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Ford’s long-range shooting boosts Vikings

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The high school basketball season had yet to begin, but the North Arlington boys’ team was in a bit of a bind.

Two key players, Edgar Carranza and Kevin Cerqueira, were sidelined due to injuries.

It left the door open for another junior Tim Ford to step in and make a major contribution.

Ford was a member of the NA junior varsity squad a year ago.

“I learned a lot from being on the JV,” Ford said. “I just kept trying to get better. I knew I had to build up my confidence a little. I learned a lot from dealing with a lot of adversity. I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team.” Veteran coach Rich Corsetto, in his second year at North Arlington, was hopeful that Ford could step in and contribute.

“He proved to me last year that he could help us,” Corsetto said. “Timmy is a football player as well and sometimes it takes time for the football player to get going after their season is over.”

After a little bit of a sluggish start to the season, Ford has picked it up of late, especially in the last week – and especially with his proficiency from behind the 3-point circle.

“He’s unbelievable right now,” Corsetto said. “He’s stepped up tremendously.”

Ford connected on nine 3-pointers last Tuesday in a 63-54 win over Hasbrouck Heights en route to a 33-point explosion. He followed it up by connecting on five long-range shots for 15 points in a win over Wood-Ridge and added five more treys and 15 points in a 61-45 win over Montclair Immaculate last Friday night, helping the Vikings to improve to 7-4 overall.

Not bad for a kid who scored all of four varsity points last season. The three big games gave Ford seven straight con- tests where he reached double figures in scoring.

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

Corsetto said that he’s not shocked at all by Ford’s offensive output.

“I’m really not surprised at all,” Corsetto said. “I knew that he had the ability. He works hard and he’s not a quitter. He’s a gutsy kid who does a lot with heart, desire and determination.”

Ford said that he did put a lot of time into honing his long-range shooting ability.

“I took a lot of shots to help me get better,” Ford said. “Whenever I had the chance to get better, I took advantage of it. Shooting is something that I’ve always been pretty good at. I’m lucky to have teammates who find me and get me the ball. That gives me confidence.”

Corsetto realizes Ford’s contributions to the team and how vital they have been.

“He’s been very important,” Corsetto said. “Because of what we’ve gone through with the injuries, if Timmy doesn’t make those shots, we’re in trouble. He’s really stepped up nicely. He’s also doing a nice job rebounding as well.” Corsetto noted that the undersized Ford, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs about 160 pounds, also collected seven rebounds against Hasbrouck Heights and six in each of the wins over Wood-Ridge and Montclair Immaculate.

“He’s a nice young man,” Corsetto said. “He’s a hard worker who does everything you ask him to do. No matter what it is Timmy will do it. We haven’t had a full team all year yet, so Timmy has really done a great job helping to lead us.”

Ford is averaging close to 13 points per game as the Vikings’ shooting guard. He said that he just felt comfortable shooting the ball last Tuesday against Hasbrouck Heights.

“I was feeling it,” Ford said. “The coaches told me to keep doing it, so I just kept doing the same thing. My teammates were finding ways to get me open. I was kind of surprised with what I did. It was clearly my best game. It is kind of shocking, but I just kept hitting shots.”

Ford has not stopped since, connecting on 19 3-pointers in the last three games.

“It’s definitely given me a lot of confidence moving forward,” Ford said. “I knew I was capable of doing it. But this now gives me a boost of confidence, which I needed.”

Ford is a fine receiver on the North Arlington football team as well. He can’t decide which sport he likes better or which one he thinks he excels in more.

For now, Ford doesn’t want to disrupt the good thing that’s going on.

“I just knew I had to make those shots,” Ford said. “It feels good right now. It’s good to get recognized for my hard work.”

Nutley girls’ hoop squad experiences growing pains

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Larry Mitschow knew this was going to be a tough season for his Nutley High School girls’ basketball team.

After all, the Maroon Raiders graduated four top players from last year’s squad.

Then, the powers-that-be in the Super Essex Conference decided to move Nutley into a new division of the SEC, the powerful American Division with girls’ basketball mainstays like Mount St. Dominic, Shabazz, East Orange and Montclair, which means the schedule instantly became tougher.

Finally, to throw a complete monkey wrench into the situation, the Maroon Raiders lost two key players to injury, as senior center Brielle Feaster and sophomore forward Angeli Bossbaly were lost for the season. Feaster suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee and Bossbaly was battling a bad back.

“It’s very frustrating,” Mitschow said. “It’s unfortunate, but you have to deal with it.”

So the Maroon Raiders have started out the 2014-15 season with a 3-5 record, the latest game a solid 47-29 victory over neighboring rival Bloomfield last Saturday night.

In the win, junior center Blair Watson scored 30 points, her third game this season with 30 or more points, collecting the 1,000th point of her career in the process.

Watson started off the season with a 40-point performance against Weequahic and had 34 in a win over Newark Tech.

The 6-foot-1 Watson, who is averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds per game, has already given a verbal commitment to the University of Maryland.

“It’s been frustrating for her, because teams are double and triple teaming her,” Mitschow said. “She’s also getting pushed around a little. But she has been doing her best.”

Mitschow believes that having Watson get the recruiting process out of the way early is a blessing.

“There’s no more pressure on her. No one is going to come in to talk to her about school. She’s not going to receive calls or texts. It’s just all made common sense to make the decision now. Maryland is a great program, one of the best in the country. It’s a solid decision.”

Another key returning player is 5-foot-8 senior point guard Carly Anderson.

While Anderson has developed a reputation for being one of the best softball pitchers in New Jersey, she is also a fine basketball player. “She controls the game when she has the ball,” Mitschow said of Anderson. It’s much like what she does when Anderson is in the pitching circle in the spring.

Senior Sara Grueter is a 5-foot-7 shooting guard who has great shooting range, as evidenced by the three 3-pointers Grueter connected on during the win over Bloomfield.

Senior forward Olivia Llaneza is a 5-foot-9 forward who Mitschow likes for the intangibles she provides.

