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Lyndhurst’s Estevez emerges as go-to scorer

Photo by Jim Hague Lyndhurst junior guard Marc Estevez.

Photo by Jim Hague
Lyndhurst junior guard Marc Estevez.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Marc Estevez looked at it as a perfect opportunity. The Lyndhurst High School junior welcomed a new head basketball coach in Paul Palek, so it meant a brand new start, which is what Estevez was hoping for throughout the offseason.

“I knew with the new coach coming in, there would be a chance to prove myself again,” Estevez said. “I knew he ran a guard-oriented system, so I hoped he would give me a shot to make things happen. Coach Palek said early on that he wasn’t looking for anyone to be the main scorer, so I thought I could get the chance to step up and help the team.”

Coming over from Wayne Hills, where he coached last season, Palek had no idea what kind of a player Estevez was.

“I knew that he played a little last year, but not much more,” Palek said. “I really didn’t have big expectations.”

Estevez saw considerable playing time last season for the Golden Bears, but didn’t have a high scoring average, perhaps scoring six points per game.

But Estevez was ready for the chance.

“To be completely honest, I’ve been a confident kid my whole life,” Estevez said. “I was confident I could make some noise this year.”

However, no one could have anticipated the volume of the noise that Estevez would create.

Estevez has been nothing short of brilliant for the surprising Golden Bears, who own a fine 8-7 record thus far in Palek’s first season. He’s been averaging better than 18 points per game, including some fine performances of late.

He had 23 points in an upset win over Dwight-Englewood last Saturday, including the game-winning shot with eight seconds remaining. Estevez also had 23 in a close loss to Midland Park. He had 17 points, including 10 straight free throws, most of which came in overtime, in a clutch win over Harrison and tossed in 13 in a tough loss to Secaucus.

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

Palek has been impressed with the way Estevez has taken charge of the offense late in close games.

“He’s been able to make the plays down the stretch in some big wins, like Rutherford, Harrison and Dwight- Englewood,” Palek said. “He’s been coming up big in the fourth quarter. What’s most impressive is that everyone knows that we’re going to give him the ball and he still finds a way to score. I wasn’t expecting him to be the go-to scorer like this.”

Estevez didn’t expect it either.

“I guess it’s a little surprising,” Estevez said. “To go from sophomore to junior year like this with such a scoring improvement. I guess I’ve been trying to be more aggressive with the ball, taking the ball to the basket, creating off the dribble. I’ve also been getting some calls and when I get to the free throw line, I make the foul shots.”

Estevez likes having the role of being the Golden Bears’ main scorer.

“Of course, with the game on the line, I want the ball to be in my hands,” Estevez said. “I count on my team getting me the ball. When it comes down to the final minutes, I’m able to grind it out and make plays.”

Estevez said that he spends a lot of time working on his free throw shooting.

“I shoot a lot of free throw shots in practice,” Estevez said. “I’ve done that all my life. I was taught early on that free throws and defense win games. So I do take more free throw shots than anything. I know how to get my points. When the crowd is roaring and the game is on the line, I’m in a zone, knowing I have to make those shots.”

Palek counts on Estevez to make the free throws.

“He’s a very good free throw shooter and he gets to the line quite a bit,” Palek said. “When we need a basket, he’s able to get them.”

Palek believes that Estevez has become more relaxed as the season moves on.

“He’s much more comfortable in the system,” Palek said. “He knows now that he’s going to be our best scorer and we’re going to him. He’s going to get the ball. When we need something, Marc’s going to have the opportunity to do it. He’s expecting it now. He’s grown with the role and become the lead guard we need.”

Palek also believes Estevez is improving.

“He’s been shooting from the perimeter, but he’s getting better driving to the basket first,” Palek said. “He has great body control and balance. And our guys know where we’re going to make a play at the end of a game. We’re getting the ball in his hands. I have confidence in him being able to get us a good shot at the end of games. As long as the ball is in his hands, I know we’re going to get a decent look.”

Palek believes that Estevez has just begun to become a complete player.

“We’re working with him defensively,” Palek said. “We’re working on him being more of a creator. He knows he has to set the other guys up. He’s a great kid. He’s extremely coachable. He wants to be very good. Every conversation we have, he lets me know that he wants to be held accountable. He’s a very good player.”

Estevez hasn’t stopped working on improving his game.

“I’m a one-sport athlete,” Estevez said. “I only play basketball, so I work all year round. I’m in the weight room a lot of the time. I take a fitness class during the season and do light lifting. I’m working on my ball handling and my 3-point shot.”

There’s a reason for the hard work.

“I want to play college basketball,” said Estevez, who has an older brother, Jake, who is on the team. “It’s something I have always wanted to do, something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little boy, so it’s a goal of mine, but that’s down the road a bit. Right now I’m pretty happy with the way I’m playing. I don’t want to get too over confident. I just want to keep it going.”

Estevez said that he enjoys playing with his brother, as well playing for new coach Palek.

“I think it’s awesome that I get the chance to play with Jake,” Estevez said. “It’s the last thing I’ll ever get to do with him. I do like playing for Coach Palek. He’s tough on me, but he wants me to become a better player and a better person in life. I appreciate that.”

Just like the way Palek and the rest of the Golden Bears appreciate the way Marc Estevez is playing these days.

Lyndhurst’s bowling team captures Bergen County championship

 

Photo courtesy of Brianna Balkin The Lyndhurst High School bowling team captured the overall Bergen County championship last weekend at Bowler City in Hackensack. Standing, from l., are Jordan Lopez, Richard Sawires, Mike Dul, Ryan Donohue, Massimo Sarracino, Emily Young and coach Brianna Balkin. Kneeling in front, from l., are Daijon Smith, Michael Hayes and Tyla D’Andrea.

Photo courtesy of Brianna Balkin
The Lyndhurst High School bowling team captured the overall Bergen County championship last weekend at Bowler City in Hackensack. Standing, from l., are Jordan Lopez, Richard Sawires, Mike Dul, Ryan Donohue, Massimo Sarracino, Emily Young and coach Brianna Balkin. Kneeling in front, from l., are Daijon Smith, Michael Hayes and Tyla D’Andrea.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Bowling has always been a part of Brianna Balkin’s life. From her high school days at Nutley, then on to college at Fairleigh Dickinson University and even now in local competitive leagues, Balkin has been a fixture at local bowling alleys.

Since she has had an affinity for the sport, Balkin wanted to find another way to get involved.

“I wanted to coach bowling for a long time,” Balkin said. “But the opportunity to coach doesn’t come up often.”

When Mike Rizzo had to resign his position as the head bowling coach at Lyndhurst High School after taking an administrative job within the Lyndhurst school district, Balkin applied for the spot.

“I saw this and I thought it was perfect,” Balkin said.

You see, Balkin works the same schedule as most teachers. She is a full-time nanny and actually works for some teachers.

“They come home after school and this allowed me to go to the school to coach when they came home,” Balkin said. “It was perfect.”

Balkin also already knew some of the Lyndhurst bowlers from the time she’s spent competing in local leagues.

