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Cardenas, Mullen earn state gold at NJ state youth wrestling championships

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Kearny Recreation sends 5 wrestlers to medal round

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

The Kearny Recreation wrestling program is certainly on the rise once again.

Need proof? Well, how about the fact that two products of the program, namely Jacob Cardenas and Jimmy Mullen, went to the Sun National Bank Arena in Trenton last weekend and came away with state championships in their respective weight classes at the New Jersey Youth Wrestling State Championships.

Mullen won his third state title in the last four years, capturing the 10-and-under championship at 125 pounds. The 10-year-old Mullen is a star waiting to happen.

Cardenas won his firstever state title, bringing home the gold in the 14-and-under 152-pound weight class. That classification is called intermediate because of the age.

“It’s great,” said Kearny Recreation head wrestling coach Tony Carratura Jr., the son of the veteran Kearny High School coach. “They’re all dedicated kids. The coaches and parents are also very dedicated. We had a good year last year, but this year, we exceeded expectations.”

Mullen was the second seed in his class. He took third last year and was anxious to get a chance to avenge that setback.

“After losing and taking third, I thought that was terrible,” Mullen said. “I just wanted to get back and do better. I also did a good job of staying under weight. I think that helped me a lot in all the different sports I play.”

Mullen is an accomplished basketball, baseball and football player, as well as a state champion in wrestling.

“It’s not easy,” said the fifth-grader. “But this was awesome. It’s so rewarding to win again after getting third last year.”

Cardenas lost to the No. 1 seed last year, but was determined to get another crack at state gold.

“I’ve been wrestling for seven years and this is the first time I won a state championship,” Cardenas said. “I’ve been training every day and practicing to reach this goal and I finally did it. Losing last year was a huge point of motivation for me. It’s what I wanted, to get another chance to win and I finally did it.”

Cardenas also plays baseball in the spring, but his focus is on wrestling.

“I really love it,” said Cardenas, who trains on the side with Kearny’s lone high school state champion David Cordoba at the Extreme Fight Club gym in Woodland Park. Cordoba won the 1999 state championship for Kearny and was a two-time state runner-up.

“Coach Cordoba pushes me a lot,” said Cardenas, who wasn’t even alive when Cordoba won the NJSIAA state crown for Kearny. “I have seen his name on the banner in the gym, so I knew what he did. He’s helped me a lot since I started going there.”

“Dave is a big supporter of our program,” Carratura said. “It definitely helps Jacob that he gets a chance to roll around with Dave, another Kearny state champ. Jacob now moves on to high school and we would love it if he sticks with us (meaning Kearny High). Jimmy has a great future ahead of him.”

Carratura said that he had a good feeling about his two wrestlers before they went to Trenton.

“We knew that Jimmy had a good shot,” Carratura said. “He has been wrestling at another level. He’s been wrestling seventh and eighth graders to get ready. So now when he’s wrestling kids his own size and age, he dominates. Jacob was down 5-0 in the finals and came back to win after bringing the match to overtime. It was great to watch.”

Besides the championships won by Cardenas and Mullen, Kearny Rec had several other wrestlers fare well at Trenton.

Third grader Joshua Baeza finished sixth in the 60-pound bantam class and had a fine tournament. Travis Witt was seventh in the Intermediate 160-pound class for eighth graders. Adam Chew, a seventh grader, was seventh in the 120-pound junior class and Artie Smith, a Kearny High School freshman, took seventh place as well.

“All of the kids wrestled very hard and we’re extremely proud of them,” Carratura said.

More than 140 teams with 100 different qualifiers participated in the weekend-long tourney in Trenton, so the achievements of the Kearny wrestlers were certainly noteworthy.

“These kids had to wrestle eight matches just to get to Trenton and some, like Jacob, had to win four there to win,” Carratura said. “That’s impressive.”

Carratura knows that these youngsters represent the future of Kearny wrestling. “No question, this is where it all starts,” Carratura said, as he was preparing his group for another tournament last weekend in Keansburg. “We have a great group of coaches who travel all over. We have great parents who do what we need them to do. The parents are willing to take their kids all over the state. We’re getting Kearny wrestling back to when I was a kid, what I remember. We’re all working hard together and it’s really great to see.”

Cardenas doesn’t know what school he will attend in the fall.

“I just know I want to keep this going, to keep working so I can win another state championship in high school,” Cardenas said. “I want to keep it going into college. It’s such a great feeling.”

Winning a state title is always so rewarding.

Belleville looks to pitching staff to continue winning ways

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

After two highly successful seasons, ones that saw his program win a total of 42 games, Belleville head baseball coach Joe Sorce now brings the Buccaneers to new heights – namely the highly competitive American Division of the Super Essex Conference.

It means that the Buccaneers will face teams like Seton Hall Prep, Livingston, Montclair and neighboring rivals Bloomfield and Nutley in the regular season.

“I look at it as a big challenge,” said Sorce, who guided the Buccaneers to a 19-7 record last season. “We’re the only team to jump up two divisions. So we’re excited about it.”

The Bucs were 23-4 and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinals in 2013 and posted a 19-7 mark a year ago. “We had a good team last year,” Sorce said. “The returning players are excited about the challenge.” The Bucs lost to Passaic in the second round of the state playoffs last year and fell to Verona in the second round of the Greater Newark Tournament.

Sorce realizes that it has been tough for the Buccaneers to prepare for the 2015 season with the fierce weather conditions that have engulfed the area recently, especially an early spring snowstorm last week.

There’s only so much that a baseball team can do inside a gymnasium.

“We’re doing a lot of fundamental work, doing drills,” Sorce said. “Our pitchers just pitched live to hitters against Westfield. I like where we’re at right now, given the situation with the weather. We will get to know a lot more in the coming week.”

Sorce said that the Bucs have scrimmages slated for every day prior to the season opener next Wednesday against Millburn. The Bucs also have opening week games slated against top teams Lodi and Livingston, so Sorce will know a lot more about his team in the weeks to come.

Leading the way is senior right-hander Steven Basantes, who missed most of last season with a broken wrist.