“She’s a good rebounder and good defender,” Mitschow said of Llaneza.

Because of the injuries, Mitschow has been forced to use freshmen players right away. One of those newcomers is Sydney Kunz, a 5-foot-7 guard who is the younger sister of former Nutley baseball and basketball standout Austin Kunz, currently playing baseball at Alvernia College in Pennsylvania.

Another freshman is forward Giavanna Modica, who is a 5-foot-8 diligent worker.

“She started for us our last game,” Mitschow said. “She works very hard.”

Sophomore Jen Callaghan is a 5-foot-5 guard who serves as the backup to Anderson at point guard.

Mitschow knew that it would be a struggle this season with everything that was going on. The graduation, the divisional shift, the injuries, they can all add up to a coach’s frustration.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” Mitschow said. “It’s tough to lose so many players to graduation. Our goal all season has been to hover around the .500 mark and see if we can get into the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III) state tournament, so we can play teams we can better compete with. The girls’ basketball in Essex County is so competitive, so with what has happened to us with graduation and injury, it’s all we can hope for.”

It should be interesting to see how far Watson can lead the Maroon Raiders, because she is clearly one of the top juniors in the state of New Jersey and has been producing at a top level, considering she’s topped 30 points in three of eight games already this season.

Kearny coach Hill reflects on late father

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Growing up as a female athlete in a male-dominated world in highly competitive Harrison was nothing in comparison to what Jody Hill had to endure last week. Serving as a teacher and a high school girls’ basketball coach for the last decade was a walk in the park next to saying goodbye to the most influential man in Hill’s life, namely her father, Anthony, who died after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.

Anthony Hill was 67 years old.

“To me, he was the greatest person in the world,” Hill said, choking back tears three days after her father’s funeral. “He ended up with three daughters, but I was the next best thing to him having a little boy. Just having him as a Dad was the greatest experience in the world.”

Lee-Ann Hill is two years older than Jody. Melissa came 13 years after Jody. All three Hill girls had sports as a part of their lives – Lee-Ann running cross country, Melissa playing softball and soccer – but it was Jody who took athletics to a new level as one of the finest girls’ basketball players in Harrison High School and Hudson County history.

Growing up in Harrison, Hill always played with and against the boys. She was a standout Little League baseball player and was constantly holding her own, playing with some of the best athletes in the town, including long-time friend and classmate Ray Lucas.

But the inspiration to compete came from her father.

“Growing up, my father worked two full-time jobs,” Hill recalled. “He worked for an oil company, repairing heating systems and then came home and went back out to work as a teller at the Meadowlands Race Track. He took the bets. He enjoyed that, because he really loved the horses.

Added Hill, “But between jobs, for that 30-to-45 minutes, Dad would always play Whiffle ball or football in the yard, pitch baseballs to me even when it was raining – we would be doing dive plays in football in the living room. “My Dad was a volunteer coach in Little League. He had a unique way about him in that he didn’t push us to do anything we didn’t want to do. He didn’t push me into sports. But he encouraged me and supported me. He made me feel like I could accomplish anything. He made me feel like I was on the top of the world.”

Most of the time, Hill was indeed that.

Throughout her brilliant All-State career at Harrison and later Pace University, Hill was a dominant basketball player, scoring 2,000 points in high school and 1,000 more in college, eventually earning induction into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.

And Anthony Hill was there every step of the way.

“He was loving and caring and pulled the most out of me,” Hill said. “He was constantly complimenting me and praising me.”

Anthony Hill was a fine athlete in his days growing up in Harrison, especially in baseball. He passed the athletic gene on to his middle daughter.

“I was shy about playing baseball with the boys, but it was comforting to me to have him there,” Hill said. “I can’t even explain the impact he had on me. I knew back then that if I could play with the boys, I could play anywhere. I wanted to surround myself with the best competition. Dad never tried to steer me away from it. He just always wanted me to be happy. He wanted my sisters to be happy. He energized me and encouraged me to let it all happen.” Anthony Hill lived for his wife, Kathy, and his three daughters and eventually his grandchildren.

“He worked so hard his whole life,” Jody Hill said.

Anthony Hill finally retired last year and was given a fond sendoff by his friends and co-workers. A month after his retirement, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“He always put everyone before himself,” Jody Hill said. “We all wanted him to finally enjoy his time and he never really got the chance.”

Going through the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation took its toll.

“Especially over the last three weeks, it got real hard,” Hill said. “He lost his ability to speak. It was hard seeing him like that. He never once raised his voice to any of us. He was giving, loving and mentoring. Every person I bump into all say, ‘You have the greatest Dad.’ And I did. I was very lucky for a long time.”

Last week, as the end drew near, Jody Hill had to make arrangements for her assistant coaches to take over her team. Anthony Hill died Monday night and the Kardinals faced Hudson Catholic a day later. Hill turned the reins over to assistant coaches Jeanine Wallace and Vicky Zicopolous to coach that game.

The Kardinals won the game and dedicated it in memory of their top fan.

Two days later, while services for Anthony Hill were being held, the Kardinals were scheduled to face North Bergen in a crucial game. But the Kardinals knew they couldn’t try to play without their leader.

“They all texted me and said that they wanted to postpone the game so they could be there for me,” Hill said. “At 4:30 p.m., the whole team walked in single file and wanted to be there for me. I thought they were going to play without me. I hadn’t missed a game for anything in 12 years.”

Saturday morning, Jody Hill returned to coach her team against Clifton after enduring those tough four days. But she was moved to tears again when she saw her team go through pre-game warm-ups.

“They pulled off their shooting shirts and underneath, they all wore a T-shirt that said, ‘Kearny Basketball,’ on the front and ‘In loving memory of A. Hill’ on the back with a grey ribbon for brain cancer,” Hill said. “It would have been a perfect ending if we would have won the game.”

Sometimes, Hollywood endings don’t always take place. The Kardinals lost to Clifton.

