160 average. “He’s a little off beat.” Junior Sam Mota, who has a 165 average, is more of a silent assassin. “He’s very quiet, but he’s very consistent with his game,” Cucci said. “He’s never too up or too down. I like his consistency.”
Junior Josh Kelly is another with an average of 165. Kelly and Mota will be asked to continue the winning ways next winter.
Senior Ken Lee graduates this year, but was a solid contributor, especially when Cucci had to bowl five starters instead of the conventional four.
“He might have gotten lost in the shuffle a little, but he was there with us,” Cucci said.
Ussery thought that this could be the year that he and his teammates gave Cucci a championship.
“I was hoping for it,” Ussery said. “I thought that maybe it could really happen this year. But to see us pull this off meant the world to me. My coach finally gets his first conference championship after all these years. I’m so proud of my teammates. I’m proud of everyone.”
Ussery is headed to Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida in the fall. Full Sail is a school that focuses on the world of entertainment and media, the behind the scenes electronic work in movies, television, sports, video games and web and technology. Ussery is going to study audio engineering in the recording arts program.
“I think the key to our team was consistency,” Ussery said. “We knew that if we put the ball in the same spot, the ball would roll into the pocket and the pins would go down. I know it sounds simple, but that was the goal. We went from four wins two years ago to winning the conference title. How awesome is that? We got 18 wins in my last year. It’s phenomenal.”
And the dedicated coach can now say he coached a champion. It borders on the unthinkable, considering the Blue Tide’s past.
“We just hope that they can continue to develop,” Cucci said. “Our JV (junior varsity) team was undefeated, so there’s a lot of promise. I just hope we can represent Harrison well again next year.”
Win or lose, Cucci’s teams always represent the town and the school well, so when a championship is involved, it makes everything so much sweeter.