Basantes will also play second base when he’s not pitching.

Senior left-hander Quazyre Smith is another of the Belleville pitching staff.

Sorce likes the way Smith has been throwing the ball so far this season. When he’s not pitching, Smith will play the outfield.

Senior right-hander Nick Bruno is another veteran member of the Belleville pitching staff.

“He’s done some good varsity work for us,” Sorce said. “I’m looking for those three to lead us.”

Sophomore right-hander Brayan Villar has been very promising and will more than likely be the fourth member of the Buccaneers’ starting staff.

Junior Adrian Alaracon is a left-hander with a huge upside. Sorce believes that Alaracon could serve as the Buccaneers’ main relief hurler this spring.

Senior Gio Vega is another right-hander who will get his chance to pitch this spring for the Bucs.

“We like the depth we have in our pitching staff,” said Sorce, noting that he will need pitching depth once the games begin to back up in late April and early May.

Sorce is fortunate to have the Walicky twins back for another season. The Walicky twins, juniors Dylan and Dustin, have been varsity starters since they were freshmen.

Dylan Walicky is a strong defensive catcher who was the Buccaneers’ leading hitter last year, hitting better than .420.

“He’s also a strong defensive catcher,” Sorce said. “I think he’s one of the best in the county. He threw out 75% of the runners who tried to steal on him last year.”

Dustin Walicky is a mainstay in the infield, playing both first base and third base.

Together, they form one of the most formidable 1-2 punches in the SEC.

Junior Allen Cruz will see time at both second base and shortstop. Junior Andrew Baez is a solid second baseman who will fit in according to whoever takes the mound that day.

The outfield also has some depth and quality.

Senior John Castro is a mainstay from last year’s team. Castro batted .500 in limited duty last season.

Seniors Mike Guercio and Gerard Cinolo will also get serious playing time in the Buccaneers’ outfield.

Sophomores Sam Abreu and Branden Basantes, the younger brother of Steven, have been very impressive in the offseason for the Bucs. They both will see playing time in the outfield, but the younger Basantes will also play first base, third base and pitcher.

Senior Luis Florencio is a solid defensive catcher who serves as a backup to Dylan Walicky and will spell Walicky from time to time, allowing Walicky to be the Bucs’ designated hitter.

“I like the makeup of our team,” Sorce said. “We had a good summer (playing American Legion baseball) and we have a good group of kids.”

But Sorce knows that the Buccaneers will have to scrape and claw for everything this season.

“It’s going to be a competitive battle every day,” Sorce said. “We have to bring our ‘A’ game every single day. Every day is a battle. I just have to make sure that each day is a productive day, that we keep moving forward. But I’m really excited about this team.”

The Buccaneers will certainly be a team to watch all spring, provided that the weather eventually warms up and the snow finally melts.

FDU coach Herenda headlines Kearny hoops awards dinner

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Greg Herenda remembers when he was an aspiring basketball player, growing up in nearby North Bergen, hearing the words of college basketball coaches like Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and George Blaney of Holy Cross.

“I remember being at banquets and hearing guys like that speak,” said Herenda, now in his second year as the head men’s basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. “I’m an old-school guy. I know that when a kid hears something from his parents or a coach, it doesn’t always register. But when someone else says it, like a college coach, then he might listen a little bit more.”

Herenda was the guest speaker last Wednesday night at the Kearny High School basketball awards banquet at the American Legion on Belgrove Drive.

And Herenda definitely had a message to the 150 youngsters, from seventh grade through the high school, that had to resonate with all of them.

“I remember going on a recruiting trip when I was an assistant coach at Seton Hall,” Herenda said. “And I went to this kid’s house and his entire family was there, watching a basketball game on television together. And I said to him, ‘The heroes in your life aren’t the guys you watch on TV, but rather the ones that you watch TV with.’”

Herenda told the kids that no one thought his Knights would accomplish anything, but in one week last season, his team went to the Rutgers Athletic Center and beat Rutgers, then came up to the Prudential Center and beat Seton Hall. All in a span of one week. Pretty impressive to say the least.

“I say dream and dream big,” Herenda told the Kearny youngsters. “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything. It’s all about working hard, paying attention to your teachers, your parents and your coaches and doing your best. It’s that simple.”

Herenda said that he likes going to talk to high school kids and younger, going to awards banquets and making himself available.

“FDU reaches out and want to be the program in New Jersey that is accessible to the people,” Herenda said. “I want to reach out to the coaching community in New Jersey. I want to be able to have the local community recognize us. You have to be able to tell kids that there are opportunities out there, not just the teams you see on TV, but the local schools, the (NCAA) Division II and Division IIIs. There are all different levels for all different kids.”

Herenda was a standout basketball player at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, then went via scholarship to Merrimack College and started to map his journey as a basketball coach, traveling the nation before getting the chance to come home and head the program at FDU.

Kearny head coach Bob Mc- Donnell applauded the efforts of Herenda, who volunteered his time to come and speak to the players.

“He was fantastic,” McDonnell said. “When the kids found out that a Division I coach was coming to speak, they were all excited. He gave them good insight and advice. He’s a great speaker. He had them listening and they were interacting with him. He spoke directly to a few of them. The kids all talked about him after he left.”

 

Photos by Jim Hague TOP: FDU basketball coach Greg Herenda was the guest speaker at the Kearny basketball awards banquet and spoke of the relationships the players should have with their parents, teachers and coaches. ABOVE: Kearny head coach McDonnell (l.), senior Zack Latka (c.) and Fairleigh Dickinson University men’s basketball head coach Greg Herenda get together at the Kearny awards banquet last week.

Photos by Jim Hague
TOP: FDU basketball coach Greg Herenda was the guest speaker at the Kearny
basketball awards banquet and spoke of the relationships the players should
have with their parents, teachers and coaches. ABOVE: Kearny head coach
McDonnell (l.), senior Zack Latka (c.) and Fairleigh Dickinson University men’s
basketball head coach Greg Herenda get together at the Kearny awards banquet
last week.

