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Longtime Kearny track coach Cifelli retires

Photo courtesy the Cifelli family Kearny veteran cross country and track and field coach Jim Cifelli retired recently after four decades of coaching, athletic administration and academic administration.

Photo courtesy the Cifelli family
Kearny veteran cross country and track and field coach Jim Cifelli retired
recently after four decades of coaching, athletic administration and academic
administration.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It was the spring of 1961, when a young man from Kearny was bitten by the bug called track and field.

At that impressionable time in his life, the teenage Cifelli was in seventh grade.

“All my friends were athletes and all of them were runners,” Cifelli said. “So like all the other kids, I started running.”

Little did Cifelli know that it would begin a five-decade love affair with the sport.

“I don’t know what got me,” Cifelli said. “I just did it.”

Cifelli ran track throughout high school and helped Kearny win its first-ever NJSIAA state sectional championship in 1965.

“Once I got on the team, I loved the camaraderie with everyone,” Cifelli said. “I guess you could say I was a decent runner. I got a medal at the Penn Relays and I broke two minutes in the 800 (yard run).”

Upon graduation from Kearny High, Cifelli headed to Seton Hall and was part of the track team there.

“I learned a lot in college by watching others,” Cifelli said. “I majored in history and education.”

Cifelli was fortunate enough to do his student teaching in Kearny at Lincoln School.

“Tommy Krulik was the varsity coach,” Cifelli said. “I asked Krulik if I could be a volunteer coach.”

The next year, Cifelli was added an assistant coach. A year later, Krulik suddenly passed away.

“The kids, everyone, we were all devastated,” Cifelli said. “I was asked to take over as the interim coach.”

That was 1972. Cifelli was involved in Kearny cross country and track and field ever since, until recently, when Cifelli announced his retirement after more than 40 years.

“It’s a good time to say goodbye,” Cifelli said. “I won’t say that there’s sadness, but there never will be another Kearny. It’s tough to cut the umbilical cord after all this time. There’s always going to be a fire there. I keep in contact with everyone.”

Cifelli is moving on to become an assistant coach with the New York/New Jersey Track Club, based out of Rutgers University, under the legendary Frank Gagliano.

It ends a remarkable run that Cifelli enjoyed as a coach, athletic administrator and school administrator.

In Cifelli’s second year as head coach, the Kearny boys won the old Big 10 Conference championship, a league that included Belleville, Nutley and Bloomfield.

The team also qualified for the NJSIAA Group IV championships, a major step as to what would later occur.

In 1978, Joe Weber won the overall NJSIAA Meet of Champions in cross country. The team competed in the meet, with Dean Olawski as another top runner. In track, the Kearny sprint medley team won the state championship and posted the fastest time in the country. The distance medley had the third fastest time in the nation.

In 1983, the Kearny boys won the NJSIAA Group IV championship, a team that was headed by Frank Sroczynski and featured Tom Greene, Keith Donnelly, Tony Rego, Wayne Dunn, Mike Richardson and John Gouveia.

The year of 1987 was perhaps the best overall year in Kearny cross country history. The boys’ team, led by Art Almeida, won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV and overall Group IV championships. Almeida finished fifth in the state overall.

The Kearny girls did one better. They won the NJSIAA Meet of Champions title, led by Liz Duarte, who finished fifth overall. Other members of the overall state championship team included Uloopi Desai, Tara McDermott, Jackie Salmon, Annabella Mateus and Kristen Rutzler.

“I would have to say that it was the best year,” Cifelli said. “It was a great year. The best part of it all was that I had Billy Clifton as an assistant coach. We did everything together. We were very close. Before that season, we sat down and talked about our chances. I thought the girls were still a year away. Did I know they were going to be that good? No, I really didn’t.”

That was when Kearny became respected for being a cross country and track and field power, both statewide and nationwide.

“I remember one quote I read in the paper,” Cifelli said. “It said ‘we [a rival team] about Kearny and we were afraid of them.’ ”

In 1988 and 1989, the Kearny girls won the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV state sectional cross country title. They won again three years straight, from 1990 through 1992, becoming one of the most dominant programs in the state.

Soon after, Cifelli stepped down to become the Kearny athletic director, a position he held for five years. He then became the vice-principal at Washington School and retired as the school’s principal in 2002.

In 2003, Bob Cressman stepped down as the cross country coach.

“I said, `What the hell, I’ll go back,’” Cifelli said.

He also served as a volunteer assistant with the indoor and outdoor track teams since returning to coaching in 2003.

