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Kardinals reshuffle the deck to remain competitive

Photo by Jim Hague The Kearny girls’ basketball team has a lot of new faces, but among those returning are, from l., senior Kiana Cardenas, Hill, senior Carolina Souza and senior Spiridoula Dimou.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Kearny girls’ basketball team has a lot of new faces, but among those returning are, from l., senior Kiana Cardenas, Hill, senior Carolina Souza and senior Spiridoula Dimou.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

A year ago, veteran Kearny High School girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill had to do a bit of last minute scrambling to put together a formidable roster. The Kardinals had lost a ton of talent to graduation, so Hill hoped that the new kids could step in and pick up where the graduating seniors left off.

Well, as the immortal baseball sage Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

“We’ve lost 13 seniors over the last two years,” said Hill, who begins her 11th season as the Kardinals’ head coach. “That’s losing a tremendous amount of experience. For the most part, I’ve never had to deal with that before.”

However, Hill isn’t exactly putting her head down and sulking about her team’s prospects. Quite the contrary.

“It’s a nice feeling to have some younger players who are going to be around for four years,” Hill said. “We’re going to try to mold them, not just for today, but also down the road. There are positives and negatives in having a young team. You take a hit with experience and you ask them not to make the same mistake twice. You learn from your mistakes.”

Hill said that she has been extremely positive since practices began in earnest last week.

“In the early going, we’re breaking down the fundamentals more,” said Hill, who guided her remade team to 15 wins a year ago. “We’re working on them making the right decisions. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”

Hill likes the athleticism of the team.

“We do have some athletes and we do have some size,” Hill said. “Overall, I think we’re looking to have more of an inside game this year than ever before. Our size is going to be a huge strength.”

As a former Hall of Fame guard during her playing days at Harrison High and later Pace University, Hill was a fearless point guard. So she has always favored guard play.

“We’re a little inexperienced at guard, but we do have some talent,” Hill said. “We have athletic guards who have to learn the game a little more. But I can see the progress. They keep getting better and better.”

Hill also likes the way her team has approached the new season.

“I think they’re very excited about it,” Hill said. “The energy level is excellent and we’re trying to put that energy level out onto the floor. The eagerness is there. I can see that in the seniors. We have spots in the starting lineup that are open to anyone who steps in and proves that they deserve it, prove that they want it.”

Leading the returnees is sophomore Amber Crispin, who stepped in toward the end of last season and became a key contributor and starter. Crispin is the team’s top returning leading scorer, but she averaged only six points a game. That’s a sign of just how much Kearny needs to rebuild this year.

“She came in as a freshman starter and led our team in steals,” Hill said of the 5-foot- 6 Crispin. “She has tremendous speed and competitiveness. She is one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached. I just hope that can carry over to the rest of the team. I hope it’s contagious. She has a lot of speed and energy. She’s also real eager to start the season and I like that. Amber has to be one of our leaders this year, even though she’s a sophomore. She leads by example and also knows what to say to the others. She’s a special kid.”

Another returning player is junior Emilia Fernandes. The 6-foot Fernandes is the team’s tallest player and she has to use that size to her advantage.

“I can definitely see her potential,” Hill said. “This is her time to shine. She’s been very dedicated to improving. She now has tremendous footwork. She realized what she needed to do and took a big step forward. Her goal is to play in college and she’s willing to do anything to make that happen. She’s added more moves near the basket. She’s made a big improvement over last year.”

The rest of the entire Kearny roster is still battling for playing time. In Hill’s eyes, they’re all players right now, not starters.

Freshman Sydney Pace, the younger sister of former Kearny standouts Stefanee and Samantha, joins the fray as a 5-foot-6 guard.

“She’s already played varsity soccer, so she knows what it takes,” Hill said. “She’s not intimidated at all. She comes from a good athletic family and she wants to get on the court to prove what she can do.”

Senior Carolina Souza is another contributor. The 5-foot-5 Souza owns a nice touch from the perimeter and is a good defender.

“She’s paid her dues and put in a lot of time,” Hill said. “She’s a good leader. She just needs to penetrate with the ball better.”

Junior Daniella Echevestre is a 5-foot-6 jack-of-all-trades.

“She literally can play any position,” Hill said. “She’s our most versatile player. She’s a great passer who played point guard on the JV level, but we need her inside more. She’s very strong and uses her body well.” Spiridoula Dimou is a 5-foot-2 senior guard. “She’s one of our toughest kids,” Hill said. “She’s extremely hungry to play varsity. She’s spent the last three years down on the bench, waiting to get put in the game. She’s our most vocal kid.”

Kiana Cardenas is a 5-foot-11 senior forward.

“She has no varsity experience,” Hill said. “She’s very raw. But she’s a coachable kid who is working on her speed. She’s going to provide solid minutes for us.”

Sophomore Nawal Farih is a 5-8 forward whose older brother and sister played varsity basketball at Kearny.

“She has good potential,” Hill said. “She has a good basketball body and goes extremely hard to the basket. She keeps getting better each year. She comes from a good basketball family. She just loves to play and she’s doing great in practice.”

Junior Nicole Sanchez is another back-up guard.

“She’s feisty and scrappy,” Hill said of the 5-foot-4 Sanchez. “She plays defense very well and can make the outside shot.”

Junior Patty Sheldrick is a 5-foot-7 guard with good ball handling skills and a good long range shot. Sophomore Izabela Stazewski is a 5-foot-9 forward who is still learning the game. Sophomore Erica Greenlee is a 5-foot-4 athletic guard who made headway in the Kearny summer league.

“I put her in one game and she had like four steals in a minute,” Hill said. “She has good instincts for the ball.”

Junior Vanessa Gallego is a 5-foot-4 guard who is a reliable defender.

As you can see, Hill has a lot of work to do between now and the Kardinals’ season opener against Hudson County power Bayonne Dec. 20. The Kards will also play this year in the North Arlington Christmas Tournament, where they will face local rival Queen of Peace.

“We definitely will get better as the season moves on,” Hill said. “Right now, we just need to find a little chemistry. They’re finding themselves for the first time. But I think we should have a pretty good team.”

