Kearny winning state crown, QP closing tops Observer Top 10 Sports Stories for 2017

There were a ton of newsworthy stories that captured the attention of The Observer readers for the calendar year of 2017. There were triumphs and tragedies. There were champions and there were setbacks. Legendary traditions continued and others sadly ended. Here’s a look at the Top 10 Sports Stories for 2017 for the Observer circulation area.

1-Kearny wins NJSIAA Group IV soccer crown

It’s not called “Soccertown, USA” for nothing.

In November, the Kearny High School boys’ soccer team went on an unbelievable run that included dramatic come-from-behind overtime wins and even post-game penalty kick shootouts to win their second straight NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship.

But this year, the Kardinals were able to take it one step further.

Led by the brilliance of junior do-everything Jose Escandon, who would later be named as the state Player of the Year, the Kardinals defeated Princeton, 3-1, at Kean University, to capture the overall Group IV state championship.

Escandon scored two goals in the state title game, capping his sensational season. He ended the year with 21 goals and 17 assists.

The victory over Princeton enabled the Kardinals to clinch their first Group IV state title since 2004 and their first outright state title since 2002.

The championship in 2004 was shared with Rancocas Valley, when the two teams played to a draw in the state title match. The Kardinals last won the outright Group IV title in 2002 when the Kards defeated Shawnee in the championship game.

The win also enabled the Kardinals (19-0-5) to complete their first undefeated season since 1984.

The state championship run was the No. 1 sports story locally in 2017.

2-Queen of Peace (1930-2017) closes

In May, the Archdiocese of Newark announced that Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington was going to close its doors forever after 87 years.

This came on the heels of an expansive and extensive fundraising campaign a year ago that enabled the school to remain open for another year.

With the announcement of the school’s closing, it ended a tremendous and historic sports tenure at the school. In fact, Queen of Peace’s achievements garnered two other spots on The Observer’s Top 10 stories of the year this year.

The announcement of the school’s closing caused a range of emotions.

“I feel like someone has kicked me in the stomach,” long-time QP athlete, coach and athletic director Ed Abromaitis said at the time. “It stings. It hurts. It’s really a shame. It’s almost like when you know someone is going to pass away, but it still hurts when they do. I knew it was coming. It’s not a shock. But it still stings.”

Abromaitis said that he spent 44 years at QP.

“It’s 44 years of my life there, so this is a tough day,” Abromaitis said last Thursday after he received the news. “Someone immediately texted me and reading it, it was like a death notice. I go way back with the school. It was a great place.”

3-Queen of Peace wins NJSIAA Non-Public B North girls’ basketball title

 The Queen of Peace girls’ basketball team made sure that their last season ever was among the very best.

Not knowing that the school would announcing its closure two months later, the Golden Griffins embarked on a great run to earn a 78-60 win over state-ranked Saddle River Day in the NJSIAA Non-Public B North championship game at Paterson Kennedy in March.

The Golden Griffins received a monster game from their All-American player Raven Farley-Clark, who scored 28 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the win over Saddle River Day to give the Golden Griffins their first state sectional title since 1990.

Farley-Clark earned McDonald’s All-America honors and played in the annual All-Star game in Chicago in April before heading off to LSU. Farley-Clark earned her All-America award just two days prior to the state sectional title game.

Although the Golden Griffins lost to Rutgers Prep in the overall Non-Public B state championship game in Toms River, the state sectional championship was certainly memorable _ and would eventually become a farewell tribute.

4-Harrison’s Lucas earns Rutgers Athletic Hall of Fame honor

 In October, it was learned that Harrison’s favorite native son Ray Lucas was getting inducted into the Rutgers University Athletic Hall of Fame.

So on the day that Lucas was headed to Piscataway to earn his place among some of the most storied names in the history of collegiate sports, Lucas was where he felt he always belonged _ with the students at Harrison High.

“How else should it be?” Lucas said after receiving a standing ovation from the school’s Student Athlete Leadership Team, a group which features many youngsters who know Lucas personally.

“This is where it all began,” Lucas said hours before he was to be feted at a banquet at his college alma mater, where he starred as a quarterback from 1992 through 1995 before heading off to an eight-year career in the National Football League. “This is where I got my luck. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Although Lucas is busy these days as an analyst for the Big 10 Network, for Rutgers University football broadcasts and is a popular host on Jets Nation on the SNY Network, he always finds the time to spend time with the students at his alma mater.

After all, Lucas and wife Cecy have raised their three daughters in Harrison. Two of those daughters are currently enrolled in the school.

“For me, I’m just home,” Lucas said. “This is my place, my town. My parents grew up here. I grew up here. My wife grew up here. My coaches are from here. It’s home. It’s important to me that the kids are here,” Lucas said. “I sat where they sat. I have a responsibility to them. I always want to be around. It hurts me that I couldn’t be there more for the football team this year. But I work seven days a week during the football season. I would love to be here on a permanent basis. I want the kids to see me, see that I care.”