“Some of their parents bowl in the same leagues that I play in,” Balkin said. “I actually went to watch Lyndhurst bowl last year.”

The 26-year-old Balkin knew that she was inheriting a solid program, developed over the years by former coach Rizzo. The Golden Bears won three NJSIAA state sectional championships over the last four years of Rizzo’s regime, so the cupboard wasn’t exactly bereft of talent.

“I knew that they were a good group of kids,” Balkin said. “I got lucky in that aspect.”

But Balkin never anticipated what has transpired since she took over as head coach in November.

“They’ve exceeded any expectations I might have had,” Balkin said. “I knew they were good, but I didn’t expect them to be this good.”

The Golden Bears have enjoyed an undefeated season in regular North Jersey Interscholastic Conference action, taking all 11 of their dual matches thus far.

However, the Golden Bears reached the pinnacle last weekend at Bowler City in Hackensack, when they captured the school’s first Bergen County Tournament championship in almost 40 years.

Not only did the Golden Bears win the county championship, but they broke the county record for pins in a game in the process.

“I knew that if the kids bowled like the way they had been recently, we had a good chance to win our group (Group I),” Balkin said. “I knew that Westwood and Indian Hills would be our toughest competition for the overall county championship, but I was really focused on winning our group. It was an added bonus winning the whole thing. I didn’t even know we had a chance for the county record and we were able to beat it by nine (pins). I don’t think the kids even realized what they were doing. It was pretty amazing.”

Four of the Golden Bears finished the tournament among the top 20 in the county. That in itself is an astounding accomplishment.

Balkin said that senior Mike Dul was the most impressive bowler in the tournament. Dul entered the tourney with a solid 189 average, but topped his own average by bowling to a 211 mark.

“He had the day of his life,” Balkin said. “The other kids called Mike the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the tournament. He finished 11th overall. He was steady in the first spot and the others rallied around him. He was a huge catalyst as our lead-off bowler. I was happy for him that he bowled so well.”

Junior Jordan Lopez, who was the individual county champion a year ago, rolling a perfect game of 300 in the tourney, placed fifth this year.

“I think he was more concerned with winning for the team,” Balkin said of Lopez, who bowls unconventionally with two hands instead of one. “He didn’t make a big deal of winning last year. He just needed to be himself and not caught up in the moment.”

Junior Daijon Smith is a transfer to the program, coming from American History High in Newark. But he’s been an incredible addition, bowling this season to a 227 average. Smith is also a twohanded bowler, so it’s almost unbelievable to have two on the same team.

“He’s probably one of the best spare shooters I’ve ever seen,” Balkin said. “He’s very good and consistent in making his spares. I knew he was good, but until I saw him start bowling with us in competition, I didn’t realize how good. He changed the dynamics of the whole team.”

There’s also no need for worry about any animosity between Lopez and Smith.

Photo courtesy of Brianna Balkin The Lyndhurst bowling team celebrates after breaking the Bergen County record for pins in a game en route to winning the first county title for the school in more than 40 years. In back row, from l, are Emily Young, Michael Hayes, Mike Dul, Massimo Sarracino and Jordan Lopez. In front are Daijon Smith and Ryan Donohue.

Photo courtesy of Brianna Balkin
The Lyndhurst bowling team celebrates after breaking the Bergen County record for pins in a game en route to winning the first county title for the school in more than 40 years. In back row, from l, are Emily Young, Michael Hayes, Mike Dul, Massimo Sarracino and Jordan Lopez. In front are Daijon Smith and Ryan Donohue.

 

“They’re like best friends,” Balkin said. “The competition between the two of them is fun.”

Smith finished seventh overall at the Bergen County tourney.

Freshman Ryan Donohue has also been a godsend, coming onto the scene and adding instant credibility. Donohue, who rolled a perfect 300 game earlier this season, earning Observer Athlete of the Week honors, has close to 210 on an average, giving the Golden Bears three bowlers with averages of 210 and higher. Most high school teams are fortunate to have one with such a lofty average.

“Because we have other good bowlers, Ryan hasn’t had a lot of pressure on him,” Balkin said. “He knows he can bowl well on the high school level and has done well.”

Donohue finished 20th overall at the Bergen County tourney, cementing the Golden Bears’ status as the county’s best.

Junior Emily Young is in the Golden Bears’ main rotation. Lyndhurst has had other girls compete with the boys in the past, most notably, Lexus Lopez, who is currently bowling on a scholarship at FDU.

Young carries an average of 190 to the alley for every match.

“I don’t think it fazes her that she’s the only girl,” Balkin said. “She just wants to bowl. She never cares about anything else. She’s been used to being the only girl. She just goes out there and bowls.”

Next week, Young will get the chance to compete with strictly the girls at the state sectionals. Young is currently ranked No. 3 among girl bowlers in Bergen County.

Junior Michael Hayes and senior Massimo Sarracino are others who get the chance to bowl occasionally with the top varsity bowlers.

“It’s kind of unfortunate, because they would be starters on other teams,” Balkin said. “They understand their roles and are ready when they’re called upon to come off the bench.”

Needless to say, Balkin has been enjoying life, leading the Golden Bears to a county title in just her first two months on the job.

“This has definitely been a lot of fun,” Balkin said. “I came into a good situation and I didn’t want to mess things up. They’re a good group of kids who all want the others on their team to do well. They definitely have more fun than what I ever did bowling in high school.”

The Golden Bears are currently ranked fourth in the entire state. No Group distinction. This is top four in the entire state. That fact is also astounding.

“It’s definitely better than changing diapers, that’s for sure,” Balkin laughed.

If the Golden Bears continue their success through the upcoming NJSIAA state sectionals, then that would definitely make Balkin’s rookie campaign as head coach even more memorable.

NA’s Vikings remain undefeated under Corsetto’s watch

Photos by Jim Hague LEFT: Senior point guard Thai Scott has been a steady ball handler for the undefeated Vikings of North Arlington. RIGHT: Senior power forward Nick Martin is averaging double figures in points and rebounds for the undefeated 11-0 Vikings of North Arlington.

Photos by Jim Hague
LEFT: Senior point guard Thai Scott has been a steady ball handler for the undefeated Vikings of North Arlington. RIGHT: Senior power forward Nick Martin is averaging double figures in points and rebounds for the undefeated 11-0 Vikings of North Arlington.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Rich Corsetto had been away from coaching basketball for three years and it had been even longer since he coached on the high school level.

In a basketball sojourn that has spanned four decades, Corsetto has obviously seen a lot and experienced a lot more.

But there’s nothing that could have prepared basketball lifer Corsetto for the thrill ride he’s been on since taking over the boys’ head coaching position at North Arlington High School.

The Vikings are the toast of the town these days, owning a remarkable and almost unbelievable 11-0 record.

That’s right, North Arlington is undefeated and winners of 11 straight, both home and away, in the rough-and-tumble world of NJIC and Group I basketball.

“If you would have told me, or anyone would have told me, that we would start out 11-0, I would have said you were crazy,” Corsetto said. “I expected this team to be successful and having a winning record. But to be 11-0? There’s no way.”