“But I feel so blessed to have those girls in my life,” Hill said. “They gave me strength. You think that you’re the adult and you’re the one who is supposed to lead them. Well, Saturday, they led me. I found my strength in them. I felt really lucky to be coaching those girls. They showed such maturity, thoughtfulness and a great understanding of family.”

And Jody Hill finally had a sense of serenity after the months and weeks of turmoil going through her father’s illness and subsequent demise.

“I knew somewhere my Dad was smiling,” Hill said. “He was their No. 1 fan. One of his favorite things to do was to come watch us play. He was just enjoying his life in retirement with his grandchildren. It’s sad that it all ended that way.”

Anthony Hill may be gone, but certainly not in spirit.

“It was amazing to see those kids come the way they did,” Hill said of her father’s wake. “Finally, I had something that uplifted me and got me through it.”

And the season will resume this week, with the Kards’ No. 1 fan looking down and offering support to his daughter, the coach.

Kearny’s Baez comes of age in a hurry

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

Joe Baez knew that this was going to be a crucial year for him as a member of the Kearny High School boys’ varsity basketball team.

As a junior, Baez had to prove he could be more of a vital performer.

As a young man, Baez had to prove to himself that he could remain focused on the matters at hand and stay away from the trouble that plagued him in the past.

“I knew that I had to step it up,” Baez said. “Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, I had problems. I wasn’t disciplined enough to play organized basketball. I was basically playing street ball. I knew I had to be a leader and I had to get better all around.”

Kearny head coach Bob Mc- Donnell realized that fact as well, that if the Kardinals were going to be successful this season, he needed a big season out of Baez.

“Without a doubt, he had to become more of a leader on the team,” McDonnell said. “Even though he’s only a junior, he had to become more of a main focus on the team. I thought the talent was there. He just had to be more mentally prepared. He had to focus on being the leader, be more mature, more responsible both on and off the court.”

Baez admitted that he was a little immature in the past.

“At times, I would go a little crazy,” Baez said. “I would also get into a little bit of trouble. But that’s the past. I focus on doing what I have to do now, staying out of trouble. I can’t afford to get into trouble anymore. I’ve become a better person and a better player.”

Baez is certainly a gifted athlete. He’s a fine shortstop and pitcher on the Kearny baseball team in the spring, but he has all the tools in the world to be a fine basketball player as well.

A year ago, Baez averaged 7.2 points per game as someone who played both the point guard and shooting guard slots.

However, with a new-found focus and attitude, Baez has elevated his game to new heights.

Baez is averaging close to 16 points per game with six assists. He’s a scorer with a playmaker’s mentality. “He’s made a conscious effort to change his focus,” McDonnell said. “He’s learned that everything he does is so important to us.”

“It just clicked for me,” Baez said. “I worked hard and just want to play the game the right way.”

Baez is certainly doing that and more for the Kards these days. Last week, Baez had 14 points in a win over American History of Newark, had 18 points and six assists in a big win against Queen of Peace and topped his week with a 24-point, six-assist outing against Lyndhurst, another win, giving the Kardinals three wins in a row, improving to 6-3 overall in the process.

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

“He just realized his capabilities,” McDonnell said. “Not just as a scorer, but as the team leader. He’s taken on that role and has done well. He’s just taken control of the team, playing either the one (point guard) or two (shooting guard), depending upon the opponent. It’s nice to have a guard who is under control.”

Baez said that his recent performances have helped him to gain faith in his own abilities.

“I definitely have a lot more confidence,” Baez said. “I think this proves to me that I can do it. I’m helping the team with scoring and my passing. It’s good to be consistent, because it helps us win and that’s the biggest goal.”

The Kardinals had eight wins all of last season. They have six already this year.

“He’s accepted his role, even on defense,” McDonnell said. “He’s become a very good scorer. I am surprised how much he’s improved.”

So far this season, Baez is averaging close to 16 points per game, a huge leap from last year’s seven point-per-game average.

“I feel like I’m a better player,” Baez said. “I played a lot of basketball over the summer to get ready for this year. It really is almost like a complete transformation.”

Baez was asked if his success on the hardwood would help him get ready for the baseball diamond.

“They are two totally different sports, but of course, this is going to help my confidence,” Baez said. “What I do in basketball does carry over to the baseball field. I feel like I’m a building block for the future. As long as we keep winning, because I never want to lose. I’m still developing, still growing. I still have to work hard.”

McDonnell believes that Baez is a college basketball player for the future.

“He’s already focusing on getting his grades up,” Mc- Donnell said. “He’s made a concerted effort to get better both on the court and the classroom. We’ve had conversations about college and not just from an athletic standpoint. He realizes he has a bright future.”

It might have taken a little while, but Joe Baez has the world on a string these days.

“I’m just grateful to have the chance,” Baez said. “I just needed a chance.”

For Weaver, it’s better second time around at QP

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

Scot Weaver thought he had built something special when he first was the wrestling coach at Queen of Peace.

After all, the former Lyndhurst coach and current resident of the township did build the fledgling Golden Griffins wrestling program into a state power in just three years.

Weaver coached a three-time state champion in Frank Cagnina, who won state titles twice wearing the QP singlet. Weaver also mentored state medalists like Jamie Westwood, Matt Fusco and Glenn Cannici while leading the Golden Griffins to prominence both on the Bergen County and NJSIAA levels.

But four years ago, Weaver left, much like most coaches who work at QP, for a host of reasons. One reason was a lack of a place to practice. The team was forced to use an old storage room in the old Boystown facility, run by the CYO, on Belgrove Drive in Kearny.

“The bottom line was that there were problems between me and the administration there at the time,” Weaver said. “When I left, I thought I was done there forever. I put it all in the rearview mirror.”

Queen of Peace wrestling struggled without Weaver and the sport eventually died with no proper leadership.

Last year, soon-to-be former principal John Bellocchio and former athletic director Ed Abromaitis contacted Weaver and asked if he would be willing to come back to revive the wrestling program at the school.

“I told them that what I was promised in the past didn’t come through,” said Weaver, who was once promised a private workout facility for his wrestlers that never came to fruition. “They really had to entice me to come back. I was always in contact with them. I still live here (in Lyndhurst).”