Now, it’s the end of an era. “I’d have to say that the best thing, above winning championships, is that the kids I coached all became successful and good people in their own right,” Cifelli said. “You can talk about the team and the successes, but you can measure the great achievement by the multitude of kids who became good people, successful people. That’s what means the most to me.”

Cifelli is leaving with his head held high.

“We did what we wanted to do,” Cifelli said. “I’ll keep in contact with everyone.”

Cifelli thanked his parents, Leticia and Fred.

“I was a kid running in high school and my mother and father were at every meet,” Cifelli said. “They also volunteered to help. They had a huge influence on me.”

Cifelli also gave credit to his wife, Linda, a Kearny school teacher.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without her support,” Cifelli said.

Cifelli was able to accomplish a lot during his 50-plus years of involvement in Kearny athletics. He definitely has left a huge mark and the shoes will be difficult to fill.

Lyndhurst’s Donovan earns NJ Lacrosse Hall of Fame berth

Photo courtesy of the Donovan family Lyndhurst resident Jim Donovan is proud to be among the newest members of the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Donovan is seen here with his wife Maria and sons Campbell and Aiden. Donovan was one of eight people inducted into the Hall of Fame last week.

Photo courtesy of the Donovan family
Lyndhurst resident Jim Donovan is proud to be among the newest members of the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Donovan is seen here with his wife Maria and sons Campbell and Aiden. Donovan was one of eight people inducted into the Hall of Fame last week.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When Jim Donovan entered Columbia High School in Maplewood in the early 1980s, he knew he wanted to be involved in sports, but he didn’t know which one.

Incredibly, Donovan, now a long-time resident of Lyndhurst, chose lacrosse.

“The high school had a long tradition of lacrosse and I already had a lacrosse stick,” Donovan said.

That’s how a Hall of Fame career began.

As it turned out, Donovan became a member of the Columbia team that won the state championship in 1982. He then went on to play two years of lacrosse at Ashland College in Ohio, then returned to his native New Jersey to play lacrosse at Kean.

“I was an okay player,” Donovan said. “I played club lacrosse until I was 30.”

But Donovan’s biggest contribution to the sport came as a coach and administrator. He got involved as a coach in the youth lacrosse program in Maplewood in 1989.

“It was like a feeder program for the high school,” Donovan said.

Donovan remained involved in youth lacrosse in Maplewood until 2003, when his older son, Campbell, was born.

Donovan was also involved heavily in lacrosse, as the president of the North Jersey Junior Lacrosse League.

“Lacrosse programs were popping up all over the state,” Donovan said. “I was always being asked by a group of fathers here and there how to start a lacrosse league.”

When Donovan started his reign as president, there were 16 youth lacrosse teams in New Jersey.

“Now, we have 20,000 kids from third through eighth grade playing,” Donovan said. “It’s the largest boys’ youth lacrosse league in the country.”

Donovan also helped to get grants from the United States Lacrosse Association to run clinics in areas like Jersey City that are looking to introduce the sport to interested youngsters.

And last year, Donovan brought the sport of lacrosse to Lyndhurst for the first time.

“We have both boys and girls playing, learning lacrosse,” Donovan said. “We have about 40 boys and 30 girls. It’s primarily instructional for now.”

The Lyndhurst lacrosse program had one game against Florham Park and next year, there are plans for as many as five games.

Last week, Donovan’s tireless efforts were rewarded as he was one of eight inductees into the 17th annual New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Donovan received his award at the Mercer Oaks Country Club in Princeton Junction.

“It’s very humbling,” Donovan said. “It was pretty cool to get up in front of all these people that I looked up to admitted, like Mike Cleary, my assistant coach at Kean, Bob Kirko, who has been around the sport forever and Hawley Lawterman, who has been at Kean forever. He was the one who originally gave me the coaching bug.”

Mike Springer, who was a fine player at Don Bosco Prep and later played at Syracuse and professionally in Major League Lacrosse, and Craig Buckley of Fair Lawn were inducted along with Donovan.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Donovan said. “I was in awe. I saw the people in front of me and there were a lot of guys I played with, played against and watched play.”

Donovan received the phone call about his induction a few months ago.

“I have to admit that I was pretty shocked,” Donovan said. “The guy who called me is a good friend of mine and I didn’t believe what he told me. I thought it was a joke, because my friend is a good practical joker.”

But it was true. When the kids in Lyndhurst convene for lacrosse practice in a few months, they can say that they have a Hall of Fame coach.

Donovan has resided in Lyndhurst with his wife, Maria, and sons Campbell and Aidan since 2000. Aidan is an aspiring lacrosse player.

Donovan was asked about the growing popularity of lacrosse.