Belleville turns to Stoeckel to lead Bucs’ boys’ basketball team

Photo by Jim Hague Belleville turns to new head coach Jim Stoeckel to lead the Buccaneers through some tough times. From l. are Shakhi Tanner, Joel Ayala, Henry Ayala, head coach Jim Stoeckel, Jacob Dabon and Wilbert Then.

Photo by Jim Hague
Belleville turns to new head coach Jim Stoeckel to lead the Buccaneers through some tough times. From l. are Shakhi Tanner, Joel Ayala, Henry Ayala, head coach Jim Stoeckel, Jacob Dabon and Wilbert Then.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Once again, the Belleville boys’ basketball head coaching position was open and Jim Stoeckel was poised, ready for the challenge.

“I felt it was a good opportunity to build something from scratch,” said Stoeckel, who was hired in September to replace Kurt Villani. “I live in the area. I know Essex County basketball. I know Belleville. I remember going to Belleville games when I was younger.”

Stoeckel’s father, Jim Sr., is a long-time high school basketball referee in Essex County, so the familiarity has always been there.

The younger Stoeckel was the head coach at Newark Academy for five years and spent the last three years at Bloomfield under Patrick Brunner.

“I wanted the chance to get back to being a head coach again,” Stoeckel said. “I know it’s a challenge, but I want to get in Belleville and get kids interested at the lower levels, like middle school and take it from there. I know Belleville could be a good program and when we get it there, we want to keep it there.”

Stoeckel said that he’s been encouraged by the turnout and the effort of the players.

“It’s been very good,” Stoeckel said. “We have to put this all together in two weeks. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. No one knows anything. The kids are all learning to play. It’s a lot to take in, with such a short period of time.”

Nearly 60 kids attended tryouts and Stoeckel had to weed through the numbers and get his 15- man roster.

“Those first two days with the 60 kids were hectic,” Stoeckel said. “I had to get through it. We’re now pretty much set. We’re still waiting for a few kids to pass their physicals. Things are a little different now.”

Stoeckel said that he has been impressed with how hard the players have performed.

“I’m encouraged by the effort,” Stoeckel said. “They have responded well. I think we have to give it time and we’ll see. But if the effort is already there, that’s the first step. If they’re willing to learn, then they can become a better basketball team.” Stoeckel said that he didn’t see the Buccaneers play last year, so he’s starting with a clean slate.

“I just heard that one kid came off the bench and played a little,” Stoeckel said. “That’s all I knew. I was happy that there were so many freshmen and sophomores came to tryouts. I want to lay down the ground work now, so the kids can learn. We have five seniors, not like having 20 seniors. So we have to build from the bottom up.”

Leading the returnees is Jacob Dabon, a 5-foot-11 senior with good range from the outside.

“He definitely can shoot it,” Stoeckel said.

Senior Wilbert Then is a 5-foot-10 guard who is a tough defender. Senior Shakhi Tanner is a 6-foot-2 guard with long arms.

“He’s long and wiry,” Stoeckel said. “He can play a little.”

Nelson Pichardo is a junior guard with decent skills. Antonio Tyler is a 5-foot-9 senior guard. Chris Torres and Wally Battle are both 6-foot-2 junior forwards who will help on the inside.

The Ayala twins, namely Henry and Joel, help the Buccaneers’ depth.

Ande Velez is a 5-foot-7 sophomore with a ton of promise.

Stoeckel is still getting to know his team, learning their positives and negatives, pluses and minuses. He deserves the chance to learn what he’s coaching. It’s been a whirlwind since he was hired less than two months ago.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Stoeckel said. “We do have excellent effort thus far. That’s the first step.”

Lyndhurst girls’ hoops squad moves forward with new coach Cousins

Photo by Jim Hague The Lyndhurst girls’ basketball team welcomes a new coach in John Cousins this season. From l. are Christie Zembriski, Joelle Voza, John Cousins, Bianca Fata, Caroline Beatrice and Cameron Georgs.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Lyndhurst girls’ basketball team welcomes a new coach in John Cousins this season. From l. are Christie Zembriski, Joelle Voza, John Cousins, Bianca Fata, Caroline Beatrice and Cameron Georgs.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

After several years toiling in the retail business, John Cousins desperately wanted a change in his life.

He wanted to be a teacher and a girls’ basketball coach.

So in reinventing himself after the age of 40, Cousins headed back to Montclair State in order to secure his teaching certification.

As a basketball mentor, Cousins spent four years at Mount St. Dominic in Caldwell as a junior varsity coach and assistant coach with the varsity, and he also spent several years coaching AAU basketball with the New Jersey Crusaders in Bergen County, but he always longed for something more.

“I wanted a head coaching job,” said Cousins, now 46. “I’ve been looking for the right varsity job for three years. Coaching keeps me young. It gives me a young spirit.”

When Perrin Mosca resigned at the end of last season in Lyndhurst, the door was left wide open for Cousins’ big break.

“Lyndhurst gave me the opportunity to be a head coach and I was extremely grateful and excited,” said Cousins, who began official workouts with his new team last week. “I’m very happy to be at Lyndhurst.”

Apparently, the Lyndhurst players are excited to have Cousins.

“The response has been great,” Cousins said. “I’m very pleased with the way they’ve responded to me. They’re working very hard so far and giving great effort. As a coach, that’s all I can ask for.”

It didn’t take long for Cousins to realize that he didn’t inherit the most talented team around. Gone is 2012-13 Observer Female Athlete of the Year Camila Alonso, who took her track and field talents to East Carolina. Alonso averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds last year, including a record-breaking single game high of 46 points. Those numbers are going to be impossible to replace. The Golden Bears did win 18 games last year.

But Cousins is impressed with the athleticism of his team.

“That’s the one thing that stands out more than anything else,” Cousins said. “They might not be highly skilled and they might not have the best talent, but they are very athletic. I was really surprised with how athletic they are. They’re also quick learners. They absorb everything we teach them, so that’s a tremendous asset.”

Cousins likes the athleticism that he has in the backcourt.

