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MLB umpire Cuzzi still loyal to local roots

Photo courtesy of Phil Cuzzi Belleville native and Nutley resident Phil Cuzzi will begin his 15th season umpiring in Major League Baseball. Later this month, Cuzzi will host the annual Robert Luongo ALS Fund dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville.

Photo courtesy of Phil Cuzzi
Belleville native and Nutley resident Phil Cuzzi will begin his 15th season umpiring in Major League Baseball. Later this month, Cuzzi will host the annual Robert Luongo ALS Fund dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

His life as an umpire in Major League Baseball has taken him all over the country, but there’s nothing that could pull Phil Cuzzi away from his roots in Essex County.

Cuzzi will begin his 15th season as an MLB umpire this season, but he never wanders too far from his native Belleville or his current home in Nutley.

“There was never even a question about it,” said Cuzzi, who has resided in Nutley with his wife, Gilda, for the last 20 years. “I came from Belleville and I moved all the way to Nutley. This is my home. This is where I belong.”

Cuzzi will host his annual fundraising dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville later this month that will benefit ALS Research and provide scholarships for families grappling with the crippling and fatal disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The fundraising dinner (this year, it’s Jan. 30, but the event is a complete sellout) was set up to help Cuzzi’s childhood friend and Belleville High School teammate Robert Luongo, a standout All- State two-sport athlete at Belleville during his heyday.

“We went to school together since junior high and we were the best of friends,” Cuzzi said. “We were almost related. We shared the same first cousins. We became inseparable growing up through school and sports and were always together at family functions.”

So when Luongo was diagnosed with ALS more than 10 years ago, Cuzzi wanted to do whatever he could to help with the situation.

“We wanted to buy him a computer so he could communicate with his eyes,” Cuzzi said. “That’s where it all started. His eyes were the only thing he had left, other than his mind. When he first had symptoms, he had problems with his arm and his hands. When he was diagnosed, it was a sad reality. He said it was like receiving a death sentence.”

Cuzzi said that he became more educated about ALS since Luongo was diagnosed.

“I learned so much about it,” Cuzzi said. “A lot of people don’t know much about ALS, except that it’s called ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease.’ Once you see someone affected by it, like the way Robert was for over five years, then you learn how devastating it really is.”

When Cuzzi started the fundraising dinner, he made a promise to his friend.

“I told him that we were going to raise money for his daughter,” Cuzzi said. “I told him that she would never have to worry about her college education. Robert was a Harvard graduate and I said that if she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, then we would send her to Harvard.”

Dominique Luongo was nine when her father was diagnosed.

“I’m proud to say that she just completed her first semester at Harvard,” Cuzzi said. “We know that Robert is looking down with pride. There’s no question he has something to do with this.”

Cuzzi said that he began his pursuit of “his dream job” almost 30 years ago.

“I started out as a school teacher in Union,” Cuzzi said. “I was a graphic arts teacher, but I just knew there had to be more to life. So I left teaching and went into sales, but that didn’t satisfy me. Baseball was always my love. One day, I was with a bunch of friends at Yankee Stadium at a game and for some reason, I found myself focusing on the umpires. I thought to myself, ‘What a great job that would be, to be in the big leagues, working baseball games, being in charge.’‘’

Soon after, Cuzzi went to the Harry Wendlestadt Umpiring School in Florida.

“Once I went, I got the bug,” Cuzzi said. “I was obsessed. That was it. I became obsessed and driven.”

It fueled Cuzzi’s odyssey that started in the New York- Penn League. Cuzzi spent 13 years working games in minor league baseball, hoping for the big break.

Cuzzi got the call to work his first MLB game in St. Louis, a game between the Cardinals and the Dodgers. At first, he was strictly a National League umpire, but when MLB began moving umpires between both leagues, Cuzzi got the chance to umpire games at Yankee Stadium, eventually working some games in the American League Championship Series.

“It really was unbelievable,” Cuzzi said. “People kept telling me how hard it was going to be to make it, but I thought someone had to make it, so why not me?”

During his career, the 58-year-old Cuzzi has worked four playoff divisional series and presided over the National League Championship Series in 2005. He also worked the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in 2008 and was the first base umpire for the firstever game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.

During his career, Cuzzi has also worked two no-hit games. He was the home plate umpire when Bud Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals fired a nohitter in 2001 and was the third base umpire when Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants tossed a no-hitter in 2009.

Cuzzi has definitely seen his share of controversy in his career, including a call in the 2009 American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins that Cuzzi received a ton of criticism over.

“I don’t read the papers, because you never read anything about me doing a good job,” Cuzzi said. “It’s only when it’s bad. A controversial call is what it is. (Legendary umpire) Al Barlick was the one who gave me my chance and years ago, he said that if you read the papers and your feelings are hurt, then you shouldn’t be in the business. So I just don’t read them.”

Cuzzi said that the job as a major league umpire gets tougher every day.

“With high definition television and instant replay, there is all this scrutiny now,” Cuzzi said. “It makes the job more difficult.”

Beginning this season, the role of an umpire will get even harder, because MLB will implement even more instant replay rules. It won’t be just home runs. Other calls regarding fair or foul balls, safe or out calls will be in play.

That’s why Cuzzi will head to Phoenix Sunday for the annual meetings to go over rules, as well as the annual physicals.

“It’s a blessing,” Cuzzi said. “I consider my job to be a blessing. It never gets old. I’m living a dream.”

Cuzzi said that he’s spent the off-season in Nutley doing things around the house.

“When the season finishes, you welcome the off-season, because the season is long,” Cuzzi said. “The season goes fast, but the off-season goes faster. I can’t believe how quickly the time goes. Once we get through these meetings in Phoenix, that’s when I’ll start to get the itch to get back. It gets me antsy and ready to go.”

Cuzzi will go to Florida for the month of March and work a series of spring training games there.

For now, Cuzzi will concentrate on the last-minute preparations for his annual dinner.