Weaver had been coaching at Brearley Regional in Kenilworth, but he felt that he had run his course there.

“It was a dead-end game there for me after four years,” Weaver said. “Nothing developed there. So the timing was right.”

Sure enough, Weaver agreed to come back to Queen of Peace and bring the wrestling program out from the ashes.

“I had about 100 people or so ask me if I was nuts,” Weaver said. “But I never said I wouldn’t come back. Until they fulfilled their part of the bargain by getting me a wrestling room and giving me full support, I wasn’t going to consider it.”

Weaver, Bellocchio and Abromaitis met several times and went over classroom space in the school that could be converted into a wrestling room.

Eventually, three classrooms in the school’s basement were changed over and replaced with mats and proper padding to have a full-fledged wrestling room for the first time. There was no more need to roll out mats in the gym and cafeteria.

“It was definitely doable,” Weaver said after the plans for the wrestling room were presented.

Weaver also wanted to make sure that the school agreed to allowing him the ability to bring kids into the school to start the program again.

 

Photo by Jim Hague Queen of Peace now has a state-of-the-art wrestling room for practice and training.

Photo by Jim Hague
Queen of Peace now has a state-of-the-art wrestling room for practice and
training.

“They accepted my recommendations (for transfers),” Weaver said. “They also agreed to let us travel and attend high school tournaments. The bottom line was that I didn’t reach out to any kids. There are always disgruntled kids who perhaps don’t feel they are worthy in another program, who feel they’re not wrestling in the proper venue. I think that putting kids in the proper venue, with the right practice facilities, giving them an opportunity to move on into college, would attract kids.”

Weaver was asked if the approach could be construed as recruiting. A few years ago, QP had to answer to the NJSIAA about possible illegal recruiting for wrestling.

“Those allegations were dismissed by the state,” Weaver said. “There’s a small wrestling community, parents who get the word out. This time around, I did talk to parents and told them that here we are, giving kids a chance to be coached by me and my staff in a brand new facility. It’s a great opportunity.”

Whether it will be perceived as recruiting throughout the state remains to be seen. For now, Weaver is back with a full roster of wrestlers who he thinks can contend with a state power like DePaul Catholic for the NJSIAA Non- Public B state crown this year.

“We’re extremely competitive and have some of the top competitors in northern New Jersey,” Weaver said. “We have some guys who are not on the mat for the first time and others we are teaching. The product you see now will not be the same you will see at the end of February. We’re going to be much improved by then. We are going to compete at the state level. Is it possible to beat DePaul? Anything is possible, once you’re able to compete.”

The Golden Griffins have two wrestlers at 106 pounds in talented freshman Enrique Sanchez and freshman Matt Armamento. Sanchez was a finalist at a recent Maryland tournament and won two matches at the prestigious Beast of the East tourney in Delaware.

The 113-pound class is being shared by junior Jeremy Puente, a transfer from Kearny, and sophomore Ray Wetzel, a transfer from Brearley, where he won the District 11 title and finished third at Region 3.

Junior Anthony DeLorenzo is a transfer from Nutley who holds down the 126-pound class. DeLorenzo won the Mountain Madness tourney in Maryland, defeating three other reigning state champions in the process.

“He’s doing very well,” Weaver said of DeLorenzo. “He’s a stud. He’s a mature, tough kid.”

Junior Mike Scaravelli is the team’s 132-pounder. Scaravelli is a transfer from Paramus Catholic, where he was a District finalist.

The 138-pound class is being shared by junior Diego Lopez and sophomore Jahki Smith, both of whom have been students at Queen of Peace all along and decided to join wrestling.

The same can be said for 145-pound senior Shaquan Chavis, who joined the QP wrestling team after football season was completed.

Joe Rocca, a 152-pound senior, is a transfer from Elmwood Park, where he finished second in the District and fourth at Region 2.

Mim Salaam is a 160-pound sophomore who is wrestling for the first time. The same can be said for 171-pound freshman Ariel Molina and 182-pound freshman Yasim Peppers, both of whom were football standouts in the fall.

Senior Jeff Velez is a transfer from Brearley Regional where Weaver formerly coached. The 195-pound Velez already owns a scholarship to Old Dominion. Velez won a high school national title last year, as well as winning District 11 and Region 2. Velez should be one of the top wrestlers locally this season. Velez finished eighth at the Beast of the East and was second at the Mountain Madness tourney.

“If he continues to wrestle well, he could be up for a state championship this year,” Weaver said of Velez.

Christian Reyna, a newcomer, is the team’s 220-pounder, while football standout Chima Dunga is the Griffins’ heavyweight.

“He never wrestled before, but he’s just tough and big and strong,” Weaver said of Dunga, who was sixth at Mountain Madness. “He might be inexperienced now, but he’s going to get quicker and better. In February, he’s going to be a much better wrestler.”

So Weaver has returned. So has QP wrestling.

“I feel we have a competitive team right away,” Weaver said. “We have the makings of a good team. We will be ready by February.”

Belleville girls’ hoops: Record misleading

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The Belleville High School girls’ basketball team has posted a 1-4 record to start the new season.

However, don’t let the Buccaneers’ early record fool you.

“It’s not a reflection of what’s really going on,” said Belleville fourth-year head coach Liz Ramirez. “Even though we’re 1-4, I’m not discouraged at all. In fact, I’m extremely pleased. Sure, we would have liked to win more, but we have already played some of the tougher teams on our schedule. We have a very young team that is learning. I don’t think anyone is discouraged at all. I’m extremely happy with them. Sometimes, the record doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Ramirez was quick to point out that two of the Bucs’ four losses thus far have come in overtime to Cedar Grove and Verona.

“Knowing how to win is essential,” Ramirez said. “If you’re blowing teams out by a lot of points, it doesn’t teach you how to play in pressure situations and understanding pressure situations. We’ve already had that and we’ve really improved in understanding the game.”

Ramirez knew that there would be some growing pains for the Buccaneers, who finished 13-7 last season.