“I think it’s something new and different,” Donovan said. “We’re giving kids in Lyndhurst the opportunity to try something different. The beautiful thing about lacrosse is once you pick up the stick, you always want to have it with you. Then, you learn to catch and cradle the ball and you want to do it more. The sport keeps growing and growing. It’s very exciting.”

And it’s great for Lyndhurst to have such a decorated coach to teach the youngsters of the township the ins and outs of the sport of lacrosse.

NA’s Keefe wins NJSIAA state sectional bowling crown

Photo courtesy the Keefe family North Arlington junior bowler Tyler Keefe.

Photo courtesy the Keefe family
North Arlington junior bowler Tyler Keefe.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It’s safe to say that Tyler Keefe was born to be a successful bowler.

After all, his father, the late James Warger, was a member of the Pro Bowlers Tour before he died in 2006.

And Keefe’s grandparents have a storied history in the sport. In fact, Keefe’s grandmother, Linda Rose Keefe, is a member of the Bowling Hall of Fame. Keefe’s grandfather, David, is also a long-time successful bowler.

“They taught me everything I know,” said Tyler Keefe, a junior at North Arlington High School. “What can I say? Bowling was pretty much in my blood. My grandmother was the first woman in New Jersey to throw a 300 and get an 800 series. I was very blessed to have them in my family.”

Keefe started bowling at a very early age, but he was never one to take the ball twohanded and push it down the lanes.

“I was always one-handed, even with the plastic ball,” Keefe said. “And my grandfather made sure that there were absolutely no bumpers. I was always bowling on a regular basis. When I was 12 or 13, I realized I was getting pretty good and could be a bowler for a very long time.”

Keefe first enrolled as a freshman at Howell High School, where he participated in varsity bowling and put up an average of 190.

But then the family moved to North Arlington, where his grandparents already resided.

“I would always come up here during the summer and practiced bowling with my grandparents,” Keefe said.

He also made friends at the bowling lanes, especially Jordan Lopez, one of the top bowlers at nearby Lyndhurst and the defending Bergen County champion.

“We’re all very friendly and everyone cheers for each other,” Keefe said. “Jordan and I are good friends.”

Keefe had to sit out half of last season after transferring to North Arlington, bowling in only 10 games late in the season.

“I felt like I couldn’t do anything to help my team,” Keefe said. “It was very disappointing.”

So Keefe was determined to have a solid junior campaign. He worked on his game to improve.

“No one is perfect,” Keefe said. “You’re always working to get better. I practiced and practiced until I found a technique that was good for me. I had to work on my release. I have a very high backswing, so I lowered it a little. I was very aggressive with my backswing, so I smoothed it out a little.”

Keefe was certain that this was going to be his year.

“I told Jordan that I was going to have a good high school year,” Keefe said. “I worked hard to get what I could.” A few weeks ago, Keefe thought he had enough to win the Bergen County championship at Bowler City in Hackensack.

“I felt confident going in, but I left a big split in the last game,” Keefe said. “It was a big letdown. I was really upset.”

Keefe lost the county title by just five pins. A spare in that frame would have been enough to carry Keefe to the crown.

“I was so upset that I lost,” Keefe said. “It was just five pins. I wanted to come back and show everyone that I was the best bowler in the county.”

“Coming into the season, I knew that Tyler was one of the better bowlers in the county,” North Arlington coach Dan Farinola said. “I think he took something away from being second in the county tournament. He’s been a consistent bowler.”

A week after the county tournament, Keefe returned to Bowler City for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1A, Group I tournament. He rolled a 776 series with a high game of 279 to capture the gold medal at the state sectional.

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

Farinola believes that Keefe has the perfect demeanor for a champion.

“He’s a great sportsman,” Farinola said. “He’s a happy kid who cheers for everyone. He gets along with everyone. I think that helps him relax as a bowler.”

Keefe is also a baseball player at North Arlington. He was a shortstop on the junior varsity last year and hopes to be a varsity player when the season begins in April.

Keefe maintained a 212 average this season. He keeps a similar average in the New Jersey Junior Bowling Tour, which he is a member and competes all year round.

He still is enjoying his state sectional crown.

“It’s a great feeling,” Keefe said. “There’s been no better feeling. To finish second in the county and then come back to win the sectional makes it all feel better.” Keefe said that he wasn’t competing against his friends. “It’s just me against the pins,” Keefe said. “That’s how I look at it. I love Bowler City. I always seem to find a line that fits me there. I can’t answer why. I guess I have a positive mindset.”

Keefe just recently finished seventh overall in the state last Wednesday.

He admits to having bowled a 299 game last year, but knows that a perfect game will eventually happen. After all, Keefe just turned 17 on Feb. 15.