The night was for postseason honors. The Kardinals had a highly successful season, improving from eight wins last year to 13 wins this season and qualifying for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

It was important to have a postseason awards program, according to McDonnell.

“In the past, the awards banquet was held inside the high school,” McDonnell said. “This year, we were able to get out and hold it at the Legion, including the seventh and eighth graders. It makes them all feel like they’re part of something special.”

More than 60 players attended the dinner including 10 student/managers.

“I think it was great, especially getting the young kids involved,” McDonnell said. “It gives the seventh and eighth graders something to look forward to when they get to high school.”

There were individual awards presented.

Joseph Baez, the team’s leading scorer, was presented with the Most Improved Player award.

Senior Zack Latka was presented with the Charlie Dolan Award, given to the player who best exemplifies dedication to the program and community service. The award is named after Dolan, the Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer who is one of the biggest benefactors of Kearny High School basketball. Dolan was in attendance to present Latka with his award.

Latka was pleased to have someone like Herenda on hand for the ceremony.

“It means a lot to me, because we don’t get to hear from college coaches a lot,” Latka said. “When he was talking about grades, that was a message that hit home to me. I hope to continue playing on the college level and I know that I need good grades to do that.”

Latka said that he was happy that the team improved so much.

“It meant that we all put in a great team effort,” Latka said. “We all put in the time. It was all about a team goal. We wanted double figures in wins and to make the state playoffs. We knew we’d all get better. I’m very proud of my teammates. I wouldn’t have wanted to play with anyone else. I hope that they can continue to build on what we’re leaving behind.”

The top hustle award went to senior Gus Chemin, while the top defensive player went to Gralen Vereen.

The Coaches’ Award, given to the player who best personifies the philosophy of the coaching staff, went to George Smyth. The award for academic achievement went to Jake Fitzpatrick, who posted a 3.4 grade point average.

“We had a good year,” Mc- Donnell said. “We improved in wins, improved in the county tournament and made the state playoffs.”

And the majority of the Kearny roster returns, other than seniors Latka and Chemin, so the future looks very good for Kearny basketball.

STATE CHAMPS!

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Nutley wins NJSIAA North 2, Group III title as No. 13 seed

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Pardon Sara Grueter if she’s not familiar with the popular and inspiring movie “Hoosiers.”

One just assumes that everyone and their mother has seen the Gene Hackman flick, about an underdog basketball team from a small town in Indiana going on to miraculously win the state championship.

Grueter, the Nutley High School senior, is one of the perhaps 11 people in America that hasn’t seen the 1986 classic about Norman Dale, Jimmy Chitwood, assistant coach Shooter, diminutive Ollie and the Hickory basketball team.

All’s forgiven with Grueter, because she didn’t need to see the movie. She just happened to live it.

Grueter and her Maroon Raider teammates defied the odds last week when the No. 13-seeded squad traveled once again to western New Jersey and knocked off a higher seeded team on their home floor.

Led by the sensational junior forward Blair Watson, who scored 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, the Maroon Raiders did the unthinkable, defeating Voorhees, 57-53, last Monday night to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship.

The Maroon Raiders, the lowest seeded girls’ basketball team to win a state sectional title in 20 years, became the first Nutley squad to win a state championship since 1976.

That’s almost 40 years since a Nutley girls’ basketball team had a chance to hang a banner on the gym walls. Grueter, who added 18 points in the sectional title game, will hold onto that memory for a lifetime.

“If my kids go here, they can look up at the wall and say that I had a part of that,” Grueter said. “That banner will be there forever and I was a part of that team. It’s really a speechless feeling. It’s so hard to put it into words. No one believed that we could go this far. I’m just so glad to be a part of the experience.”

Try this on for size. Just a little over a month ago, the Maroon Raiders were 7-12 and appeared headed to miss out on the postseason altogether.

“We barely made the playoffs in the first place,” Grueter said. “I couldn’t even imagine about winning the whole thing.”

Being the 13th seed meant that the Maroon Raiders had to load up the bus and play every game on the road. So it meant traveling to places like West Morris and Mendham in western Morris County and even Orange before heading to the remote spot called Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County.

“We knew we were going to be on the road and playing in some hostile environments,” said Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow. “It’s just not expected to happen.”

But the Maroon Raiders climbed aboard the shoulders of Watson, who should have secured her spot as an All- State player with her playoff explosion. Watson, only a junior, but already committed to the University of Maryland, was just sensational in the state playoffs, averaging close to 30 points per game.

“She’s not one of the best players in the state,” Mitschow said of Watson. “She’s one of the best in the country. Maryland is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. They’re not recruiting players unless they are great.”

Mitschow was still trying to process the idea that this team was indeed a state champion.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” Mitschow said. “We had so many injuries and illnesses that we had to cancel our JV (junior varsity) team this year. At times, we had to practice with just seven or eight girls. We had to have our assistant coaches practice. We had to be creative with our practices.”

Mitschow truly believed that his team could be competitive come playoff time.

“When we sat down and tried to construct our schedule, we knew that there was a chance we would be under .500 come playoff time,” Mitschow said. “We play in one of the toughest leagues (the Super Essex Conference) in the state. So if we got in, we knew that we would have a lower seed. The No. 13 seed wasn’t too much of a shock. But being a low seed and winning? That’s just not expected. It doesn’t happen. That’s why this hasn’t even sunk in yet. They’ve definitely outplayed expectations.”

That’s why the loss to Old Tappan in the overall Group III semifinals two days later really didn’t sting that much. No one could take away the state trophy and the banner that will come with it or quite possibly the rings that will come later on.

“We finally accomplished our goals,” said senior Carly Anderson, who can now begin to focus on being a pitcher on the great Nutley softball team. “I have so much pride in my team. It was very exciting to be a part of this. It was a great feeling.”

Grueter said that she loved playing with Watson.

“I can’t even explain what it’s like to get her the ball and watch her go,” Grueter said. “Just giving her an assist is a great feeling. Looking back, I can say that I was part of her career, having the ball go through my hands to hers. It’s just amazing.”

That’s Watson’s take on the whole situation as well.

