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Lyndhurst captures overall T of C bowling title

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First time ever for a North Jersey school


By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The Lyndhurst High School bowling team loaded up the team bus and headed south to Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick last Friday with modest expectations.

“Honestly, I was just hoping to see if we could get Group I,” said Lyndhurst second-year head bowling coach Brianna Balkin. “Last year, we finished second in Group I, so I wanted to win that. Last year, we broke all the records, had all the high scores, had the state sectional title and went down there and couldn’t get it together.”

So as the Golden Bears made another sojourn south on the New Jersey Turnpike, Balkin had one thing in mind.

“In my mind, the goal was to win Group I,” Balkin said. “Anything else that happened would be a bonus.”

But as the bus got closer to Carolier Lanes, the aspirations of the bowlers started to rise.

“The kids all wanted to win the whole thing,” Balkin said. “So I said that if we bowled (a combined score of) 3,100, we could win it.”

However, the prospects didn’t look good early on.

“We fell behind by 20 pins after the first game,” Balkin said. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go again.’”

But the Golden Bears seemed to catch lightning in a bottle. Senior Michael Hayes was inserted into the lineup to go along with the Bears’ usual stalwarts Jordan Lopez, Daijon Smith, Ryan Donohue and Emily Young.

“He was huge for us,” Balkin said. “He kept making spares. He said he was nervous and I told him that I needed him to keep making spares.”

That’s what Hayes did, rolling his best score of 190 to go along with the others. The Golden Bears got to 3,202 to win the Group I title over Pompton Lakes. North Arlington, led by standout Tyler Keefe (269 high game) finished sixth.

From there, the Golden Bears moved on to the Tournament of Champions to lock horns with Group IV champion Freehold Township, Group III champ Sayreville and Group II champ Rahway.


Photo courtesy Brianna Balkin The Lyndhurst bowling team gets together for one last group hug after clinching the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title last week.

Photo courtesy Brianna Balkin
The Lyndhurst bowling team gets together for one last group hug after clinching
the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title last week.

Incredibly, the Golden Bears drew the top seed for finishing first in the Group championships and faced Rahway in the semifinals, winning the Baker Series (alternate best ball) bestof- five by a three games to two margin.

From there, it was on to the overall T of C title match against Freehold Township, which defeated Sayreville. Again, there was more drama, right down to the final frames.

“They made things interesting and gave me a heart attack,” Balkin said.

But the Golden Bears prevailed, winning the title series by a similar three games to two margin.

And just like that, Lyndhurst became the first team from northern New Jersey to ever capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title.

“It’s been one amazing ride,” Balkin said. “I credit the kids. My seniors, who I call ‘The Fab Five,’ have been tremendous. It’s not just bowling. It’s outside of the lanes. They’ve done so much for this program.”

The seniors are Lopez, Smith, Young, Hayes and Richard Sawires.

“It’s really amazing,” Balkin said. “They put in the work. They practice a lot on their own.”

Balkin said that another key was practicing the Baker system of bowling.

“We did a lot of Baker in college, so I knew that’s what was going to happen if we got to the state level,” Balkin said. “The kids all love Baker. Once they got there (to the T of C semifinals), they knew how to do it and were used to it.”

That experience obviously paid off.

What also helped was the competitiveness of the team, yet the camaraderie. For example, Lopez and Smith are so close as bowlers, with just a few pins separating the two each time they hit the lanes. They also use the same unique style, bowling with two hands instead of the conventional one-handed approach.

But they are also the best of friends, almost inseparable.

“They’re actually like brothers,” Balkin said. “They have a good healthy rivalry. Each wants to beat the other, but after they’re done, they’re always together. It makes a huge difference. They knew if they were going to do this, they needed to do it together. They all want each other to do well. They are so supportive of each other and comfortable with each other.”

The team also had a girl among the top bowlers in Young, who earned the top score overall last week at the NJSIAA North 1A sectionals. Lopez, Smith and Donohue have all bowled perfect games in their lives, so that is also a huge help.

Balkin said that the victory Friday takes away any of the bitterness the team experienced after losing the Bergen County tournament three weeks ago.

“I think that was the turning point of the season,” Balkin said. “We didn’t want to lose then, so that became motivation. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, because ever since then, they were in the bowling alley every single day, practicing and working.”

Balkin said that there was a huge sense of pride becoming the first northern New Jersey team to ever secure the NJSIAA T of C title.

“It’s big for North Jersey,” Balkin said. “A lot of people think that we’re at a disadvantage, being from North Jersey. But we proved we can be just as good as the rest of the state.”

No, better yet, the Golden Bears proved that they can be better than any other team in the rest of New Jersey, winning the overall state title, one for the ages.

“It really is amazing,” Balkin said. “I think it’s something they’ll all remember for the rest of their lives.”

Nutley captures its 4th straight District 14 crown

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When Frank DiPiano took over the Nutley High School wrestling program five years ago, he had no idea how long it would take for the Maroon Raiders to become relevant once again.