In the past, Cuzzi has welcomed such prestigious special guests as Tommy Lasorda, Bob Costas, Larry Holmes, Joe Pepitone and Bucky Dent. Last year, Tony LaRussa, who recently learned he will be inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame this August, was the featured speaker.

“This year, it will be a blockbuster, but I can’t say who it is,” Cuzzi said. “I don’t know if people come to the dinner because they respect my work. I think it’s that the baseball community is so small and they all rally together for the cause. There are big hearts in everybody. Through my association with baseball, I’m able to tap into those big hearts and bring those people into Belleville.”

Robert Luongo passed away five years ago, but his memory lives on through this great fundraising dinner.

“Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to basically get the same 600 people to come to the dinner,” Cuzzi said. “It’s a good cause and it’s our local community that comes out. Every year we’ve had this dinner, it sells out. It’s very comforting to know that so many people care. It’s 10 years now and it’s still going strong. When we started it, we never thought it would snowball into this.”

The Robert Luongo ALS Fund is a 501 C-3 charity. In addition to helping ALS research in Luongo’s name, the funds go to scholarships for victims of ALS.

“It really is a great thing and I’m proud to be a part,” Cuzzi said. It’s definitely a home run for a local guy who never wandered far from his roots.

“This is my home,” Cuzzi said. “It’s where I belong.”

QP’s Joseph truly coming of age

Photo by Jim Hague Queen of Peace sophomore guard Jeremy Joseph.

Photo by Jim Hague
Queen of Peace sophomore guard Jeremy Joseph.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

There was never any denying the immense basketball talents of Jeremy Joseph.

When Joseph arrived at Queen of Peace last year, he was instantly installed into the Golden Griffins’ starting lineup as the top point guard.

There was only one problem. Joseph didn’t know if he was exactly ready for the challenge.

“Honestly, I was a little scared,” Joseph said.

It didn’t help that Joseph happened to break his nose, not once, but twice.

“The first time it happened, I thought it would make me better,” Joseph said. “I knew I could compete, but then I had to wear a mask and that took a while to get used to it. Once I got comfortable with the mask, I took it off and I broke it again.”

“I asked a lot of him as a freshman,” Queen of Peace head boys’ basketball coach Tom McGuire said. “I was asking him to be the point guard and it was a lot. Then, he got hurt.” So when plans were being made for the 2013-14 season, McGuire made a huge change. He took the ball out of Joseph’s hands and moved him to the starting off-guard slot.

“I wanted him to be more of a scorer,” McGuire said. “He was the best player on the team and the best player on the court. I wanted to use him in a better way.”

Joseph knew he had to become a better player. So in the offseason, Joseph became a regular in the QP weight room. He grew, became bigger and stronger.

“He grew to 6-foot-3,” McGuire said. “He put on 15 pounds of muscle.”

Joseph also joined a prestigious AAU program in Whippany in Morris County and played basketball all summer long.

And one more important fact – Joseph never took the facemask off again.

“I was fine with it and became used to it,” Joseph said of the mask. “I figured that if it was going to happen again, it was going to happen. I couldn’t play with the fear of getting hurt again. I just felt more comfortable. It was better for the other players if I didn’t play the point, better for the team. I’m not the best ball handler in the world, so if someone else handled it, it would be better for everyone.”

McGuire said that putting Joseph at the shooting guard slot helped his immense ability to rebound.

“He is an incredible rebounder,” McGuire said. “He averaged about seven rebounds per game last year, but he’s better than that. He wants to get that defensive rebound and then take the ball up the court, dribbling through everyone. He has also improved his jump shot. He’s now definitely more inside-out. He’s a true slashing player. He just gets the ball to the hoop.”

Joseph knows that he has improved as a player – utilizing his speed to the fullest.

“It’s the only way I know how to score,” Joseph said. “I go quick. I get the rebound and push the ball up the floor. I crash the boards, get the ball and play off that fast pace.”

Joseph has also become a more confident player.

“My mentality has changed,” Joseph said. “I’ve become a lot tougher and more aggressive. I can’t wait for things to happen. I have to make them happen. I just have to do what I have to do.”

The results have been staggering. Joseph has become one of the top players in the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference, emerging as a two-way force, scoring and rebounding.

Joseph is averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds per game for the Golden Griffins, one of the most improved teams in the NJIC-Liberty Division.

In a recent win over Harrison, Joseph had an astounding 29 points and 22 rebounds. He also had 24 points, 11 rebounds and four steals against Rutherford, added 13 points and 11 rebounds against Lyndhurst, 15 points and 11 rebounds against Secaucus and 15 points and 13 rebounds Sunday night against St. Mary’s of Rutherford in a game played at Felician College.

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

“He now has the mentality that he can score,” McGuire said. “His decision making is very good and it’s improving. Once he develops a jumper off the dribble, he will become a better player. He definitely has made me look smart, moving him from point guard. You can only tell someone to do so much. When he does the other little things, he’s very impressive. He even impresses me.” Don’t forget that Joseph is just 15 years old and only a sophomore. There’s a lot of room to grow and improve.

“I think he’s doing well, but I still think he can do more,” McGuire said. “He can improve his shooting numbers. He can shoot the three (point shot) better.”

“There’s always room for improvement,” Joseph said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Joseph is a very driven player. His family originates from Sri Lanka, so he has a goal that is related to his heritage.

“I want to become the first college basketball player from Sri Lanka,” Joseph said. “There’s never been one. People from Sri Lanka are usually cricket players. One of my dreams is to become a Division I college basketball player.”

McGuire realizes Joseph has talent, but there’s a long way to go.

“Ultimately, if he grows a little and gets stronger, he can be a legit prospect,” McGuire said. “We’ll see. The potential is definitely there. We haven’t seen the best of him yet. I don’t know where the potential will stop.”

There is one aspect to Joseph’s potential that McGuire doesn’t have to worry about. Joseph is an excellent student.

“He’s No. 2 right now in his class,” McGuire said. “He’s extremely bright. Anything you throw at him, he understands and picks it up right away. He’s extremely smart on the floor and what he sees on the floor.”