“It’s honestly amazing,” Watson said. “I’m really speechless. I didn’t expect this. I couldn’t be more proud of my team. In my heart, I knew that we had a chance if we got there. All the time we spent on the bus, taking those long drives, really brought us together. We also had an unbelievable fan base that followed us to those games. It was insane how they came all the way out there. I think everyone in Nutley wanted to see how far we could go.”

If the Maroon Raiders were a recreation of the Hickory team from “Hoosiers,” then Watson was clearly the Raiders’ version of star Jimmy Chitwood.

Mitschow said that Anderson was the one who served as the calming figure.

“She looked at me during the game when we were losing and said, ‘Coach, don’t worry, we got this,’” Mitschow said of Anderson. “She made me calm down quickly.”

Mitschow said that he had nothing but pride for his team and their miraculous run.

“The kids who stuck this out and made it through the tough times,” Mitschow said. “It’s a testament to them. I tried not to tell them that they achieved more than I believed, but deep down, they did. It’s something we’re all going to remember for a very long time.”

Kearny suffers huge loss with grid coach Edwards’ resignation

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It was only two years ago when there was a sense of joy and pride coming from the Kearny High School football program.

In May 2013, the Kearny Board of Education made perhaps one of the best personnel moves when it hired Nick Edwards as the new head football coach.

Edwards seemed to be perfect for the position. He was a longtime assistant in the program. He was already a teacher in the district. He was young, energetic, a familiar face to the community.

Plain and simple, Nick Edwards was going to restore some pride in the Kearny football program. He was going to work with the youth program to serve as a feeder system. He conducted free clinics to get kids interested and involved in the game.

Edwards was going to break the long-standing stigma that Kearny is a soccer town and nothing more. Hell, it has the nickname of “Soccertown, USA” already in place. How could football dare to compete with that?

But Edwards was definitely the man and sure sounded that way when he took the job two years ago.

Try these words on for size.

“I know what I’m getting into,” Edwards said in May 2013. “I want to be here. I’m well aware of what has happened in the past. I plan on being here for a long time.”

Athletic director John Millar felt the same way.

“At this time in his life, Nick is well prepared,” Millar said when Edwards was hired. “He’s ready. He’s desired to be a head coach all his life. Hopefully, he achieves all of his goals. We’ve had a lot of good guys who have tried to turn this thing around and make us a successful football program. Down the road, we will be successful. Nick is going to make this successful, not just for the school, but the whole community. I hope that Nick is a long-term guy and he’s here for a very long time turned out to be only two years, because Edwards submitted his letter of resignation last week.

“I’ve told everyone that I’m leaving for personal reasons,” Edwards said last week. “I sat down with my family and my girlfriend and talked about it for quite some time. I knew it was time for me to walk away and do what’s best for me. I’m just tired. Right now, I want to take some time and take care of me. It’s not about getting another job. It’s about taking some time for myself. It’s a difficult position to be a head coach. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of time. There are more issues than just football and that took its toll.”

Edwards did not elaborate as to what those issues were. He did not comment when asked. Instead, Edwards took the high road.

“I was fighting with the decision for a while,” Edwards said. “The only thing that was telling me to stay was the kids. I’m definitely disappointed, especially for the kids, because they have to go through another coach again and not having that stability.”

It is true that the position of head coach with the Kardinals has been a revolving door. There was Rich Howell, Matt Occhipinti, then the program was shut down, brought back once again with Howell, then Oscar Guerrero, then Pete Llaneza and now Edwards. All of that change has taken place within the last decade.

Edwards made some inroads this past season, as the Kardinals posted a 4-6 record and flirted with qualifying for the NJSIAA state playoffs for the very first time.

Just that fact alone tells you something. Kearny has never made the state playoffs in the 40-plus year history of the NJSIAA state playoffs. They are the only Hudson County program to never make a state playoff appearance and one of only a handful throughout the state.

Edwards said that he felt like he was making some progress during his brief stint.

“I think I’ve done a lot,” Edwards said. “I put a lot of time and a lot of effort into it. We went from 30 kids in the program to 70 kids. We brought back the freshman program. The kids’ academics were in place. We had only one kid to go to summer school last year. I thought I helped to bring some excitement back to Kearny football.”

Then why leave?

“Who knows if I could have stayed one more year or 10 more years?” Edwards asked. “I know I leave with my head held high.”

Edwards would not budge when pressed about his reasons for resigning. It appeared as if he had a bright future as the Kearny grid coach.

“The reasons are personal and I’ll stick with that,” Edwards said.

Edwards won’t get into it – but we will.

It’s been written here several times over the last decade or so that a complete commitment is necessary to make football work in Kearny. And if the powers-that-be, namely the Board of Education and the school’s administration, aren’t willing to go the full nine yards, then they should just fold up shop and not have a football program.

You can’t go half way – or in Kearny’s case, one-quarter of the way – and think that a program is going to succeed.

Kearny is in desperate need of an overhaul with its weight training and locker room facilities. In fact, the conditions there are disgraceful. There have not been improvements made to the facilities at Davis Field in 70 years.

Sure, FieldTurf was put down about a decade ago, but even now that surface is in dire need of reconditioning. The weight room never has heat. During the winter months, the players were subjected to sub-freezing conditions in the weight room, forcing the coaching staff to regularly close the doors and send the kids home.

Those two decrepit buildings that flank the football field are hideous. They should be totally knocked down and have a nice state-of-the-art facility constructed.

Can it be done? All you need to do is look a little to the north and see what they now have in Lyndhurst and North Arlington. Those schools now have beautiful facilities.

Even Queen of Peace has a better weight room than Kearny. You can’t even call what Kearny has as a weight room. It’s just a room.

The time has come to tear down those wretched buildings and get a brand new one. And if the Board of Education did it the right way and built a new training facility, they could probably sell memberships to the residents to defray some of the cost.

Put a referendum on the ballot and see if the voters wouldn’t float a million or two to build a new weight training complex.

That would be the first step. Then, there would have to be better support from the administration, parents, residents, you name it. Everyone should rally together and back the Kardinals’ football program, not go at it like it’s a weak ugly stepsister to soccer.