Little did DiPiano know that he would develop the Maroon Raiders into a dominant force.

That domination continued over the weekend, when DiPiano’s Maroon Raiders, just a few days removed from suffering an emotional setback in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III sectional title match against Voorhees, steamrolled the opposition once again at the NJSIAA District 14 championships, winning for the fourth straight year.

“It’s always the goal to win the league, the county, the state and the district titles,” DiPiano said. “To win our fourth District 14 title in a row, we take a lot of pride in that. We came back from the sectional final and rebounded well.”

The Maroon Raiders crowned three champions in 126-pound champion Joe Ferinde, 132-pound champ Robert Duxbury and 145-pounder Darwin Pena.

Ferinde improved to 33-2 overall with a resounding 16-3 win over Roland Smith of Belleville in the finals.

“He just keeps going,” DiPiano said. “It’s his second district title. It’s impressive at this time of year to have the record he has. He wants to win and advance to get back on the podium in Atlantic City.”

Ferinde finished eighth in the state last year.

Duxbury (33-2) won the District 14 gold last year at 106 pounds, so for him to make such a huge step up in weight and still remain at the top of his game is impressive.

“He has real good technique and he’s a real strong kid for his size,” DiPiano said.

Pena has shown the biggest improvement of any Nutley wrestler in recent memory, going from sub-.500 last year (11-13) to where he’s dominant (33-3) this year.

“He’s on everyone’s radar now,” DiPiano said.

The Maroon Raiders will send 12 wrestlers to the Region 4 tournament this weekend, including five that finished as runners-up in their respective weight classes, namely 120-pounder Kenny Pena, 152-pounder Joseph DiPasquale, 160-pounder Andrew Aiello, 170-pounder Jason Castellanos and 195-pounder Justin Bivona.

Of the five Maroon Raiders to place second, DiPiano was most pleased with Bivona.

“He upset the No. 3 seed, then upset the No. 2 seed to get to the finals,” DiPiano said of Bivona, who now has a 14-13 record this season. “It’s a big turnaround for him. He wrestled complete and smart over the last couple of weeks.”

Belleville crowed two champions in District 14 in 160-pounder Jordan Greene and 220-pounder Edwin Gaines. Both Buccaneer wrestlers earned District 14 gold for a second time.

At District 15, Queen of Peace crowned three champions in 120-pounder Ray Wetzel, 195-pounder Jeff Velez and heavyweight Chima Dunga.

Velez was a district champ for the fourth straight year, having won the prior three in District 11 while competing for Brearley Regional.

Enrique Sanchez (106), Mike Scaravelli (132), Garrett Beam (138), Shaquan Chavis (145) and Joe Rocca (152) all punched their tickets to the region tourney with solid efforts over the weekend.

Lyndhurst/North Arlington had three wrestlers advance to Region 2 in 160-pounder Rocco Russomano, 120-pounder Devin Yunis and 170-pounder Matthew DeMarco.

Kearny saw 170-pounder Lukasz Glazewski advance after losing in the finals of District 16 to Leo Subiza of North Bergen.

Once again, it’s a solid array of wrestling talent that is moving on to either Region 2 or Region 4 this weekend.

Lyndhurst’s Young proves to be more than one of the boys


By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Emily Young doesn’t mind being the lone girl competing on the Lyndhurst High School bowling team.

In fact, Young embraces the idea.

“I love bowling with the boys,” Young said. “I love being on the team with so many good bowlers. I actually look up to them. I never have any pressure on me when I’m with them, because I’m never expected to do anything. There’s never the pressure to be the best.”

After all, Young is a member of the state’s premier bowling team that features three members, namely Jordan Lopez, Daijon Smith and Ryan Donohue, who have all bowled perfect 300 games in their lifetimes.

“Basically, I want to do my best for them,” Young said. “I always know that my fiercest competition is the boys on the bus. I always say that to Ryan. I always say that I just want to stay close with the boys on the team.”

Young began bowling at the age of eight.

“I wouldn’t say that I was great right away, but I never bowled with the bumpers,” Young said of the training tools seen at most lanes for beginners. “I joined a recreation league with one of my friends because it seemed like fun.”

However, it didn’t take long for Young to get hooked.

“I wanted to bowl all the time,” said Young, who also plays volleyball at Lyndhurst. “It didn’t take me that long to get pretty good at it.”

Young’s uncle, Michael Gingerelli, was a standout bowler in his own right, winning the Bergen County title at Lyndhurst in 1978. Gingerelli gave Young her first ball.

“He was a big help,” Young said. “So was Ryan’s (Donohue) dad. He’s great. He helped me a lot as well.”

When Young began bowling at Lyndhurst High, she owned a respectable average of 133. But she wasn’t exactly a world beater.

“I just kept working on trying to get better,” Young said. “I had a lot of encouragement from my friends and teammates. Coach (Brianna) Balkin teaches us to never give up.”