“For me, as a coach, whether they’re talented or skilled, I’ll take the athletic player any day of the week,” Cousins said. “You can teach them to shoot, but if they don’t have the heart, the determination and the hustle, it’s not going to work. So I’ll take the team we have, because they are athletic and willing to go the extra mile.”

Cousins also needed his senior players to step up and be leaders on a young team.

“I look at the seniors and they work together as a group,” Cousins said. “They play other sports together and that equates well for me. If they play other sports, then they’re not shell shocked when they come to basketball. They know what to expect. I’m impressed the way these girls have thrown themselves out there for a first-time head coach.”

One of those senior leaders is Bianca Fata, the standout goalkeeper for the Lyndhurst girls’ soccer team in the fall.

“Bianca is very aggressive and extremely fast,” Cousins said. “She’s a hard-nosed kid who goes after it every time she’s out there.”

Forward Christie Zembriski is another returning player who has impressed Cousins.

“I really like her,” Cousins said. “She throws her body around out there. She has a decent shot and she’s pretty quick. She reacts well to the ball. I’m hoping that she has a really good year for us.”

Cameron Georgs is another holdover from last year’s team.

“She’s one of our tallest kids,” Cousins said. “She can shoot it pretty well and she’s going to shoot it.”

Caroline Beatrice is another senior who has impressed the new coach.

“She has great enthusiasm,” Cousins said. “To me, that’s her strength. She comes every day and she’s ready to play. I want that to rub off on the others and have the others play like that.”

Sophomore Cameron Halpern is going to make an impact on the varsity.

“I like her size and she can run the floor well,” Cousins said. “She’s young and tough.”

Freshman Kira Adams has definitely impressed enough to stick around with the varsity.

“She definitely has a varsity body,” Cousins said. “She has a nice shooting stroke. I hope to get something out of her with the varsity.”

The Golden Bears open the 2013-14 season with Dwight- Englewood.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself and ask is this really happening?” Cousins said. “I can’t wait for Dec. 20t and for us to have our season unfold. I’m going to try to maximize their potential. If that means they’re going to be coached, taught, pulled and dragged, I’m going to do it. This is the next stage of my life.”

Remembering and honoring ‘Coach’

QP dedicates practice field to legendary grid coach Borgess

Photo courtesy Jim Hague The field at Queen of Peace was renamed last week in honor of the late Ralph Borgess, who spent 26 years at the school as a coach and assistant athletic director.

Photo courtesy Jim Hague
The field at Queen of Peace was renamed last week in honor of the late Ralph Borgess, who spent 26 years at the school as a coach and assistant athletic director.

 

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

For most of his adult life, Ralph Borgess was synonymous with Queen of Peace High School.

Sure, the late Borgess was a Kearny native who starred as a multi-sport athlete at Kearny High. And yes, Borgess spent a good portion of his life as the head football coach at Harrison, leading the Blue Tide to their lone football state championship, the North Jersey Section 1, Group II title in 1986.

And after all, Borgess spent an astounding 52 years coaching high school football in New Jersey, earning Hall of Fame honors all across the board.

But deep down, Borgess was as much a part of Queen of Peace as the Golden Griffin itself.

Borgess served as the head football coach for two different stints, including his final go-round that lasted until he was past his 80th birthday. He was also the assistant athletic director at the school and maintained a constant presence until his untimely death following a stroke in 2006.

Ever since Borgess’ passing, the school wanted to find a way to memorialize him, to make sure that people remembered “Coach” for perpetuity.

That tribute took place last week, when QP officials finally dedicated the practice field outside the school as the Ralph Borgess Field. There was a ceremony with speeches remembering “Coach.” The field house was newly painted with Borgess’ name in bright gold letters and a plaque was unveiled, featuring Borgess’ achievements and accomplishments at the school for 26 marvelous years.

While the weather wasn’t exactly balmy, nothing could dampen the spirits of the people who attended, who came to remember and honor “Coach.”

“It was wonderful,” said Ruth Borgess, the coach’s widow. “He knew that the school wanted to do something like this before he died. He said that they wanted to do it, but it never came to pass. I never thought it would take so long, but a lot of people all got together and pushed for it to happen.”

Ruth Borgess was moved by the ceremony and presentation.

“It was a very nice reception,” Ruth Borgess said. “I never expected anything like that. I think it’s great that kids are going to look up, see his name and say, `Who’s that?’ And they’re going to mention his name for a long time.”

Borgess said that her great grandson, also named Ralph, keeps the name alive. Her son, Ralph Jr., who also coached at Queen of Peace, passed away two years ago. The family has another son, Rich, who also was a coach.

Christine Borgess Riccardi is Coach Borgess’ granddaughter. She has such fine memories of her grandfather.

“He made such a lasting impression on me,” Riccardi said. “I can remember being an 11-year-old kid and driving through the streets of Harrison, looking for kids who broke curfew. I remember waiting for him after games and I had pockets full of M&Ms to give to him, win or lose. I can never forget those moments.”

Riccardi sang her grandfather’s praises.

“He was truly amazing,” Riccardi said. “He taught me so much about life. No one could compare to him. There was no better person.”

Riccardi was also impressed with the ceremony.

Photo by Jim Hague The plaque honoring the late Ralph Borgess was put on the wall near the field that will forever bear the name of the beloved “Coach.”

Photo by Jim Hague
The plaque honoring the late Ralph Borgess was put on the wall near the
field that will forever bear the name of the beloved “Coach.”

 

“It was an amazing tribute to him,” Riccardi said. “And it’s well deserved. I’m thrilled that it came to pass and that they recognized his iconic status, not just at Queen of Peace, but throughout northern New Jersey. He was the most amazing man I’ve ever known.”

Riccardi said that she had only one wish.

“I think the only thing I regret in life is that I wasn’t a boy,” Riccardi said. “Because being a girl, I didn’t get the chance to play for him.”

Tony Riposta, the highly respected North Arlington-based attorney, did get the chance to play for “Coach.” A graduate of QP in 1970, Riposta still holds his days playing with Borgess in reverence.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this than Coach Borgess,” Riposta said. “He put in so much time there. He loved the place and loved the players. This was so appropriate, because he loved QP more than anyone.”