“We graduated six seniors from that team and have only two returning starters,” Ramirez said. “Most of the bench players now are freshmen and sophomores. So they’re still learning. We were so senior dominated last year that they all knew what they were supposed to do. Now, we need our returning players who were bench players last year to step up. Their roles changed in a hurry, so we needed to build their confidence up. I can see that they’re getting more confident and that’s important.”

One of the key returnees is 5-foot-6 senior point guard Arianna Douglas, who has been a three-year starter for the Buccaneers.

“We made her the point guard and she’s done a nice job,” Ramirez said of Douglas, who is averaging 16 points per game in the early going, including a 20-point performance against the Montclair Kimberley Academy and 19 against Glen Ridge. “She’s really come a long way in leaps and bounds.”

The other returning starter is 5-foot-5 senior guard Samantha Samaniego, who is averaging eight points per game, including a 17-point outing against MKA.

“I expect a lot from both of them,” Ramirez said. “The two of them have been playing together since sixth grade, so they know each other very well. I’ve been watching them together since eighth grade and working with them over the summers. Samantha is a good 3-point shooter and her dribble-drive is excellent. She’s also our best defensive player by far, so she gets to guard the other team’s top player.”

Ramirez said that she has been impressed with the performances of her new starters.

Sophomore Gianna Benacquista, who comes from a family of talented athletes, is a 6-foot-1 center, but she has the ability to take the ball to the perimeter when necessary. Benacquista is averaging seven points and 10 rebounds per game, including 15 rebounds in the overtime loss to Cedar Grove.

“She played AAU basketball over the summer and has worked on her 3-point shot,” Ramirez said. “Believe it or not, we rotate her in as a guard because she can handle the ball.”

Priscilla Olivarria is a 5-foot- 10 junior forward who has taken a step up the ladder.

“I told her that we needed her to score more and she did that (Saturday against Verona),” Ramirez said. “She had her best game. She’s going to be one to watch. She’s grown a lot, but now has control over her body. She knows what to do.”

Giselle Luna is a 5-foot-5 sophomore guard who gives the Buccaneers a lot on the defensive end of the floor.

“She has a lot of tenacity on defense,” Ramirez said. Junior Janae Bryant is a 5-foot-10 forward with a lot of promise.

“She’s a good rebounder,” Ramirez said. “Right now, she’s trying to find her way. She can jump really high, so that’s a plus. We’re working on her shooting technique and her mobility when rebounding. She’s going to get better.”

Emani Hill is a 6-foot-1 freshman who also has huge up side.

“She has a lot of promise,” Ramirez said. “The first time she ever touched a basketball, Emani was in sixth grade, so she’s still learning. She’s come a long way. Her technique is pretty solid.”

Najalis Gual is a 5-foot-6 sophomore guard who is the team’s backup point guard.

“She’s very strong with the dribble and has worked hard over the summer on her left hand,” Ramirez said. “She’s developed a left hand now. She’s also a good 3-point shooter. She’s always looking to improve.”

Francesca Russo and Helena Dropic are two others who are coming off the Belleville bench these days.

So the record may read 1-4, but you will not find an ounce of disappointment in the voice of Ramirez. She’s totally upbeat. So are the Bucs.

“We’re looking to improve as a team and we are going to get better,” Ramirez said. “We are not demoralized at all. We’re working hard and staying focused.”

It seems like better days are ahead for the Buccaneers of Belleville.

NA’s Gainza enjoys scoring explosion in holiday tourney

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

When Rob Lado took over the North Arlington girls’ basketball program at the beginning of June, he knew he had to make some changes.

But first and foremost, Lado needed to find a point guard, as last year’s starter, Bri Cunanan, had graduated.

Lado did see some possibility in junior Denaijah Gainza, who was the team’s starter at the off-guard slot a year ago, averaging close to seven points per game.

“I did see some promise,” Lado said. “I knew that she could score and I knew she had the chance to do a lot more, so we were moving her from shooting guard to point guard.”

It was a move that Gainza welcomed.

“When Coach Rob came in and picked me out to be the point guard, it made me feel more confident,” Gainza said. “He made a big difference in me. I put my heart into basketball. I worked on my game all summer. I worked on my ball handling, my shot, my defense, pretty much everything. It was a huge change for me.”

When the season began with practices in late November, Lado saw that Gainza was definitely ready for her new role.

“She was comfortable with the transition,” Lado said. “She had the ball in her own hands now and could score on her own. I needed her to distribute the ball, but she understood that. She handled the transition very well.”

But no one could have ever dreamed just how well Gainza would handle becoming an instant point guard.

“Since I was a shooting guard, I thought that I was going to have to grow into being a point guard,” Gainza said. “But as I grew with it, I grew to like it. I’m getting used to controlling the tempo and the pace of the game. The ball is in my hands.”

And as was proven in the recent William Ferguson Holiday Tournament at North Arlington High School, the ball was in the basket, courtesy of Gainza’s new-found confidence at her new position.

“I just saw the lane open up for me and I kept going,” Gainza said.

Gainza scored 24 points in the Vikings’ 49-45 win over next-door neighbor Queen of Peace in the opening round of the Ferguson tourney, then added 30 points a day later in a 58-49 win over Lyndhurst a day later in the championship game, giving the Vikings the tourney title, earning the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award in the process.

Incredibly, Gainza scored 54 points in consecutive days, after scoring just 46 points for the entire season last year.

For her efforts, Gainza has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Gainza is the first honoree in the weekly feature for the scholastic winter season as well as the new year of 2015.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect all of this,” Gainza said. “I didn’t think I could improve this much. I think I am doing my best to get the whole team involved, but I am getting more chances to score. I just felt like I had to put my whole heart into basketball. I wanted to win the tournament and wanted to win the trophy for our team.”

Not to mention the individual MVP award.

“But it’s more about the team for me,” Gainza said. “It was our house and we needed to beat those two teams. It was honestly an overwhelming experience for me. I never expected to get that many points. It’s really hard to explain.”