Joseph is a native of North Arlington who has always aspired to be a Golden Griffin hoop standout.

“I went to Queen of Peace grammar school,” Joseph said. “My brother (Josh) was a varsity basketball player at QP and I used to go to all his games. I knew that when my time came around, I wanted to do the same thing. He inspired me. I feel I’m right on target in being a good player. I can only improve if I intensify my game.”

It appears as if Jeremy Joseph is definitely right on target and that the future is bright.

Blue Tide making big stride toward respectability

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison has enjoyed a fine 5-2 start to the high school basketball season. From l. are senior Tommy Dolaghan, head coach Noel Colon and senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison has enjoyed a fine 5-2 start to the high school basketball season. From l. are senior Tommy Dolaghan, head coach Noel Colon and senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When he was first growing up in Jersey City and later North Bergen, Noel Colon never imagined he would eventually become a basketball coach.

But Colon recalled the inspiration he received from coaches he played for along the way.

“My first coach, Donald Copeland Sr., at the Jersey City Boys Club did so much for me,” Colon said. “My mother wouldn’t let me play basketball and Mr. Copeland was like a big father figure to me. (The late) Brian Lee was also a big help then. I was blessed and fortunate to have had such great coaches along the way.”

Colon ended up playing at North Bergen High School for coaches like John Barone and Kevin Bianco, then went on to play at Ramapo College for Chuck McBreen. Colon ended up getting a degree in sociology from Ramapo.

“What ended up happening was that I got a job as an assistant coach at Technology High School (in Newark),” said Colon, who worked with Denver Nuggets standout forward Kenneth Faried at the Newark school. “I really wanted to play pro ball in Puerto Rico, but I ended up loving coaching.”

When the head coaching position at Harrison High School opened up, Colon was more than interested.

“I love challenges,” Colon said.

But Colon had no idea what kind of challenge was in store taking the Harrison job. After all, the Blue Tide won just two games over the last two years.

“I didn’t know what it was all about,” Colon said. “I just heard there was an opening and I went for it. I knew I missed coaching. I didn’t coach at all last year and really missed it. I knew I wanted to get back into it.”

Colon received a recommendation from legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley.

“He was very instrumental in me getting the job,” Colon said. “I just wanted a shot.”

But with a program that won just twice in two years?

“(North Bergen head coach) Kevin (Bianco) told me their record and my reaction was like, ‘Oh, my,’” Colon said. “I spoke to my wife Tessa, who is pregnant with our first child. She told me to go for it. I grew up in Hudson County. I know nothing comes easy. I love challenges. I’m a man of faith. I knew that this was the right thing to do.”

So the 30-year-old Colon took the challenge, took the position at Harrison and hit the ground running.

“I’m still learning,” Colon said. “But I love the energy. I spent the summer with the kids of Harrison. I got to know the kids and what they were all about.”

After the summer, Colon had a sense that the Blue Tide would be somewhat successful.

“To be honest, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good,” Colon said. “The kids put in a lot of work and sacrificed a lot.”

And since the 2013-14 season began, Harrison is one of the most extraordinary turnaround stories in northern New Jersey. The Blue Tide currently has a 5-2 record after a victory over American History High of Newark Saturday afternoon.

Colon is happy with the progress of his new program, but not content.

“I am pleased, but we’re a little inconsistent,” Colon said. “I don’t think we’ve played a complete game yet. Cliffside Park was the only game we played really well on the defensive side. But we’re coming along. We’re getting better.”

Senior Iker Fernandez has been a pleasant surprise. The 6-foot-4 forward is averaging double figures in points and rebounds. Fernandez had 18 points in the 53-41 win over American History.

“He’s off to a good start,” Colon said. “He’s very skilled. I think he has a chance to play at the next level.”

Senior Federico Olivera is another 6-foot-4 standout for the Blue Tide.

“He’s a strong kid,” Colon said. “He’s a good rebounder.”

Olivera recently had 19 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Leonia.

The small forward is senior Jeremy Mohamoud.

“He’s long and lanky,” Colon said of the 6-foot-3 Mohamoud, who had 14 points in Saturday’s win. “He’s very athletic and can shoot the ball well. He has all the skills.”

The point guard duties are shared by senior Moises Roque and junior Jordan Villalta. Both players stand 5-foot-7.

“Moises is a better athlete,” Colon said. “Jordan makes better decisions with the ball. They both play well. I’m going to let them battle it out.”

The shooting guard is 5-foot-10 Alex Cajiga.

“He’s a good shooter and he’s very skilled,” Colon said. “He lost a lot of weight over the summer, like 25 pounds, and it’s helped him. He’s working hard and going to get better.”

Cajiga is averaging nine points per game.

Tommy Dolaghan is a 5-foot- 9 senior who plays guard and comes off the bench. The Blue Tide standout pitcher on the baseball team in the spring, Dolaghan brings a lot of energy to the team.

“He’s been a pleasure to coach,” Colon said. “He’s just a great kid, a smart kid. He picks up things so easily. He defends well.”

Junior William Azabache is a 5-foot-10 forward.

“He understands his role and brings us energy on defense off the bench,” Colon said. “He’s also been a pleasure to coach, because he does a little bit of everything.”

Senior Ralph Diaz is a 6-foot-4 forward.

“He’s a strong kid who comes in and rebounds,” Colon said. “He plays hard.”

The Blue Tide’s successful season will get a big challenge Thursday when they play Queen of Peace in North Arlington.

Colon believes the winning ways can continue.

“I definitely think it can happen,” Colon said. “Our goal is to get better every day. That truly is our goal. I can see a little bit of consistency in practice. We just need it in games. That’s what I’m trying to preach to them. They just need to understand.”

So far, the understanding has been great for the Blue Tide of Harrison.

NA girls: Trying to get through injuries

Photo by Jim Hague Senior guard Bri Cunanan was going to be the leader of the North Arlington girls’ basketball team, but she suffered a knee injury that will send her to the sidelines for the next three weeks.