“I’m actually very confident for next year,” Keefe said. “My confidence is very high right now. I’m very proud of myself.”

Kearny’s Sroczynski signs with University of Tampa

Photo courtesy the Sroczynski family Kearny High School senior Aislinn Sroczynski is all smiles after signing her national letter of intent to attend the University of Tampa on a track scholarship.

Photo courtesy the Sroczynski family
Kearny High School senior Aislinn Sroczynski is all smiles after signing her national letter of intent to attend the University of Tampa on a track scholarship.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It’s a success story with an extremely happy ending, one that finishes with a college scholarship.

Aislinn Sroczynski is a Kearny High School senior, someone who began running cross country on a whim two years ago after being a soccer player.

As it turns out, Sroczynski becomes a good runner, much like her father, Steve, her mother Heather and her uncle Frank were at Kearny during their scholastic heyday.

“I had just quit playing soccer and started to run and Coach (Jim) Cifelli told me that my times were pretty good,” Sroczynski said. “And he told me that I could run in college.”

So Srocyznski, who finished 10th at the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV cross country championships last fall and earned First Team All-Hudson County honors from the county’s coaches association, decided to send out questionnaires to colleges in Florida.

The reason for Florida? “I wanted to go south,” Sroczynski said. “I just hate the cold weather. All the snow we’ve had recently? I hate it.”

So Sroczynski started to think about going to her first choice, Florida State.

“But I wasn’t sure I could run there,” Sroczynski said.

So then Cifelli put the idea of the University of Tampa in Sroczynski’s mind. As it turned out, Cifelli had a contact at the University of Tampa and he made a call.

“It worked out for her,” Cifelli said.

Last Wednesday, Sroczynski signed a national letter of intent to attend the University of Tampa on a scholarship.

“I went for a visit and I really liked it,” Sroczynski said. “The coaches paid me a lot of attention and the girls on the team were very nice and they accepted me. As it turns out, Tampa races against schools like Florida State, Miami and the University of Florida. It’s the kind of competition I wanted, just in a smaller pond.”

Sroczynski said that her grandfather lives in the Tampa area.

“So I have someone there if I need him,” Sroczynski said. “It really is perfect.”

Sroczynski said that she had Cifelli to thank for her scholarship package.

“He’s the one who pushed me along,” Sroczynski said. “He told me what schools would be interested in me and made me fill out the questionnaires. I gave him a new list of schools every week and he called every coach for me. He got the best response for me and stayed on me. He convinced me I had the ability to be a runner in college. He took all the negative thoughts out of my head. It’s pretty awesome. I’m so excited.”

Photo courtesy the Sroczynski family The entire Kearny girls’ track team with coach Jim Cifelli (center) celebrates Aislinn Sroczynski signing a national letter of intent to attend the University of Tampa.

Photo courtesy the Sroczynski family
The entire Kearny girls’ track team with coach Jim Cifelli (center) celebrates Aislinn Sroczynski signing a national letter of intent to attend the University of Tampa.

 

Cifelli, who is retiring as a coach this year after a storied 40-plus year career, said that he was glad to help.

“She’s a great kid,” Cifelli said. “Not everyone can become a professional athlete, but you can find a kid a scholarship to college. It’s great that schools give kids the chance to open the world for them. She tugs at my heartstrings a little. My wife taught her in fifth grade. She’s a tough, little kid with a great heart.

Added Cifelli, “She loved the place and she’s very happy, both academically and athletically.”

Cifelli has helped other Kearny track athletes like Cayleigh Solano (LaSalle) and Brian Mendes and Esther Alfaro (NJIT).

“This is a great way for them to end their Kearny career,” Cifelli said. “It’s nice to see kids excel.”

Sroczynski said that she will major in political science at Tampa.

“I like politics,” Sroczynski said. “I hope I can eventually get into law school. My dream is to someday get involved in government.”

Sroczynski is still walking on Cloud Nine.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be running in college,” Sroczynski said. “I never thought I’d be a college athlete. There’s no way I thought this was possible. Thank God I had Cifelli. He guided me the whole way. I can’t believe I’m signing a letter on signing day like other athletes. It’s a little surreal. Now, I’m just counting the days until I can go to Tampa.”

Montclair State women roll along with Aquino & Lucas

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison’s Rayven Lucas (l.) and Kearny’s Janitza Aquino have helped the Montclair State University women’s basketball team to a national ranking among Division III schools.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison’s Rayven Lucas (l.) and Kearny’s Janitza Aquino have helped the Montclair State University women’s basketball team to a national ranking among Division III schools.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The Montclair State University women’s basketball team is rolling along, posting a record of 19-2. The Red Hawks are currently ranked 11th among NCAA Division III programs in the entire nation.