“She’s just a great kid who works hard,” Balkin said. “She just loves to be out there and competing.”

Young has gradually improved over the years, rolling to a 179 average last year and 184 this season.

“I got thrown into the varsity lineup, sink or swim,” Young said. “I’m just lucky to be sharing lanes with Jordan, Daijon and Ryan. They’re their own animal.”

Young said that she did get a new ball this season, a 15-pounder that was just a little heavier than the one she had been using.

“I think the weight gives me more action and I’m able to throw a more aggressive ball,” Young said. “There’s definitely a difference.”

Earlier this season, Young won the Bergen County girls’ bowling title, but two weeks ago, she was bowling with and against the boys at the NJSIAA North 1A Sectional at Bowler City in Hackensack.

And Young was beyond sensational, rolling a 759 series, which was the highest score of any bowler present _ male or female.

“For me to beat my teammates is a miracle,” Young said. “I never thought I could beat them, never mind come even close.”

“She was almost unconscious,” Balkin said. “She just went up there, threw the ball and smiled. She was just happy to be there for the team. I never expected her to be the best, to beat her teammates. I thought she might place high, but never above all the rest.”

Young had 269, which was the second highest single game, and the combined-score of 759, which was high series, helping the Golden Bears set a new record for the state sectional and move on to the state Tournament of Champions, which they eventually won.

For her efforts, Young has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

“It’s an amazing achievement,” Balkin said of Young winning the overall state sectional singles title. “It’s never happened before.”

In fact, state officials were so unprepared for a girl to win the boys’ state sectional title that they didn’t present Young with the trophy for winning the sectional. The award went to James Kane of Paramus Catholic, who finished second with a 748 series.

How ridiculous was that?

“The rule said that a girl can’t win the boys’ sectional,” Young said. “He (Kane) got a trophy. I got a shout out. When I found out, I was pretty upset. It was terrible. It really was. I guess no one ever thought that a girl could win the boys’ tournament. I was just glad I could compete.”

Balkin said that the boys on her team offer encouragement to Young all the time.

“They all want her to do well,” Balkin said. “They are all so much behind her that I think it eases things up for her. They pick her up. She doesn’t have to worry about being good or being bad. She just has to bowl.”

Young has also been an inspiration to her teammates.

“The boys on the team are all still talking about it,” Balkin said. “We have four other girls on the team who all want to get better. They see what Emily has done, that she’s not just competing as a girl, but with the boys. She’s keeping up with the rest.”

Or in some cases, beating them.

Young competed alone in the NJSIAA girls’ state tournament on Wednesday and finished 25th overall. She then bowled Friday with her teammates and helped the Golden Bears bring home the golden prize.

Young hopes to attend either Sacred Heart University or the University of Delaware in the fall. On target to be the salutatorian for the Lyndhurst Class of 2015, Young hopes to major in social work at whatever school she chooses.

“I definitely want to work with kids,” Young said. “I love children and if I can help them, then that’s my next step.”

Needless to say, Young never imagined she would become a state sectional champion _ make that a boys’ state sectional champ.

“This has been my best year for bowling,” Young said. “I’ve achieved my goals. The team has done tremendously.”

It’s been a dream season for Emily Young and the Golden Bears, truly a golden season.

Local hoop teams head to NJSIAA playoffs


By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

For the first time ever, the Kearny boys’ and girls’ basketball teams will be playing NJSIAA state playoff games at the same location against the same school. Both the Kardinal boys and girls qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs and the Kardinals will be part of a special doubleheader Monday night (March 2) at Paterson Kennedy.

First, the Kearny girls, the No. 13 seed in the North 1, Group IV bracket, will take on No. 4 seed Paterson Kennedy, with tipoff slated for 4:30 p.m.

Immediately following, it will be the Kearny boys making their first NJSIAA state playoff appearance in six years, taking on Paterson Kennedy at 7 p.m. The Kardinals, who improved to 12-12 overall with a win over Ferris last weekend, earned the No. 14 seed in the bracket.

Qualifying for the state playoffs is a major achievement for second-year head coach Bob McDonnell and the Kardinals.

“Without a doubt, it was one of our main goals coming into the season,” McDonnell said. “So it’s definitely an achievement. It’s been a little frustrating at times, but it’s all been amazing, since all five guys haven’t put it together at once all season. But it’s still a great feeling to see the development of the kids.They want to play. They come in for shootaround practices early and put in the extra effort to get ready for games. Making the state playoffs is a good reward for the kids.”

Gus Chemin had 17 points in the Kardinals’ 62-46 win over Ferris. The Kardinals also enjoyed a win over Memorial in the opening round of the Hudson County Tournament, before falling to Bayonne, 89- 84, in overtime.

Joseph Baez had 19 points, Chemin added 16, Georgie Smyth and Gralen Vereen each had 14 points and Zach Latka added 13 points and eight rebounds in the loss to Bayonne. Latka had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Memorial.