5-Queen of Peace’s final wrestling season ends strongly in Atlantic City

In March, what eventually would be the Queen of Peace wrestling team’s final trip to Atlantic City became a historic one, when the Golden Griffins won seven of eight matches on the first night.

It ended two days later with three wrestlers earning medals among the top eight in the state and three others finishing among the top 12 in their respective weight brackets.

Needless to say, despite no one coming away with the coveted state championship, it was indeed a weekend to remember for the Golden Griffins.

“When the coaching staff met in a huddle, we all agreed that it was a great effort,” said QP head wrestling coach Scot Weaver. “That goes for the entire team down to the final minute. We’re happy with it.”

Senior Dominic Mainiero, a Nutley native, overcame a controversial call in the semifinals to earn third place overall in the 182-pound class.

Sophomore Enrique Sanchez, a native of North Arlington, took fourth place at 113 pounds. He had to win an ungodly total of six matches in order to claim his fourth place finish.

Senior 132-pounder Ray Wetzel finished fifth overall. Wetzel capped a stellar QP career with his second straight medal at the states and 118 career wins.

Needless to say, it was an impressive way for the Golden Griffins to go out.

6-Nutley crew team makes save of struggling man in Passaic River

In May, the Nutley High School crew team was ending its regular practice runs on the Passaic River in the waters near East Newark and Harrison.

Phil Amiths, a junior at Nutley and a member of the Nutley senior four, and Michael DeHaas, a senior and the coxswain of that boat, were getting ready to call it a day around 5 p.m., when Amiths said that he saw a big splash happen to the side of him.

“I saw the big splash and a series of short, choppy struggling splashes,” Amiths said. “I told my coach (Judy McIntyre) that I thought someone was in the river.”

DeHaas agreed.

“The man was just flailing around,” DeHaas said. “But he was in the river. He was struggling.”

McIntyre, who was in an accompanying motorboat called the launch, also heard the splash.

“They yelled right away that someone had jumped,” McIntyre said.

“At first, I didn’t believe it,” Amiths said. “I thought something might have fallen into the water. As we got closer, you could see that someone was in the water.”

The kids were right. According to Harrison police reports, a 46-year-old African-American male, whose identity has been withheld apparently jumped into the Passaic River from the Bridge Street Bridge that links Harrison and East Newark

Earlier, Harrison police were alerted that a man was about to jump off the bridge in a suicide attempt and two patrolmen were dispatched to the scene.

The unidentified male took his wallet and a small plastic bag out of his pocket when approached by police, climbed over the bridge’s railing. One of the police officers tried to grab the man by the arm, but the police report said that the officer could not hold the man and he fell approximately 20 feet into the water.

It was then the quick-thinking members of the Nutley crew team went to work.

“We threw him a floatation device that we had onboard for safety reasons,” DeHaas said. “Coach grabbed onto the side. The man had no idea what was going on. By that time, he was unresponsive. The only thing he said was, ‘No.’”

After all, the waters of the Passaic had to be frigid. The outside temperature hovered around 55 degrees that day. Therefore, the water was much colder, like 15 degrees colder than then outside air. Long stints in the water would have led to hypothermia.

Amiths and DeHaas were able to keep the man safe with the floatation devise and with the assistance from McIntyre in the motorized launch boat, they were able to bring the man to shore, where he was treated immediately, then brought to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark for treatment.

“I have not seen anything like this before,” McIntyre said. “It was very surreal. It all happened so fast. From the boys seeing it to getting the man help, I’d say it was four minutes. I give the boys credit for being so calm. They knew what they had to do. They held their composure and that’s all I can ask for. Their first instinct was that this man needed help and they did what they had to do to save him.”

7-North Arlington Little League Senior All-Stars win borough’s first title since 1965

In late July and early August, the North Arlington Little League Senior All-Stars, ages 13 and 14, won both the District and Section championships in 2017, earning the right to play for the state championship.

Ironically, that tournament was held in nearby Lyndhurst.

North Arlington punched its ticket to the state tournament by capturing the Section 2 championship in Fort Lee, defeating the host squad by a final score of 20-9.

It marked the first time that North Arlington had qualified for a state championship in Little League baseball on any level since NA captured the District 8 title back in 1965.

The win captured the heart and spirit of the town. For example, the team’s Section 2 banner that it won was placed prominently and proudly on the wall of the town’s Veterans of Foreign War headquarters on Passaic Avenue.

8-Nutley American Little League’s All-Stars have memorable run

 The Nutley American Little League 12-year-old All-Stars had a great summer, winning the highly competitive District 8 tournament title before falling in the Section 2 championship round.

The District 8 tourney featured highly competitive teams from southern Bergen County and eastern Essex County.

As manager of the Nutley American All-Stars, Woody Schino had to assemble the best of the best in the league and quickly turn them into a team.