The Red Hawks have two local players on their roster, namely Kearny’s Janitza Aquino and Harrison’s Rayven Lucas.

Aquino is a junior guard who has been on fire of late as the team’s starting shooting guard. Lucas is just a freshman, vying for playing time, while learning the ropes watching her friend and neighbor perform.

Together, they give the Red Hawks a strong local flavor, as they continue to move their way toward a possible national championship.

Head coach Karin Harvey is pleased with the performance of both players, especially Aquino, the former Observer Female Athlete of the Year.

Aquino nailed eight 3-point field goals en route to tying a career-high 26 points in the Red Hawks’ 81-60 victory over William Paterson recently. The eight 3-point field goals set a new school record. Aquino was named the New Jersey Athletic Conference Player of the Week for her efforts.

Harvey was happy to move Aquino back to the shooting guard slot, after she played primarily as a point guard last season.

“Janitza became the point guard because of an injury to our starter,” Harvey said. “But she moved back to the off-guard and has done a fabulous job. She is able to take the ball to the basket, but she’s also worked on her perimeter game and can now regularly make the 3-pointers.”

Aquino is averaging 16.2 points per game this season, improving from 10.2 points per game last year.

Lucas has seen limited time, scoring 11 points in six games played, but Harvey likes her potential.

“Rayven is a hard worker who wants to learn,” Harvey said. “She has embraced her role and has really come a long way. She definitely has a bright future with us and I’m looking forward to her improvement.”

Lucas has enjoyed herself with the Red Hawks.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Lucas, the daughter of Harrison athletic legend Ray, the former New York Jets quarterback who is currently an analyst on the SNY network and does color commentary for Rutgers football radio broadcasts.

“It’s a great experience to be a part of something so big and exciting,” Lucas said. “I’ve been able to overcome bigger challenges as a basketball player. I’m learning to work with new people and it’s changed my entire mindset as a player.”

Lucas said that she has had to deal with one major change from high school to college basketball.

“The speed of everything is so different,” Lucas said. “Everything is so fast. We had a scrimmage game and everything was flying by me. It was going way too fast for me. But I eventually got used to it.”

Lucas said that she also had to adapt from being the main scorer in high school to a bench player in college.

“For me, that has been the biggest transition,” Lucas said. “I’m just trying to get better. It’s weird, going from playing all the time and scoring to now being on the bench. But I realize that I have a lot of work to do.”

Lucas said that she has leaned on Aquino in getting accustomed to college life.

“We have a good relationship,” Lucas said. “Janitza has always been there for me. She helps me when I need it.”

And as for Aquino’s play?

“She is absolutely amazing,” Lucas said. “I always ask her to help me with my shooting, because she is such a good shooter. When she is going like she did the other day, it’s absolutely crazy.”

Harvey likes the relationship between Aquino and Lucas.

“Janitza is really good with the younger players, especially Rayven,” Harvey said. “The two of them get along so well. Janitza takes the time to be with Rayven and shows her what she’s doing right and wrong. I really like the way the two interact. They get along very well.”

Aquino was unavailable for comment for this article.

Lucas can’t believe how much she loves living at Montclair State.

“I love the college life,” Lucas said. “I’m away from home, but I’m close enough to have my mother do my laundry. But it’s so much easier for me to be here.”

And it’s great to see two local standouts doing so well on the next level.

NA’s Cordeiro signs letter with NJIT

Photo by Jim Hague North Arlington senior Danny Cordeiro (seated l.), flanked by his dad, Carlos Cordeiro, signs his national letter of intent to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology and play soccer at the Newark school in the fall. Standing, from l., are: Vice Principal Dennis Kenny, Head Soccer Coach Jesse Dombowski, Principal Lou Manuppelli, Athletic Director Dave Hutchinson and Track and Field Coach Joe Cioffi.

Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington senior Danny Cordeiro (seated l.), flanked by his dad, Carlos Cordeiro, signs his national letter of intent to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology and play soccer at the Newark school in the fall. Standing, from l., are: Vice Principal Dennis Kenny, Head Soccer Coach Jesse Dombowski, Principal Lou Manuppelli, Athletic Director Dave Hutchinson and Track and Field Coach Joe Cioffi.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Danny Cordeiro had given a verbal commitment to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology in November, but it wasn’t really official until the talented North Arlington High School senior put his signature on a national letter of intent.

Cordeiro will play soccer at NJIT in the fall.

The letter signing took place last Thursday afternoon at North Arlington, with school officials, Cordeiro’s coaches and his father, Carlos, present.