Corsetto credits his hard-working group of kids, who haven’t exactly enjoyed winning over the last few years.

“I took the job in July and it only took me a couple of days to realize that these kids had it in their hearts,” Corsetto said. “They were diving after loose balls and crashing into walls during workouts. They had a lot of pride in themselves.”

Corsetto said that putting the team in the Bloomfield fall league was also beneficial.

“They went 6-2 in that league and that helped them get together and jell a little as a team,” said Corsetto, who was the long-time head coach at Hudson County Community College, then Passaic County Community. “That league helped them bind together and when the season started, they just picked it up right from there. They went into the season feeling good about themselves.”

Corsetto said that he can’t put a finger on one reason why the Vikings have been so successful thus far.

“I don’t know exactly what happened, but they were excited about this season right away,” Corsetto said. “We were only able to get three scrimmages before the season, but once the season started, they were ready.”

Corsetto said that early season wins against Group IV programs such as Belleville and Kearny helped to boost team confidence.

“I don’t care what their records are,” Corsetto said of Belleville and Kearny. “They’re still Group IV schools. Group I schools aren’t supposed to beat Group IV schools. But we’ve also beat everyone in our group as well. People are surprised and stunned at what we’re doing. It’s a credit to the kids. These kids are just not going let anyone beat them. They feel right now that no one can beat them.”

In the early going, the Vikings were playing at an up tempo, fast break oriented pace that worked to their advantage. So opponents are now trying to milk the clock and take the Vikings out of their familiar element.

Becton Regional tried that approach Friday night, but the Vikings still prevailed, winning 44-34.

“They held the ball for like two full minutes,” Corsetto said. “But that didn’t faze our kids. I was a little concerned with the pace, but it didn’t matter. They’re just a very confident group right now. Nothing is bothering them.”

Senior Thai Scott, who missed almost all of last season due to injury, has been the Vikings’ floor general at point guard.

“Right now, Thai is doing a great job,” Corsetto said. “All he has to do is run the team and score a little. He’s doing that and more.”

Senior Nick Martin is the team’s power forward. The diverse Martin, who is also a football and baseball standout, is averaging double figures in points and rebounds.

“He’s the backbone of the team,” Corsetto said of Martin. “He is a fabulous kid, a smart player who is very easy to coach. He would go through the wall for you. I’ve been coaching for more than 40 years and he’s the nicest kid I’ve ever coached.”

Sophomore Kevin Cerqueira has moved up to the varsity level with ease.

“He’s been our best defensive player and plays hard every game,” Corsetto said. “He has fit in well.”

Sophomore Edgar Carrenza has also been a pleasant addition.

“He’s our best free throw shooter,” Corsetto said. “He also handles the ball well and helps to break the press. He’s been a pleasant surprise.” Junior Jose Checo has been the Vikings’ inside presence.

“He has improved a lot and has really worked on being a better rebounder for us,” Corsetto said. “He’s scoring some more lately and most importantly, he’s been blocking some shots. He’s getting more aggressive every game.”

Senior Mike Brazzel is the team’s most important player off the bench.

“I think he’s the best sixth man in Bergen County,” Corsetto said. “He gives us nothing but energy. We were struggling a little against Becton and I put Brazzel into the game and the team’s energy went through the roof. He always brings that great energy.”

The Vikings have also been bolstered by the play of reserve sophomores Steven Velez and Jose Morales, as well as junior Jonathan Hurley.

The Vikings continue their remarkable run with games this week against Hawthorne and a huge NJIC tilt against St. Mary’s of Rutherford, a game that could very well decide a league championship by the end of February.

Incredibly, the Vikings have only three seniors on the roster, so this is a transformation of a young team.

“We’re still a very young team, but the kids are picking things up well,” Corsetto said. “I see nothing but good things ahead in the future.”

Corsetto also credits the diligence of dedicated assistant coach Dominic Bellifemine, who has also added energy to the program.

“He’s done a great job with the kids, getting them ready,” Corsetto said.

But to a record of 11-0? Is that record for real? Or is it a figment of someone’s creative imagination? Even Corsetto can’t believe it.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Corsetto said. “I’ve never stepped into something like this before. It’s a credit to the kids. They’ve worked so hard for this. They deserve it. Sure, it’s surprising to me. It’s surprising to everyone. But the kids believe in themselves. Now hopefully, we can keep this going.”

It certainly has been the talk of the local high school basketball season. Maybe everyone should believe in North Arlington now, because after 11 straight wins, the Vikings are for real. And the players certainly believe that for sure.

Nutley’s Kunz proves he’s a threat on hardwood like the diamond

Photo by Jim Hague Nutley senior forward Austin Kunz

Photo by Jim Hague
Nutley senior forward Austin Kunz

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

If you ask Austin Kunz what sport he’s more proficient at, the Nutley High School senior wouldn’t hesitate to answer.

“I like baseball better,” Kunz said. “I think I’m better at it.”

Kunz has been the starting catcher on the Nutley baseball team since he was a freshman. He’s earned a reputation as a slick fielding defensive catcher with a lot of power in his bat. In fact, Kunz is almost certain that he will attend Alvernia College in Pennsylvania in the fall to play baseball.

“He’s a baseball player who just plays basketball,” said Bob Harbison, who happens to be Kunz’s head coach in both sports.

However, Kunz is making his mark this winter as a solid basketball player.

Earlier this season, Kunz scored 31 points in a game against Newark West Side. The 6-foot-3 Kunz earned his spot in the starting lineup this season.

“He works well with what he can do on the floor,” Harbison said. “He has great hands and has a quick release. He is very strong inside and does well down low. He either makes the shot or gets fouled and he’s a very good free throw shooter. He sets a lot of screens, then gets the ball back to make that foul line jumper, but he can also hit the three (point shot).”

Last week, it looked as if Kunz was going to miss some time on the hardwood, because he suffered a sprained ankle.

“He was hobbling around on the bad ankle,” Harbison said.

But Kunz said nothing was going to stop him last Friday night, when the Maroon Raiders faced neighboring rival Belleville.

“I told my teammates that I wanted to score 40,” Kunz said.

However, that bold pregame prediction didn’t look too promising during the warm-ups right prior to the start of the game.

“I was terrible during warm-ups,” Kunz said. “I couldn’t make a shot. I didn’t think I’d have a good game.”

But when the game started, things changed remarkably.

“I made my first couple of shots and I began to feel it,” Kunz said. “It’s the greatest feeling when you know you can’t miss. My teammates just kept giving me the ball. They had so much faith in me and I couldn’t let them down. My teammates just kept getting me the ball.”

“He just was expecting the ball to go in when he was shooting it,” Harbison said.

When the final buzzer sounded, Kunz ended up with a career-high 33 points and the Maroon Raiders earned a 73-56 victory over their archrivals.

“It’s always great to beat Belleville and it’s great to know that I had 33 against them,” Kunz said.

Kunz also had 17 points in a tough 49-41 loss to East Orange in the opening round of the Essex County Tournament Saturday, so in the span of less than 24 hours, Kunz tallied 50 points.

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

A very confident Kunz was not shocked at all by his offensive explosion.