“It was a big thrill for me, because I had most of the same kids on our 10-year-old team that won the District 8 title,” Schino said. “We had a bunch of kids who understood their roles on the team, so we thought we had a solid chance to win the district this time. I knew the kids and figured out that we could win this year because I’ve been watching them play for a while. We did it as 10s, so I figured we could do it again as 12s. The core guys were there. We just had to add a few pieces here and there. I had to make them understand their roles.”
The 13 kids selected to represent Nutley American and play in the tourney were amongst the best young prospects in the area.

“I couldn’t be prouder than what this team achieved this season,” Schino said. “It took a great team to take us out (Washington Park of Jersey City).”

The Nutley American All-Stars lost in the Section 2 title game by a final score of 5-4 in eight innings.

9-DiGregorio returns to his old role as Nutley grid coach

When Steve DiGregorio stepped down as the head football coach at Nutley High School five years ago, he never dreamed he would be a head coach ever again.

“I thought I was done being a head football coach,” said DiGregorio, who resigned after the 2011 season to devote more of his time to his family.

But when Tom Basile resigned after five years with the Maroon Raiders at the close of last season, the thought of returning bounced around in DiGregorio’s mind.

After all, DiGregorio is still a U.S. history teacher in the Nutley school district. He’s still close to the program. So it was a no-brainer for everyone to bring DiGregorio back as the head coach. In March, that’s what happened.

DiGregorio said that he felt right about returning.

“I think the timing was right,” DiGregorio said. “I was very comfortable with it. When I began to consider it, I had to ask my wife first and she was all for it. I talked to my three sons and they’re all in.”

The Maroon Raiders qualified for the North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs in 2017 in DiGregorio’s return to the Nutley sidelines.

10-Kearny crew lightweight four captures state title

The Kearny girls’ lightweight four finished just six-tenths of a second away from winning the Garden State Scholastic Championships a year ago, falling to Absegami.

In the first race of the 2017 season, the lightweight four (with a new addition due to graduation) competed and lost once again to Absegami, this time by two seconds.

So when the Kardinals went to the Garden State Scholastic Championships again on the Cooper River in Pennsauken in southern New Jersey in May, they were determined to reverse the trend.

“Honestly, every year, we have the motivation to do better than last year,” said senior captain Janice Rachumi. “We worked very hard to get back. In the back of our minds, we thought of .06 of a second and we could have won.”

The lightweight four of Rachumi, Isabella Martins, Lara Esteves, Ashley Richard and coxswain Rebekah Paszkiewicz, the daughter of coach David Paszkiewicz, comprised the team that captured the state title,

This time, there was no contest. Kearny won by almost three seconds. They were state champions.

“It was a relief,” Esteves said. “After three years of trying, we finally beat them. We did it.”

“To take first is a great achievement,” Martins said. “I couldn’t believe it,” Richard said. “As soon as we crossed the finish line, we were crying and splashing water on each other. We were so happy. It was the greatest feeling.”

Coach Paszkiewicz is proud of their achievements.

“This is one of the best groups I’ve ever had,” Paszkiewicz said.

Just missed list

 There were plenty of newsworthy stories that just missed being in our Top 10.

The coaching carousel kept spinning all year, with Rich Corsetto (North Arlington boys’ basketball) stepping down in February and Anthony Marck (North Arlington football) and Basile (Nutley football) stepping down in March; there was the retirement of Kearny athletic director John Millar in January; there was the hiring of former girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida to replace Millar in Kearny, then the hiring of former Kearny Parade All-American Stefanee Pace Kivlehan to replace Almeida with the girls’ soccer program; there were the tragic deaths of former Kearny crew standout Jenny Santos (in an accident at the World Trade Center escalators) in February, the loss of North Arlington football guru Dennis McCarthy in May and the passing of Harrison softball coach Carmine Ronga in June; there was the hiring of former Nutley boys’ soccer coach Marcellino Marra to be the new athletic director at Belleville and the hiring of former Nutley soccer standout Tom Tolve to replace Marra; there was the hiring of former North Arlington standout athlete Paul Savage to replace Marck as the head football coach at North Arlington; there were the memorable achievements like the Kearny boys’ basketball team managing to upset state-ranked St. Peter’s Prep in January; or the reunion of all eight former 1,000-point scorers in school history to return to a Kearny basketball game in February. There was the heart grabbing story in August of Harrison baseball coach Jairo Mendez receiving a kidney from his brother to survive; there was the incredible tale of North Arlington cross country runner Sirish Modhagala winning the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference championship in October; there was the retirement in August of Nutley professional wrestler Kevin Knight and his International Wrestling Federation organization; the great tale of North Arlington’s Maria Polanco and signing a scholarship letter to attend the University of San Diego on a crew scholarship, the first-ever crew signing in school history and then there was the presentations of Observer Male and Female Athletes of the Year in June to Mike O’Donnell of Harrison and Lily Durning of Kearny.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer