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Putting pride back into Belleville football

7-9 BelleFootball_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

When Joe Fischer decided to take over the Belleville High School football program once again for a second stint, he wanted to change the perception more than anything.

“We were starting from scratch,” said Fischer, who was the head coach for four seasons from 2004 through 2007. “I had to put together a plan.” And what did that plan include?

“We had the players pick up garbage,” Fischer said.

Simple enough, no? A day after the Belleville Class of 2014 went through their commencement exercises at Belleville Stadium, Fischer had the 40 or so returning football players go to clean the stadium top to bottom.

“It shows the kids that no one is above picking up garbage,” Fischer said. “It instills pride in their surroundings, where they practice and play. They have a nice field, a nice facility that they should be proud of. And it stops them from throwing stuff on the ground.”

Fischer said that the plan showed its first signs of working when a player went up to a teacher and told the teacher that they can’t throw empty bottles on the ground.

“One of the players ran over, picked up the empty bottle and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Fischer said. “They know that if they’re going to pick up garbage to play, then they’re going to pick up garbage. It’s that simple. I knew I had to start from scratch. I knew that these kids had no pride in their program.”

The clean-up program was a sign to the players that times had indeed changed.

“They knew that things were changing,” Fischer said.

In May, the Belleville football players picked up 25 bags of garbage from the area around Belleville Stadium. After graduation, there was more of the same.

“Discipline doesn’t work if the kids don’t care,” Fischer said. “The kids simply had no pride in their program. It is a form of discipline when they have to take care of where they spend most of their time. We have a nice field. They should take care of it.”

Fischer said that the cleanup routine has already filtered down to the players.

“I told one of the seniors, Nick Nardicchone, that if I found any bottles around, we were going to run gassers for every bottle,” Fischer said. “He made sure that there were no bottles. That’s just the way it is. I’m not a yeller or a screamer, but they are following through with what I say.”

Fischer said that he instituted a similar plan when he became the head coach in 2004.

“We had a bad locker room with old rusty lockers and animals lived there and that ran in and out,” Fischer said. “So we re-did the entire locker room and built new wood lockers. They’re still there. It’s a team building concept.”

Photos courtesy Joe Fischer Belleville football players climb the stairs at Belleville Stadium to clean the facility after graduation ceremonies recently.

Photos courtesy Joe Fischer
Belleville football players climb the stairs at Belleville Stadium to clean the facility after graduation ceremonies recently.


The Buccaneers were in the midst of a 33-game losing streak, the longest in the state, when Fischer took over the first time. They snapped the slide and eventually made the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV state playoffs in 2007, the last time the program reached the postseason.

Fischer said that the players received a treat in May, when 25 of the Buccaneers were treated to partake in the National Football League draft at Radio City Music Hall.

“I have a friend, Gerhardt Sanchez, who used to be the recreation director in Montclair,” Fischer said. “He ran a 7-on-7 for the NFL in Montclair. We’ve become friends. He now works for the NFL. He called me and asked if I wanted to take some kids to the draft. So we brought 25 kids.”

The Belleville gridders got to meet Giants punter Steve Weatherford and Jets running back Chris Ivory while watching the draft.

“There were coaches and general managers walking around,” Fischer said. “It was really a nice day, another day toward team building. Half of the players had never even been to New York City before. It might be only 12 miles away, but it’s totally different to them. It was such a great day. The kids are still talking about it.”

The Buccaneers might not set the world on fire this season, but there’s one thing for sure. There’s a new sheriff in town. Actually, it’s the old sheriff, but he’s making sure that things are being done the right away and being done with a sense of pride.

“We’re starting from the bottom, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Fischer said.

Nutley’s Montgomery named Observer Female Co-Athlete of the Year

7-2 Athlete_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Grace Montgomery never thought she was doing anything special. The recent Nutley High School graduate just gravitated from soccer in the fall to basketball in the winter and outdoor track, particularly the javelin, in the spring. Just one after another. No big thing.

“During that season, whatever the sport was, I put my whole heart and soul into that sport,” Montgomery said. “In the summer, we would have captains’ practice for soccer, then I’d go play basketball in the summer league and then do running and workouts for track. Sure, it was difficult, but I had fun. I loved all three sports I played. It wasn’t that big of a deal because I had been doing them all my whole life. I couldn’t imagine just doing one of them.”

Soccer was the first sport in Montgomery’s life. Along with twin sister Meghan, the two formed a terrific twosome playing defense from a very young age, like from kindergarten on.

“They called them the ‘Twin Towers,’” said their father, William. “They were so tall and strong back there.”

“I think I was pretty good in soccer right away,” Grace Montgomery said.

Basketball then followed a year later.

“I guess I was pretty good in basketball as well,” Grace Montgomery said. “My parents were both good athletes, so that helped.”

William Montgomery played baseball and track and field at Bayonne High School, while mom Ellen played basketball at Secaucus High School and later was part of the swim team at St. Peter’s College.

“It helped that they were both into sports and got us into sports,” Montgomery said.

The javelin was the last of the Montgomery trifecta.

“I didn’t start throwing the javelin until the end of my sophomore year,” Montgomery said. “My uncle sort of mentioned that if I became good in the javelin, it would help me get into college.”