“I’m not really surprised at all,” Kunz said. “I’ve always thought that I was pretty good in both sports. I knew I was going to start this year, so I had to play good to earn my starting role.”

Kunz said that he didn’t play much basketball in the off-season to get ready.

“I didn’t play basketball at all until the tryouts,” Kunz said. “I played two games in the fall league and the tryouts and that was it.”

“He just gets the most of what he is,” Harbison said. “He finds himself in good places on the floor to score. Austin has great hands, so he catches everything thrown to him. I don’t know if his baseball skills help there. He scores the quietest 30 points you’ll ever see. When he had the 31 against (Newark) West Side, I said, ‘Really, he had that much?’ Now he gets 33. I think he’s getting a little more satisfied with the way he’s been playing, so that helps.”

However, Harbison is a little surprised with the outburst.

“I would have to say that the numbers he’s been putting up are shocking,” Harbison said. “But if you watch the games and see what he does, then it’s not shocking. It’s at the point now where you’re expecting the ball to go in when he shoots it.”

Harbison likes Kunz’s dedication in both sports.

“He’s a very competitive kid who is very committed to winning,” Harbison said. “He wants to win more than anything. He gets the most of what he is as an athlete.”

Harbison likes coaching Kunz in both sports.

“I think it makes it a lot easier, because you know where he is and you can expect him to be there every day,” Harbison said.

Kunz thinks that his basketball success will also pay off on the diamond come spring.

“I think playing basketball gets me in better shape to play baseball,” Kunz said. “It helps with my foot work behind the plate. Since I’m doing well, it definitely helps with my confidence a lot. I never scored 33 points in a game in my life, so this was the greatest feeling.”

And there was an added bonus.

“And beating Belleville was the best,” Kunz said. “I was really looking forward to the game and I’m glad we won.”

Just wait until the two teams meet up during the baseball season. That also should be fun to watch. Guaranteed that Austin Kunz will be more than ready then as well.

Lyndhurst/North Arlington wrestling program making strides with 7 sophomores

Photo by Jim Hague Lyndhurst/North Arlington senior 138-pounder Joey Morreale might be face first into the mat here Friday night at North Arlington, but the talented Morreale recovered to win via a pin over opponent David Lopez of Leonia/Palisades Park in 3:47. Lyndhurst/North Arlington won the rare match at North Arlington, 46-27.

Photo by Jim Hague
Lyndhurst/North Arlington senior 138-pounder Joey Morreale might be face first into the mat here Friday night at North Arlington, but the talented Morreale recovered to win via a pin over opponent David Lopez of Leonia/Palisades Park in 3:47. Lyndhurst/North Arlington won the rare match at North Arlington, 46-27.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Mike Goff is in his second year coaching the Lyndhurst/North Arlington wrestling cooperative program and the young coach is finding things easier to come by during his second go-round.

“It’s definitely a lot easier,” said the 26-year-old Goff. “The kids know me and know how my program works. We were able to step up the tempo this year and progress a lot faster. We’re able to do things differently in practices. They understand my lingo.”

When Goff took over the program last year, he mentioned the understanding of the “lingo,” like he spoke a different language than most wrestling coaches. He wasn’t kidding.

“They understand what I say and what it means,” Goff said.

For example, Goff uses a term called a “sit pop,” which was foreign even to the most knowledgeable of wrestling folk. It’s like a combination of a “sit out” and a “pop-up,” two terms more readily recognizable.

“I think the kids have picked up on my terms,” Goff said. “Like sit pop.”

Not only is the head coach of the program, which combines students from both Lyndhurst and North Arlington, younger than most coaches, the team is comprised of seven sophomores, almost unheard of in a sport where experience reigns supreme.

“Half the lineup is made up of sophomores,” Goff said. “I think they all have a lot more confidence this year than they had last year and I have a lot more confidence in them. I think the year of experience has helped. I think it’s good to have a young team. They’ve had the time to progress and by the time they are seniors, they will have something to show for their hard work.”

The team is already showing major signs of improvement. Lyndhurst/North Arlington owns a 3-2 record in dual meets, after defeating Leonia/ Palisades Park, another cooperative program, 46-27, last Friday night.

The match was held at North Arlington High School, the first time that North Arlington hosted a home wrestling match in more than five years. It was held at North Arlington with the hope that it would draw some interest to the sport and encourage more North Arlington students to get involved in wrestling.

The wrestling mats were transported from Lyndhurst High to North Arlington for the match. A solid crowd attended. It was a great step for the future of the program.

Goff, whose team also defeated Secaucus last week, said that he is pleased with the way his team has responded this season.

“They’ve shown a lot improvement and progression from last year to this year,” Goff said. “I think they’re all a lot more comfortable. I think we have a well-conditioned team and that has helped. We have a lot more kids out and we basically have everyone back from last year.”

Leading the returnees is senior 138-pounder Joey Morreale, who has been a veteran of the Lyndhurst Recreation wrestling program since he was a toddler. Morreale already has 12 wins this season and he’s well on his way to having a spectacular senior campaign.

“I’m counting on him to go pretty far this year,” Goff said of Morreale, who won via a pin over David Lopez in 3:47 Friday night. “I really think he can qualify for the states (in Atlantic City in March). He’s sound on his feet and knows how to ride an opponent. He’s our top wrestler.”

Morreale is also a standout in the pole vault during the spring track season.

Another top returnee is junior 220-pounder Lou LaRegina, who went to the Region 2 tournament a year ago.

“I have high hopes for him,” Goff said of LaRegina, who won via a pin in just 1:05 Friday night.

Sophomore Corey Leclerc is a fixture at 112 pounds. Leclerc already has 10 wins this season.

“He’s been doing pretty well,” Goff said. “I’m definitely counting on him to be a fighter for us. I can count on him to get points to help us. He’s a sound wrestler and he’s very technical.”

Senior Frank Mezzina is the team’s 160-pounder. Mezzina, a standout on the Lyndhurst football team, is one of the strongest wrestlers around. He’s won six matches, including one via pin Friday night.

“He came into the season in excellent shape,” Goff said.

The team is bolstered by the efforts of the Yunis brothers, namely freshman 103-pounder Conor Yunis and 120-pounder Devin.

“Devin Yunis is one of the most improved wrestlers we have,” Goff said. “He’s a lot smarter now and doesn’t give up easy take downs. Conor has been wrestling up a little, taking on guys who are bigger than him. But I definitely like his heart. He has a lot of promise.”

Conor Yunis won via a pin Friday, while Devin earned a win via forfeit.

The middle of the lineup features two wrestlers who are students at North Arlington in sophomore 126-pounder Luis Arzuaga and sophomore 132-pounder Andrew Fernandez.

“I like the way Luis is progressing,” Goff said. “He’s just starting to get it. Andrew is a solid wrestler who can get points when we need them.”

Fernandez won via a majority 18-8 decision Friday night to improve to 8-5 on the young season.

Shayne Cosme is the team’s 145-pounder. Like most of the team, Cosme is a sophomore.