Gainza was rewarded for her aggressive playing style and taking the ball to the basket. In the two games, she made a remarkable 18 free throws, including 10 against Queen of Peace with a close game on the line.

“She knows her importance now,” Lado said. “She understands that she has the ball in her hands and the offense has to go through her. She has to get the offense going. Those are very big numbers that she produced, but we can’t expect that every night. But I’ll take it.”

Marissa Piscal has also played a big role for the Vikings, who hold an impressive 4-2 record in the early going. Piscal had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Lyndhurst and is averaging 12 points and nearly nine rebounds per game.

But Gainza is the one who has made the biggest gains.

“She’s playing well all around,” Lado said. “I really wasn’t expecting this much of her this soon. But I felt if we could help her understand her role, she could be much improved. She is definitely running with it right now. With her and Piscal, we have a good 1-2 combination. They feed off each other. Denaijah has definitely gotten everyone else involved. She’s running and everyone seems to be following her. She’s been like our engine.”

Gainza likes the way the season has unfolded for her. “This is definitely building my confidence up big time,” Gainza said. “It has been a great experience thus far, but we have to keep it going. I’m going to continue to work hard with Coach Rob and the whole team. That’s what comes with being the point guard and being a leader. It’s a huge change for me.”

And it’s a huge change for the NA girls’ basketball team, which has half as many wins now as the Vikings had all of last season, courtesy of the confidence of the new point guard.

Triumphs galore in high school sports

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Area teams celebrate NJSIAA state glory

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

So what were the top local sports stories for 2014?

For one, it was an unprecedented year for local teams and individuals earning their fair share of NJSIAA state championships. There were a lot of celebrations to be found throughout the area all year long.

It was also a year for farewells and tributes, of traditions being restored and returned. It was also a World Cup soccer year, one that captivated soccer fans throughout the area for more than a month.

All in all, it was a year to remember.

So let’s take a closer look at the Top 10 Sports Stories of the Year for 2014.

Harrison wins NJSIAA Group I state soccer title 

The last time that Harrison High School, the most prolific high school soccer program in New Jersey state history, had captured a state crown, was back in 2008.

But led by the goal-scoring prowess of Ali Lakhrif, who ended up setting a new single-season school scoring record by knocking home 37 goals, and a stingy defense, the Blue Tide steamrolled its way through the NJSIAA Group I state playoffs, eventually defeating Haddon Township, 4-0, in November to win the 25th NJSIAA state soccer championship in the school’s history, the most ever in the history of boys’ high school soccer in United States history.

The Blue Tide won all six of their state playoff games by a combined goal total of 33-1. That’s utter dominance. For capturing the state championship, Harrison boys’ soccer team owns the No. 1 spot among local sports stories for 2014.

Nutley’s Montgomery wins NJSIAA Meet of Champions gold in the javelin 

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Photo by Jim Hague Nutley’s Grace Montgomery was the queen of the javelin, winning the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in June.

 

 

Nutley’s Grace Montgomery, who was a standout three-sport athlete at Nutley High School and who would eventually go on to capture The Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year for her athletic achievements, did the unthinkable in June, capturing the gold medal in the javelin at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, becoming the school’s first-ever girls M of C winner.

Montgomery had captured the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III gold medal, then placed third at the overall Group III meet, earning her place among the elite throwers in the state.

Before her final throw of the competition, Montgomery was 12th and appeared headed to finishing out of medal contention.

However, on that final throw, Montgomery unleashed a bomb, throwing the javelin 129 feet, further than any other girl competitor and earning her place in Nutley and Essex County history. By winning the gold at the M of C, Montgomery earns the No. 2 spot for sports stories in 2014.

Kearny wins Hudson County titles in both boys’ and girls’ soccer

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Photo by Jim Hague The Kearny boys’ and girls’ soccer teams both won Hudson County Tournament championships. It was the sixth straight for the girls’ team.

 

It’s nothing new for Kearny to win county championships in soccer, but it’s pretty special when both the boys’ and girls’ teams win Hudson County Tournament titles in the same year.

The Kearny girls reigned supreme for the sixth straight time, defeating Memorial in the title game. Barbara Paiva, who set a new single-season school goal scoring record with 38 goals, led the way for the Kearny girls, who finished the season 18-3. Lily Durning scored 17 goals and Amber Crispin added 16 for the Kardinals.

The Kearny boys won the county title for the first time since 2012, defeating North Bergen in the finals. Danny Vicente scored two goals in the title game and Sebastian Ferriera posted a shutout en route to being selected to the First Team All-State squad.

Needless to say, it was a year to remember for both Kearny soccer programs.

Lyndhurst wins first-ever NJSIAA softball sectional crown

The Lyndhurst softball team enjoyed a historic moment in May, when the Golden Bears defeated Madison, 3-2, to the win the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state crown, the first state title in softball in school history, earning the No. 4 spot in our list.

First-year head coach Emily Ringen molded the team properly, with pitcher Jenn Tellefsen leading the way. First baseman Alyssa Pipon delivered the clutch RBI single that gave the Golden Bears the elusive state crown.

Lyndhurst wins cross country, outdoor state sectional crowns 

The Lyndhurst boys’ track team enjoyed a great run, winning both the NJIC-Colonial Division and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state titles.

William Hooper was a key contributor to both the indoor and cross country championships. Jake Estevez won three medals at the North 2, Group I championships, beating Shabazz in the process.

Kearny softball wins first-ever county title 

The Kearny softball team earned a place of history as well, winning the school’s first-ever Hudson County Tournament title, rallying from a four-run deficit to defeat Bayonne, 6-4, in the title game. Pitcher Carolynn Rivera hit a home run in the title game to seal the deal, earning No. 6 honors in our year-end review.

Nutley girls’ soccer reaches state sectional title game 

The Nutley girls’ soccer team won 16 games and reached the finals of the North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket, where the Maroon Raiders fell to Roxbury. But thanks to the play of scholarship players Victoria Kealy (Rider) and Zoe Steck (soon to pick the school of her choice) the Maroon Raiders moved a step closer to their elusive goal, a state title.