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The results were staggering. Montgomery was a standout defender on the Nutley girls’ soccer team that went undefeated in league play and won the Super Essex Conference- -Liberty Division title. She also averaged 13 points per game for the Nutley girls’ basketball team that posted a 10-2 SEC Liberty Division mark, good for second in the league.

But the cherry on the sundae was the latest. Montgomery came from way back in the pack to unleash a monstrous throw of 136 feet, two inches to become the overall state champion at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions last month. Montgomery entered the last day of competition as the 10th  seed in the entire state, saving her career best throw for last, capturing the gold. A week later, Montgomery went to the United States Track and Field High School Nationals in Charlotte, N.C., and Montgomery finished 14th out of 60 competitors nationwide.

For her efforts, Montgomery has been selected as the 2013-2014 Observer Female Co- Athlete of the Year, becoming only the second Nutley girl to receive the honor.

Former softball standout Kelly Rauco was the only other former Maroon Raider great to receive the award, getting the nod in 2006.

Montgomery is one of two recipients for the award given to the top local female high school athlete. The other Female Co-Athlete of the Year will be revealed in next week’s editions of The Observer.

“It’s incredible,” Montgomery said. “I’m pretty impressed. It’s a pretty huge deal. It’s all still pretty crazy to me. I worked so hard to get there.”

Her coaches all knew that Montgomery was someone special.

“She was a lock down defender for a team that won 18 games and won a league title,” said Nutley girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano. “We also reached the top 20 in the state for the first time. She never shied away from a tackle and always played a physical game. She was the stopper her sophomore year and we moved her to outside back and she never once complained about the move.”

DiPiano was asked what he would always remember about Montgomery.

“I think it’s her toughness,” DiPiano said. “She was banged up most of the time and yet, she was a three-sport athlete. I don’t know how many true three-sport athletes there are anymore. It’s a dying breed. She’s one of the last true three-sport athletes.”

Nutley girls’ basketball coach Larry Mitschow agreed.

“Grace was an unbelievable leader for us, both on and off the court,” Mitschow said. “She did a whole bunch of things for us.

She brought the ball up the floor. She was our second leading scorer. She was our top defender and she played injured for most of the season. She managed to work her way through it. She would defensively play the top player on the other team. She really was an important player for us.” Mitschow was asked what he would remember about Montgomery.

“Her personality,” Mitschow said. “She was just a joy to coach. I loved talking to her, being able to speak to her as an adult, speaking freely about anything and everything. There were no barriers between us. We jelled well right away. She was easy to talk to.”

Track coach Robert O’Dell raved about Montgomery’s accomplishments.

“She had an outstanding career,” O’Dell said. “She’s the first Meet of Champions winner we’ve had in 39 years and just the second in school history. It was a perfect ending to a great career, with the drama of the last throw. She had an outstanding season that won’t be replicated for a long while.”

O’Dell was also asked what he would remember.

“Her ability to compete,” O’Dell said. “She competed and competed and was able to pull out that clutch throw.”

Montgomery will now take her immense talents to Rowan University, where she will solely compete in the javelin. Her soccer and basketball careers seem to be over.

“It’s going to be pretty different, competing in just one sport,” Montgomery said. “But I know that if I concentrated the whole year on one sport, I could be really good. It was always about three sports, but now, I’m excited to focus on just the javelin the whole time.”

Montgomery is still undecided about a major at Rowan, but one thing is for sure: She left Nutley High School with a legacy of greatness, of determination, of playing through pain and never giving up. That’s the reason she has been selected as the area’s top female athlete – or at the very least, a share of the top billing.

We’ll learn about the other Female Athlete of the Year next week.

Local MMA fighter wins her first bout in debut as a pro

7-2 Sports View_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Kearny resident Katlyn Chookagian spends most of her time working as a bartender at Lulu’s, the nightclub inside the W Hotel in Hoboken.

Four days a week, you’ll find Chookagian mixing cocktails at the popular bar in the Mile Square City.

During the rest of her time, she’s busy training at the All-Star BJJ in Kenilworth, working with five other mixed martial arts fighters who are part of Team Renzo Gracie.

“He comes and runs the classes sometimes,” Chookagian said of the legendary mixed martial arts master. “I’m generally training six days a week. It’s hard, because I go to bed at 4:30 a.m. after bartending and I’m up at 6 a.m. to train. Sometimes, I get yelled at, because I’m overtraining, but that’s what I do. If I’m not training, what else am I going to do? I like it. It keeps me prepared.”

The hard work paid off last weekend, as Chookagian, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 115 pounds, won her professional debut, taking a three-round unanimous decision over Rebecca Heintzman at the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia in the Cage Fury Fighting Championship series.

Chookagian’s bout was the lone female bout in the 11-bout card Saturday night.

Chookagian, a native of Quakertown, Pa., attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, graduating in 2011 with a degree in business management.

But getting in the cage was always something that Chookagian dreamed of doing.

“I always did martial arts,” Chookagian said. “I started doing karate when I was four years old. I then did a lot of kick boxing as part of staying in shape, so I always had it in me.”

She also had the boxing down pat, winning the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves when she was 16 years old.

“I’m a very competitive person,” Chookagian said. “About a year and a half ago, I put it all together and got involved in mixed martial arts. There weren’t that many girls involved at that time, but the numbers of women in the sport are growing. My goal was always to do MMA.”