At 152, Miraldo Mora is a freshman who is just learning the sport for the first time. Goff likes the promise of both kids.

Junior Rocco Russamano was slated to be the team’s 171-pounder, but broke his foot in the preseason and is just about ready to return to action.

Photo by Jim Hague Lyndhurst/North Arlington sophomore Andrew Fernandez (bottom) got the chance to compete in his home gym Friday night, as the North Arlington student won his match against Patrick Yun of Leonia/Palisades Park, 18-8, helping Lyndhurst/North Arlington win the match, 46-27. It was the first match at North Arlington in five years

Photo by Jim Hague
Lyndhurst/North Arlington sophomore Andrew Fernandez (bottom) got the
chance to compete in his home gym Friday night, as the North Arlington student won his match against Patrick Yun of Leonia/Palisades Park, 18-8, helping Lyndhurst/North Arlington win the match, 46-27. It was the first match at North Arlington in five years

 

“He’s a hard worker who will fit into the lineup nicely,” Goff said.

Sophomore Matt DeMarco is the team’s fixture at 182 pounds. DeMarco comes from a long line of wrestlers in his family.

“He has a good background in the sport and has a lot of potential,” Goff said.

Sophomore Michael Cooper is holding forth at 195 pounds. Cooper is another first-year wrestler who is replacing the injured Shane Reed, a junior.

The heavyweight is senior Albert Faiti, another firstyear wrestler.

“He has a lot of pure strength,” Goff said of Faiti. “His muscle helps him.”

So the young coach with the young team provides a ton of promise for a program that brings two neighboring rivals together for one solid cause.

“We were a little injuryprone, but we’re coming around,” Goff said. “Once we get everyone back, I think we have a chance to be a pretty good team.”

One that will make some noise by the end of the season – and then the years to come.

MLB umpire Cuzzi still loyal to local roots

Photo courtesy of Phil Cuzzi Belleville native and Nutley resident Phil Cuzzi will begin his 15th season umpiring in Major League Baseball. Later this month, Cuzzi will host the annual Robert Luongo ALS Fund dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville.

Photo courtesy of Phil Cuzzi
Belleville native and Nutley resident Phil Cuzzi will begin his 15th season umpiring in Major League Baseball. Later this month, Cuzzi will host the annual Robert Luongo ALS Fund dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

His life as an umpire in Major League Baseball has taken him all over the country, but there’s nothing that could pull Phil Cuzzi away from his roots in Essex County.

Cuzzi will begin his 15th season as an MLB umpire this season, but he never wanders too far from his native Belleville or his current home in Nutley.

“There was never even a question about it,” said Cuzzi, who has resided in Nutley with his wife, Gilda, for the last 20 years. “I came from Belleville and I moved all the way to Nutley. This is my home. This is where I belong.”

Cuzzi will host his annual fundraising dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville later this month that will benefit ALS Research and provide scholarships for families grappling with the crippling and fatal disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The fundraising dinner (this year, it’s Jan. 30, but the event is a complete sellout) was set up to help Cuzzi’s childhood friend and Belleville High School teammate Robert Luongo, a standout All- State two-sport athlete at Belleville during his heyday.

“We went to school together since junior high and we were the best of friends,” Cuzzi said. “We were almost related. We shared the same first cousins. We became inseparable growing up through school and sports and were always together at family functions.”

So when Luongo was diagnosed with ALS more than 10 years ago, Cuzzi wanted to do whatever he could to help with the situation.

“We wanted to buy him a computer so he could communicate with his eyes,” Cuzzi said. “That’s where it all started. His eyes were the only thing he had left, other than his mind. When he first had symptoms, he had problems with his arm and his hands. When he was diagnosed, it was a sad reality. He said it was like receiving a death sentence.”

Cuzzi said that he became more educated about ALS since Luongo was diagnosed.

“I learned so much about it,” Cuzzi said. “A lot of people don’t know much about ALS, except that it’s called ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease.’ Once you see someone affected by it, like the way Robert was for over five years, then you learn how devastating it really is.”

When Cuzzi started the fundraising dinner, he made a promise to his friend.

“I told him that we were going to raise money for his daughter,” Cuzzi said. “I told him that she would never have to worry about her college education. Robert was a Harvard graduate and I said that if she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, then we would send her to Harvard.”

Dominique Luongo was nine when her father was diagnosed.

“I’m proud to say that she just completed her first semester at Harvard,” Cuzzi said. “We know that Robert is looking down with pride. There’s no question he has something to do with this.”

Cuzzi said that he began his pursuit of “his dream job” almost 30 years ago.

“I started out as a school teacher in Union,” Cuzzi said. “I was a graphic arts teacher, but I just knew there had to be more to life. So I left teaching and went into sales, but that didn’t satisfy me. Baseball was always my love. One day, I was with a bunch of friends at Yankee Stadium at a game and for some reason, I found myself focusing on the umpires. I thought to myself, ‘What a great job that would be, to be in the big leagues, working baseball games, being in charge.’‘’

Soon after, Cuzzi went to the Harry Wendlestadt Umpiring School in Florida.

“Once I went, I got the bug,” Cuzzi said. “I was obsessed. That was it. I became obsessed and driven.”

It fueled Cuzzi’s odyssey that started in the New York- Penn League. Cuzzi spent 13 years working games in minor league baseball, hoping for the big break.

Cuzzi got the call to work his first MLB game in St. Louis, a game between the Cardinals and the Dodgers. At first, he was strictly a National League umpire, but when MLB began moving umpires between both leagues, Cuzzi got the chance to umpire games at Yankee Stadium, eventually working some games in the American League Championship Series.

“It really was unbelievable,” Cuzzi said. “People kept telling me how hard it was going to be to make it, but I thought someone had to make it, so why not me?”

During his career, the 58-year-old Cuzzi has worked four playoff divisional series and presided over the National League Championship Series in 2005. He also worked the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in 2008 and was the first base umpire for the firstever game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.

During his career, Cuzzi has also worked two no-hit games. He was the home plate umpire when Bud Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals fired a nohitter in 2001 and was the third base umpire when Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants tossed a no-hitter in 2009.

Cuzzi has definitely seen his share of controversy in his career, including a call in the 2009 American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins that Cuzzi received a ton of criticism over.

“I don’t read the papers, because you never read anything about me doing a good job,” Cuzzi said. “It’s only when it’s bad. A controversial call is what it is. (Legendary umpire) Al Barlick was the one who gave me my chance and years ago, he said that if you read the papers and your feelings are hurt, then you shouldn’t be in the business. So I just don’t read them.”

Cuzzi said that the job as a major league umpire gets tougher every day.

“With high definition television and instant replay, there is all this scrutiny now,” Cuzzi said. “It makes the job more difficult.”

Beginning this season, the role of an umpire will get even harder, because MLB will implement even more instant replay rules. It won’t be just home runs. Other calls regarding fair or foul balls, safe or out calls will be in play.

That’s why Cuzzi will head to Phoenix Sunday for the annual meetings to go over rules, as well as the annual physicals.

“It’s a blessing,” Cuzzi said. “I consider my job to be a blessing. It never gets old. I’m living a dream.”