Riposta, who was asked to be one of the speakers, said that the ceremony was special.

“It absolutely brought back great memories,” Riposta said. “No one loved coaching high school football more than Coach Borgess. He was the consummate high school football coach and he was great at it. I was so lucky to have him as a coach. I don’t know where I’d be today without him. I would have done anything for him.”

Queen of Peace athletic director Ed Abromaitis was one of the driving forces to get this tribute for Borgess. After all, the two shared an office together in the basement of the school for the last 10 years of Borgess’ life.

“It was so important to Coach, having this field,” Abromaitis said. “It’s not a beautiful field, but it was his. It was his idea to build it. Before the field, the team had to practice in the cemetery. This field was his own little thing, so naming it after him is just right. It’s perfect.”

Abromaitis said that there was a certain amount of pride that came with the day.

“It was a great feeling,” Abromaitis said. “His family was here. Friends, former players, so many people. It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. It’s such a fitting tribute. It’s perfect for him.”

And a perfect way for the school to keep Ralph Borgess’ name alive for the many years to come.

“It came almost seven years to the day since he passed,” Riccardi said. “It’s a nice time of year to remember him. It was Thanksgiving, being with family. It was very emotional for all of us.”

Anyone who ever knew Ralph Borgess knew that he loved Queen of Peace, loved the kids, loved being active even into his 80s. The only bad thing was that “Coach” wasn’t around to enjoy the day and the festivities with everyone else.

Renewing Thanksgiving tradition with a cause

Photo courtesy Temple University sports information Former Belleville High School standout and Temple University defensive back Maurice Jones, shown here in action for Temple two years ago, was part of the Belleville-Nutley flag football game last week that raised money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Photo courtesy Temple University sports information
Former Belleville High School standout and Temple University defensive back Maurice Jones, shown here in action for Temple two years ago, was part of the Belleville-Nutley flag football game last week that raised money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Jason Luzzi and Bill Mbua are long-time friends who grew up together in Belleville. “We used to live on the same block,” Mbua said. But then, Mbua’s family moved to neighboring Nutley. When Mbua joined the football team at Nutley and Luzzi was on the squad at Belleville, it meant one thing – instant rivals. The childhood friendship had to go out the window, especially when the two teams met on Thanksgiving in 2004.

Since Mbua was a wide receiver, he never got a chance to tackle his friend during that game, which was won by the Maroon Raiders, 27-0.

Luzzi, a running back and safety at Belleville, went on to play football at Lackawanna Junior College and eventually baseball at Bloomfield College.

Last year, Luzzi’s family summer home in Ortley Beach was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

One day last year, with buddy Mbua nearby, Luzzi had a brainstorm.

“I started thinking that maybe there was a way we could help raise money,” Luzzi said.

And his thought was to bring back the Thanksgiving Day football game between Belleville and Nutley, which was discontinued three years ago.

The two rivals now open their seasons against each other instead of finishing off the year.

“A lot of people were not happy about the game not being played on Thanksgiving,” Luzzi said. “I was one of them. I was not at all happy.”

“We were all very disappointed,” Mbua said. “We didn’t understand why they didn’t play. It was something that should have gone on. It was a chance to get together, see old friends coming back from college. It was a fun time.”

So Luzzi thought that maybe he could bring back the Thanksgiving Day rivalry, but with a twist, sort of an Old Timer’s Day.

“It just hit me,” Luzzi said. “I thought it would be fun. I was sure that a lot of people would want to come.”

Luzzi posted a message on Facebook, proclaiming the renewal of the Belleville-Nutley Thanksgiving Day game, albeit in a flag football setting.

“We got 250 confirmations in 24 hours on Facebook,” Luzzi said. “It was amazing. I knew it would go over big.”

“I started to try to recruit players,” Mbua said. “But we also had to get approval from the elected officials and athletic directors.”

But Luzzi, Mbua and friend Mike Perinotti of Belleville had to go to work. They worked to get sponsors to help defray the cost of insurance, permits, uniforms, you name it.

“We also required each player to donate $50,” Luzzi said. “The response was so positive. We had so many people interested in playing that we had to turn some people away. We didn’t want to have too many people.”

“It was definitely not an issue getting players for either team,” Mbua said.

The first game, played at Belleville, was a rousing success. There was a solid turnout and they raised $7,000 for the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.

“We charged admission,” Luzzi said. “We had raffles and got donations. We had food donated from a lot of businesses. It was a great success, so much so that we figured we would do it annually.”

“We got a lot of support,” Mbua said. “It really turned out great.”

The second annual Belleville- Nutley game, played last Sunday at the Nutley Oval, took place under tough conditions.

“It was absolutely freezing out,” Luzzi said. “It was 25 degrees and windy. I think the weather kept a lot of people away.”

But in the end, Belleville prevailed, winning 27-26. It helped that Belleville had a new recruit in Maurice Jones, the former Temple standout who spent a good portion of last summer in the Chicago Bears’ training camp. Adding a pro player to the roster definitely helped the Buccaneers’ cause.

“We always had good skilled people,” Luzzi said. “We had so much fun.”

“Mo Jones is a great guy and a big help in getting the game together,” Mbua said. “It really was a lot of fun. It’s always a great time to get together with childhood friends and raise some money for a good cause.”

This year, the funds raised will go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research.

“There will be a decent donation,” Luzzi said. “It was still a good thing.”

Next year, the plan is to play the game earlier, say in October, with the game moving of course to Belleville.

“You can never predict the weather in November,” Luzzi said. “It definitely means a lot to me that we got this going. There was a lot of work that went into it.”

Luzzi thanked businesses like ShopRite of Belleville and Nutley, Franklin Steak House, Ritacco Brothers Pizzeria, Midtown Bar and Grill in Nutley and Jersey Dogs in Belleville for donating food for the event.

“As far back as I can remember, there was always Belleville-Nutley on Thanksgiving,” Luzzi said. “Part of the reason why I went to Belleville was that game. It was very important to me.”