In 2012, Chookagian was spotted by manager Jamal Patterson, who took Chookagian under his wing.

“He helped me get to where I’m at,” Chookagian said. “I was having trouble finding fights and it was hard for me to develop in the sport. Jamal planned out my career and gave me a strong path to build it up.”

There were seven amateur MMA fights, all of which the 25-year-old Chookagian won.

“He saw me right away and took the extra time to help me,” Chookagian said. “I improved a lot in a short period.”

So Chookagian was ready for her pro debut last weekend.

“I was really excited to get my first pro fight,” Chookagian said. “This is what I wanted. When I started, it seemed so far away. I remember seeing a girl fighting MMA and saying, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I never thought I would actually do it. It’s crazy.”

Chookagian, who used to live in Jersey City before moving to Kearny a few months ago, doesn’t know how long she will continue in the mixed martial arts world. She’s only 25, so she has a very bright future.

“I have done everything to prepare for this first fight,” Chookagian said. “There’s no better time than now to get this career going. I do think the maturity is going to help me a little bit, because I’ve been through a lot.”

Chookagian is not going to let one win get to her head.

“I’m always trying to get better,” Chookagian said. “That’s all I think about when I get into the cage. I’m looking to get better. But I definitely like this.”

As long as she keeps winning, then Katlyn Chookagian will like MMA fighting almost as much as she likes bartending.

Katlyn Chookagian can be followed on Twitter @ blondefighter.

Farinola takes over as girls’ soccer coach at North Arlington

7-2 Farinola NA_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Dan Farinola already had been one of the busiest coaches around, coaching bowling, golf and soccer all year long, so when the opportunity to take over the girls’ soccer program at North Arlington High School, where Farinola is a teacher, he had to jump at it.

Former coach Sharon O’Brien Romer stepped down at the end of last season to attend to her growing family, leaving the vacancy at the helm of the girls’ soccer squad.

Farinola, who coaches bowling and golf at North Arlington, had been the head boys’ soccer coach at Secaucus for the past six seasons. Farinola is a graduate of Secaucus and spent 10 years with the boys’ soccer program there.

“For a while, I always wanted to coach soccer where I was teaching,” said Farinola, who guided the Secaucus boys to a 10-10-2 record last season. “If ever the opportunity came around, I wanted to be considered. I spent 10 years at Secaucus and I left them in a good situation. It was tough to leave. I felt bad for the seniors that I coached for three years. I had mixed emotions about leaving. But I’m looking forward to the new challenge.”

Farinola said that the transition becoming the new girls’ soccer coach has been smooth.

“The girls really listened to me right away,” said Farinola, who has already entered his team in the Kearny summer league. “Sharon was very gracious and helpful in the transition. She reserved the spot in the Kearny league for us. We are good friends. She’s the one who got this started. I owe a lot to her.”

The 30-year-old Farinola said that the returning players have been receptive to the new coach.

“They’ve been very responsive to me,” Farinola said. “There is a certain way I’m going to coach the team. In terms of fitness, in terms of conditioning, they are going through walls so far. They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them.”

Farinola knows that he lost a number of players from last year’s team that won eight matches.

“I know we’ve lost a lot of girls numbers-wise,” Farinola said. “But we have a good group that has a lot of good varsity experience.”

High-scoring midfielder Joanna Seca, forward Taylor Barth and standout defender Sarah Palma all return this season for the Vikings.

“They are the captains and they give us good leadership,” Farinola said. “We do have a lot of pieces to fill, but I’m optimistic from what I’ve seen. I think we can be competitive right away. The biggest thing for me right now is trying to find a goalie. I have some girls in mind for the defense. But we can be competitive this year. I definitely believe that.” Farinola said that it will be a big help to him that he will be in the building every day as a teacher.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference for me,” said Farinola, who guided the NA golf team to a berth in the NJSIAA state sectionals for the first time two months ago. “I can see the kids during the day. I will see them excited in the building. I’m really excited to be able to coach the girls.”

Farinola said that it also helps that he knows most of the girls already from being a teacher at the school for the past few years.

“I think that is a big asset,” Farinola said. “It took me so long at Secaucus to get to know the kids. That’s half the battle. If I can get along with the players and they trust me and have trust in the system, that’s a big step. I feel I’m already there with these girls. They trust me and want to learn.”

Farinola already has reached out to the North Arlington Recreation soccer program and had a clinic for seventh and eighth graders.

“We had a good turnout for that,” Farinola said. “I’m looking forward to doing more, so the kids could make a commitment to come to North Arlington High School and play soccer for us. We’re also looking forward to getting kids who never played soccer before and turning them into soccer players. It’s a big challenge to get girls to commit to playing soccer. One thing I’ve been talking to the girls about was having three-sport athletes.

Added Farinola, “I know we have a lot of girls who played soccer in town and maybe lost interest. It’s up to me to get them back.”

Farinola said that he already has received a commitment from veteran coach Gino De- Pinto to serve as his assistant. DePinto was the long-time girls’ soccer coach at Secaucus who retired two years ago.

“He’s going to be a big asset,” Farinola said. “His background in coaching is big and he knows the league well.”

So Farinola will continue to coach bowling in the winter and golf in the spring, but he now adds a third sport, like many of the athletes do, at North Arlington High School.