Photo by Jim Hague
Senior guard Bri Cunanan was going to be the leader of the North Arlington girls’ basketball team, but she suffered a knee injury that will send her to the sidelines for the next three weeks.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Karen Smith had high hopes for her North Arlington girls’ basketball team this season. Even though the Vikings were going to be very young, Smith figured her squad could be competitive.

Then, disaster struck in the form of some crippling injuries.

First, sophomore Samantha Veloso suffered an ankle injury that kept her on the sidelines.

Then, senior guard Bri Cunanan went down with a knee injury. Cunanan’s injury especially hurt, because she was the team’s leading scorer and ball handler. At the time of her injury, Cunanan was averaging a little more than 10 points per game.

“They were two key players,” Smith said. “It’s a little difficult. But we’re obviously optimistic because other players are going to get playing time. The younger kids are getting a chance to play. Others have to step up.”

Veloso’s timetable for a return is up in the air. Cunanan’s injury will apparently take three weeks to recover from.

So it’s time for others to shine.

Senior Cara Dlugo is one of the key performers who will have to pick up the slack. The 5-foot-7 Dlugo is someone who had been playing both small forward and power forward, but will need to include some ball handling in the absence of Cunanan.

“She’s a very good athlete,” Smith said of Dlugo. “She’s really the heart of the team. She hustles all the time. She’s our leading rebounder. We need her to score more now. I think she can do that.”

Dlugo is averaging eight points and 10 rebounds per game.

Junior center Amanda Chiamese is another key contributor. The 5-foot- 9 Chiamese is a force down low.

“She’s extremely aggressive under the basket, but she also has a nice little jump shot,” Smith said. “She’s also a good hustle player. She’s been playing pretty well.”

Junior Taylor Barth has also enjoyed some success in the past. The 5-foot-4 Barth is one of the best shooters around.

“She can shoot the lights out,” Smith said. “She now needs to handle the ball more with Bri out. I think she can handle the ball. She just needs to be confident.”

Sophomore Denaijah Gainza is another guard. The 5-foot-4 Gainza has been the backup point guard to Cunanan. “She has a nice little shot,” Smith said. “She can handle the ball and take the ball to the basket.”

Gainza had 13 points in a recent win over Lyndhurst and eight versus neighboring rival Queen of Peace.

Sophomore Marissa Piscal is a 5-foot-7 forward.

“She can be a dominant force,” Smith said of Piscal. “She’s very strong and is a great rebounder. She’s a good softball player and joined us for the first time. We’re really excited to have her with us.”

Victoria Namnama is a 5-foot-3 sophomore guard.

“She handles the ball pretty well,” Smith said. “She’s the starting point guard on our JV [junior varsity] and plays off the bench for us. She’s going to play more now.”

Freshman Danica Krawczyk is a 5-foot-7 guard/ forward.

“She can shoot the ball well, but she’s also physical,” Smith said. “That’s a good combination and a good problem to have.”

Senior Tanna Avella is a 5-foot-6 guard who is playing varsity basketball for the first time.

“She’s probably one of the fastest players we have and our best defenders,” Smith said. “She comes off the bench, but defends against the other team’s top player. That’s her role.”

Sophomore Mariah Moreno is a 5-foot-3 guard. Theresa D’Errico is also a 5-foot-3 guard.

The Vikings have not enjoyed a ton of success thus far.

“We’ve been struggling,” Smith said. “We’ve hit a few bumps in the road. But I can see this team turning around. We’re going to see the teams in our league the second time and I think that things will change. We’re showing improvement. We’re starting to play better.”

Smith likes the fact that there are so many young kids involved in her program.

“I’m excited to see what the younger kids can bring to the table,” Smith said. “I like the way our program is headed. It’s headed in the right direction. We have 15 freshmen involved in our program. The numbers look good.”

Now if Smith could only get her injured players back.

Golden Griffins look to improve with veteran team

1-15 QP_web

Top photo by Jim Hague, bottom courtesy Robert Rodriguez The Queen of Peace girls’ basketball team has been bolstered by the play of their seniors. TOP, from l., are Nikki Sammartino, Raychel Piserchia, Maria Ruiz and Lia Rodriguez. BOTTOM: Senior Lia Rodriguez controls the ball in a recent Queen of Peace girls’ basketball game against rival North Arlington.

Top photo by Jim Hague, bottom courtesy Robert Rodriguez
The Queen of Peace girls’ basketball team has been bolstered by the play of their seniors. TOP, from l., are Nikki Sammartino, Raychel Piserchia, Maria Ruiz and Lia Rodriguez. BOTTOM: Senior Lia Rodriguez controls the ball in a recent Queen of Peace girls’ basketball game against rival North Arlington.

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

As the Lyndhurst recreation coordinator, Paul Passamano has been involved with the coaching of youngsters for more than 30 years.

“It started with my daughter and I just kept going,” said Passamano, who remains active with the development of kids in Lyndhurst.

However, last year, Passamano took over a new challenge, when he became the head girls’ basketball coach at nearby Queen of Peace.

“I wanted to coach high school girls’ basketball all my life,” Passamano said. “I played at Bergen Tech and in the Navy. I love coaching.

It was my passion when I started coaching.” Sure, there were mixed feelings the first time QP faced Lyndhurst last year.

“We were playing against girls I coached,” Passamano said. “They were my heart and soul. But things are different now. Everyone understands that this is my team and I love coaching the girls at Queen of Peace. I was fortunate to get the chance.”

The Golden Griffins own a 3-3 record thus far in the early going of the season.

“I would have liked to have a better record,” Passamano said. “We’ve had a tough early schedule. But I think we should have a good team.”

In fact, Passamano believes that the Golden Griffins will be vastly improved on last year’s 7-15 mark.

“I think we should have double figures in wins,” Passamano said. “We’re trying to reverse last year’s record.”