If not, then just scrap it. Forget about football and be what you already are, a soccer town.

Losing Nick Edwards was a major blow to the entire Kearny athletic program, not just football. He’s only 34. He should have been a treasure to embrace and enjoy for many years, not tossed aside like so many other football coaches over the years.

It’s either you do it the right way or don’t do it at all. It sounds like a broken record, because I’ve written it more practically than my own name over the last decade. This is shameful. Maybe Edwards’ departure might open some eyes and get things done the right way. It’s doubtful, but one never knows.

NJIT experiences March Madness in CIT tourney

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

NEWARK – 

Eight years ago, when the New Jersey Institute of Technology arranged for its athletic programs to compete under the NCAA Division I banner, the Highlanders have fought hard for respectability in all sports.

It’s been an uphill battle for the men’s basketball program, which once had to endure an NCAA-record for consecutive losses with 51. So in years past, the final regular season game would mean the final game of the season for the men’s basketball program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

A team without a conference since the Great West Conference disbanded three years ago, the Highlanders, the nation’s lone independent, would collect the uniforms, put the balls in a closet and call it a year.

However, the Highlanders knew this year that they knew they had something to play for, namely a berth in the postseason and the College Insider.com Tournament.

The CIT extended its first invitation to the 32- team field to 18-11 NJIT and even gave the Highlanders a home game against the University of New Hampshire, a game that was played at the Fleisher Athletic Center Monday night after press time.

Needless to say, the people at NJIT are ecstatic to be extending their basketball season by a few weeks.

“It’s really hard to put it into words,” said NJIT head coach Jim Engles, who has spent the last seven years at the school. “It’s a special moment for everyone involved. From where we were to where we are now is pretty special.”

When Engles took over the program seven years ago, the Highlanders were winless the season before (0-29) and in the midst of an NCAA record 51-game losing streak. In fact, Engles won only one game during his first season.

But the improvements soon began. The Highlanders won 10 the following season, then 15 in 2010-11. They won the Great West Conference regular season championship in the league’s final year in 2012-13, winning 16 games, which was the NCAA Division I high before this season.

NJIT helped its reputation earlier this season, when the Highlanders traveled to Crisler Arena and the then-No. No. 17-ranked Michigan. It helped the Highlanders gain national recognition.

“We came full circle that day,” said senior forward Daquan Holliday, who hit the clutch free throws in the final minute to secure the 72- 70 victory over the Wolverines. “Before then, no one knew what NJIT was. After it, everyone would say, ‘Hey, you go to NJIT.’ It’s just amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time.”

The Highlanders did have to pay an entry fee of $36,000 to get into the CIT, according to athletic director Lenny Kaplan. But the school gets to keep all revenues in ticket sales for the game, so that’s why they’re making a push to sell out the 1,500-seat Fleisher Athletic Center.

“It’s still a positive for us,” Kaplan said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had an opportunity to play in the postseason. Getting a chance to host a game in the postseason doesn’t come around often. As an independent, just getting a chance to play in the postseason is tough. But we’re getting a chance to play in front of our own fans. We’re excited to offer that opportunity.”

“We want people to know we have a good team here,” Engles said in a recent postgame press conference. “To be honest, it’s been a whirlwind. The amount of recognition and exposure we’ve received has been tremendous; the amount of people who have reached out to contact us. It’s been humbling for all of us.”

And the Highlanders are the lone Division I program in New Jersey still playing. Everyone else is on the outside looking in.

NJIT has been battling for the last three years to find a permanent conference. The Highlanders once played in the Great West Conference with schools like Chicago State, South Dakota and North Dakota, but that league disbanded when the remaining schools all found suitable leagues, except NJIT. This marks the second straight season that the Highlanders are the nation’s lone Division I independent.

“I want to see us get in a league,” said Engles, who led the Highlanders to a 13-16 record as an independent a year ago. “I think it would help the school, but also help the entire city of Newark. We’re going to continue to do what we have to do. We need to get in a league and we need more of that. A game like this definitely has to be a selling point and has to put us back in the conversation. It has to be used as leverage.”

Engles said that he gets choked up thinking about all the players who endured that horrific losing streak.

“I get emotional when I think of all the players who had to go through all of that,” Engles said. “We can’t forget about that, because that’s part of who we are. It’s always going to be with us.”

Kaplan said that the postseason berth comes on the heels of the announcement that plans are underway to build a new $100 million athletic facility that should be ready for occupancy by 2017.

“We would much rather get a postseason bid through a conference tournament,” said Kaplan, who continues discussions with several leagues in order to gain possible admittance. “It’s tough enough right now operating as an independent. If this is an opening to take it to the next step, then we’re going to do it.”

Kaplan said that he has already scheduled meetings with officials from the Mid- Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which is comprised of mostly all-black institutions.

“We’ve also reached out to others as well,” Kaplan said. “We’ve had some conferences tell us that the No. 1 reason why we didn’t get in was our athletic facility. Well, now we’re getting a new one, so that will hopefully reenergize conversations.”

In the meantime, the Highlanders will get another game – a home game at that – and maybe more.

“I think we look at it as a challenge,” said sophomore guard Damon Lynn, the Highlanders’ leading scorer who collected the 1,000th  point of his career in a recent win over Howard. “We feel like we’re going to make the most of it.”

“It feels great to know that my last practice wasn’t my last practice,” Holliday said.

Engles knows that the program has to start somewhere.

“It’s definitely a reward, but we don’t want to be too happy about it,” Engles said. “We need to get into a conference. Before people weren’t ready to entertain us as a member of their conference because we were so bad. Now no one might want us because we’re good. We’re getting some national recognition and that’s a good experience for us moving forward.”

So how much has NJIT mania gripped the nation? Well, it has definitely stirred up the sales of athletic gear at the school’s book store.\

Peter Maranzano, the book store manager, said that sales have increased an estimated 258 % since the win in December over Michigan – with a lot of those online sales coming from places like East Lansing, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio, the Wolverines’ two biggest rivals in the Big Ten Conference.