Cuzzi said that he’s spent the off-season in Nutley doing things around the house.

“When the season finishes, you welcome the off-season, because the season is long,” Cuzzi said. “The season goes fast, but the off-season goes faster. I can’t believe how quickly the time goes. Once we get through these meetings in Phoenix, that’s when I’ll start to get the itch to get back. It gets me antsy and ready to go.”

Cuzzi will go to Florida for the month of March and work a series of spring training games there.

For now, Cuzzi will concentrate on the last-minute preparations for his annual dinner.

In the past, Cuzzi has welcomed such prestigious special guests as Tommy Lasorda, Bob Costas, Larry Holmes, Joe Pepitone and Bucky Dent. Last year, Tony LaRussa, who recently learned he will be inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame this August, was the featured speaker.

“This year, it will be a blockbuster, but I can’t say who it is,” Cuzzi said. “I don’t know if people come to the dinner because they respect my work. I think it’s that the baseball community is so small and they all rally together for the cause. There are big hearts in everybody. Through my association with baseball, I’m able to tap into those big hearts and bring those people into Belleville.”

Robert Luongo passed away five years ago, but his memory lives on through this great fundraising dinner.

“Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to basically get the same 600 people to come to the dinner,” Cuzzi said. “It’s a good cause and it’s our local community that comes out. Every year we’ve had this dinner, it sells out. It’s very comforting to know that so many people care. It’s 10 years now and it’s still going strong. When we started it, we never thought it would snowball into this.”

The Robert Luongo ALS Fund is a 501 C-3 charity. In addition to helping ALS research in Luongo’s name, the funds go to scholarships for victims of ALS.

“It really is a great thing and I’m proud to be a part,” Cuzzi said. It’s definitely a home run for a local guy who never wandered far from his roots.

“This is my home,” Cuzzi said. “It’s where I belong.”

QP’s Joseph truly coming of age

Photo by Jim Hague Queen of Peace sophomore guard Jeremy Joseph.

Photo by Jim Hague
Queen of Peace sophomore guard Jeremy Joseph.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

There was never any denying the immense basketball talents of Jeremy Joseph.

When Joseph arrived at Queen of Peace last year, he was instantly installed into the Golden Griffins’ starting lineup as the top point guard.

There was only one problem. Joseph didn’t know if he was exactly ready for the challenge.

“Honestly, I was a little scared,” Joseph said.

It didn’t help that Joseph happened to break his nose, not once, but twice.

“The first time it happened, I thought it would make me better,” Joseph said. “I knew I could compete, but then I had to wear a mask and that took a while to get used to it. Once I got comfortable with the mask, I took it off and I broke it again.”

“I asked a lot of him as a freshman,” Queen of Peace head boys’ basketball coach Tom McGuire said. “I was asking him to be the point guard and it was a lot. Then, he got hurt.” So when plans were being made for the 2013-14 season, McGuire made a huge change. He took the ball out of Joseph’s hands and moved him to the starting off-guard slot.

“I wanted him to be more of a scorer,” McGuire said. “He was the best player on the team and the best player on the court. I wanted to use him in a better way.”

Joseph knew he had to become a better player. So in the offseason, Joseph became a regular in the QP weight room. He grew, became bigger and stronger.

“He grew to 6-foot-3,” McGuire said. “He put on 15 pounds of muscle.”

Joseph also joined a prestigious AAU program in Whippany in Morris County and played basketball all summer long.

And one more important fact – Joseph never took the facemask off again.

“I was fine with it and became used to it,” Joseph said of the mask. “I figured that if it was going to happen again, it was going to happen. I couldn’t play with the fear of getting hurt again. I just felt more comfortable. It was better for the other players if I didn’t play the point, better for the team. I’m not the best ball handler in the world, so if someone else handled it, it would be better for everyone.”

McGuire said that putting Joseph at the shooting guard slot helped his immense ability to rebound.

“He is an incredible rebounder,” McGuire said. “He averaged about seven rebounds per game last year, but he’s better than that. He wants to get that defensive rebound and then take the ball up the court, dribbling through everyone. He has also improved his jump shot. He’s now definitely more inside-out. He’s a true slashing player. He just gets the ball to the hoop.”

Joseph knows that he has improved as a player – utilizing his speed to the fullest.

“It’s the only way I know how to score,” Joseph said. “I go quick. I get the rebound and push the ball up the floor. I crash the boards, get the ball and play off that fast pace.”

Joseph has also become a more confident player.

“My mentality has changed,” Joseph said. “I’ve become a lot tougher and more aggressive. I can’t wait for things to happen. I have to make them happen. I just have to do what I have to do.”

The results have been staggering. Joseph has become one of the top players in the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference, emerging as a two-way force, scoring and rebounding.

Joseph is averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds per game for the Golden Griffins, one of the most improved teams in the NJIC-Liberty Division.

In a recent win over Harrison, Joseph had an astounding 29 points and 22 rebounds. He also had 24 points, 11 rebounds and four steals against Rutherford, added 13 points and 11 rebounds against Lyndhurst, 15 points and 11 rebounds against Secaucus and 15 points and 13 rebounds Sunday night against St. Mary’s of Rutherford in a game played at Felician College.

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

“He now has the mentality that he can score,” McGuire said. “His decision making is very good and it’s improving. Once he develops a jumper off the dribble, he will become a better player. He definitely has made me look smart, moving him from point guard. You can only tell someone to do so much. When he does the other little things, he’s very impressive. He even impresses me.” Don’t forget that Joseph is just 15 years old and only a sophomore. There’s a lot of room to grow and improve.

“I think he’s doing well, but I still think he can do more,” McGuire said. “He can improve his shooting numbers. He can shoot the three (point shot) better.”

“There’s always room for improvement,” Joseph said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Joseph is a very driven player. His family originates from Sri Lanka, so he has a goal that is related to his heritage.

“I want to become the first college basketball player from Sri Lanka,” Joseph said. “There’s never been one. People from Sri Lanka are usually cricket players. One of my dreams is to become a Division I college basketball player.”

McGuire realizes Joseph has talent, but there’s a long way to go.

“Ultimately, if he grows a little and gets stronger, he can be a legit prospect,” McGuire said. “We’ll see. The potential is definitely there. We haven’t seen the best of him yet. I don’t know where the potential will stop.”

There is one aspect to Joseph’s potential that McGuire doesn’t have to worry about. Joseph is an excellent student.

“He’s No. 2 right now in his class,” McGuire said. “He’s extremely bright. Anything you throw at him, he understands and picks it up right away. He’s extremely smart on the floor and what he sees on the floor.”

Joseph is a native of North Arlington who has always aspired to be a Golden Griffin hoop standout.

“I went to Queen of Peace grammar school,” Joseph said. “My brother (Josh) was a varsity basketball player at QP and I used to go to all his games. I knew that when my time came around, I wanted to do the same thing. He inspired me. I feel I’m right on target in being a good player. I can only improve if I intensify my game.”

It appears as if Jeremy Joseph is definitely right on target and that the future is bright.