Passamano said that he has instructed his players to not look at the scoreboard.

“They don’t look at the scoreboard,” Passamano said. “They just play hard, hard and hard. We’re a running team. We play hard and don’t give up. We have a good bunch of kids. We have a good bench that works the starting team hard in practice. They’re there every day in practice with no complaints.”

Passamano said that his team utilizes a variety of defenses.

“We do it all,” Passamano said. “We play zone, press, man-to-man. We mix it up to try to confuse the opposing team.”

Leading the team is senior Nikki Sammartino. The 5-10 forward is a hard worker under the basket.

“She’s a tough kid,” Passamano said. “She has the heart for the game. She is aggressive around the basket.”

Sammartino is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds per game this season and is approaching 1,000 points for her career.

“We have to get the ball to her,” Passamano said.

Another solid contributor is senior forward Lia Rodriguez, who is one of the best all-around athletes in the area. Rodriguez, a standout soccer goalie in the fall and a track athlete in the spring, is averaging 13 points per game.

“She can really jump,” Passamano said of the 5-foot-9 Rodriguez. “She’s very athletic. I can put her up against someone 6-foot-2 and she’s going to get the ball. She’s also a pleasure to coach. She’s quiet, pleasant and says nothing. She’s just a great kid and a great kid coach.”

Passamano said that he interchanges Allison Gaudenzi and Chelsea Kaszka at the other forward slot.

“They flip-flop,” Passamano said. “It depends on the team we’re facing. Allison can put up the three (pointer). We mix it up.”

The Golden Griffins also have the Mastrofilippo twins, namely juniors Michele and Michaila, to operate in the backcourt.

“They’re coming into their own,” Passamano said of the Mastrofilippo twins. “We need them to shoot a little more, like 15 times a game. We’re working on that. But they’re very quick and athletic. They’re good players who understand the game.”

Junior Jamie Nemeth is another solid contributor.

“Jamie is our speed demon,” Passamano said. “She can run and jump. She just needs to understand the game more. Once she does, she can be a real threat.”

Senior Raychel Piserchia is a solid forward, while senior Maria Ruiz is a guard off the bench. Junior Tianna Peluso is a power forward who “goes after rebounds hard,” according to Passamano.

Junior Clara Marie Talban is a reserve forward and junior Devisha Khan is a new player, still learning the ins and outs of basketball.

Passamano is encouraged about the contributions of three freshmen, namely guards Kelly Lennon and Kaylee Ameri and center/forward Jane Amadeo.

“They wanted to be part of the team,” Passamano said. “They wanted to stay with us and train every day. They’re getting better and never complain. They’re going to help us down the road.”

As for now, Passamano is content with the Golden Griffins, taking full advantage of the opportunity he craved for a lifetime.

“I love coaching these girls,” Passamano said. “I love the team. I love the school. I love the people in the school. I think we’re going to show improvement this year. We’ll see how well we hold up over the next few weeks.”

Belleville girls’ basketball team has higher hopes

Photo by Jim Hague The Belleville girls’ basketball team looks to improve on its 10-win season a year ago. From l. are seniors Shatia Silas, Alisson Samaniego, head coach Liz Ramirez, Amber Bulna and Chloe Mecka.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Belleville girls’ basketball team looks to improve on its 10-win season a year ago. From l. are seniors Shatia Silas, Alisson Samaniego, head coach Liz Ramirez, Amber Bulna and Chloe Mecka.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The Belleville High School girls’ basketball team won 10 games a year ago. Liz Ramirez, the third-year head coach of the Buccaneers, truly believes that her team should take a step up this season.

“We have a lot of seniors back from last year,” Ramirez said. “The core of the team is back. The girls know the deal. They’re familiar with what we want. We should hit the ground running.”

The Bucs have started the 2013-14 season with a 2-2 record.

“We lost two games (Science Park and Glen Ridge) that we should have won,” Ramirez said. “We’re still growing and trying to get into the swing of things.”

Ramirez said that she wished the schedule was kinder in the early going. Playing only four games over the first three weeks of the season isn’t easy.

“I would have liked to have faced more competition at this point,” Ramirez said. “It’s just the way the schedule worked out. We’re going to see a lot more games in January and February.”

One of the top returning players is junior point guard Arianna Douglas, who averaged nearly 14 points per game last year, earning All-Super Essex Conference honors.

“She’s improved a lot in the offseason,” Ramirez said of the 5-foot-3 Douglas. “I’ve definitely put a lot more on her shoulders this year.”

Another key returnee is senior center Shatia Silas. The 6-foot-1 Silas, another All-SEC honoree last year, averaged 11 rebounds per game last year. Silas has played in only one game thus far – and had 20 points and 10 rebounds in that game.

Photo by Jim Hague Belleville junior point guard Arianna Douglas is one of the top returning players in the Super Essex Conference.

Photo by Jim Hague
Belleville junior point guard Arianna Douglas is one of the top returning players in the Super Essex Conference.

“It was good for our guards to step up and learn that they could play without Shatia,” Ramirez said. “We learned that if we don’t have one of our key players, the others have to step up.”

The Samaniego sisters are also key contributors, namely senior Alisson and junior Samantha.

Alisson is a 5-foot-3 guard, while Samantha stands 5-foot-1. “Alisson is all over the place,” Ramirez said. “She gets points, rebounds. She gets something in almost every statistical category. She gives us an all-around look. Samantha is a good shooter who has developed her shot even more. She’s already made a few from 3-point range.”

Senior John’Nae Williams is a 5-foot-10 inside presence.

“She has crazy leaping ability for a girl,” Ramirez said. “She’s our shot blocker. She is a natural at blocking shots.”

Senior guard Amber Bulna is a 5-foot-5 sharpshooter.

“She’s our best technical shooter,” Ramirez said. “She has the best technique. When she’s on the floor, then she’s behind the 3-point line, because she can make those shots. We have to find her if she’s on the floor. She has a lot more confidence in that 3-point shot.”