“To say sales have exploded would be an understatement,” Maranzano said. “It’s kind of amazing. On a typical Monday morning, I’d come in and have 3-to- 5 online orders. I came in Monday and there were 90 orders. It was incredible. Roughly half of the orders came from Michigan and Ohio, so we’re theorizing that it was Michigan State and Ohio State fans trying to razz the Wolverines. To get T-shirt sales from East Lansing is not at all what I expected.”

Maranzano said that a majority of the sales were from New Jersey, from alums and students.

“We had a lot of students coming in,” Maranzano said. “It was a nice little victory for everyone.”

Lynn knows that the Highlanders have to build on their new-found attention.

“It was only one game,” Lynn said. “We can’t stop here. We’re the ones stuck without a conference.”

Devils’ first Stanley Cup champs return to ice

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Brodeur plays forward in 20th anniversary game

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

NEWARK – 

The New Jersey Devils celebrated the 20th anniversary of the franchise’s first of three Stanley Cup champions in grand fashion last weekend, first with a reunion game at the AmeriHealth Pavilion on Saturday, then with a pre-game ceremony before the current Devils faced the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.

In the reunion game, all the buzz was about the return of legendary goalkeeper Martin Brodeur, who came back to his old stomping grounds for the first time since the end of last season, when the franchise parted ways with their franchise net minder.

However, there was an air of disappointment Saturday when the starting lineups were announced and former standout defenseman Bruce Driver, the current president of the team’s alumni association that organized the event, came out wearing the goaltending uniform.

All 3,000 or so in attendance for the reunion game wondered where Brodeur was. But in an interesting twist, Brodeur played the first two periods of the reunion game as a center, only to take his familiar place between the pipes for the third period – a period where the NHL’s all-time leader in victories and shutouts surrendered five goals.

As a center, Brodeur did manage to tally a goal and add an assist, but the White team that he played on dropped a 10-6 decision.

As the game began, Brodeur donned his regular No. 30 sweater, but it looked as if this sweater was so oversized that it was intended for Brodeur’s much older and bigger brother, and donned a helmet and a regular-sized stick.

“I know Bruce wanted to play a little in net,” Brodeur said. “I’m sure that they all expected to see me in goal.”

Driver said that the decision was made earlier in the week, but kept a secret right up until game time.

“I talked to Marty about a week ago or so and he said that he was looking forward to coming in,” said Driver, who helps to organize a host of charity fundraising events involving former Devils players throughout the course of the hockey season. “We kept it quiet on our end. At first, we sort of laughed about it, but then I realized he was serious. I knew that he likes to play out from time to time. I told him that we would do whatever he wanted to do. We all know how important Marty is to this organization.”

Most of the members of that Stanley Cup championship team – as well as coaches Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson (the head coach of the Devils’ second Stanley Cup title in 2000), and Jacques Caron – were in attendance.

Hall of Famers Scott Stevens (a current Devils assistant) and Scott Niedermayer (an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks) were on the ice. The 41-year-old Niedermayer looked as if he could still play in the NHL today, the way he was skating up and down the ice.

Brodeur didn’t retire right away, managing to sign a contract with the St. Louis Blues in January, but he then retired after only nine games, winning three, and remained on with the club as a senior adviser.

Photo by Jim Hague Legendary goalkeeper Martin Brodeur played center in the reunion game Saturday, maneuvering his way through former teammates Scott Niedermayer (l.) and Randy McKay (r.).

Photo by Jim Hague
Legendary goalkeeper Martin Brodeur played center in the reunion game Saturday, maneuvering his way through former teammates Scott Niedermayer (l.)
and Randy McKay (r.).

 

Brodeur said that he’s comfortable now with being a retired player and with his role as part of the Blues’ organization.

“I’m enjoying myself more now as a member of the Blues organization than I was when I was playing,” Brodeur said. “I tested it and made the decision to retire easier. I get to travel, get to watch practice and observe. It’s all good. I’m having a blast doing what I do. It’s really exciting right now to be part of the Blues’ organization. It’s a great setting for me to learn right now.”

Brodeur retired with 1,266 games played, 691 career victories and 125 shutouts, all of which are NHL records. He was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL four times and a nine-time NHL All-Star.

Brodeur said that he was looking forward to returning to New Jersey and seeing all of his old teammates.

“It was a great experience,” Brodeur said. “I have been skating since November. Some of these guys hadn’t skated in a very long time. I think I liked playing forward today more than I did being in goal. I didn’t expect anything differently coming back here. It’s always neat.”

Driver said that it was great to get most of that 1995 Stanley Cup championship team together for the weekend. After the game, they were being treated to a dinner together.

“It was a lot of fun and it was everything I thought it would be,” Driver said. “It was a great day.”

Defenseman Ken Daneyko, who spent the longest tenure with the franchise and currently serves as a television analyst, agreed.

“Once everyone got their gear on and got back out there, everything comes right back,” said Daneyko, one of three members of that first Stanley Cup champion to have his number retired (Stevens and Niedermayer are the others). “You could see how special the day was to the guys who were out there. You don’t expect those things until you get out there. There’s always going to be a special bond with this team. There were a lot of characters on and off the ice. We were a crazy crew who got away with a few things.”

Lou Lamoriello, the current team president and general manager who is also serving as the interim head coach, said that he will always cherish the 1995 Stanley Cup champs.

“You have to understand the amount of time we spent together, ate together, stayed in the same hotels together,” Lamoriello said. “The greatest memory I have is when the clock ticked down to the last few seconds, the expression on the faces of the players, the coaches, the fans. I just took it all in. And the building (at that time, the Continental Airlines Arena) shook. I mean, it literally shook. That’s the joy you have and it’s something you never forget. No one gave us a chance to beat Detroit and we came home and no one could beat us. That was a great feeling.”

“On the ice and off the ice, we were like a real family,” Lemaire said. “They jelled together and became a championship team.”

And they were all together once again, standing the test of time some two decades later, still that close-knit bunch, having fun and watching the best goalkeeper in the history of the sport act like Wayne Gretzky.