Two other local schools saw both their boys’ and girls’ basketball teams secure state playoff berths.

North Arlington’s boys grabbed the No. 7 seed in North Jersey Section 2, Group I. The Vikings will face American History on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in North Arlington. The NA girls are on the road at New Providence Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Vikings received the No. 13 seed in that bracket.

And the Bloomfield boys and girls are both headed to the postseason.

The Bloomfield boys took the No. 4 seed in North Jersey Section 1, Group IV. The Bengals will play host to Passaic County Tech Monday at 7 p.m. The Bloomfield girls are on the road facing Livingston Monday at 5 p.m. The Bengals are the No. 9 seed in the girls’ bracket.

The only other local team to get a home game is the Harrison girls. The Blue Tide drew the No. 8 seed in North Jersey Section 2, Group I and will face Caldwell Monday night at 7 p.m.

The Nutley girls will travel all the way to West Morris for a first round game in North Jersey Section 2, Group III Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Maroon Raiders are the No. 13 seed in that bracket.

The Lyndhurst girls are also the No. 13 seed in the North Jersey Section 2, Group I bracket. The Golden Bears travel to Morris County to take on Hanover Park Monday at 7 p.m.

NA’s Ryen Pezzolla a semi-finalist for ECRHA’s top award

Ryen Pezzolla

Ryen Pezzolla, center, whilst playing a hockey game for St. Peter’s Prep at Yankee Stadium last winter.

Ryen Pezzolla, of North Arlington, a graduate of St. Peter’s Prep and the grandson of Observer GM Robert Pezzolla, who is currently a student at Rutgers University, has been named a semi-finalist for the Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association’s Division 1 Player of the Year. He faces competition from three other universities. The winner will be announced at the association’s annual awards banquet later this year. Click here to read the announcement.

Does girls crew row vs. bias?


By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 


A Kearny parent has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Board of Education.

The complaint, filed in December 2014 by Paula Cavalier, alleges that the high school has violated Title 9 of federal education law which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in federally-supported education programs.

Cavalier’s complaint alleges that the high school is favoring the boys crew over the girls crew team by denying the girls the chance to participate in regionally competitive races in which the boys crew participates.

And, the complaint says, the school discriminates against the girls crew by giving the male crew priority access to equipment.

Kenneth Lindenfelser, attorney for the school board, said that, “there was a complaint filed by a parent alleging Title 9 violations” and that the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights “has asked for information that we are in the process of gathering and which we will be providing.”

Lindenfelser said the feds wanted the materials “by Feb. 18” but because the scope of the information sought involves all interscholastic sports activities in which Kearny High participates, collecting all the information – items including each program’s “budget, number of participants, age of uniforms and type of equipment” – collection of the data has become “tedious to assemble.”

For that reason, he said, he is asking the feds if the district can limit its research to crew but, if not, “we’ll probably ask for an extension.”

The district, the attorney said, “is confident we’re in compliance, but we’re going to cooperate with them and if they find that some type of adjustment is needed, we’ll make it.”

He declined to elaborate. In her complaint, Cavalier attached a spread sheet detailing the boys and girls crew competitions for 2014. From an analysis of those events, Cavalier drew this conclusion:

“The boys raced against 151 more teams than the girls, mainly because they raced on Sunday, when the most competitive races occur. These are the races most likely to draw college recruiters, so that girls who cannot race on Sundays have reduced access to scholarships, as compared with boys. This is mostly due to the fact that the girls’ crew coach declines to work on Sundays, for religious reasons. The majority of competitive rowing on the east coast occurs on Sundays. … Under Title 9, the school district is required to afford equal opportunities to female athletes. Because the Kearny school district could easily find a solution to this inequality, I have contacted the Office of Civil Rights ….”

Ironically, according to logs obtained by Cavalier, more girls participated in crew than boys last year. “For 2014, 40 girls signed up, as compared with 36 boys,” she told The Observer.

Under the projected schedule for 2015 competitions, Cavalier said, “The boys will be racing 296 more teams than the girls, which is worse than last year’s inequality of 151 more teams.”

And getting less exposure than the boys crew in bigger competitive races “attended by regional, Ivy League college recruiters” means that girls’ chances of landing athletic scholarships are negatively impacted, she said.

Although her daughter is a member of the girls crew team, Cavalier said that she filed the discrimination complaint as an advocate for the entire girls crew team, and not just as her daughter.

“I hope she realizes that sometimes, you have to do what you might be afraid to do for the bigger picture, to right a wrong,” she said.

Last year, Cavalier said, it was embarrassing for the girls crew members when “our immediate regional competition, like the girls teams from Nutley, Belleville, Rutherford, for example, were at the Sunday Philadelphia Rowing Association races, and Kearny was not represented.”

Possible solutions, Cavalier suggested, include allowing assistant crew coaches for boys and girls to “work out a schedule so that both teams can attend the same competitions,” merging the boys and girls crew “so that they can compete in the same races as a unit” or replacing the girls’ crew coach.