“Tradition is the one thing we need to keep alive,” Mbua said. “There was never really bad blood between us. It was always a great rivalry. We get to see people we don’t usually see. We really want to encourage all generations of Nutley and Belleville football players to get involved. It really is a great thing.”

St. Mary’s heads to state title game, thanks to Kearny trio

Woupes, Banks, O’Sullivan give Gaels fighting chance

Photo courtesy Dennis Hulse From l , Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan, all residents of Kearny, have played major roles for the St. Mary’s of Rutherford Gaels. St. Mary’s will face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday at the College of New Jersey.

Photo courtesy Dennis Hulse
From l , Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan, all residents of Kearny, have played major roles for the St. Mary’s of Rutherford Gaels. St. Mary’s will face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday at the College of New Jersey.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When they were little kids, just learning about the sport of football, Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan were friends and teammates, playing on the Pee Wee level of the Kearny Generals program.

“We were all like brothers,” Banks said. “We were all very close from the beginning.”

“We all started out on the same team,” Woupes said. “We made the playoffs together our first year. I’ll always remember that.”

When it came time to choose a high school, O’Sullivan was the first to select St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

“I kind of knew I was going there,” O’Sullivan said. “My father and mother both went to St. Mary’s, so I was continuing the tradition.”

O’Sullivan’s two buddies followed suit a year later.

“I wasn’t so sure that Kevin and Keon were going to come here,” O’Sullivan said. “But it worked out great.”

“My friends all wanted me to go to Kearny, but Evan helped me,” Woupes said. “It wasn’t a tough decision. I knew I wanted to go there. St. Mary’s was always my first choice.”

Banks was the same way. “In eighth grade, when I had to make the decision, I wanted to go to a program that was solid,” Banks said. “I knew some others who went to St. Mary’s. Having Evan there already helped. It made the decision to go to St. Mary’s easier.”

O’Sullivan, a senior, and his long-time friends, both juniors, have been mainstays for the Gaels’ football program since they arrived.

All three play big roles in the Gaels’ offense as running backs. Banks is one of the top running backs in northern New Jersey, compiling more than 1,500 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns this season. Woupes and O’Sullivan are linebackers on defense, Banks a defensive back.

And the long-time friends will get one final chance to play together this weekend, as the Gaels face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday afternoon at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.

“It’s great because we’ve been together for practically my whole life,” said Woupes, who does a lot of the blocking for Banks from his fullback slot. “It’s pretty cool that we’re doing this together.”

Veteran St. Mary’s head coach Mike Sheridan credits the efforts of all three Kearny natives.

“They’re all major parts,” Sheridan said. “They’re a big reason why we’re in the position we’re in.”

Sheridan said that the coaching staff was looking for a way to get O’Sullivan more involved this season.

“We were looking for a spot for Evan, because he works so hard,” Sheridan said. “We honestly couldn’t figure out how to use him. But he changed his body in the off-season. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle and had good strength. He got in there at middle linebacker and filled gaps and made plays. He’s done a great job and he’s a big part of our defense.”

Offensively, O’Sullivan gives Woupes a chance to get a little rest as his backup at fullback.

“It’s almost like fate that I got my chance this year,” O’Sullivan said. “I think fate really had something to do with it.”

Woupes has been a mainstay at outside linebacker.

“I’m back to my old position and that has made me feel like I’m more of a bigger component this year,” Woupes said. “I feel like I’ve made a bigger impact. And I love blocking for Keon. It means a lot for me to spring Keon and if I’m not doing it, Evan is.”

Sheridan has nothing but praise for Woupes.

“Kevin is the best all-around athlete we have,” Sheridan said. “He’s just a great football player. He’s constantly around the ball. He’s a tough guy. He’s a silent leader who lets his actions speak for themselves.” Sheridan remembered the day last season when he realized Woupes was the real deal.

“I let him get on the field last year as a sophomore and he made two interceptions against Queen of Peace,” Sheridan said. “I could see the athleticism in him right away. He’s the best all-around player we have.”

Banks’ story is remarkable. At 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, Banks is not the biggest kid in the world. No one knew whether he could handle the grind of being an every down tailback.

Banks likes when people question his size.

“I use that as motivation,” Banks said. “People used to tell me all the time I was too small. That just makes me run harder. Sometimes, it’s good to be small, because the other teams can’t see me at first. I’ve heard teams saying, ‘Damn, I can’t even see that kid.’ That just makes me go.”

Sheridan had somewhat of an idea that Banks could be his go-to guy.

“He’s a powerful kid who is put together well,” Sheridan said. “With that low center of gravity, he’s tough to bring down. He drove our defense crazy last year when he was part of our scout team, so I knew he had potential.” But to gain 1,500 yards and score 25 touchdowns? That puts Banks in an elite category.

“Yeah, not to that extent,” Sheridan said. “No doubt, he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

“It’s definitely been a big surprise to me,” Banks said. “I gained a lot of confidence, working hard in the offseason. My linemen have been a big help. So are my friends Kevin and Evan. Without them all, I wouldn’t have had the season I’ve had.”

Needless to say, it’s been a season to remember for the Gaels, who have posted a 9-2 record this season. Now, they just need one final win for the big prize.

“It’s a great feeling,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re one of the few teams left still playing. It’s great to know that we have another game left.”

The Gaels took part in Rutherford’s Thanksgiving parade last Saturday.

“I got to march in a parade,” O’Sullivan said. “How great is that?”

O’Sullivan is the chauffeur for both Woupes and Banks, going every day to school together. That will soon end when O’Sullivan heads off to college. Woupes and Banks will have to find their own mode of transport next fall.

“This game is important, because I’m not going to see Evan much after he goes to college,” Woupes said. “He’s been a big part of my life. It feels great to be able to play with them and share all of this with them. I never thought I’d get this opportunity.”

Sheridan said that it has been a joy coaching the Kearny trio.

“It’s nice to watch them develop as young men,” Sheridan said. “The whole camaraderie they share. I watched them grow up together, see their maturity and their friendship. They’re never going to forget these times. They got all they could get out of high school, three league championships and three trips to the state finals.”