World Cup soccer fever comes to Kearny once again

6-25 front_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

When Portugal scored the equalizing goal with just 15 seconds remaining in added time Sunday, grasping a tie out of the jaws of a Team USA victory in the second round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, local soccer fans could try to put a positive spin on everything.

Well, at least it wasn’t a loss.

And before the game began, every single Team USA fan would have taken a draw against Portugal, one of the favorites in the tournament and featuring the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo. Before the game, odds makers had Portugal as a two-goal favorite to win the match.

And the 2-2 tie wasn’t exactly the worst outcome the Red, White and Blue could have received. Team USA now needs at least a draw against world power Germany Thursday morning to advance to the field of 16.

However, it was the way the game ended that caused such pain and anguish.

“It was a stinger,” said Christian Garing, a former Kearny High School soccer standout who now runs the Kearny Red Bull Army, a group that attends all New York Red Bulls home games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison.

But Garing had mixed emotions Monday morning.

“I went to bed feeling that we lost,” Garing said. “I woke up a little more positive thinking we can move on. If someone would have told me before the World Cup started that we’d have a win over Ghana and a tie with Portugal, I would have signed that contract right away.”

Regardless of the outcome, the sport of soccer has received a major boost by the attention the World Cup has received.

Just a look at the restaurants and bars in the area is proof that World Cup fever has definitely caught on.

At the popular Kearny Scots- American Club, the joint was rocking with soccer fans both for the win over Ghana last Monday and the draw with Portugal Sunday.

“I think with each passing World Cup, we get to see a bigger following in the United States,” Garing said. “The sport is getting a more positive spin from the media. You can tell by the patriotism that is being portrayed on television that things are turning around. The sport has definitely grown.”

Garing is also impressed with the way Team USA has played in its first two games. People like Clint Dempsey, who has scored a goal in each game, have become household names. Graham Zusi has collected an assist in each game. Both Dempsey and Zusi are Major League Soccer players.

Dempsey scored his first goal just seconds into the game against Ghana and later suffered a severely broken nose, but was able to play against Portugal on Sunday and scored once again, becoming a nation al hero overnight.

Jermaine Jones gave the United States some hope with his brilliant strike from 25 yards out, tying the game in the 64th minute, before Dempsey scored from Zusi in the 80th  minute, giving everyone anticipation of the upset win that just wasn’t meant to be.

“I was in Kearny and Harrison before the World Cup and the talk was that the U.S. wasn’t going to score a single goal in the World Cup,” Garing said. “People were saying that we were not going to get through (to the field of 16). That conversation has sure changed. Now, we think we can win and move on.”

Before the World Cup began, United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quoted as saying that the United States “had no chance whatsoever of winning the World Cup” this year.

Those comments hit a few sour notes locally.

“I can see where he’s coming from,” said former Kearny High soccer standout Miguel Abreu, watching the games with his entire family, including 2-year-old son Dylan. “But as a player, you never want to hear that. It’s an uphill battle to begin with. You never want to hear your coach saying that.”

Photo by Jim Hague The avid soccer fans at the Kearny Scots-American Club erupt after Clint Dempsey scored an early goal against Ghana.

Photo by Jim Hague
The avid soccer fans at the Kearny Scots-American Club erupt after Clint
Dempsey scored an early goal against Ghana.


“I think he was trying to get the best of his team,” said Kearny resident Ed Coleman. “That’s the German mentality (Klinsmann is a former German soccer standout and great coach). They try to underplay everything and hope that the team overachieves. I think the USA fans are more upset with those words than the players. The players know what they’re up against.”

“I hope we get him to eat his words,” said fellow Kearny resident Lennon Gomez, a former Kearny High athlete. “I don’t understand how you say those things before the tournament begins.”

Coleman was certain that Team USA was going to do well in the World Cup.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of fans,” Coleman said. “Our backline is young. We also have the best goaltender in the world.”

Tim Howard, Team USA’s net minder, is a former Kearny resident who lived on Pleasant Place when he played for the old MetroStars.

“We’re all hyped up for this,” Coleman said. “It’s unbelievable.”

“It’s beautiful to see all the Kearny people get excited for the World Cup,” Gomez said. “The Kearny pride is showing. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Abreu was glad to be able to share it with his young son.

“It’s a long time coming,” Abreu said. “The World Cup only comes around every four years. It’s such a great experience here, especially in Kearny, with all the different nationalities in the town. We’re ready for a good USA run. The afternoon games are nice, because we can bring our families. We have second, third and even fourth generation soccer fans here. It’s great to see.”

Garing notices the way Kearny just explodes with excitement during the World Cup. However, it’s not just locally. ESPN showed viewing parties in places like Grant Park in Chicago and Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where thousands of USA fans gathered together to show their support.

World Cup fever has encompassed the nation, but especially in our own backyard.

“I don’t know if we’re ready to win the World Cup yet,” Garing said. “We still have to earn some respect throughout the world. But we have shown we can win games.”

The United States was just 15 seconds away from winning Sunday and moving on to the final 16. Silvestre Varela’s header off the brilliant cross from Ronaldo dashed those hopes. Now, Team USA has to do it the hard way against Germany. Kearny and the surrounding communities are just hoping upon hope that World Cup fever will include the United States national team through the weekend.

NJSIAA honors top scholar-athletes Tomko & Ojo

6-25 View_web



By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

She lettered in four different sports during her brilliant four-year career at Lyndhurst High School, participating in soccer, basketball, swimming and softball.