Blue Tide making big stride toward respectability

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison has enjoyed a fine 5-2 start to the high school basketball season. From l. are senior Tommy Dolaghan, head coach Noel Colon and senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison has enjoyed a fine 5-2 start to the high school basketball season. From l. are senior Tommy Dolaghan, head coach Noel Colon and senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When he was first growing up in Jersey City and later North Bergen, Noel Colon never imagined he would eventually become a basketball coach.

But Colon recalled the inspiration he received from coaches he played for along the way.

“My first coach, Donald Copeland Sr., at the Jersey City Boys Club did so much for me,” Colon said. “My mother wouldn’t let me play basketball and Mr. Copeland was like a big father figure to me. (The late) Brian Lee was also a big help then. I was blessed and fortunate to have had such great coaches along the way.”

Colon ended up playing at North Bergen High School for coaches like John Barone and Kevin Bianco, then went on to play at Ramapo College for Chuck McBreen. Colon ended up getting a degree in sociology from Ramapo.

“What ended up happening was that I got a job as an assistant coach at Technology High School (in Newark),” said Colon, who worked with Denver Nuggets standout forward Kenneth Faried at the Newark school. “I really wanted to play pro ball in Puerto Rico, but I ended up loving coaching.”

When the head coaching position at Harrison High School opened up, Colon was more than interested.

“I love challenges,” Colon said.

But Colon had no idea what kind of challenge was in store taking the Harrison job. After all, the Blue Tide won just two games over the last two years.

“I didn’t know what it was all about,” Colon said. “I just heard there was an opening and I went for it. I knew I missed coaching. I didn’t coach at all last year and really missed it. I knew I wanted to get back into it.”

Colon received a recommendation from legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley.

“He was very instrumental in me getting the job,” Colon said. “I just wanted a shot.”

But with a program that won just twice in two years?

“(North Bergen head coach) Kevin (Bianco) told me their record and my reaction was like, ‘Oh, my,’” Colon said. “I spoke to my wife Tessa, who is pregnant with our first child. She told me to go for it. I grew up in Hudson County. I know nothing comes easy. I love challenges. I’m a man of faith. I knew that this was the right thing to do.”

So the 30-year-old Colon took the challenge, took the position at Harrison and hit the ground running.

“I’m still learning,” Colon said. “But I love the energy. I spent the summer with the kids of Harrison. I got to know the kids and what they were all about.”

After the summer, Colon had a sense that the Blue Tide would be somewhat successful.

“To be honest, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good,” Colon said. “The kids put in a lot of work and sacrificed a lot.”

And since the 2013-14 season began, Harrison is one of the most extraordinary turnaround stories in northern New Jersey. The Blue Tide currently has a 5-2 record after a victory over American History High of Newark Saturday afternoon.

Colon is happy with the progress of his new program, but not content.

“I am pleased, but we’re a little inconsistent,” Colon said. “I don’t think we’ve played a complete game yet. Cliffside Park was the only game we played really well on the defensive side. But we’re coming along. We’re getting better.”

Senior Iker Fernandez has been a pleasant surprise. The 6-foot-4 forward is averaging double figures in points and rebounds. Fernandez had 18 points in the 53-41 win over American History.

“He’s off to a good start,” Colon said. “He’s very skilled. I think he has a chance to play at the next level.”

Senior Federico Olivera is another 6-foot-4 standout for the Blue Tide.

“He’s a strong kid,” Colon said. “He’s a good rebounder.”

Olivera recently had 19 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Leonia.

The small forward is senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

“He’s long and lanky,” Colon said of the 6-foot-3 Mohamoud, who had 14 points in Saturday’s win. “He’s very athletic and can shoot the ball well. He has all the skills.”

The point guard duties are shared by senior Moises Roque and junior Jordan Villalta. Both players stand 5-foot-7.

“Moises is a better athlete,” Colon said. “Jordan makes better decisions with the ball. They both play well. I’m going to let them battle it out.”

The shooting guard is 5-foot-10 Alex Cajiga.

“He’s a good shooter and he’s very skilled,” Colon said. “He lost a lot of weight over the summer, like 25 pounds, and it’s helped him. He’s working hard and going to get better.”

Cajiga is averaging nine points per game.

Tommy Dolaghan is a 5-foot- 9 senior who plays guard and comes off the bench. The Blue Tide standout pitcher on the baseball team in the spring, Dolaghan brings a lot of energy to the team.

“He’s been a pleasure to coach,” Colon said. “He’s just a great kid, a smart kid. He picks up things so easily. He defends well.”

Junior William Azabache is a 5-foot-10 forward.

“He understands his role and brings us energy on defense off the bench,” Colon said. “He’s also been a pleasure to coach, because he does a little bit of everything.”

Senior Ralph Diaz is a 6-foot-4 forward.

“He’s a strong kid who comes in and rebounds,” Colon said. “He plays hard.”

The Blue Tide’s successful season will get a big challenge Thursday when they play Queen of Peace in North Arlington.

Colon believes the winning ways can continue.

“I definitely think it can happen,” Colon said. “Our goal is to get better every day. That truly is our goal. I can see a little bit of consistency in practice. We just need it in games. That’s what I’m trying to preach to them. They just need to understand.”

So far, the understanding has been great for the Blue Tide of Harrison.

NA girls: Trying to get through injuries

Photo by Jim Hague Senior guard Bri Cunanan was going to be the leader of the North Arlington girls’ basketball team, but she suffered a knee injury that will send her to the sidelines for the next three weeks.

Photo by Jim Hague
Senior guard Bri Cunanan was going to be the leader of the North Arlington girls’ basketball team, but she suffered a knee injury that will send her to the sidelines for the next three weeks.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Karen Smith had high hopes for her North Arlington girls’ basketball team this season. Even though the Vikings were going to be very young, Smith figured her squad could be competitive.

Then, disaster struck in the form of some crippling injuries.

First, sophomore Samantha Veloso suffered an ankle injury that kept her on the sidelines.

Then, senior guard Bri Cunanan went down with a knee injury. Cunanan’s injury especially hurt, because she was the team’s leading scorer and ball handler. At the time of her injury, Cunanan was averaging a little more than 10 points per game.

“They were two key players,” Smith said. “It’s a little difficult. But we’re obviously optimistic because other players are going to get playing time. The younger kids are getting a chance to play. Others have to step up.”

Veloso’s timetable for a return is up in the air. Cunanan’s injury will apparently take three weeks to recover from.

So it’s time for others to shine.

Senior Cara Dlugo is one of the key performers who will have to pick up the slack. The 5-foot-7 Dlugo is someone who had been playing both small forward and power forward, but will need to include some ball handling in the absence of Cunanan.

“She’s a very good athlete,” Smith said of Dlugo. “She’s really the heart of the team. She hustles all the time. She’s our leading rebounder. We need her to score more now. I think she can do that.”

Dlugo is averaging eight points and 10 rebounds per game.

Junior center Amanda Chiamese is another key contributor. The 5-foot- 9 Chiamese is a force down low.