Lyndhurst’s Servideo retires 

The area lost a huge legend, when long-time Lyndhurst athletic director and head baseball coach Butch Servideo announced his retirement after giving 55 years of his life to Lyndhurst, the first 13 as a student, then 44 more years as a coach and administrator.

The Golden Bears won the overall NJSIAA Group I title under Servideo’s guidance in 2008 and won more than 500 games under Servideo’s leadership. He will be sorely missed.

North Arlington’s Keefe wins state sectional bowling title 

North Arlington junior Tyler Keefe created his slice of history, when Keefe won the NJSIAA North 1, Group IA state sectional championship in bowling. He rolled a 776 series and a 279 high game to secure the gold medal. He’s one of the top bowlers to watch this season.

Kearny volleyball reaches state sectional title game 

Under the guidance of head coach Bill Mullins and standout players Joel Vivas and Bryan Rodriguez, the Kearny boys’ volleyball team made it all the way to the NJSIAA Group IV finals, where they lost to nemesis St. Peter’s Prep. In fact, two of their three losses were to the powerful Marauders. Still, it was a great season for the Kardinals, a epic season, a 20-win campaign that will resonate for the years to come.

Just missed list 

There were several noteworthy events that just missed being among the top 10, like Kearny’s Steven Koziel winning six medals at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions for his work as a paraplegic; the Nutley football team reached the NJSIAA North 2, Group III playoffs for the first time in four years; Cristina Nardini of North Arlington won three medals at the Bergen County outdoor track championships; Kearny’s Corey Sawyer exploded onto the scene by throwing three no-hitters for the Kardinals’ baseball team; Nutley’s Joe Ferinde finished eighth in the state wrestling at 120 pounds; the North Arlington boys’ golf team qualified for the NJSIAA state sectionals for the firsttime ever; Queen of Peace’s Kevin Momnohin played in the annual New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association North-South All-Star Classic; North Arlington sent three athletes to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions for the first-time indoor track program; Kearny resident Tomasz Adamek lost a huge fight against Vlacheslav “Czar” Glazkov, more than likely ending his professional career; Lyndhurst resident Jim MacDonald, a legendary softball coach, died; Nutley East Little League repeated as District 8 12-year-old champions; the area was engulfed with World Cup fever, with Germany winning the Cup and the United States moving on to the quarterfinal round; Queen of Peace went through a host of coaching changes; Nutley won the Super Essex Conference cross country title, the school’s first cross country title in 32 years; Nutley’s Devin Ortiz earned a spot on the U-15 National baseball team; North Arlington’s “Rip” Collins Field got a $2 million facelift; North Arlington’s Danny Cordeiro, now on the NJIT soccer team, was named Observer Male Athlete of the Year; Nutley’s Grace Montgomery and Kearny’s Nicole Kelly were named Observer Co-Female Athletes of the Year.

All in all, it was definitely a year to remember for Observer sports.

Young Harrison squad looks to learn, grow

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

Noel Colon thought that he had the world on a string last year, when he took over the Harrison High School boys’ basketball program and led the Blue Tide to seven wins among their first nine games.

It was a great start for a rookie head coach, considering that Harrison hadn’t won seven games over the previous three seasons.

But then, the bottom fell out for some reason. The Blue Tide lost their last 16 games of the season to finish 7-18.

“The goal was to get better and honestly, we didn’t get better,” said Colon, who began his second season as head coach last Friday night in a 52-41 loss to Queen of Peace. “There were games where we weren’t making winning plays. We shot 47 percent from the free throw line as a team. It’s very tough to win games doing that. I would wake up every day, thinking that it would be the day that we would turn it around and it never happened. We weren’t able to take the other team’s punches and bounce back.”

Colon believes that there were major changes made with the Harrison program a year ago, but he was still disappointed overall.

“We were able to change the culture a little, but I think the kids were satisfied with their early success,” Colon said. “Even in our wins, there were warning signs that we were stuck in neutral.”

So Colon began this season, trying to put the up and down of a year ago behind him and his players.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Colon said. “It feels like I’m back to where I was last year when I started.”

Colon welcomed back only three seniors from last year’s team, two of which are current starters. The majority of the current varsity roster has never played varsity basketball before. Needless to say, it’s a challenge right from the opening tip.

“Our biggest problem is that we need to be consistent,” Colon said. “We have to bring the same focus to practice as we have in games. Once we can do that, then that’s the next phase in our development.”

Senior Alexander Cajiga is a 6-foot forward who earned All NJIC Meadowlands honors last season, averaging nine points and three rebounds per game.

“He has been doing really well in the preseason,” Colon said, “He was having a nice summer for us, but he suffered a fractured bone in his back and it took him a while to get back.”

Incredibly, Cajiga just received medical clearance to return on Frriday, the day of the season opener.

“So he hasn’t been able to do much in the preseason,” Colon said. “You can tell that he just doesn’t have his legs.”

Senior William Azabache is a 6-foot-2 forward.

“I’m really proud of him,” Colon said. “He’s had a different approach. He’s matured a lot. He works really hard in practice. He’s become a leader for others to follow.”

Senior Jordan Villalta is a 5-foot-7 point guard.

“He will play more this year than last year,” Colon said. “He’s a good defender who has worked hard to earn his position. He’s a good defender. He’s improved with his decision making.”

Junior Chris Downs is a 6-foot-2 forward/guard who is getting quality minutes this season.

“He shoots the ball pretty well,” Colon said. “He has a chance to be a pretty good player.”

Colon thinks that Downs can be a double digits scorer in most games.

“He has that kind of ability,” Colon said.

Junior Felix Calderon is a 5-foot-8 guard with good defensive skills. Junior Craig Ruff is a 5-foot-11 guard who is a good shooter, defender and rebounder. Both will play considerable minutes this season.

Junior Marquis Valentin is a 6-foot-1 center who provides physicality down low.

“He’s probably our best rebounder,” Colon said. “He loves to bang down low and get after the ball.”