But Grace Tomko’s lasting legacy will go far beyond the fields of play, the court or the pool.

Last Thursday, Tomko delivered the valedictory speech at the Lyndhurst commencement exercises.

It’s not every day that a student-athlete earns the right to be a class valedictorian. But Tomko’s impressive athletic resume, combined with her 4.14 grade point average and 1750 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, catapulted her to the top of her class.

“I always put school ahead of sports,” said Tomko, who helped the Lyndhurst softball team capture the NJSIAA North 2, Group II state sectional championship last month. “I was just able to balance it all.”

Last month, Tomko represented Lyndhurst at the NJSIAA’s 21st Annual Scholar-Athlete awards luncheon at the Pines Manor in Edison.

The state association honored one student from each participating school. In all, the NJSIAA has honored 6,350 scholar-athletes over the last two decades and has presented nearly $1.25 million in scholarships to those recipients.

Tomko was more than overjoyed receiving the award.

“It meant the world to me,” said Tomko, who is headed to the University of Delaware in the fall. “When you’re a high school student-athlete, you don’t get recognized for the student part. This recognized both.”

Another local athlete honored at the NJSIAA Scholar-Athlete awards luncheon was Babatunde Ojo from Queen of Peace.

Ojo, who played football, wrestled, power lifted and participated in track and field at QP, was also honored to be selected to represent his school at the luncheon.

“I was extremely happy to be a part of it,” Ojo said. “Ever since I entered Queen of Peace, I felt like I had more pride than anyone else. I knew deep down that I had a lot of pride representing the school.”

Ojo said that he was pleased that there were other familiar faces at the luncheon.

“There were others who I created friendships with over the years through sports,” Ojo said. “That made the day very enjoyable.”

Ojo said that he prided himself as both a student and an athlete.

“I really can’t describe the pride I had in my schoolwork,” Ojo said. “I knew that my class work would really help the school, as did sports.”

Ojo will major in business and computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall. He carried a 3.7 grade point average and scored 1830 on his SATs.

“I always felt that sports and academics kind of both went hand in hand,” Ojo said. “I was able to deal with all kind of sports and different kinds of technical things in the classroom.”

Other local students honored by the NJSIAA include Rebecca Goncalves of Kearny, Bridget Ismaelito of Bloomfield, Pavel Aparcana of Harrison and Nicholas Perrone of Nutley.

Tomko got the chance to reflect on her incredible high school career.

“I’m actually speechless,” Tomko said. “I can’t believe it’s all over. I can look back with no regrets. I did everything to my best.”

Tomko was asked about if she was more nervous delivering her key speech or delivering a clutch play on the soccer pitch or the softball diamond.

“That’s tough,” Tomko said. “When I was walking out to make the speech, (softball) Coach (Emily) Ringen was standing there. I said to her that I felt like I was going out to play a big game, but there was more excitement to give the speech than it was to play a game. I was more excited than nervous.”

But Tomko delivered the speech, much like she delivered a state sectional championship.

“It doesn’t end any better than that,” Tomko said.

Locals return to St. Peter’s Prep to play football for a cause

6-25 football reunion_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

The 1994 NJSIAA Non- Public A state championship football game between Bergen Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep might have taken place 20 years ago, but don’t dare tell that to Kearny natives Jeff Skinner and Gerry McDermott.

The two former Prep standouts, who combined for the game-clinching touchdown in Giants Stadium on that fateful December afternoon two decades ago, were one of the most prolific passing combinations in the history of the school.

Last Saturday morning, Skinner and McDermott returned to their high school alma mater to participate in a football reunion, a way to raise money for a scholarship foundation named after a guy who was important to both local standouts. S

kinner, McDermott and about 50 or so other former Prep gridiron greats returned to Jersey City to play in the Jerome Pedersen Memorial Football Classic, named after the former Prep do-everything who died tragically at the tender age of 27 in 2001.

“It’s really special to come back,” said Skinner, who quarterbacked the Marauders to the 26-24 upset win over Bergen Catholic, ranked No. 1 in the entire nation at the time, in the state championship game.

“I don’t get the opportunity to come back often and throw the ball around. It’s a lot of fun. Coming back again, it really feels like yesterday. I’m running into people all the time and all they want to do is talk about the 1994 state championship game.” McDermott now lives on Long Island, but most of his family still resides in Kearny. He was at the game with his two young sons and his pregnant wife, due in August.

“I try to get back to Prep at least once or twice a year, but this is special, because I get to run around with Skinner once again.”

The two hooked up for several passes during the games. It looked as if the clock had stopped still.

Skinner went on to play at Wagner, while McDermott played at Fordham.

“It’s great to see good friends and teammates that I played with 20 years ago,” McDermott said. “I still keep in touch with a lot of the guys, but it’s hard to see them all. When you think it’s 20 years ago, it puts everything in perspective. It makes me feel old.”

McDermott said that he was happy to do something to keep the memory of Pedersen, who was known affectionately as “Gee.” Pedersen was the equipment manager, bus driver, assistant trainer, scorekeeper, you name it, down at the Prep during those days.

Photos by Jim Hague Kearny native Jeff Skinner showed that he still had the skills of a quarterback who led St. Peter’s Prep to the 1994 NJSIAA Non- Public A state title.