Back in 1983 when Cavalier was a student at Kearny High and an avid cyclist, she asked if she could go out for crew, only to be told there were no girls permitted “because they had no separate showers or bathrooms.”

Three years later, she recalled, a girls crew team materialized.

“Today, ironically, more than 30 years later, we’re still running into a situation of inequality for girls,” she said.

Last year, Cavalier revived her high school dream by taking lessons with the Passaic River Rowing Association and has relished the experience. “When you’re a crew and rowing as one unit, it all clicks together. Together, you become one quiet, beautiful machine.”

Lyndhurst bowling: Dominance at state sectional

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Emily Young rolls top series facing boys’ competition

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports

Writer After losing in the Bergen County Bowling Tournament to Indian Hills two weeks ago, the Lyndhurst bowling team was on a mission.

“We were a little motivated,” said senior Jordan Lopez.

“They were disappointed in themselves after that tournament,” said Lyndhurst second-year head coach Brianna Balkin. “They were out for redemption.”

At the NJSIAA North 1A sectional championships Saturday at Bowler City in Hackensack, the Golden Bears were unconscious, setting a new record for total score of 3,490 – or a per-player average of 233 – capturing the North 1A title for a fourth consecutive year.

The Golden Bears were led by a girl, namely Emily Young, who rolled both the high game of the day (268) and high series (759), but had nothing to show for it, because rules state that a girl cannot win the boys’ sectional. Talk about your gender inequality.

“I would have to admit I was a bit upset by it,” Young said. “But at the same time, I got bragging rights. No one could ever think that a girl could actually win the sectional.”

“She just wanted to finish among the top five and then see what could happen,” Balkin said. “But then the whole place went nuts when she rolled her highest game ever. I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to win the whole thing.’ ”

No one could have ever dreamed that a girl would beat all the boys in attendance at a state sectional championship. But that’s what happened. Young, who won the Bergen County girls’ tournament back on Wednesday, Jan. 21, just kept throwing strikes with her different release form.

Instead of throwing the ball down the center of the lane, Young directs the ball to have an alternate backward swing from right to left. It’s not a conventional way of bowling, but it obviously works. “I definitely did not expect to win,” said Young, who also plays on the Lyndhurst volleyball team in the fall. “It was really impressive. I have to admit that I was a little upset that I didn’t get a chance to win many things in volleyball. But now, I have bragging rights, especially with the boys.”

Young rolled a 268-244-257- 769 series to card the best outing of the day by anyone, boy or girl.

“She rolled a 268, which was her highest game ever,” Balkin said. “I said, ‘She’s going to win the whole thing.’ And she did just that. I moved her to the lead-off slot and that worked, because she carried the team throughout. The boys all love her and wanted to do well behind her.”

James Kane of Paramus Catholic was second, but at 748 some 21 pins behind Young.

“It was the best day of her career,” Balkin said. “She’s been bowling great for us, but this was pretty special.”

But Young got nothing to show for her brilliant day.

“I guess they never thought a girl could actually win it,” Young said.

The Golden Bears rolled a commanding 1,233 to win the first game overall, with Young’s 268 leading the way. In fact, all five Lyndhurst bowlers shot over 200 in the first game. Daijon Smith was next with a score of 259, followed by Lopez’s score of 258. Ryan Donohue finished fourth with a 244 and Richard Sawires finished off the brigade with a 204.

Lopez was second with a 728 series. Smith was fourth with 716 and Donohue rolled a 667. It was pure domination.

“I’ve been in bowling leagues my whole life and I never saw anything like that before,” Balkin said. “All five kids rolled three strikes in the 10th frame. I never saw that before on any level, never mind high school, not from five kids. It was amazing.”

The Golden Bears just continued with the dominance all day, setting a new sectional total pin record in the process.

“They just wanted to beat everyone in the building,” Balkin said. “They were so upset after the county that they were not about to let it happen again. It’s really impressive. That’s a lot of pins. I’ve seen people bowl in leagues and can’t come close to that score. They were out to show everyone how good they really are. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s an amazing group. They all wanted to do so well.”

After it was over, Balkin stopped to reflect on the Golden Bears’ fourth straight state sectional title.

“Did that really happen?” Balkin asked. “It really was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

The Golden Bears move on to the overall Group I state championships Friday at Carolier Lanes in East Brunswick.

“It feels like maybe this could be the year for us to win it all,” said Lopez, who joined Young as members of all four state sectional champions.

“We’re going in with a big confidence boost.” “We’re all bowling well and that works out well for everyone,” Young said. “Everyone pushes each other to do better.”

Lopez, Smith and Donohue, all of whom have already bowled perfect games in their careers, also qualified as individuals for the state championships Wednesday, where Young will compete with and against the girls. All of Lyndhurst’s bowlers return Friday for the team championships.

North Arlington also qualified for Friday’s team championship with a 2,858 pin performance, moving on to the state finals for the first time since 2010.

