By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When legendary Belleville High School wrestling coach Joe Nisivoccia decided to retire at the end of last year, he thought of no one better to fill his shoes than perhaps his most talented pupil ever.
Emilio “Junior” Nardone is perhaps Belleville’s most successful wrestler, having won two NJSIAA state championships in 1991 and 1992. Nardone then went on to wrestle at Rutgers and later Seton Hall before moving on to become a New Jersey state trooper.
“When I left, I was a little angry at the sport,” said Nardone, who had to retire as a state trooper after getting injured on duty. “I then realized I had some unfinished business. The sport reminded me of the things I wanted to do. I had something to give back. I had so much to offer.”
Nardone had been working privately with wrestlers who attend The Edge training school in Kenilworth, then joined the coaching staff at his alma mater as a volunteer, as a favor to his former coach.
“I had the keys to success in wrestling and I had the keys to success in life,” Nardone said. “I’ve always been a student of the game. I’m still learning.”
Nisivoccia approached Nardone at the end of last year.
“He called me and said he was stepping down,” Nardone said. “He said that there was no one he would have trusted more in turning over the program to. He said, ‘You’re Belleville through and through.’”
Nardone was exactly that, embarking on a wrestling career that legends are made of.
During his junior year at Belleville, Nardone suffered a knee injury that required surgery.
But after undergoing that surgery, Nardone developed a serious staph infection that almost cost him his leg.
“I was in the hospital for Christmas through the New Year,” Nardone said. “Doctors told me that if the infection didn’t get better, then they were going to take my leg.”
Nardone somehow recovered in time to wrestle in the districts. He had only one match under his belt, but won the District 14 and Region 2 tournaments.
“It was quite a journey,” Nardone said. “Not even my closest friends thought it was possible, but I said anything was possible.”
In 1992, Nardone was undefeated, posting a 30-0 record in winning his second state championship at 125 pounds, leaving his mark forever as a Belleville High School immortal.
He’s so revered as a two-time state champ that his name actually appears on the mats at Belleville, along with the school’s other state champs.
It’s on the mat as Emilio Nardone, not Junior, so it confused some of the current Belleville wrestlers.
“They see that and say, `Is that you?’” Nardone said. “Then they react to it.”
Nardone didn’t hesitate when Nisivoccia turned over the keys to the Belleville wrestling room.
“I had to do it,” Nardone said. “I love the wresting community and I had some success. That translates into coaching here at Belleville. It’s important to me. I had to do whatever I could to help the program.”
Nardone knows that the Buccaneers can’t be successful overnight. But he’s optimistic.
“I want them to learn that every time they take the mat, they’re not only wrestling for themselves, but for their teammates, their school and their town,” Nardone said. “Every so often, I see little rays of sunshine. It’s not about wins and losses right now. I just want them to give their all. That’s important to me.” The Bucs’ 106-pounder is sophomore Tommy Graziano, whose father, Tom Sr., was a Belleville wrestler.
“Tommy knows what he’s doing technically,” Nardone said. “He’s just a little outmanned right now, wrestling kids who are bigger. But he’s a good kid and he’s working hard. He’s good to have on the team.”
Sophomore Luis Ovondo is the team’s 113-pounder. “The one thing this kid has is that nobody can beat his work ethic,” Nardone said. “He’s the most dedicated kid on the team. He’ll find success. It’s inevitable because he works so hard.”
Ovondo is part of a dedicated group that Nardone calls “the Breakfast Club.”
“They come to school every day at 6:30 in the morning to work out, lift, watch videos, whatever it is,” Nardone said.
Senior Kenny Nicosia, junior Anthony Jett and sophomore Joe Buonnano are sharing the duties at 120 pounds.
Junior Ronald Smith is perhaps the most improved Belleville wrestler. He won just three matches a year ago, but has already tripled that number this year. “
He embodies what we’re trying to do here,” Nardone said. “He’s intense. He hustles. He pushes himself the most. He’s given a true commitment to this program.”
Junior Michael Vergera and freshman John Centanni are the 132 pounders, with junior Carmine Centanni, senior Hugo Pando, freshman Adam Nguyen and senior Chris Nguyen sharing the time at 138 pounds.
Jefferson Renard, a sophomore, is the 145-pounder, with senior Peter Meggali at 152 pounds.
The team is hoping to get the services of senior Jose Vergera soon. Vergera has been out of action due to academic difficulties, but he was a competitor at Region 4 last year.
Junior Jordan Greene is perhaps the Buccaneers’ best wrestler. The 160-pounder worked diligently throughout the offseason and finished second in the recent Essex County Tournament.
“He’s come along leaps and bounds,” Nardone said of Greene. “He has such a great attitude. I think he’s just breaking out of his shell.”
The Bucs have three wrestlers vying for time at 170 pounds, namely juniors Tyler Lugo and Chris Rodriguez and sophomore Joe Nguyen.
“Lugo is just coming back from injury and Rodriguez is a transfer from Paterson Eastside,” Nardone said.
Senior Chris Bunay is the team’s 182-pounder.
“He’s solid there,” Nardone said.
Junior Nick Nardachone is the team’s most successful wrestler. Nardachone finished second in the District 14 tourney last year and recently took fifth in the ECT. Nardachone was also second at the Edison Tournament earlier in the season.
Junior Elijah Gaines is the 220-pounder. Gaines was second in the Edison Tournament and third in the Bloomfield tourney this season.
The heavyweight is junior Tien Le, who is new to the sport.
“We call him ‘Godzilla,’ because he’s very agile and pinning people,” Nardone said.
The Bucs have a 6-6 record after suffering a loss to rival Nutley Friday night.
“I’m pretty encouraged,” Nardone said. “We beat Union, so that was a good win and gave us a little slice of hope. We just have to keep up the intensity.”
With Nardone in charge, people in Belleville could not expect anything less than intense.