“Once you put the pen to paper, it’s different,” Cordeiro said. “It’s the kind of thing that happens only once in a lifetime.”

That is certainly true when it comes to athletes from North Arlington. It’s not often that a student/athlete from a Group I school gets a chance to become a scholarship recipient.

Cordeiro was sent the letter of intent by the NJIT coaching staff last week. He was not able to officially sign until Wednesday. The signing took place Thursday, because school was closed Wednesday due to the snowstorm.

Some athletes change their mind after giving a verbal commitment. That was not the case with Cordeiro. He was sold on NJIT from the beginning.

“The coaches contacted me to make sure I got it,” Cordeiro said. “But I’m interested in studying engineering in college, so I wanted to go through with that.”

Cordeiro scored 30 goals and had 19 assists last fall for the Vikings. He is currently running indoor track for North Arlington.

Last weekend, Cordeiro won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship in both the 800-meter and 1,600-meter runs. It’s the first year that North Arlington has featured an indoor track team and the school already has a two-time state sectional champion, thanks to Cordeiro’s efforts.

Cordeiro won the 800-meter run in 2:00.99 and the 1,600-meter run in 4:37.97.

Not a bad week, winning two gold medals at the state sectionals in his first-ever attempt and signing a college scholarship letter.

“Not a bad week at all,” Cordeiro said. “It’s pretty amazing and definitely memorable. I was pretty happy winning in the first year of indoor track. I liked running in Toms River (the Bennettt Center). I never ran in a dome like that before. It was pretty impressive.”

Cordeiro didn’t get caught up in the aura of a state championship.

“I just ran it like it was a regular race,” Cordeiro said. “I always have the same game plan. I try to win every time. I don’t get caught up in times. I was definitely surprised to go there and win both races. I was just trying to do my best.”

North Arlington head soccer coach Jesse Dombowski was present for the letter signing.

“It’s fantastic,” Dombowski said. “I think it opens up a lot of chances for other kids in our program to get Division I scholarships. Danny is one of the most determined athletes I’ve ever coached. He knows what it takes to get to the next level and I’m so glad he got the chance to go to a Division I school. By far, he’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached and that the school has had.”

To permanently honor Cordeiro, the school plans to put a plaque with his picture near the entrance of the school as a reminder of his accomplishments.

“It can only raise some school spirit,” Dembowski said of the plaque.

“I only heard about that today,” Cordeiro said. “That’s going to be awesome. I’d like to come back to the school and see that in the hallways. That’s pretty special.”

Just like Cordeiro, who is truly a special athlete in every sense of the word.

Belleville wrestling turns its hopes to all-time legend Nardone

Photo Jim Hague The Belleville wrestling program moves forward with new head coach Emilio “Junior” Nardone. From l. are Nick Nardachone, Jordan Greene, Nardone, Chris Bunay and Ronald Smith.

Photo Jim Hague
The Belleville wrestling program moves forward with new head coach Emilio “Junior” Nardone. From l. are Nick Nardachone, Jordan Greene, Nardone, Chris Bunay and Ronald Smith.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When legendary Belleville High School wrestling coach Joe Nisivoccia decided to retire at the end of last year, he thought of no one better to fill his shoes than perhaps his most talented pupil ever.

Emilio “Junior” Nardone is perhaps Belleville’s most successful wrestler, having won two NJSIAA state championships in 1991 and 1992. Nardone then went on to wrestle at Rutgers and later Seton Hall before moving on to become a New Jersey state trooper.

“When I left, I was a little angry at the sport,” said Nardone, who had to retire as a state trooper after getting injured on duty. “I then realized I had some unfinished business. The sport reminded me of the things I wanted to do. I had something to give back. I had so much to offer.”

Nardone had been working privately with wrestlers who attend The Edge training school in Kenilworth, then joined the coaching staff at his alma mater as a volunteer, as a favor to his former coach.

“I had the keys to success in wrestling and I had the keys to success in life,” Nardone said. “I’ve always been a student of the game. I’m still learning.”

Nisivoccia approached Nardone at the end of last year.

“He called me and said he was stepping down,” Nardone said. “He said that there was no one he would have trusted more in turning over the program to. He said, ‘You’re Belleville through and through.’”

Nardone was exactly that, embarking on a wrestling career that legends are made of.

During his junior year at Belleville, Nardone suffered a knee injury that required surgery.

But after undergoing that surgery, Nardone developed a serious staph infection that almost cost him his leg.

“I was in the hospital for Christmas through the New Year,” Nardone said. “Doctors told me that if the infection didn’t get better, then they were going to take my leg.”