Ramirez is ecstatic about the prospects of two freshmen who are seeing action right away.

Gianna Benacquista is a 6-foot forward. She comes from a long family lineage of talented female athletes in her family.

“She really has come a long way,” Ramirez said. “She’s getting a lot more playing time than I first envisioned. I can’t ask for a more dedicated player.”

Benacquista is averaging seven points and eight rebounds per game thus far.

The second freshman is guard Giselle Luna. The 5-foot-1 Luna has impressed Ramirez with her hustle.

“She’s an excellent defender,” Ramirez said. “She’s definitely our fastest player. She’s one of the quickest kids I’ve ever seen. I’m a defensive-minded coach, so I like defensive players. She’s proven she can give people problems with her defense.”

The Buccaneers continue their season this week against Christ the King of Newark and then a local rivalry is renewed Friday afternoon, when neighboring rival Nutley comes calling at Belleville at 4 p.m.

“It’s a good rivalry that we have with Nutley,” Ramirez said. “It’s good that we’re going to get a chance to play against a top team.”

And if Silas is able to play, it should be a fine battle between Silas and Nutley’s fine inside player Blair Watson. Where else can you see two talented players over 6 feet tall going head-to-head against each other?

Ramirez knows that her team still has to accomplish a lot.

“I would like us to be more patient on the offensive end,” Ramirez said. “I think that comes with time and experience.”

Ramirez believes that her team has a chance to capture the Super Essex Conference- Freedom Division crown.

“I really think we have a shot at the division title,” Ramirez said. “Our goals are to make the states, have a better than .500 record and win the division. I believe we can do all three.”

The opportunity certainly is there.

Kearny wrestling: Trying to instill pride

Photo by Jim Hague The Kearny High School wrestling team is experiencing some growing pains. Front row, from l., are James Hodnet, Wilker Villacorta and Luis Cornejo. Back row, from l., are head coach Tony Carratura, Giovanni Diaz, Johann Holguin, assistant coach Brian McDonnell and assistant coach Rich Stacey.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Kearny High School wrestling team is experiencing some growing pains. Front row, from l., are James Hodnet, Wilker Villacorta and Luis Cornejo. Back row, from l., are head coach Tony Carratura, Giovanni Diaz, Johann Holguin, assistant coach Brian McDonnell and assistant coach Rich Stacey.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

For 14 years now, as the head coach, Tony Carratura has dedicated his entire life to the Kearny High School wrestling program. Take that one step better, Carratura lives for the sport of wrestling in Kearny. It doesn’t stop with just the Kardinals’ varsity program.

“I want the kids to love the sport as much as I do,” Carratura said. However, it’s not easy. Participation numbers are way down. Not just in Kearny, but all over New Jersey.

“The numbers the last few years have gone down,” Carratura admits. “It’s an uphill battle. We’re starting from scratch again.” That’s why Carratura has enlisted the help of his son, Tony Jr., a counselor at Lincoln School, to help with the seventh and eighth grade programs.

“I think we have an excellent area for wrestling,” Carratura said. “This is just a start.” So having an inexperienced varsity team is something Carratura is not accustomed to.

“It makes you a better coach,” Carratura said. “I’ve been plucking kids out of the hallways and the weight room and trying to turn them into wrestlers. The majority of our team has only two years of experience. We have only four seniors. We’re up against a lot of obstacles. We’re trying to build up the program again.”

It doesn’t mean that Carratura is taking his team this season and hiding in a corner somewhere. Carratura firmly believes that inexperienced wrestlers become better wrestlers when they compete. And Carratura certainly lets the Kardinals compete, taking them on a grappling sojourn all over the state, match after grueling match.

For the last several years, Carratura has booked some of the top wrestling teams in the state – and this year is no exception, even with the inexperience and the lack of quality numbers.

“We’re still going to go after it,” Carratura said. “We want to stay as competitive as we’ve always been. It’s hard to do with the numbers, but we have about 25 kids who are there every day, busting their tail to get better. It’s a dedication sport and you have to be dedicated in order to do it well. We all have to work together to bring all of our sports programs back at Kearny, not just wrestling.”

Carratura believes that the Kardinals are about to turn the corner.

“We want to have kids who love the sport,” Carratura said. “No doubt about it, the kids are working hard. They want to be there.”

Carratura always has the assistance of dedicated coach Rich Stacey, who has been with Carratura for over a decade. But this year, former Kardinal standout wrestler and cross country runner Brian McDonnell (a recent inductee into the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame) has joined the coaching staff.

“Brian is a great addition, because he’s been wrestling with me since he was eight years old,” Carratura said. “Rich has been with me for 12 years. We have a good staff and absolutely, that’s the first step.”

Senior Wilker Villacorta is the Kardinals’ 106-pound wrestler.

“It’s only his second year of varsity wrestling, but he won 18 matches last year,” Carratura said. “He was a soccer player, so he’s a good athlete. When he first came out, he didn’t know what to do, but he’s come a long way. I expect big things from him this season.”

Villacorta has won five matches already this season and placed fifth in his weight class at the recent Bloomfield Invitational tournament.

Junior Diego Poma and senior Angel Rodriguez share the 113 and 120-pound classes. The two are interchangeable, depending upon the opponent and their weight loss before the match.

“They flip back and forth,” Carratura said. “It’s a good option to have there. Poma is long and lanky and good with his legs. Rodriguez is more of a brawler. But they’re both doing a good job.”

At 126 pounds, the Kardinals welcome a newcomer in junior Josh Guerrero, who transferred to Kearny from New York earlier this year.

“He wrestled before, so that’s a help,” Carratura said. “He has good technique. He’s the most technical kid we have. He’s well on his way and I think he’s going to be a big surprise for us.”

Guerrero took third in the recent Kearny Holiday Invitational tourney.

Senior James Hodnet is the 132-pounder. Hodnet is perhaps the Kardinals’ most experienced wrestler, having been part of the team for the last three years. Hodnet finished fourth at the NJSIAA District 16 tournament last February and was fifth in the recent Bloomfield tourney.