Photos by Jim Hague
Kearny native Jeff Skinner showed that he still had the skills of a quarterback who led St. Peter’s Prep to the 1994 NJSIAA Non-Public A state title.


“Jerome was such a good guy and such an integral part of our team,” McDermott said. “It’s an excellent opportunity to come back and celebrate a great life. What happened to him was sad, especially at such a young age. It really makes you appreciate things more. I always remember him in that equipment room. I always tried to get something extra, like a better facemask. It was tough to get what I wanted, because of him.”

“It’s a shame that it took so long to get something done like this,” Skinner said. “He did so much for our program and never got the credit. He was one of us.”

Skinner now lives in Glen Rock with his wife and son.

“I’m just glad I can still throw it a little,” Skinner said.

Alfredo Huaranga graduated in 2003, but the Harrison native wanted to be a part of the reunion and to honor Pedersen as well.

“The Prep family is such a tight-knit close family,” said Huaranga, whose wife, Kim, is the athletic director at Harrison High School. “I just love being here. I love Prep. I knew Gee and he was a great guy. He was always there to help us, whether to give us a hand or a ride somewhere. We’re all here together today. Everyone came together finally to remember Jerome and never forget him.”

Rich Hansen, who coached the Marauders’ three state championship squads, including the 1994 team, considered to be the best in the history of the school, felt honored to be part of the celebration, given that he coached all of the players on the field.

“It’s awesome to see so many great guys who meant so much to our program over the years to finally come back and have some fun,” Hansen said. “Maybe they’re rekindling the flame a little. It’s all about memories, a strong family bond we all shared. It’s good to see that.” Hansen was asked if he could believe it was 20 years since Skinner and McDermott combined for that great touchdown catch in Giants Stadium.

“It’s crazy,” Hansen said. “I’ve been to so many of their weddings and then the christening of their children. Time sure flies.”

And Hansen was happy that the day was for such a good cause.

“Gee is the one who breathes the life into all of us,” Hansen said. “If you played here, if you didn’t have the chance to know him, you certainly knew of him. He was important to all of us. That’s what makes this special. It doesn’t matter the generation you came from. You know him. The guys are excited to be here and excited for the cause. I feel good for the Prep football bloodline.”

Lawrence Alexander graduated in 1999, but he remembered Pedersen very well. Alexander was the organizer of the event.

“I lived right around the corner from Gee (in Newark), so many times, I would ride to Prep with him,” Alexander said. “He was a bridge builder for me. He was my friend, my bridge, my caregiver. Once I took off that helmet and headed home, the only one I had was Jerome.” Alexander estimates that the event raised approximately $4,000 for the Jerome Pedersen Memorial Scholarship Fund.

“My goal is to raise the cost of one year tuition for a student,” Alexander said. “When we have days like Saturday, we can’t lose.”

So much so that the Second Annual Jerome Pedersen Football Classic is already scheduled for June 20, 2015.

In that respect, friends like Skinner and McDermott can get together for a few passes then as well.

Dyl, Kelly enjoy success on field, in classroom

dyl Kelly_web

Top Kearny scholar-athletes have been friends since Pre-K

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The friendship began innocently when Nicole Kelly and Steven Dyl were just four years old.

“I just remember always being in the same class with Nicole,” said Dyl, who will graduate from Kearny High School this week. “We just kind of always got along.”

“If I ever needed a good laugh, Steven is always there for me to make me laugh,” said Kelly, who will also be part of the school’s commencement exercises this week. “If I was having a bad day, I would go to Steven. We’ve been friends for so long.”

The friendship carried over from the classroom to the neighborhood courtyard, where the two would play sports.

“We were always together,” Kelly said. “We’ve always been in the same class. We would go to the courtyard to play. I was always with the boys, because none of the girls wanted to be athletic. I always went with the boys.”

Dyl didn’t mind having Kelly as a buddy, because he had an older sister, Allyson, who was an excellent athlete.

“I think it helped that I was always around that lifestyle,” Dyl said of his older sister, who was The Observer Female Athlete of the Year in 2008. “Being around my sister was a big motivation. Whenever I’d play basketball, I’d watch her. She would never go easy on me. She told me that it was the only way I was going to get better. I always liked that competition. Because, you know, you never want to get beat by your sister.”

The two longtime friends went to Kearny High together and sure enough, they found themselves in most of the same classes.

“We hang out together in school,” Kelly said. “Steven has always been a good student, the one getting the highest grades.”

As it turned out, Kelly and Dyl are both excellent students and were recently honored as the top student-athletes of the school.

“It felt good to get it with Steven because we’ve been friends for so long,” said Kelly, who played soccer and softball at the school, helping both teams win Hudson County championships this year. “I wouldn’t want it to be with someone else. We’re the top two student-athletes. It’s good that we’re both good in the classroom. I take a lot of pride in my schoolwork. It takes a lot of work and dedication to put the time in for both. It says a lot about us to be good in both.”

Dyl agreed about the importance of an education.

“It’s always been important to me,” said Dyl, who played hockey and baseball this season. “I’ve always been dedicated to my schoolwork. Since I’m not going to a school to play sports, it was very important for me to get a good education.”

Dyl is an A student who is ranked 16th in the Class of 2014. He will head to Richard Stockton College in the fall to major in engineering. He also plans on taking the Civil Service test in the future to become a firefighter, like his father, Kearny Fire Chief Steven Sr.