QP hires respected veteran Kelly to head football team

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

As has been noted here several times over the years, there’s a coaching carousel that lives at Queen of Peace High School.

One coach leaves, another arrives. There’s never a lot of time for a coach to feel comfortable.

Take for instance, the head football coaching position. Ever since Andy Cerco led the Golden Griffins to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 state championship in 2004, there have been four different head coaches, all trying to duplicate what Cerco did.

In fact, the year after the Golden Griffins won their lone state title, Cerco brought the team back to the state title game once again, but this time fell short to St. Joseph’s of Hammonton.

However, in those two glorious seasons, the Griffins were 21-2, records that were never to be seen again.

There were high profiled coaches like Ed Stinson. That didn’t work. There were alums like Bob Kearns. That didn’t work.

Here’s an incredible stat. Since the Griffins lost in the state title game in 2005, they have gone a collective 30-62. Not exactly a successful run.

But there’s another change in administration, with John Tonero taking over as principal and Ed Abromaitis returning once again as athletic director. The school vows that they are moving in the right direction.

Sure seems like QP is trying, especially since the school hired Jim Kelly to be the new head football coach.

Kelly has an impressive resume, having turned around a totally moribund Clifton program in 1992 and led the Mustangs to the NJSIAA Group IV playoffs, when no one thought that was even fathomable.

“You look how competitive we were, playing in the NNJIL with schools like Ridgewood and Montclair,” Kelly said. “We made strides both on and off the field.”

Kelly then left Clifton after five successful seasons and moved to Nutley, where Kelly was and still is a teacher. Kelly had a nice seven-year stay at Nutley, but stepped away for family reasons, turning the program over to Nutley alum in Steve DiGregorio in 2004.

So Kelly has great success in leading two noted high school programs like Clifton and Nutley. In recent years, Kelly was an assistant coach at Montclair State, coaching the tight ends, wide receivers and running backs.

For the last two years, Kelly was away from coaching, doing clinics and such in Nutley. Now 55 years old, Kelly felt like he was missing the game too much and wanted a return.

When his good friend, Scot Weaver, the current QP wrestling coach, called Kelly to see if he would be interested in the position at QP, Kelly’s ears perked up.

“It was simply an opportunity that presented itself,” said Kelly, who met with his new players for the first time last Wednesday at the school. “I was definitely intrigued. I had some conversations and it turned out to be the right spot, the right place. I always had the passion to coach again. I just wanted to go someplace where I could make a difference.”

Kelly knows that he’s not inheriting a great program. After all, the Golden Griffins were a miserable 1-9 last season in Kearns’ second year.

“There are things that need to be addressed,” Kelly said. “There has to be accountability and discipline. If you can develop a mutual trust between your players and your staff, that’s the first step. I feel like I have a lot to offer here.”

But Kelly realizes that he has his work cut out for him.

“I realize it’s a challenge,” Kelly said. “A lot of people have asked me why would I want to do this. I’m drawing on my own experience. There is a lot of similarity to what I had to go through in Clifton. When people get to know who I am and what I stand for, then they’ll realize this is a good fit.”

From a personal standpoint, I have worked with Kelly in both of his prior head coaching positions, going back to Clifton in 1992 and then in Nutley. He is an excellent football coach, a great offensive mind who has the ability to turn things around.

But can he? That remains to be seen. However, Kelly certainly is eager enough and believes he can with the help of the new administrative team at the school.

“I’m always excited to get a good opportunity like this,” Kelly said. “With the help of the administration, I feel like I can do something positive and make a difference. I think we all have the same vision and understanding.”

Kelly said that he was encouraged after meeting with the players Wednesday.

“I was interested in hearing their perception of the program and the questions they asked of me,” Kelly said. “They seem to be players who want to get better and want to have the right product. They want to be a part of something special. That’s how I felt by the questions they asked of me.”

One thing is for sure. There’s only one direction that Kelly can go – and that’s up. The program can’t get much lower than it is. Here’s to hoping that Kelly gives the program some much needed stability and leadership – and here’s to hoping that the school’s administration gives Kelly the support he most definitely needs.

NA’s Fisher captures gold in Group I pole vault

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When Travis Fisher loaded up his gear and braved the bitter winter cold to head to the Bennett Center in Toms River for the NJSIAA Group I state indoor track and field championships Sunday, he had a dream in mind. He was going to win the pole vault gold medal.

“I felt really good,” Fisher said. “I felt like nothing was going to stop me. I was shooting to finish first or at least second.”

North Arlington head track and field coach John Zukatus had more reasonable goals.

“I thought he would medal, like finish in the top three or so,” Zukatus said.

However, when the bar in the competition was raised to 14 feet, the expectations changed a little.

“Travis never cleared 14 (feet) before,” Zukatus said.

“I never did 14, but I figured this was my chance,” Fisher said. “I felt really ready for it, going at it full speed.”