At 138 pounds, junior Juan Lamboy returns. Lamboy was a newcomer last year, but he’s made strides already this season, finishing third in the Kearny tourney and fifth at Bloomfield.

“Last year, he was still green and learning the sport,” Carratura said. “This year, he’s improved and doing well.”

At 145 and 152 pounds, Carratura is using freshmen Cesar Fernandez and Justin Baeza are bouncing back and forth, depending on who makes weight.

“They both did well in the Bloomfield tournament and they show a lot of promise,” Carratura said.

Senior Luis Cornejo is the team’s 160-pounder. Cornejo is a complete novice to the sport.

“He’s just coming out for the team for the first time,” Carratura said. “He’s been there every day, as dedicated as the rest. He’s doing well.”

The Kardinals have two youngsters filling the slots at 171 and 182 pounds in sophomores Chase McMillan and Thomas Presblyski.

Senior Gio Diaz returns at 195 pounds. Diaz was a newcomer to the sport last year.

“He told me that he should have come out earlier and he could have been better,” Carratura said.

Junior Piero Ugaza is the team’s 220-pounder. Ugaza is also wrestling for the very first time.

The Kardinals have a busy slate, with more than 30 dual meet dates already set. Carratura always looks to add more as the season moves on.

“We’re competing all the time,” Carratura said. “We have quads (quadrangular meets with four teams participating) every Saturday. It’s a complete schedule. But we’re going to be well prepared for the (NJSIAA) Districts (16, in late February). We’re going to be ready. I just want to see them keep moving forward, keep making progress. We have kids who are there every day, dedicated to the sport, doing what they need to do”

And keep the sport of wrestling alive in a town where wrestling has always been a staple of the community.

Harrison girls’ hoops squad doesn’t skip a beat

Photo by Jim Hague Senior Stephanie Flatley (l.) has been the leading scorer for the Harrison girls’ basketball team, averaging 16 points per game with senior Sarai Rivera (r.) is a two-year captain on the team, averaging 13 points per game this season.

Photo by Jim Hague
Senior Stephanie Flatley (l.) has been the leading scorer for the Harrison girls’ basketball team, averaging 16 points per game with senior Sarai Rivera (r.) is a two-year captain on the team, averaging 13 points per game this season.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

It’s not an easy task when your girls’ high school basketball team loses two of its top scorers from last year’s team, including one player who averaged close to 20 points per game down the stretch last season.

Harrison lost Rayven Lucas (now playing at Montclair State) and Ulyissa Pereyra from last year’s Blue Tide squad that went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs. Those losses might be hard for some teams to overcome.

But the Blue Tide is showing no signs of letting up, exploding out to a 4-1 mark in the early going of the new season.

“The girls have done well picking up the slack,” said Harrison head coach Al Ruiz. “Sure, Rayven did most of the scoring last year. There have been times where it has been tough without her. But the girls knew that they had to pick up the slack somehow and they’ve definitely done it defensively. That’s the key. If we play well defensively, we have a chance to win. If our captains shoot the ball well, it could be a decent night.”

Ruiz said that he is not surprised by the Blue Tide’s solid start.

“With the type of defense we have, I thought we had a chance to get off to a good start,” Ruiz said.

Leading the way so far has been senior captain Stephanie Flatley. The 5-foot-6 forward is averaging 16 points per game.

“She’s doing a little bit of everything for us,” Ruiz said. “She’s like having another coach on the floor. She’s already had a couple of big games for us. She’s stepped up tremendously. She worked hard over the summer to get ready and she’s been a big plus for us.”

Another key contributor is senior forward Sarai Rivera. The 5-foot-6 Rivera is a two-year captain.

“She also has had some big games for us,” Ruiz said. “She hit three 3-pointers against Lyndhurst to help us get a win. She does a nice job of boxing out and rebounding.”

Rivera is averaging 13 points per game thus far.

Junior Amber O’Donnell is the starting point guard. The 5-foot-4 O’Donnell, a standout softball player in the spring, is a defensive whirlwind.

“She puts so much pressure on the opposing guards,” Ruiz said. “She also does a good job of controlling the tempo of the game.”

O’Donnell is averaging five points and five assists per game.

Senior Emmalee Lucas is the team’s starting off-guard. The 5-foot-4 Lucas (cousin to graduated standout Rayven) is another defensive stalwart.

“She takes good care of the ball,” Ruiz said. “She does a good job shooting and scoring.”

Ruiz said that there is no substitute for experience.

“It helps so much,” Ruiz said. “It helps us do a lot of different things. The girls all know what we’re trying to do, so that helps tremendously.”

Junior Kayla Montilla is a 5-foot-3 guard who is another standout on the defensive end of the floor.

“She is our defensive harasser,” Ruiz said. “She puts so much pressure on the opponent just being out there on the ball. Our defense has been unreal. They make stops all the time.”

Freshman Cynthia Ferreira has fit in nicely with the team. Ferreira is a 5-foot-7 forward.

“She works hard down low and has a nice post-up game,” Ruiz said. “She can also score pretty well with a nice midrange shot.”

Heather Harris is a 6-foot junior center.

“She’s a good rebounder who works hard down low,” Ruiz said.

Senior Ximena Lopez is a 5-foot-7 forward who comes off the bench.

“She has nice hands and catches the ball well,” Ruiz said. “She makes good decisions with the ball. She’s pretty smart.”

Senior guard Stephanie Lopez (no relation to Ximena) is a 5-foot-5 guard.

“She outhustles everyone on the floor,” Ruiz said of Stephanie Lopez. “She gets to a lot of loose balls. She does the dirty work.”

Ruiz was happy to welcome Ray Lucas back as an assistant coach. While his daughter Rayven is now at Montclair State, the former New York Jets quarterback and famed television and radio football analyst has remained as a volunteer assistant coach.