“It’s always an option,” the younger Dyl said. “I’ll take the test down the line, just in case. You never know.”

Dyl said that he knew Kelly would be the top female student-athlete in the school.

“I just kind of expected it, because she’s just as dedicated as I am in the classroom,” Dyl said.

Kelly will go to the University of Tampa to major in sports management. She will play soccer there.

Kelly said it’s going to be a lot different in the fall, not having Dyl in her classes.

“It’s going to be so different, the two of us being thousands of miles apart,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be weird without him in my classes.”

“It’s definitely going to be a little different,” Dyl said. “We’ve been in the same classroom together since we were 4 years old. She’s definitely not going to be in any of my classes now. But it’s been great to have Nicole as a friend. It’s fitting that we both got this award. She’s been a lot of fun. It’s pretty remarkable.”

“I can’t believe it’s all over,” Kelly said. “I’m glad I got to share this with Steven.”

Dyl said that he needs to remain friends with Kelly, even though they will be in separate places come late August.

“She’s a funny kid who makes me laugh,” Dyl said. “There aren’t too many people around who can remember what happened to us in third grade. That’s always good to have.”

As is having a good friend for a lifetime.

Softball won’t be the same without ‘Coach Mac’


By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

He wasn’t a very big man, but his stature was larger than life. He didn’t serve as a head coach in the sport of softball, but he was the premier coach when it came to the art of softball pitching. If you wanted to improve your pitching skills, you went to Jim MacDonald, affectionately known as “Coach Mac.”

The Lyndhurst resident was without question the foremost knowledgeable person when it came to pitching a softball. No one knows the origin of his brilliance, but everyone now knows that if you wanted to be a good softball pitcher, you took lessons from the genius.

“He knew so much about softball,” said former Lyndhurst High School standout hurler Casey Zdanek, currently pitching at Drew University. “I learned so much from him. I’ve been going to him since I was 10 years old.”

Jim MacDonald died last week after a brief illness that caught everyone who knew him totally by surprise. The obituary about Mac- Donald’s passing listed his age as 78, but no one could fathom that idea, because he had more fire in his belly and pep in his step than most men half his age.

The litany of successful high school and college pitchers who went to MacDonald for private pitching lessons would astound anyone. Over the last 30 years, it is believed that close to 1,000 prospective hurlers went to MacDonald for pitching advice.

MacDonald received a few pence for his private lessons, which were supposed to last just 30 minutes, but more than likely, were extended to an hour. He worked day and night with softball hurlers, teaching them how to mix up their pitches, how to locate pitches, how to dominate in the circle.

“Honestly, for me, it’s like losing my grandfather,” Zdanek said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned from him. Not just only about softball, but about life. He always had these little life tales. No matter what was going on in my life, I could go to him. He knew so much about softball. He also always had little stories. He had such a good sense of humor.”

Zdanek still uses what she learned from the pitching guru.

“The main thing is go after the batter,” Zdanek said. “You have to stay ahead. Show them early that you have a changeup. That’s important to have. He made my changeup so good and taught me how to use it. He taught me to use it as a weapon and to not let them know when it was coming. He told me to face the first batter and throw three changeups in a row, so the other team knows I had a good one. It keeps them off balance. Added Zdanek, “If someone is crowding the plate, throw the screwball, so you let them smell the seams of the ball.”

Lyndhurst High School viceprincipal Frank Venezia spent 16 years with MacDonald at St. Mary’s of Rutherford, where Venezia was the head softball coach and MacDonald a volunteer assistant.

“We were very close,” Venezia said. “We were close until the end. He’s going to be missed. People don’t realize the magnitude of how many people he touched in his lifetime.”

Venezia recalled how he became paired with MacDonald.

“A pitcher Mac worked with named Donna Recker was pitching at Wood-Ridge and later Seton Hall,” Venezia said. “Mac was working with Donna and she was a real nice young lady. Well, she was diagnosed with cancer while at Seton Hall and she had to stop playing. I asked her to see if she was interested in helping me out at St. Mary’s and she came on. Mac was very close with her, so he came aboard.”

Recker succumbed to the cancer soon after, but MacDonald and Venezia remained close.

“We were together with several different teams, like the New Jersey Shilohs and the Clifton Charmers,” Venezia said. “Mac was a phenomenal instructor. The biggest thing with him was to make sure mechanics were sound. He emphasized with kids that learning how to pitch wasn’t simply throwing hard. It was about analyzing batters, changing speeds. Whatever you could do to help a kid get better, that’s what he was all about.”

Venezia stopped coaching when he became an administrator in the Lyndhurst school district in 2004.

“There were a lot of games together, a lot of good memories,” Venezia said. “He touched so many kids. It’s going to be difficult for us to see someone who is like Mac, the way he dedicated himself to the game, to the kids, was exceptional.”

Bloomfield resident Rob Stern has been coaching softball for the last quarter century, including a long run as the head coach at Cedar Grove. Now helping to run the successful program at Mount St. Dominic, Stern also has fond memories of his relationship with Mac.

“I spent many a night taking my girls to get lessons from Mac in Lyndhurst,” Stern said. “I’d watch a few lessons, then a few more. Next thing you know, it’s 9:30 and Mac says, ‘Let’s get something to eat.’ And we’d hang out at the IHOP on Rt. 3 just talking softball.”