And perhaps, one shiny state championship to go with everything else.

NA soccer star Cordeiro commits to play at NJIT

Photo courtesy Jim Hague North Arlington senior soccer standout Danny Cordeiro announced last week that he has given a verbal commitment to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and will sign a national letter of intent to attend NJIT in February

Photo courtesy Jim Hague
North Arlington senior soccer standout Danny Cordeiro announced last week that he has given a verbal commitment to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and will sign a national letter of intent to attend NJIT in February

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Most college recruiting processes are long, drawn out affairs. Some of them last for years. A college coach might show some interest in a prospective player when the player is a sophomore, thus beginning the tedious procedure that leads up to signing the letter of intent. Incredibly, almost astonishingly, that wasn’t the case with North Arlington High School soccer superstar Danny Cordeiro. His entire recruiting ordeal lasted all of three weeks. Here’s how the story unfolds. It really is remarkable.

Cordeiro, the Vikings’ standout center midfielder, who had an amazing 30 goals and 18 assists this season, innocently sent an e-mail to the coaching staff at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“I was interested in NJIT, because I want to study engineering,” said Cordeiro, who is almost certain to be an All-Group I selection in a few weeks. “As it turned out, they were already interested in me.”

NJIT assistant coach David Janezic knew of Cordeiro’s exploits and had a keen interest.

“As it turns out, he (Janezic) got a good recommendation from coach Robbie Fitzpatrick, the head coach at Georgian Court,” Cordeiro said. “His wife was an assistant coach at North Arlington, so he put in a good word for me, because he knew I wanted to study engineering.”

So Janezic came to watch Cordeiro play a few times and obviously liked what he saw — a tall, skilled player with excellent speed and good field awareness.

“He came to see me a second time against Wallington and after the game, he told me that he liked what I did on the field, Cordeiro said.

With that, Janezic made a scholarship offer to Cordeiro and the Viking standout quickly accepted. Last week, Cordeiro verbally committed to NJIT, becoming the first NA product to go NCAA Division I in soccer since Eric Chaves went to Marist College seven years ago.

And the whole thing took place in three weeks.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Cordeiro said. “I didn’t think I was going to get any offers, especially not Division I. Most of the Division I schools have already used up their scholarships, so I jumped at the first opportunity. I think it’s great.” Cordeiro will also get to stay close to home, giving his family and friends the opportunity to see him play for the Highlanders, who finished with a 7-9-2 record this season under first-year head coach Didier Orellana.

“I wanted to be close enough, but I’m still going to live on campus,” Cordeiro said. “I might have early practices in the morning and I don’t want to have to rush to get there. But the aspect that my family and friends can see me play is great. I like that. It’s good to be close for that.”

Cordeiro likes the way NJIT plays.

“I like how they’re trying to bring up their young talent,” Cordeiro said. “I’m glad that they’re going to have a good, young team.”

The program’s all-time leading scorer in Division I play is Kearny native Franco Gamero. Unfortunately, Cordeiro and Gamero will never get a chance to be teammates, because Gamero is graduating in the spring of 2014.

North Arlington head coach Jesse Dembowski was elated with the news of Cordeiro’s commitment.

“I’m extremely excited,” Dembowski said. “He’s my first Division I player. He’s so deserving of this. He’s an excellent player. I was just hoping that someone else saw the talent that he had. He’s so passionate about engineering, so this was a great fit for him. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Dembowski liked Cordeiro’s approach.

“He was there for every single practice, working hard every day,” Dembowski said. “And he loves soccer. He would spend his free time devising plays. He would come up with new ideas and run the formations by me. It was like having another assistant coach. He really worked hard at it.”

Dembowski will sorely miss Cordeiro.

“He’s a great role model,” Dembowski said. “He’s already got some of the kids thinking about colleges for soccer. He has absolutely opened doors. He was a great player for us and a great young man.”

Cordeiro won’t officially sign his national letter of intent with NJIT until February, but his decision is etched in stone.

“I’m definitely glad that I’m getting a chance to play D-I,” Cordeiro said. “It was always one of my dreams to get the chance. I’m going to be able to balance soccer with my education. I just want to have a good experience in college. It’s definitely a good feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

More reasons than ever to give thanks this year

Photo by Jim Hague The Kearny cross country team, spearheaded by standouts Aislinn Sroczynski (l.) and Erika Alzamora, give some sportswriters reasons to be thankful.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Kearny cross country team, spearheaded by standouts Aislinn Sroczynski (l.) and Erika Alzamora, give some sportswriters reasons to be thankful.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

As some of our readers may know – and others may be totally oblivious – I have spent this entire month at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, working diligently to try to get my legs back in working condition.

I’ve had a tough go, battling a rare form of neuropathy that has weakened my legs and caused me to fall countless times since the end of the summer. I fell at Red Bull Arena. I fell at the Prudential Center. I fell hard at a high school football game and landed on my back, temporarily ending my ability to cover sporting events.

After a series of falls, causing the Kearny Fire Department to come to pick me up off the floor and the ground, hospitalization was the only recourse.

So here I’ve stayed, since the beginning of November, working with the great Kessler medical staff to try to get better.

And I have improved immensely. My right leg, which was virtually useless when I arrived, is now a little better than half strength. I am walking upright with the help of a walker and no hint of falling. I’m on the verge of getting my walking papers out of Kessler, more than likely this week.

So yes, I should be home for Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday.

It’s special to me for a lot of reasons.

As a child, Thanksgiving meant going to Pechter’s with my father to get the bread for dinner, then stopping off at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City to see St. Peter’s Prep face Dickinson in their annual gridiron rivalry.

As a teenager, it meant coming home from Marquette University for the first time since the summer and seeing my friends again, then having dinner with my family. It was always such a festive time for me.

So this year, it has a special meaning. I’m coming home. I’m healthy again. I hope I don’t fall.

So I am thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the great people that I deal with on a regular basis here with The Observer, namely the athletes, the coaches and the administrators.