Sophomore Quincy Rutherford is a 6-foot-3 is a versatile performer.

“He can put the ball on the floor and go to the basket,” Colon said. “He can also shoot the ball very well.” Rutherford paced the Blue Tide with 16 points Friday night.

Freshman Jonathan Leiras is a point guard who is getting playing time right away.

“He’s a very talented kid,” Colon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on him as a freshman to play varsity, playing the most important position on the floor. But he’s the type of kid who can handle it. He’s a mentally tough kid and has the desire to get better. He loves the game. He has a very bright future.”

Sophomore Genaro Falcon is a 5-foot-9 guard who is also in the rotation.

“He’s working hard and trying to get more playing time,” Colon said.

The Blue Tide Yule Tide tournament will take place Friday, with the Blue Tide playing Paterson Charter and Cliffside Park facing Lincoln in the other game.

“We were fortunate to get commitments from those schools,” said Colon, as Paterson Charter’s head coach is Tommie Patterson, the former head coach at Paterson Catholic. “I think we’re the type of team that will get better as the season goes on. They just have to mature on the court, do a lot of the little things. If they do a better job paying attention to details, then they will be a better team. They just have to take pride in coming to practice and that will be the first step.”

Give Colon credit for taking over the Harrison program and giving it all he has. Here’s to hoping that Harrison never grows tired of Colon and that the eager young coach doesn’t become tired of Harrison.

Time for the Santa Hague bag of gifts

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It’s Christmas time in the city.

So it means it’s time for Santa Hague to get out his giant bag of goodies and hand out gifts to those who were naughty and those who were nice.

So here goes, the Santa Hague column for 2014.

As Santa Hague reaches into his bag, he finds gifts for North Arlington.

For boys’ basketball coach Rich Corsetto, a private tanning salon and a beach to be placed in Riverside County Park.

For football coach Anthony Marck, a healthy team from start to finish in 2015.

For softball coach John Galante, for the powers that be to realize just how good of a coach he is and that they should stop messing around with him.

For track coach Bernadette Afonso, name cards to hand out to people who don’t realize she got married. Even the kids still call her Fash.

For versatile coach Dan Farinola, a Starbucks gift certificate, so he can get some coffee to energize him as he coaches at the crack of dawn from season to season.

For baseball coach Paul Marcantuono, a new last name like Smith or Jones. Marcantuono is almost a sportswriter’s nightmare.

For athletic director Dave Hutchinson, more great kids and coaches like the ones he gets to work with every day.

For Queen of Peace, Santa Hague finds happiness, joy and an end to the constant strife that the school’s coaches all work under. QP has to be the hardest places to work as a coach, because there is no longevity whatsoever.

For the great people of Lyndhurst, like retired athletic director and baseball coach Butchie Servideo, warm weather in Florida and a solid 7-iron.

For girls’ soccer coach Kim Hykey, a longer summer and a state sectional championship.

For new athletic director Jeff Radigan, more pairs of socks, so he can successfully fill the shoes of the guy he replaced.

For track coach Tom Shoebridge, several new hoodies with the arms torn out, so he can show off his impressive guns.

For football coach Rich Tuero, to totally forget about his first season and shoot for a promising future.

For basketball coach Paul Palek, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Indiana who rebounds like a beast and can shoot from 30 feet and in.

Over at Nutley, for athletic director Joe Piro, several gift certificates to the best Italian restaurants in the area. If you need to ask which restaurants, chances are that Piro already knows where they are.

For baseball/basketball coach Bob Harbison, a pocket planner that will keep his schedule and team records in the palm of his hands.

For football coach Tom Basile, a shotgun so he can ward off all comers in 11 years when his adorable 5-year-old daughter becomes old enough to date. She’s going to be in high demand, so we’ll throw in the rocking chair for the front porch to wait for her to come home.

For softball coach Luann Zullo, more costumes to wear during the offseason.

For the great DiPiano brothers, Frank and Mike, recognition for doing a great job in all the different sports you coach.

For boys’ soccer coach Marcellino Marra, a 30-goal scorer.

At Harrison, for athletic director Kim Huaranga, some more basketball players who could score 2,700 career points like Kim McDonough once did.

For baseball coach Jairo Mendez, his players to realize just how great of a pitcher he was.

For football coach Matt Gallo, patience, because things can only get better.

For girls’ soccer coach Rapahel Viana, a few containers so he can bottle up that incredible energy he has and share it with some others.

For boys’ soccer coach Michael Rusek, absolutely nothing. He has it all, including a wonderful happy and healthy baby son. Ok, maybe a new one of those.

For boys’ basketball coach Noel Colon, a few hard-nosed players like Noel Colon.

At Belleville, for athletic director Tom D’Elia, a Rolodex so he can put up with all the requests for phone numbers that he gets.

For football coach Joe Fischer, a few dozen talented players and a state championship. Hey, it’s Christmas time. One can dream, right?

At Kearny, for athletic director John Millar, a new baseball cap to wear during outdoor events. The one he dons most of the time is older than his children and is faded beyond repair.

For football coach Nick Edwards, a few more wins and a state playoff berth, to get that huge albatross off his neck.

For basketball coach Bob McDonnell, two players 6-foot-7 and a 16-win season.

For girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill, about two players who can play like Jody Hill did.

For boys’ soccer coach Bill Galka, the elimination of soccer academies, so he can coach the players he’s supposed to coach and not lose them to these academies.

For girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida, a state championship.

For baseball coach Frank Bifulco, a lifetime membership to the Lollipop Guild.

For the great people at the Observer, like Natalie Ulloa, who handles anything and everything and Michelle Rybeck, who puts our pages together and Ron Leir, who edits these words, and for general manager Bob Pezzolla, who keeps us all going after all these years, my undivided thanks for another great year. It’s now 13 years that I’ve been able to write stories for this wonderful organization and I can’t think of a day when that association will end.

And to all the avid readers of the Observer and this sports section, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and thanks for your devotion and dedication, because without you, there’s nothing to write for. Happy Holidays!