“She’s extremely aggressive under the basket, but she also has a nice little jump shot,” Smith said. “She’s also a good hustle player. She’s been playing pretty well.”

Junior Taylor Barth has also enjoyed some success in the past. The 5-foot-4 Barth is one of the best shooters around.

“She can shoot the lights out,” Smith said. “She now needs to handle the ball more with Bri out. I think she can handle the ball. She just needs to be confident.”

Sophomore Denaijah Gainza is another guard. The 5-foot-4 Gainza has been the backup point guard to Cunanan. “She has a nice little shot,” Smith said. “She can handle the ball and take the ball to the basket.”

Gainza had 13 points in a recent win over Lyndhurst and eight versus neighboring rival Queen of Peace.

Sophomore Marissa Piscal is a 5-foot-7 forward.

“She can be a dominant force,” Smith said of Piscal. “She’s very strong and is a great rebounder. She’s a good softball player and joined us for the first time. We’re really excited to have her with us.”

Victoria Namnama is a 5-foot-3 sophomore guard.

“She handles the ball pretty well,” Smith said. “She’s the starting point guard on our JV [junior varsity] and plays off the bench for us. She’s going to play more now.”

Freshman Danica Krawczyk is a 5-foot-7 guard/ forward.

“She can shoot the ball well, but she’s also physical,” Smith said. “That’s a good combination and a good problem to have.”

Senior Tanna Avella is a 5-foot-6 guard who is playing varsity basketball for the first time.

“She’s probably one of the fastest players we have and our best defenders,” Smith said. “She comes off the bench, but defends against the other team’s top player. That’s her role.”

Sophomore Mariah Moreno is a 5-foot-3 guard. Theresa D’Errico is also a 5-foot-3 guard.

The Vikings have not enjoyed a ton of success thus far.

“We’ve been struggling,” Smith said. “We’ve hit a few bumps in the road. But I can see this team turning around. We’re going to see the teams in our league the second time and I think that things will change. We’re showing improvement. We’re starting to play better.”

Smith likes the fact that there are so many young kids involved in her program.

“I’m excited to see what the younger kids can bring to the table,” Smith said. “I like the way our program is headed. It’s headed in the right direction. We have 15 freshmen involved in our program. The numbers look good.”

Now if Smith could only get her injured players back.

Golden Griffins look to improve with veteran team

1-15 QP_web

Top photo by Jim Hague, bottom courtesy Robert Rodriguez The Queen of Peace girls’ basketball team has been bolstered by the play of their seniors. TOP, from l., are Nikki Sammartino, Raychel Piserchia, Maria Ruiz and Lia Rodriguez. BOTTOM: Senior Lia Rodriguez controls the ball in a recent Queen of Peace girls’ basketball game against rival North Arlington.

Top photo by Jim Hague, bottom courtesy Robert Rodriguez
The Queen of Peace girls’ basketball team has been bolstered by the play of their seniors. TOP, from l., are Nikki Sammartino, Raychel Piserchia, Maria Ruiz and Lia Rodriguez. BOTTOM: Senior Lia Rodriguez controls the ball in a recent Queen of Peace girls’ basketball game against rival North Arlington.

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

As the Lyndhurst recreation coordinator, Paul Passamano has been involved with the coaching of youngsters for more than 30 years.

“It started with my daughter and I just kept going,” said Passamano, who remains active with the development of kids in Lyndhurst.

However, last year, Passamano took over a new challenge, when he became the head girls’ basketball coach at nearby Queen of Peace.

“I wanted to coach high school girls’ basketball all my life,” Passamano said. “I played at Bergen Tech and in the Navy. I love coaching.

It was my passion when I started coaching.” Sure, there were mixed feelings the first time QP faced Lyndhurst last year.

“We were playing against girls I coached,” Passamano said. “They were my heart and soul. But things are different now. Everyone understands that this is my team and I love coaching the girls at Queen of Peace. I was fortunate to get the chance.”

The Golden Griffins own a 3-3 record thus far in the early going of the season.

“I would have liked to have a better record,” Passamano said. “We’ve had a tough early schedule. But I think we should have a good team.”

In fact, Passamano believes that the Golden Griffins will be vastly improved on last year’s 7-15 mark.

“I think we should have double figures in wins,” Passamano said. “We’re trying to reverse last year’s record.”

Passamano said that he has instructed his players to not look at the scoreboard.

“They don’t look at the scoreboard,” Passamano said. “They just play hard, hard and hard. We’re a running team. We play hard and don’t give up. We have a good bunch of kids. We have a good bench that works the starting team hard in practice. They’re there every day in practice with no complaints.”

Passamano said that his team utilizes a variety of defenses.

“We do it all,” Passamano said. “We play zone, press, man-to-man. We mix it up to try to confuse the opposing team.”

Leading the team is senior Nikki Sammartino. The 5-10 forward is a hard worker under the basket.

“She’s a tough kid,” Passamano said. “She has the heart for the game. She is aggressive around the basket.”

Sammartino is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds per game this season and is approaching 1,000 points for her career.

“We have to get the ball to her,” Passamano said.

Another solid contributor is senior forward Lia Rodriguez, who is one of the best all-around athletes in the area. Rodriguez, a standout soccer goalie in the fall and a track athlete in the spring, is averaging 13 points per game.

“She can really jump,” Passamano said of the 5-foot-9 Rodriguez. “She’s very athletic. I can put her up against someone 6-foot-2 and she’s going to get the ball. She’s also a pleasure to coach. She’s quiet, pleasant and says nothing. She’s just a great kid and a great kid coach.”

Passamano said that he interchanges Allison Gaudenzi and Chelsea Kaszka at the other forward slot.

“They flip-flop,” Passamano said. “It depends on the team we’re facing. Allison can put up the three (pointer). We mix it up.”

The Golden Griffins also have the Mastrofilippo twins, namely juniors Michele and Michaila, to operate in the backcourt.

“They’re coming into their own,” Passamano said of the Mastrofilippo twins. “We need them to shoot a little more, like 15 times a game. We’re working on that. But they’re very quick and athletic. They’re good players who understand the game.”

Junior Jamie Nemeth is another solid contributor.

“Jamie is our speed demon,” Passamano said. “She can run and jump. She just needs to understand the game more. Once she does, she can be a real threat.”

Senior Raychel Piserchia is a solid forward, while senior Maria Ruiz is a guard off the bench. Junior Tianna Peluso is a power forward who “goes after rebounds hard,” according to Passamano.

Junior Clara Marie Talban is a reserve forward and junior Devisha Khan is a new player, still learning the ins and outs of basketball.

Passamano is encouraged about the contributions of three freshmen, namely guards Kelly Lennon and Kaylee Ameri and center/forward Jane Amadeo.

“They wanted to be part of the team,” Passamano said. “They wanted to stay with us and train every day. They’re getting better and never complain. They’re going to help us down the road.”

As for now, Passamano is content with the Golden Griffins, taking full advantage of the opportunity he craved for a lifetime.

“I love coaching these girls,” Passamano said. “I love the team. I love the school. I love the people in the school. I think we’re going to show improvement this year. We’ll see how well we hold up over the next few weeks.”