Nardone somehow recovered in time to wrestle in the districts. He had only one match under his belt, but won the District 14 and Region 2 tournaments.

“It was quite a journey,” Nardone said. “Not even my closest friends thought it was possible, but I said anything was possible.”

In 1992, Nardone was undefeated, posting a 30-0 record in winning his second state championship at 125 pounds, leaving his mark forever as a Belleville High School immortal.

He’s so revered as a two-time state champ that his name actually appears on the mats at Belleville, along with the school’s other state champs.

It’s on the mat as Emilio Nardone, not Junior, so it confused some of the current Belleville wrestlers.

“They see that and say, `Is that you?’” Nardone said. “Then they react to it.”

Nardone didn’t hesitate when Nisivoccia turned over the keys to the Belleville wrestling room.

“I had to do it,” Nardone said. “I love the wresting community and I had some success. That translates into coaching here at Belleville. It’s important to me. I had to do whatever I could to help the program.”

Nardone knows that the Buccaneers can’t be successful overnight. But he’s optimistic.

“I want them to learn that every time they take the mat, they’re not only wrestling for themselves, but for their teammates, their school and their town,” Nardone said. “Every so often, I see little rays of sunshine. It’s not about wins and losses right now. I just want them to give their all. That’s important to me.” The Bucs’ 106-pounder is sophomore Tommy Graziano, whose father, Tom Sr., was a Belleville wrestler.

“Tommy knows what he’s doing technically,” Nardone said. “He’s just a little outmanned right now, wrestling kids who are bigger. But he’s a good kid and he’s working hard. He’s good to have on the team.”

Sophomore Luis Ovondo is the team’s 113-pounder. “The one thing this kid has is that nobody can beat his work ethic,” Nardone said. “He’s the most dedicated kid on the team. He’ll find success. It’s inevitable because he works so hard.”

Ovondo is part of a dedicated group that Nardone calls “the Breakfast Club.”

“They come to school every day at 6:30 in the morning to work out, lift, watch videos, whatever it is,” Nardone said.

Senior Kenny Nicosia, junior Anthony Jett and sophomore Joe Buonnano are sharing the duties at 120 pounds.

Junior Ronald Smith is perhaps the most improved Belleville wrestler. He won just three matches a year ago, but has already tripled that number this year. “

He embodies what we’re trying to do here,” Nardone said. “He’s intense. He hustles. He pushes himself the most. He’s given a true commitment to this program.”

Junior Michael Vergera and freshman John Centanni are the 132 pounders, with junior Carmine Centanni, senior Hugo Pando, freshman Adam Nguyen and senior Chris Nguyen sharing the time at 138 pounds.

Jefferson Renard, a sophomore, is the 145-pounder, with senior Peter Meggali at 152 pounds.

The team is hoping to get the services of senior Jose Vergera soon. Vergera has been out of action due to academic difficulties, but he was a competitor at Region 4 last year.

Junior Jordan Greene is perhaps the Buccaneers’ best wrestler. The 160-pounder worked diligently throughout the offseason and finished second in the recent Essex County Tournament.

“He’s come along leaps and bounds,” Nardone said of Greene. “He has such a great attitude. I think he’s just breaking out of his shell.”

The Bucs have three wrestlers vying for time at 170 pounds, namely juniors Tyler Lugo and Chris Rodriguez and sophomore Joe Nguyen.

“Lugo is just coming back from injury and Rodriguez is a transfer from Paterson Eastside,” Nardone said.

Senior Chris Bunay is the team’s 182-pounder.

“He’s solid there,” Nardone said.

Junior Nick Nardachone is the team’s most successful wrestler. Nardachone finished second in the District 14 tourney last year and recently took fifth in the ECT. Nardachone was also second at the Edison Tournament earlier in the season.

Junior Elijah Gaines is the 220-pounder. Gaines was second in the Edison Tournament and third in the Bloomfield tourney this season.

The heavyweight is junior Tien Le, who is new to the sport.

“We call him ‘Godzilla,’ because he’s very agile and pinning people,” Nardone said.

The Bucs have a 6-6 record after suffering a loss to rival Nutley Friday night.

“I’m pretty encouraged,” Nardone said. “We beat Union, so that was a good win and gave us a little slice of hope. We just have to keep up the intensity.”

With Nardone in charge, people in Belleville could not expect anything less than intense.