I’m thankful for Kearny athletic director John Millar and his dutiful assistant Barbara Brooks, who are always willing to lend a helping hand, every single time I call. Whatever the request, they are there to help, whether it’s getting athletes together for an 8 a.m. photo shoot or getting a kid on the phone to be interviewed.

I’m thankful for Jim Cifelli and the Kearny girls’ cross country team, who get so excited every time I’m around to do a story or a picture. With athletes like Aislinn Sroczynski and Erika Alzamora, energetic, bubbly, wonderful young ladies, how could you go wrong? They’re a joy to write about.

I’m thankful for the entire Rusek family, the first family of West Hudson soccer. Sure, the Harrison boys lost a heartbreaker last week to Newton in the Group II state semifinals, but it was a great season for the Blue Tide.

And two weeks ago, when head coach Mike Rusek told his players about my illness, the team decided to dedicate the game to me — and they won. Where in the world does something like that happen? The Harrison soccer program is not only very good, but they’re very classy at the same time.

I’m thankful for Lyndhurst’s great litany of coaches and administrators, people like Butch Servideo, Joe Castagnetti, Kim Hykey and Tom Shoebridge, who go the extra yard as coaches and also greet me with a glad hand as a friend first and a coach second.

I’m thankful for Kearny football coach Nick Edwards, who I saw as a teenager playing baseball and have watched him grow and develop into a fine young man and a coach.

I’m thankful for the good people of Nutley, like athletic director Joe Piro, soccer coaches Mike DiPiano and Marcellino Marra and football coach Tom Basile, who are also extremely giving of their time to their athletes and then still take the time out to assist a local sportswriter in need.

I’m extremely thankful for the friendship and loyalty showed to me by Queen of Peace athletic guru Ed Abromaitis, the guy who has been through the wringer more than any other wet towel. Abro is constantly willing to assist and make sure that his athletes get the proper recognition.

I’m thankful that QP decided to honor my good friend, the late Ralph Borgess, by naming the practice field outside the school after him. I miss our Sunday morning conversations about football. The coach was the best human being I knew and I’m glad his name will live on now in posterity.

I’m thankful for the North Arlington girls’ soccer coaching staff, namely Sharon O’Brien Romer and her mother, Anne, for taking the time to send me a get well card at Kessler. That was such an amazing display of warmth that I am forever grateful for.

I’m also thankful to the hundreds of local readers who have sent texts, e-mails, messages via Facebook, you name it, wishing me good health. People like Joe Pollari of R&R Sporting Goods, who couldn’t have been more generous with his offers to help. I can’t begin to thank everyone.

I’m thankful for this newspaper, The Observer, for giving me the opportunity to continue to work through my illness. Without having The Observer to motivate me, I might have lost my mind over the last few weeks.

And I’m thankful for my family and friends, who have been so incredibly supportive through this tough time. It’s good to know you have friends when you’re down.

So yes, this is a special Thanksgiving. I’m coming home again. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

Thank you.

Harrison native Walega shines as Rutgers-Newark volleyball leader

Photo courtesy of Rutgers-Newark and Steve Smith Rutgers-Newark senior volleyball standout Paulina Walega of Harrison returns a ball in a recent match. Walega just completed her career as the Scarlet Raiders’ leader in digs. She will graduate with a double major in criminal justice and accounting.

Photo courtesy of Rutgers-Newark and Steve Smith
Rutgers-Newark senior volleyball standout Paulina Walega of Harrison returns a ball in a recent match. Walega just completed her career as the Scarlet Raiders’ leader in digs. She will graduate with a double major in criminal justice and accounting.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Being the libero on a college volleyball team is a totally thankless job. There’s not a lot of glory and attention. You’re not exactly lighting up the statistical score sheet. You basically have to work hard to make defensive plays to help your team — and not much else.

“It’s really tough,” Rutgers- Newark head women’s volleyball coach Jason Madsen said. “There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. It takes a special player.”

For the Scarlet Raiders, that special player is senior Paulina Walega, a graduate of Harrison High School.

One of the lone seniors on the Rutgers-Newark women’s volleyball roster this year, Walega was asked to become more of a leader while handling the role of libero.

“She started as a libero for us, but then we moved her to outside hitter,” Madsen said. “We were struggling offensively as a team and Paulina hit the ball well, so we moved her up. But now, we have her back at libero. She’s more comfortable there. Plus, we have so many young players on the court that we need to have someone like Paulina to lead us.”

Walega doesn’t mind handling the responsibility.

“It’s really tough, because everyone relies on you,” Walega said. “I can’t let the team down and I accept that.”

As for being the overlooked libero?

“Everyone can get offensive numbers, but defense saves the games,” Walega said. “I’ve become used to it. It’s really not nerve wracking anymore.”

Walega knew this season that she was going to have to be a leader.

“Being one of the only seniors and with all the young girls coming in, I knew I had to step up,” Walega said. “I actually like it. I like the responsibility and I like the role. On the court, I have to be the one to make sure that everyone doesn’t get nervous. I basically have to be like the coach on the floor. I have to make sure that no one gets down and everyone stays focused.”

According to Madsen, Walega takes that role one step further.

“She has to be the one who has the ‘team first’ mentality,” Madsen said. “It’s so important to have a strong libero, because if you do, you have a chance to make the plays and put the whole offense in motion. She definitely does that. She’s also in position to develop the younger players, like she’s the coach out there on the floor. She’s taken the role and accepted the role of being the leader.”

Walega led the Scarlet Raiders in digs with 290 and had 14 service aces.

“That’s what we were looking for,” Madsen said. “We needed someone to take charge. We’re so happy to have Paulina, because through her efforts, everyone now looks at her as the leader, both on and off the court. The libero is a thankless position. Everyone goes to a volleyball match, looking to see the high fliers and hard hitters. The libero is not noticed unless you don’t do your job. It’s all about defense. Having the libero like Paulina is a big help for us.”

Madsen also loves Walega’s personality.

“She has a great attitude and she’s a lot of fun to be around,” Madsen said. “If she’s playing well in the beginning and gets everyone going, it’s all good for us.”

Walega has always liked to be the one to get others going.

