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.