Stern also learned life lessons from “Coach Mac.”

“Mac was always about the kids,” Stern said. “It was all about teaching kids the right way. He just had a way about him that he would give a kid a lesson and always made that kid leave with a smile. He was able to get the best out of people. The knowledge he left me with, just being around him. So many little things, Mac things. He just had that Grandpa feel about him. Everyone loved him. I can’t find anyone who didn’t love him.”

MacDonald also coached kids no matter where they came from. For example, he worked with Zdanek pitching for Lyndhurst, knowing that Zdanek would eventually have to face his St. Mary’s team. The rivalry never mattered. It was all about the kid. “

He would stop by my house and sit with me and my parents on my porch,” Zdanek said. “He would drive back and forth to see if we were there. He’d then stop by and give me something to work on, some strategy. No matter what, he always came and talked to me. Even when I did good, he had a little critique to make me a better player.”

Zdanek was asked what she will remember most.

“His adorable smile and laugh,” Zdanek said. “It really was contagious. His smile would make anyone’s day. I’m very sad.” Stern was also asked what he’ll remember.

“He always looked the same,” Stern said. “He didn’t age. He was like Dick Clark. He always pitched and caught with kids. He was doing that three months ago. He was a great guy. He’s always going to be with us. His knowledge, teaching kids about doing the right thing. That’s what I’ll remember.”

One thing is for sure. No one will ever know more about softball and pitching like Jim MacDonald. Coach Mac’s legacy will live on with the many pitchers and coaches he worked with over the years. A one-of-a-kind gentleman, Jim MacDonald, a.k.a. “Coach Mac,” will be missed but never forgotten.

Damiano named new Belleville boys’ soccer coach




By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

After a successful career playing soccer, first at Belleville High School, then later St. Peter’s College and then the Kearny Scots-American Club on the semipro level and the New Jersey Stallions of the United States Interregional Soccer League, the forerunner to today’s MLS, Jim Damiano experimented with life in the business world.

“I was a partner in a recruiting firm,” said Damiano, now age 45. “But I wasn’t happy doing it. I always wanted to be a teacher and be with the kids.”

And with that dream came the hope of also being a head soccer coach.

Last year, Damiano returned to his alma mater as a coach and teacher. Damiano coached the freshmen and was an assistant with the varsity under Mike Gaccione.

When Gaccione decided to move on to take an administrative position at another school, Belleville Athletic Director Tom D’Elia recommended Damiano to move into the slot.

“Tom approached me and basically told me that the job was mine if I wanted it,” said Damiano, who ranks as one of the all-time leading scorers at both Belleville and St. Peter’s. “How could I say no? It’s a no-brainer for me to give back to where I was from and where I played.”

Damiano has become a special education teacher in the Belleville school system.

Damiano, whose wife, the former Nadine Gaitka, was the former girls’ soccer coach at Harrison High, before stepping down to concentrate on raising the couple’s two sons, knows that he’s inheriting a program that is on the rise.

The Buccaneers won the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship last season and were competitive in the Essex County Tournament and NJSIAA state playoffs.

“Of course, this should be my honeymoon year, because we only lost two seniors,” Damiano said. “There are usually big expectations when you win the conference like we did.”

Not only has Damiano improved the Buccaneers’ independent schedule, taking on teams like Kearny and Ridgewood in non-league matches, but the Bucs will also face a tougher SEC schedule against teams like Millburn, Glen Ridge, Verona and Seton Hall Prep.

“We’re going to be tested right from the beginning,” Damiano said. “We should have a good team.”

One thing that will change will be the Buccaneers’ approach.

“We’ve made a few changes in style and we’re going with a 4-5-1 lineup,” Damiano said.

The move was to accentuate the talents of returning senior midfielder Max Correa, easily one of the best returning players in Essex County, never mind the state.

“He’s extremely good with the ball,” Damiano said. “He’s exciting to watch.”

The Bucs also have talented sweeper Marlon Rodriguez, who will be a senior. Rodriguez made all the defensive moves, leaving the offense to players like Correa..

“When you have a player like Max, you have to do something to get the most of his talent,” Damiano said.

The Bucs also returned speed striker Luis Lopez, who scored 28 goals last season.

“The talent is there,” Damiano said. “I knew when Mike was leaving that this was going to be a good returning team. The kids knew that when Mike was leaving, they wanted me to take the job. They didn’t want anyone else.”

The Buccaneers began their official offseason workout regimen last Saturday, so the players got a sense of what Damiano is looking at as a head coach.

“Every day,” Damiano said. “Every single day, we’re looking toward this season. The kids are very responsive to the changes we’ve made.”

Damiano said that he has been ready for the challenge ahead. Playing soccer all the time with his two sons, James (age 9) and Nicholas (age 7) has kept Damiano on his toes. It’s safe to say that the Damiano family is definitely a soccer family, with two coaches and two active sons.

“It’s all the time,” Damiano said. “We’re constantly playing soccer on the front lawn. It’s non-stop.”

But the former Buccaneer great is ready to take over the program he once played for.

“It’s really a dream come true,” Damiano said. “I thought I might have a chance to coach in three to five years. It’s a real treat for me to be able to coach where I played. I’m excited.”

It appears as if the rest of Belleville is equally excited.