QP’s Velez 3rd, Nutley’s Ferinde 8th at NJSIAA wrestling

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Two local wrestlers ended their respective seasons standing on the podium in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City Sunday, earning a medal for ranking among the top eight finishers in their respective weight classes in New Jersey.

But for both Jeff Velez of Queen of Peace and Joe Ferinde of Nutley, there had to be a sense of disappointment, knowing that the long-awaited dream of becoming a state champion was not going to come to fruition.

Velez defeated Danny DiLorenzi of Bergen Catholic, 6-4, in overtime to take the third place consolation bout at 195 pounds. The win in the third place bout came a day after he lost a heartbreaker in the semifinals by a 4-2 decision to Tyree Sutton of Keansburg.

Still, Velez helped to put the Golden Griffins back into wrestling respectability, a year after the program had disbanded.

For that, Velez, a transfer from Brearley Regional in Kenilworth, will be forever remembered.

For Ferinde, he was looking for the chance to improve on his standing of a year ago at the state tournament, when he finished eighth.

There wasn’t improvement this year, but Ferinde didn’t fare worse than last year either, as he finished eighth once again, falling in the seventh place consolation round bout to Pete Lipari of Bergen Catholic, 4-0, at 126 pounds.

Ferinde suffered a brutally tough, emotional setback to Patrick D’Arcy of Holy Spirit by a 1-0 decision in the quarterfinals.

As it turned out, D’Arcy would go on to capture the state title at that weight class.

Still, there was a sense of disappointment once Ferinde suffered the setback and had to make his way through the consolation wrestlebacks.

“I was pretty upset for a little bit,” Ferinde said. “But then I had to get my head straight and get back out there. I knew I had to win one more time to get a medal.”

It was Ferinde’s third trip to the state championships in Atlantic City, so he was an old pro.

“This year, it felt like no one else was there,” Ferinde said. “It was just me out there. I let it all go and wrestled.”

Ferinde finished this season with a 36-5 record. He was the Region 4 champion for the first time and ended his career with more than 110 wins to go along with two state tournament medals. Not a bad resume to take to college.

“I’m definitely proud of myself,” Ferinde said. “My freshman year, I wasn’t even on the varsity. I was on JV (junior varsity). But I made to the states my sophomore year and junior and senior year, I placed eighth in the state. I really want to keep working, because I wasn’t satisfied with way I finished in the state tournament. I want to get better.”

Ferinde said that he plans on wrestling in a national tournament in Pennsylvania in April.

For now, he will head to Hershey, Pa. this weekend to cheer on his older brother, Michael, as he competes in the NCAA Division III national tournament. Michael Ferinde is a senior at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Michael Ferinde was on hand at Boardwalk Hall to encourage his little brother.

“He actually made it down to the mat and helped me out a little bit,” Joe Ferinde said. “It’s definitely awesome that I’ll get a chance to see him. It’s his final year of wrestling. It was great that he came to see me.”

Michael Ferinde is not the only local product on the Johnson and Wales wrestling roster. Former Belleville great Justin Colon is also at 141 pounds, like Michael Ferinde, so it’s Nutley vs. Belleville every day in the JWU wrestling room.

The younger Ferinde is considering going to wrestle at JWU or perhaps Rider. But he knows his wrestling days are far from over.

“That’s where I’m at right now,” Joe Ferinde said. “I definitely had a great run in high school and I’m going to miss being on the team and being with my coaches. It hasn’t sunk in yet that it’s over. When it does, it’s probably going to hit me hard. That’s why I want to stay active. I really want to keep wrestling.”

Blue Tide surge with sophomore Rutherford

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

A little more than a year ago, Noel Colon heard through the grapevine that he was getting an excellent basketball player by the name of Quincy Rutherford.

So the Harrison High School boys’ basketball coach was excited. He was taking over the Blue Tide program and was getting a newcomer with all the talent in the world.

There was only one problem. The new found would-be star was gone before he could take a jump shot for the Blue Tide. “He grew up in Harrison, but then left before the season began,” Colon said of Rutherford. Instead on enrolling at Harrison High, Rutherford and his sister, Marla, were attending Passaic County Tech.

“My mother wanted us to stay close to her,” Rutherford said. “It didn’t matter to me, as long as I was playing basketball.”

However, Rutherford’s fate changed when his parents decided that the best thing would be to move back to Harrison so he could attend school there.

“Midway through his freshman year, he came back,” Colon said. “There was like a week left in the basketball season, so he didn’t play with us. But he played in the gym and the kids would talk about him a lot.”

Last summer, when the Blue Tide played in a summer league in Kearny, Colon got to see Rutherford’s talents on a regular basis.

“My assistant coach Dana John (the former New Jersey City University standout) called me and said, ‘Coach, we have ourselves a player. The kid can play.’ I then saw him and could see that he could shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor, drive. He was skilled. We knew we had something to work with.”

Rutherford, who admittedly loves the sport of basketball, was readied for his sophomore year at Harrison by drilling with his father, Marlon.

“My dad knows a lot about the game,” Rutherford said. “He helped me a lot. We worked on my ball handling and explosiveness.”

Needless to say, the 6-foot-3 Rutherford was definitely prepared to make a big splash with the Blue Tide.

“I was excited to have him,” Colon said. “You can do all the coaching in the world, but at the end of the day, you need talent. There are not many kids like Quincy walking around in Harrison. I can play him anywhere on the floor. He walks into the gym and with his size, you assume he’s the center. The opponents have no idea that he can put the ball on the floor and is able to go by people.

He also makes plays for other people.” Rutherford had a solid debut against Queen of Peace, but then turned his ankle. Everyone thought that the future superstar was finished before he actually began.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Rutherford said. “I knew I could come back. I was a little shaky, but I was okay. I was able to play right away.”

And play he did. Rutherford went on to register in double figures in 23 of the Blue Tide’s 25 games, including an amazing streak of 18 consecutive games.

“I didn’t even know that,” Rutherford said. “I wasn’t worried about scoring. I knew that I just wanted to help the team out however I could and help the team win. It just happened that way. I didn’t know it was happening.”