Nutley wrestling: Making most of tough season

Photo by Jim Hague The Nutley wrestling team is very young, but has a handful of championshipcaliber wrestlers. From l. are Steve Scuttaro, Robert Duxbury and Joe Ferinde. Head coach Frank DiPiano is in the rear.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Nutley wrestling team is very young, but has a handful of championship caliber wrestlers. From l. are Steve Scuttaro, Robert Duxbury and Joe Ferinde. Head coach Frank DiPiano is in the rear.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Nutley High School head wrestling coach Frank DiPiano knew that this was going to be a tough season, as he had to rebuild his program, losing a host of talented wrestlers to graduation. But then, DiPiano was hit with the unforeseen transfers, guys who DiPiano was counting on for the new season. “It’s been tough,” DiPiano said. “I was in a little bit of a shock when we lost the transfers. But I preach to our kids that we can only control what we can control. If kids want to leave, there’s nothing you can do about it. We just have to work on getting better every day and work with the kids who we had in the room.” Because DiPiano believed he was going to have a strong season, he scheduled the Maroon Raiders to face some of the toughest teams in the state. “It’s one of the toughest schedules we’ve had since I’ve been here,” DiPiano said. “I told the kids that’s not going to change. We’re still going to face the best.” So the Maroon Raiders have a 9-13 dual meet record after defeating neighboring rival Belleville Friday night, facing the Buccaneers for the first time in five years. It was a special night at Nutley, as former wrestlers from both schools were asked back for the festivities, were introduced during a prematch ceremony and got together for a postmatch celebration. “It was a great night,” DiPiano said. DiPiano said that the program has been fortunate to keep some wrestlers in the fold, some with strong familiar ties, guys like Steve Scuttaro and Joe Ferinde, who had older brothers who wrestled for DiPiano. “It helps to have these guys who had seen it and been around it as we started to change the perception of the program and decided to stay home,” DiPiano said. “The fact that they believe n the system means a lot to me. They know that we can compete with anyone.” Another key returnee is sophomore 106-pounder Robert Duxbury, who has already won 20 matches this season and recently won the Essex County Tournament championship. “He’s just a hard-nosed kid,” DiPiano said of Duxbury. “He’s a very hard worker who is on the verge of becoming a great leader. He’s already set some lofty goals.” DiPiano said that Duxbury reminds him a lot of former Maroon Raider great Bobby Trombetta, the school’s alltime victory leader who is now wrestling at Bloomsburg University. “That’s the type of kid Robert is,” DiPiano said. “He and Bobby share a good relationship and talk a lot.” Ferinde is the team’s 120-pounder. The younger brother of former Maroon Raider standout Michael, Joe Ferinde has an undefeated record (26-0) thus far and also won the Essex County tourney last week. “I’m not surprised with what Joe has done,” DiPiano said. “I’ve watched him improve. He was third in the Region (4) tourney last year and he’s spent so much time on the mat. He’s all business in the classroom and on the mat. He doesn’t let anything get in the way.” Ferinde is a junior with bright promise. Kenny Pena is a junior at 126 pounds. He’s also very improved, considering that he won only three matches last year and has nine wins this season. Sophomore Darwin Pena, Kenny’s cousin, is the team’s 132-pounder. Darwin has 13 wins this season. Freshman C.J. Haddock is the team’s 138-pounder. It’s a tough weight class for a freshman, but Haddock is hanging tough. “He has a lot of promise,” DiPiano said. “He’s in an extremely tough weight class.” Senior Scuttaro has a 22-4 mark after finishing second at the ECT last weekend. Scuttaro is the team’s 145-pounder. “I expect big things from him,” said DiPiano of Scuttaro, whose brother Vinnie was a Nutley standout wrestler. “Steve is a two-time District (14) champion and is a solid team leader. Hopefully, he’ll get to Atlantic City (for the state championships) this year.” Junior Andrew Aiello is the team’s 152-pounder. Junior Jason Castellanos was solid at 160 pounds, but he just recently broke his hip and is lost for the season. Sophomore Lou Long will move into that slot at 160. Sophomore Gerard D’Allessio has won 10 matches at 170 pounds. Senior Santino Gabriele is a first-year wrestler who is learning more about wrestling. “Santino is a soccer player who knew we had some holes in the lineup, so he came out,” DiPiano said. “He’s holding his own as someone who just came out for wrestling.” Freshman Sabino Coppola is another newcomer with a lot of promise, holding the fort at 195 pounds. Senior Rob Spagnuolo is the team’s 220-pounder who has had some varsity experience, while junior Adam Touah is a first-year wrestler at heavyweight who has won 12 matches as a rookie. Needless to say, DiPiano is hopeful that the Maroon Raiders continue to improve. “I’m definitely encouraged,” DiPiano said. “We have a great group of kids who work hard and understand their roles. We have some new kids who are going to take their lumps a little. But we’re just trying to get better every day. That’s the goal.”

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.