Sure enough, Fisher got enough steam and lift to clear the bar at 14 feet and that was enough for Fisher to secure the overall Group I gold medal, topping Andrew Accardi of Pompton Lakes by a match of jumps.

Incredibly, both Fisher and Accardi train together at Apex Vaulting in Fairfield.

Still, the victory gave Fisher a state gold medal _ the second gold medal for a North Arlington track and field athlete in as many years.

Last year, Danny Cordeiro, now playing soccer at NJIT, won the 800-meter run gold medal at the state meet.

Not bad for an indoor track program that didn’t even exist before last year. Two years of existence, two state gold medal winners.

Fittingly, it was due to the hard work of Fisher and his mother, as well as others, that pushed the North Arlington Board of Education to consider having indoor track as a varsity sport. Fisher went around collecting signatures on a petition two years ago and made a presentation to the Board of Education, calling for the implantation of indoor track as a sport.

“If it never happened, then Danny and I would never have the chance to win a state championship,” Fisher said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment. It’s such an awesome feeling.”

After Fisher cleared 14 feet, he had to sit around and wait to see if anyone else did.

“That was nerve wracking,” Fisher said. “I still had to compete while worrying about everyone else.” Fisher did try to clear 14-6, but missed on three attempts. Still, he cleared his career best, indoors and outdoors, by clearing 14 feet.

“I was shooting for it,” Fisher said. “That was my goal. I really thought I had a chance.”

Zukatus was more than pleased by Fisher’s performance.

“I think it’s more than remarkable that it was the first time he cleared 14 feet,” Zukatus said. “It came down to doing it today (Sunday) and he did it. It was huge and so exciting. I never thought he could pull it out. It’s the best thing ever, seeing him after he tried for so long. I couldn’t think of a kid who deserves this more, considering the work he puts it and tries to get better every meet.” It’s not easy for Fisher, who trains in conditioning with the rest of his North Arlington teammates three times a week, then heads to Apex Vaulting twice a week.

“He has to do a lot of it on his own,” said Zukatus, who obviously doesn’t have the luxury of having an indoor vaulting pit in North Arlington High School. “He keeps a busy schedule for himself.”

With the victory, Fisher now heads back to the Bennett Center this Saturday one last time, but this time, it’s the overall NJSIAA Meet of Champions. Fisher will hope to duplicate Cordeiro’s performance of a year ago and come home from the state’s premier indoor meet with a medal.

“I’m excited for it,” Fisher said. “Whatever happens, happens. But I feel like I’m right there.”

Fisher said that he came “pretty close” to clearing the bar at 14-6 Sunday, which would almost guarantee him a medal this weekend.

“I have a shot,” Fisher said.

Zukatus just loves Fisher’s overall approach.

“He doesn’t get caught up in himself,” Zukatus said. “Travis is always calm and cool. It’s not his style to be anything else.”

Zukatus hopes that Fisher’s gold medal-winning performance will open some eyes around the entire state.

“I would hope that it gives us more recognition,” Zukatus said. “I hope that people realize that we’re not just some little program who did a onetime thing last year. Now, we have another state champion.”

Two in two years is not a bad start.

“I think it says a lot for the kids,” Zukatus said. “They worked so hard to get to be with the best. Like Danny, Travis’ hard work has paid off.”

But in the case of Fisher, here’s a kid who wanted to have indoor track, did all the leg work to make sure the sport reached varsity status _ and now gets to reap the rewards as an overall Group I state champion.

“It is an awesome feeling,” Fisher said. “I know that there are some people who never thought it was possible.”

However, one of those people who never doubted it was eventually the most important one of all, namely Travis Fisher, who will be forever remembered now as a North Arlington state champion.

Local wrestling teams move on to NJSIAA sectionals


By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Is there a doubt about what the prominent winter sport is in the area?

There shouldn’t be now, especially after three of the local wrestling teams from The Observer circulation area (out of a possible five) have earned berths into the prestigious and perennially tough NJSIAA state sectionals this week.

That’s right, three local teams, namely Nutley, the Lyndhurst/North Arlington cooperative and Queen of Peace have all punched their respective tickets to the state sectional playoffs with the hope of being crowned a Group team champion by the end of the week, when the championships are held at the Sun National Bank Arena in Trenton.

For now, let’s start with what we know for sure.

Nutley earned the second seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket, one of the toughest sectionals in New Jersey. The Maroon Raiders (20-3) earned a bye in the sectional and will play host Wednesday (weather permitting) to the winner of the West Essex match against another of the local qualifiers, Lyndhurst/North Arlington.

The Maroon Raiders have enjoyed a complete metamorphosis this season, going from a 10-17 team a year ago to a 20-3 powerhouse this season.

“It’s a credit to all the hard work the kids put in,” said Nutley head coach Frank DiPiano. “Our goals this year were to win the (Super Essex Conference) American Division title, the county and get to the states. Well, for us to come back from 10-17 and have this kind of year is huge. We’re doing it with a lot of the same guys as well.”