Rutherford ended up scoring a total of 374 points, a great total for a sophomore. He averaged 15.4 points per game, seven rebounds and four assists.

Over the last week of the season, Rutherford scored 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a win over Dwight- Englewood, had 19 points and nine rebounds in a win over Ridgefield and tallied 20 points in a loss to North Bergen in the Hudson County Tournament quarterfinals.

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

Colon said that Rutherford continued to improve during the course of the season as he led the Blue Tide to an impressive 17-8 record.

“We know that he’s going to play at the next level, be it (NCAA) Division II or Division III,” Colon said. “And he’s going to have to be a guard. He brought the ball up for us a lot this year. He’s only a sophomore and has the opportunity to grow a little, but he’s a guard on the next level. He’s really a special player. He’s a very good shooter. He’s also a strong kid. I didn’t realize how strong he is, especially going to the basket.”

Colon knows that Rutherford is destined to become the next 1,000-point scorer in Harrison history.

“He’s going to get his 1,000,” Colon said. “He’s well on his way. He’s a very nice kid, very coachable. He’s very dedicated, working out with his father, so he’s definitely going to get better. He’s also usually the first one to practice and wants to take 15-to-20 minutes after practice to work on his shooting. He takes the game very seriously.”

Colon also pointed out that Rutherford was selected to First Team All-New Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Liberty Division, so he received the respect of opposing coaches.

“The one thing that stands out to me is his consistency,” Colon said. “It’s good to have the kind of consistency Quincy gave us. He would make the big shots, knock down a couple shots in a row and get us going. It’s good to have that. Because of his work ethic and how he approaches the game, I know his future is bright. I’m expecting some pretty big things from him.”

Rutherford said that he hasn’t thought about colleges just yet. After all, he’s only a sophomore.

“I don’t know about playing in college, but as the years go on, I guess I’ll start to think that way,” Rutherford said. “I know I’m going to become way better. Playing college basketball has always been a dream for me, so I’m going to continue to work hard and try to get better.”

Rutherford said that he might play AAU basketball during the summer months and, if he does, hopes that someone takes notice of his talents.

“I’m pretty happy with the way the season went,” said Rutherford, whose season ended with a loss to Newark Tech in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II tournament last week. “I wish we could have made a better statement in the states. But it was a good year.”

And with better years to come, hopefully in Harrison, for the budding superstar with the memorable name of Quincy Rutherford.

There’s no holding back the Blair Train

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

As the girls’ high school basketball season was drawing to a close, Nutley High School had a non-descript 9-13 record. The Maroon Raiders weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire.

But Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow thought that his team could be competitive in the state tournament for a few reasons, despite having the No. 13 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs.

“We played a tough schedule in Essex County (in the Super Essex Conference),” Mitschow said. “So I thought we could hang around in the state tournament. Plus, we had Blair.”

The secret weapon is junior forward Blair Watson, who has been brilliant all season, but even better in the state playoffs.

In fact, Watson has been the big reason why the Maroon Raiders haven’t called it a season just yet.

“Blair has definitely carried us, no question,” Mitschow said. “She’s scoring 80% of our points.”

Watson scored 31 points in the opening round win over West Morris, tallied 21 in the second round win over Orange and last Saturday, Watson had 34 of her team’s 43 points in a 43-38 win over Mendham to advance to the sectional finals against Voorhees, the No. 2 seed.

The North 2, Group III title game was slated to be played Monday night after press time.

Watson drained an incredible eight 3-point field goals in the win over Mendham, a perennial state power.

“No one player could stop her,” Mitschow said. “At the end of the game, they had two and three people on her. She was amazing. She hit some tough shots with kids in her face. She was definitely on.”

The 6-foot-1 Watson has proven that she’s deserving of the scholarship she has already received and accepted from the University of Maryland.

“She’s hitting the 3-pointer regularly now,” Mitschow said. “But she’s also going to the basket more, taking the dribble drive to the rim. We told each one of our players what they needed to do. Blair was very receptive to us telling her what we thought her weakness was and she’s doing that, going to the basket and the free throw line.”

The Maroon Raiders have now won seven straight, including the three wins on the road in the state tournament.

“If someone told me at the beginning of the year that we would be playing for a state sectional title, I would have said, ‘No way,’” Mitschow said. “I knew we could make a run, but to make the finals, probably not. I never would have believed this.”

While Watson has been doing the bulk of the work offensively, Mitschow credited the work of Jen Callaghan and Sara Grueter on defense.

“Those two have definitely stepped up defensively,” Mitschow said. “They were non-stop, working all game. They have been tremendous on the defensive side of things.”

Mitschow also credited the team’s camaraderie. After all, the Maroon Raiders have spent a lot of time on buses lately, especially two long journeys to western Morris County to face West Morris and then Mendham. Ironically, those two are sister schools and they both got in the way of the Blair Train.

“She’s carrying us,” Mitschow said. “You can see it in her face. Without her doing what she’s doing, averaging close to 30 per game, there’s no way we’re here or anywhere close to it. But Blair is relishing the role.”

Mitschow knows that his team is the underdog, despite having one of the best players in the state.

“I don’t know many 13th seeds that advance this far,” Mitschow said. “You look at each Group and there is a bunch of No. 1 seeds and No. 2 seeds. We’re the only dark horse out there. But a lot of it is because of Blair.”

Mitschow was asked if he thought Watson was an All- State player.

“Well, if she’s not All- State, I don’t know who is,” Mitschow said. “In my opinion, she’s the best girl in Essex County and Essex County basketball is great.”

There might be only one thing to slow down the Blair Train – and that’s traffic. Saturday, the Maroon Raiders’ team bus had a tough time getting out of Nutley because of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “It took us a half hour to get out of Nutley,” Mitschow said. There should have been no traffic difficulties Monday night on the way along Rt. 78 west toward Glen Gardner and Voorhees.

“I know that a lot of people plan on coming,” Mitschow said. “I hope the gym can hold everyone.”

It might not be able to hold back Blair Watson, that’s for sure.