“I try to be as supportive as possible,” Walega said. “I can’t play if I feel a negative vibe. So I have to keep the positive attitude.”

Walega is a student/athlete in the truest sense. She has a double major in criminal justice and accounting and will eventually graduate with more than 150 accumulated credits.

“It’s really not that hard,” Walega said. “It’s all a matter of how I spend my time. I guess I just tend to spend it wisely.”

It is a unique double major for sure.

“Everyone says that,” Walega said. “They all ask what I’m going to do with those two majors. I just kind of wanted to do both and I want to do something with both, maybe insurance fraud or white collar crime.”

There’s only one downside to Walega being a senior.

“I just wish she had more time to work with our young players,” Madsen said. “She’s doing well and has such a great attitude. I was so happy to have a player like Paulina in our program.”

“Volleyball and school work is basically all the same,” Walega said. “As long as you have the same mentality, then it’s fine. Having a good attitude is all you need to have. I always want to have the same mentality that you need to succeed.”

Sure looks Walega has her life after volleyball all in place.

Harrison captures NJSIAA North 2, Group II state title with 4-0 win over Leonia

Photo courtesy Jim Hague LEFT: Senior Jose Neto scored his 26th goal of the season in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia that gave the Blue Tide the NJSIAA North 2, Group II title. RIGHT: Senior Leonardo Trujillo was a dominant force in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia last week to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship.

Photo courtesy Jim Hague
LEFT: Senior Jose Neto scored his 26th goal of the season in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia that gave the Blue Tide the NJSIAA North 2, Group II title. RIGHT: Senior Leonardo Trujillo was a dominant force in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia last week to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Before his team faced Leonia for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship Friday afternoon, Harrison head boys’ soccer coach Mike Rusek had a little bit of apprehension.

After all, the Blue Tide was going to have to face Leonia minus the team’s best player, senior defender and do-everything Modou Sowe, as well as starting forward Ali Lachgar.

Plus, the game would mark the third time this season that the Blue Tide had faced Leonia, a regular opponent in the NJIC-Liberty Division.

“We were without two guys who have been starters all year long,” Rusek said. “Modou is the MVP of the team and Ali is a key forward. And since we saw that West Orange had just beaten Montclair in the (Group IV) state playoffs after Montclair beat them twice, I was concerned. You hear stories like that all year. They always say the third one is the toughest.”

Yeah, right.

Thanks to three goals from sophomore reserve forward Cristian Marquez, the Blue Tide steamrolled Leonia, 4-0, to capture yet another state sectional title.

The win enabled the Blue Tide (22-0-1) to move forward in pursuit of possibly yet another overall Group II state championship.

With the win, the Blue Tide was now scheduled to face Newton in the overall Group II semifinals at Ridge High School Tuesday. If the Blue Tide wins that game, then they would advance to the overall Group II title game Sunday at 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey.

Rusek said that his senior class was extremely motivated to play the game Friday.

“I have 11 seniors on the team and seven of them are starters,” Rusek said. “I told them that this was their last game on their home field. So we wanted to make sure that the seniors went out as winners on their field.”

So that’s what the Blue Tide did, scoring early to take command of the game.

“We haven’t lost a game at home since November of 2011,” Rusek said. “We really like playing at home.”

That was an idea that wasn’t lost on the seniors.

“We have to have the philosophy that we’re going to win at home,” senior forward Leonardo Trujillo said. “We wanted to show we have a good team. I think with the team we have, we have very good players who can fill in when needed.”

None more obvious than Marquez, who made the most of his rare start.

“He had been playing in games,” said Rusek of Marquez, who had tallied eight goals and had seven assists in reserve duty this season. “We think he’s going to be our offensive center midfielder next year. He just hadn’t had the opportunity this year. I thought he would be just another midfielder for us. I certainly didn’t expect him to score three goals.”

Rusek said that Marquez just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the first two goals, but on the third and final tally, he was dead on.

Photo by Jim Hague Senior defender Modou Sowe, one of the best players in the state, missed the state sectional title game won by Harrison and his status for the rest of the season is unknown.

Photo by Jim Hague
Senior defender Modou Sowe, one of the best players in the state, missed the state sectional title game won by Harrison and his status for the rest of the season is unknown.

 

“He has the ability to get open in the box,” Rusek said. “He’s also a good finisher. The third goal, he hit a nice shot and nailed it. Let’s just say that he had opportunistic goals.”

Senior Jose Neto scored the fourth goal, the 26th of the season. Neto also had two assists on two of Marquez’s goals.

“A great program should be able to suffer obstacles and still win,” Rusek said. “We just picked up where the others left off.”

Rusek was not sure if Sowe would be able to play in the state semifinals. He’s battling a torn tendon in his toe.

“He’s a great leader on and off the field,” Rusek said. “You should have seen him during the game Friday. He was so into it and wished he was with us on the field. I hope he can play.”

Rusek has to love what he’s getting defensively.

“We’ve played four state tournament games and we’ve had four shutouts,” Rusek said. “The national record for shutouts in a season is 21 and we have 19 now.”

Which means if the Blue Tide wins the last two games and don’t allow a goal, they would tie a national record set by St. Benedict’s Prep.

“It is possible,” Rusek said. Junior Nick Araujo has been the net minder collecting those clean sheets. Twin brothers Rodrigo and Marcel Esquivel have been diligent with their play along the back line.

Trujillo said that the Blue Tide is extremely motivated to capture the state title.

“This shows that we have a good team,” Trujillo said. “We’ve now won the state sectional two years in a row. But we want more. I care so much about this team. It’s been a pleasure for me to be a part of this program. There were a lot of Harrison teams to win state championships. We want to show people we can win it, too.”

There were 14 state championships since the NJSIAA state playoffs began in the 1970s. The ingredients are certainly there for No. 15.

“We want to keep it going,” Trujillo said.

“Every coach at the beginning of the season sets goals on what they want to accomplish,” Rusek said. “But these kids believed in it. I never realized the heart of the kids. I always knew that they were talented kids, but they fought through a lot to win this. I’m really proud of them.”

Proud to be state sectional champions – once again.