Senior Joe Ferinde has been a major stud for the Maroon Raiders. Ferinde has a 26-2 record thus far, with his lone losses coming against potential state contenders.

“He’s our captain and he wrestles hard all the time,” said DiPiano of Ferinde, who finished eighth in the state last year.

Junior Robert Duxbury owns a 28-2 record, making a huge jump in weight classes from 106 pounds last year to 132 pounds this year.

“I expected him to do well, but I didn’t think this well,” DiPiano said. “He has never let the size thing get in his mind. He’s a hard-nosed kid.”

Senior Kenny Pena represents the improvement more than any other wrestler. Pena was 11-13 overall last year as a junior and now he owns a 27-2 mark.

“His work ethic is second to none,” DiPiano said of Kenny Pena. “He’s become committed to the sport tremendously and spent a lot of his free time on the mat.”

Incredibly, Pena was ready to walk away from wrestling for good two years ago, because he didn’t see improvement.

“He quit, but I told him to take a couple days to think about it,” DiPiano said. “He did and came back more committed.”

Junior Darwin Pena is another vastly improved wrestler. A cousin of Kenny, Darwin Pena has a 28-2 record.

“I don’t think they’re overachieving,” DiPiano said. “I knew they all would be good. These are guys who were proven wrestlers.”

However, there has been some startling improvements from others, like senior Andrew Aiello, who had a 4-22 record last year and this year, he owns a 25-5 mark.

“He’s grown up a lot over the year and it all just finally clicked for him,” DiPiano said.

Two freshmen have also contributed right away in 106-pounder Frank Gabriele, who has come in and learned the system and Frank De- Maio, whose father, Frank Sr. runs the Nutley Recreation wrestling program. The two Franks have pleased the head coach Frank.

“Frankie DeMaio has had a tremendous year,” DiPiano said. “He’s behind two seniors, but he’s found the time to get into the lineup and done well. Frankie Gabriele came through the Recreation program and adjusted real well.”

Lyndhurst/North Arlington was a moribund program without a state sectional playoff berth since 2000. But third-year head coach Mike Goff has turned things around and people in both towns are getting excited about the team’s progress.

“It’s a good thing,” Goff said. “We have things moving in the right direction. The kids are working hard all year and it’s paid off. It’s definitely a good feeling to qualify.”

Goff will take his team to face perennial state sectional participant West Essex.

“One of the goals this year was to make the sectionals,” Goff said. “I thought it was a reasonable goal. I knew that these kids work hard in the classroom and in the wrestling room. They definitely deserve this.”

Junior Devin Yunis has the highest win total among the Lyndhurst/North Arlington wrestlers with a 22-8 mark. Andrew Fernandez and Matt DeMarco both have 20 wins already this season. It’s hard to remember another Lyndhurst team that had three wrestlers with 20 or more wins this early in a season.

“It’s definitely a good first step,” said Goff, whose team prepared for the state sectional with wins last weekend over East Orange Campus and Kinnelon. “Whatever happens with West Essex, we definitely took the first step this year.”

The third local qualifier is Queen of Peace, which returned to competitive wrestling this year after a brief hiatus.

Still, the idea of a basically brand new program qualifying for the NJSIAA Non-Public B bracket is still amazing.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Scot Weaver, who returned to QP this season after a brief stint at Brearley Regional in Kenilworth and guided the Golden Griffins back to the state playoffs in the first year of his return. “The entire school and the community are behind it. The student body is cheering for their classmates. There are a lot of good things going on with the future of the QP wrestling program.”

The Golden Griffins will play host to Pingry in the opening round of the Non- Public B bracket Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

Weaver was asked if he was worried about whether he would field a competitive team this year.

“I really was concerned, but I’m always concerned,” Weaver said. “When I took the job, we had no wrestlers, no roster, no place to practice. All we had were some incoming freshmen.”

The Golden Griffins also secured a host of transfers, including senior Jeff Velez (24-5), who was a region champion last year at Brearley.

“He’s become a good teammate and a very good wrestler for us,” Weaver said.

Another solid competitor is senior Anthony DeLorenzo, who has won 25 and lost just once this season. DeLorenzo is a Nutley native who transferred to QP after a falling out with the Nutley coaches.

Senior Joe Rocca (24-6) transferred in from Saddle Brook.

Junior Mike Scaravelli (21-4) and 106-pound freshman Enrique Sanchez of North Arlington (25-3) have been excellent additions to Weaver’s once-again fledgling program.

Weaver knows that his team will more than likely see state-ranked DePaul in the second round.

“DePaul is as rock solid as they come,” Weaver said. “We’re going to have our hands full with them. But in terms of being competitive, we’re going to be right there. We’re ecstatic about being there. I’m happy to be where I am. We have a new (wrestling) room built and the kids are happy about being there. It’s all just a good thing.”

And it’s good for local high school sports to have three teams competing for a state wrestling team title.

Bloomfield is also a state playoff team, with the Bengals facing Clifton in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.