“The girls love him,” Ruiz said. “He’s so much more of a father figure to the girls than he is a basketball coach. They look to him for advice about anything. They don’t look at him as a football analyst on television. They think he’s just Ray and that’s why I like having him around and the girls like having him around.”

Ruiz is pleased by his team’s hot start.

“I’m very encouraged,” Ruiz said. “I just hope it keeps rolling, that we can keep riding that wave.”

Meaning, the wave of the Blue Tide.

“One of the main reasons why we’re doing so well is that they’ve all bought into the fact that we have to play defense to be successful,” Ruiz said. “They’re constantly diving on the floor for loose balls for the betterment of the team. They have the will to win and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the team. It gives you a nice feeling when you come to practice and they’re willing to work as hard as they are.”

Sports Year in Review: 2013

Harrison soccer, Lyndhurst baseball top the list

 

Photo courtesy Ronald Shields The Harrison boys’ soccer team won both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championships last fall, earning the top spot on The Observer’s Top 10 Sports Stories for 2013.

Photo courtesy Ronald Shields
The Harrison boys’ soccer team won both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championships last fall, earning the top spot on The Observer’s Top 10 Sports Stories for 2013.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The calendar year 2013 provided plenty of thrilling moments for local sports fans. It’s very hard to organize all those events, then slice them to down to a precise 10 and then finally rank them.

So we will do our best once again to provide The Observer Top 10 Sports Stories for 2013.

Here goes:

Harrison wins state sectional soccer title; Sowe earns All-America honors

The Harrison boys’ soccer team enjoyed a sensational season, tying a school record with 22 wins, losing just once and capturing both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship. The only blemish on the great season was the loss to Newton, 2-1, in the overall NJSIAA Group II semifinals.

Other than that, it was a year to remember, capped by defender Modou Sowe being selected as an All-American, the first ever Blue Tide player to receive the honor. Sowe had an astounding 19 goals as a defender, a total almost unheard of, except that Sowe tallied 20 goals a year ago. He leaves a legacy as one of the greatest all-around talents at a school with an impressive ledger of great players. Read more »

Vikings off to flying start under new coach Corsetto

Photo by Jim Hague North Arlington is off to a solid 2-0 start under new head coach Rich Corsetto. From l. are Thai Scott, Mike Brazzel, head coach Corsetto and Nick Martin.

Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington is off to a solid 2-0 start under new head coach Rich Corsetto. From l. are Thai Scott, Mike Brazzel, head coach Corsetto and Nick Martin.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Being the new head boys’ basketball coach at North Arlington High School, Rich Corsetto was hoping for his new team to get off to a strong start in his new regime.

“It’s pretty important to start off well,” said Corsetto, a basketball lifer who was away from the game for the last three years. “Not only for me as a coach, but the entire program. It sets a tone for the rest of the season.”

Well, the Vikings have exploded out of the box, soundly defeating 13th Street Tech of Newark and Belleville in the first two games of the Corsetto era.

“It’s great,” Corsetto said. “It’s good to be back in it with a great group of young men who are working hard and doing everything that we’ve asked them to do.”

Corsetto knew that he was inheriting an experienced program from former longtime head coach David Walsh, who resigned last year after 10 years as head coach at his alma mater.

“I figured we had some experience,” Corsetto said. “I figured we could correct some things and make a few changes in how we play. We could install new things and the kids are picking up on that very well.”

Corsetto knew he had the makings of a solid squad by the way the Vikings performed in three preseason scrimmages.

“They also played in a fall league in Bloomfield that got them ready,” Corsetto said. “We played some good teams in Bloomfield, so that was good experience.”

Corsetto said that he has a solid rotation, one that was put into place during the preseason.

“We go about eight or nine deep, which is not bad for who we play,” Corsetto said. “A couple of kids have surprised me with their development. They play really hard together as a team. They know each other. I think that’s very important.” Corsetto also likes the team’s balance. “We have three seniors who are very close friends,” Corsetto said. “We also have a good group of sophomores who are learning. That’s good for the future. They get along well. They’ve known each other for a while. It’s a good mix.”

Leading the way is senior do-everything Nick Martin. The 6-foot Martin is a rugged, tough inside player.

“He’s a hard-nosed kid, but don’t be surprised if he steps back and hits that short jumper,” Corsetto said. “He’s a very intelligent kid and it’s like having a coach on the floor. I think he’s going to be a coach someday. I feel that way about him. He’s a nice kid. He’s the backbone of our team.”

Another key returnee is 5-foot-9 senior point guard Thai Scott, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

“He’s worked hard to come back and he’s come back quick,” Corsetto said. “It’s unfortunate he missed all of that time, because he does a nice job as our floor leader. He plays hard every night.”

The third senior returnee is senior guard Mike Brazzel. The 5-foot-7 Brazzel is a bundle of energy, a whirling dervish, kind of like North Arlington’s version of the cartoon Tazmanian Devil.

“He brings nothing but energy off the bench,” Corsetto said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid who is very quick when he’s under control. He’s the fastest kid on the team.”

Sophomore Edgar Carranza is a transfer from Christ the King in Newark, where he started last year. Carranza is making his mark already with the Vikings.

Junior Jose Checo is perhaps the Vikings’ most important player. The 6-foot-4 Checo is the Vikings’ threat to score inside and take on some of the taller opponents.

Sophomore Steven Valez is a 6-foot-1 sophomore who is working down low with Checo.

Sophomore Kevin Cerqueira is the team’s instant offense.

“He’s a nice little-all around player,” Corsetto of Cerqueira, who should see a lot of action from the outset. “He’s a nice player with a good shot from outside. He’s just going to get better.”

Joe Morales is a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward.

“He’s a banger, a real tough kid,” Corsetto said. “He never played organized basketball before, so he’s still learning.”

The Vikings got off to a 2-0 start and were scheduled to face Harrison earlier last week prior to press time.

“It feels pretty good,” Corsetto said. “The kids are working hard and playing hard. That’s the one thing that sticks out. My wife pointed out that the kids do play hard. That’s a good sign. We just have to keep it going.”