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Belleville’s volleyball team advances to NJSIAA state sectional semifinals

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By Jim Hague

 Observer Sports Writer 

John Spina knew that his Belleville High School boys’ volleyball team would be very competitive this season.

Spina just didn’t know how competitive.

The Buccaneers advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinals last Thursday with a straight set 25- 16, 25-16 victory over Lakeland Regional.

The Buccaneers, now 21-6, will face Wayne Valley in the semifinals Wednesday afternoon.

Needless to say, it’s been a fun run for the Buccaneers.

“I expected that we would have a good team,” said Spina, who doubles as the girls’ volleyball coach at Belleville in the fall. “But we did have to fill two big spots from last year.”

One of those spots came when junior Edward Edghill moved from outside hitter to middle hitter. Spina was taking a little bit of a gamble, putting Edghill inside, but it turned out to be a blessing.

“Edghill is a very versatile player,” Spina said of Edghill, who has collected 59 kills and 40 blocks this season. “He’s made us very hard to stop.” The other move was to find a temporary replacement for junior Marlon Rodriguez, who was suffering from a handful of injuries. Rodriguez is also a fine soccer player at the school.

So Spina looked to junior Raymond Cortez to replace Rodriguez.

“He’s our jack of all trades,” Spina said of Cortez. “His main position was defensive specialist, but we moved him to outside hitter.”

The two moves turned out to solidify the Buccaneers, as did the healthy return of Rodriguez, who has 80 kills, 102 digs and 65 service points, albeit in limited duty.

Junior Ammar Rahim is the team’s setter.

“He’s probably our most underrated kid,” Spina said. “He has springs in his legs. He can really stuff the ball.”

To go along with his incredible 555 assists and 33 kills, Rahim also has 30 blocks, 99 service points and 19 service aces.

“In the past, I used to have to call every play,” Spina said. “This year, Ammar runs it all by himself. He makes the calls. He also spreads the ball around and keeps everyone happy. I would rank him right up there with the best setters in the state.”

Senior Brandon Ojeda is one of the Bucs’ top reserves.

“We bring him in off the bench, because he does whatever we need him to do,” Spina said. “He was playing defensive specialist for us, but we moved him up. If Brandon was on another team, he would probably start. He’s that talented.”

Cortez earns the distinction of being “the most improved player,” according to Spina.

“He’s become so much of a better player.” Spina said. “He’s such a positive influence on the floor.”

Cortez has accrued 131 digs for the season, along with 126 service points and 19 service aces.

Junior Douglas Fonseca is another rapidly improving player.

“He’s improved dramatically,” Spina said. “We brought him in as a blocker, but now he’s hitting the ball hard, so we use him as a hitter. He’s progressed very nicely and I like what he brings to the table.”

Fonseca has 14 blocks, 23 kills and 54 service points this season.

The key to the Buccaneers’ success is junior outside hitter P.J. Gencarelli, who plays every single position on the floor.

“In my opinion, I think he’s the best hitter in the state,” Spina said. “His vertical leap has improved and he hits from any place on the court. He blocks just as good as anyone and he’s a force at the net. His jump serve is the best I’ve ever seen. It’s unstoppable.”

Gencarelli has 319 kills and eclipsed the 500 kill mark for his career earlier this year. He has 139 digs, 137 service points and 63 service aces. He also has 29 blocks.

“He really does it all,” Spina said.

Senior Edward Peralta is the team’s middle blocker. He has 83 blocks on the season, as well as 112 kills and 104 service points.

“He’s a very hard worker,” Spina said of Peralta.

Kevin Vicente is the team’s libero. He has been playing competitive volleyball for only two seasons.

“He is the guy who sets the pace for us,” Spina said of Vicente, who has 224 digs.

The Buccaneers have their sights on another upset in the state tournament. A year ago, the Bucs upset Wayne Valley. Now, they get to see Wayne Valley again.

“It will be a battle,” Spina said. “We scrimmaged them early in the season. We hope to go in and upset them again.”

Nothing will deter the Buccaneers if their work ethic is any indication. A state sectional championship is now just two wins away.

QP’s Negroni heads to state sectionals on high note

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Natalie Negroni has established herself as one of the most diversified track and field athletes in the area.

The Queen of Peace junior competes in four events – the high jump, the 200-meter dash, the 100-meter hurdles and the 400-meter hurdles.

Two weeks ago, at the Bergen County Division D championships, Negroni won the 400-meter hurdles, finished second in the 100-meter hurdles, placed third in the high jump and seventh in the 200-meter dash.

A week later, Negroni was sixth at the Bergen County Meet of Champions in the 400-meter hurdles and 12th in the 100-meter hurdles.

“I’ve been trying to focus more on the high jump,” said Negroni, a resident of Kearny. “I think I’m getting there with the 200. I love track more than anything. I’ve played soccer since I was a little girl, but once I did track, I fell in love with it.”

Queen of Peace head track and field coach Ron Mazzolla has been around the block a few times, having spent nearly 20 years as the coach at North Arlington.

Mazzolla cannot stop singing the praises of Negroni.

“She really is a pleasure to work with,” Mazzolla said. “I made her a captain this year and she’s really embraced this leadership role. I might be late getting to the school, but all I have to do is call her to get things set up. She’s out there setting up the hurdles. She gets everyone together so when I get there, everyone’s ready to go. She’s just a pleasure to coach and be with.”

Mazzolla believes that Negroni is just scratching the surface of her ability.

“The key to her success, other than staying healthy, is to work a little more with her upper body,” Mazzolla said. “She needs to get just a little physically stronger. We’re working on her technique and her times, but I really think next year, she’s going to be at the top of her game. I think she has the potential to be either No.1 or No. 2 in Bergen County in both (hurdles) events.”

Negroni said that she matured greatly between her sophomore and junior years.

“I take it real seri ously,” Negroni said. “I wanted to be a captain this year. I love the sport and I like having an organized team.”

So there’s no problem rounding up the rest of her teammates for practice?

“I’m just an organized person,” Negroni said. “Ever since I was younger, I was organized. I color organized everything. It’s just the way I am.”

Negroni knows that the hurdles races are her bread and butter.

“If I focus on the hurdles, I can still do other things,” Negroni said. “I enjoy doing all of them. It definitely helps me get ready for college.”

It’s not too soon for Negroni to prepare a little for college. After all, she is a junior. College will be here soon enough.

“I have been getting a lot of letters from colleges,” Negroni said.

More will certainly come if Negroni fares well at the NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectionals in Toms River over the weekend.

“I’m trying not to think about it too much,” Negroni said of the state sectionals. “I just hope I can continue to do well. I think it’s all just working toward the goal, which is to be on top for my senior year.”

“When she’s running with the best, you can definitely see the improvement,” Mazzolla said. “I still think she needs to improve her body. That’s one of the major objectives we plan on working on. We’ll see next year how much we’ve been able to help her.”

Negroni’s teammate and fellow Kearny resident Kas Rozalski won the Bergen County Meet of Champions in the pole vault, having cleared 12-1 1/2., so she is an athlete to watch over the next two weeks.

But Negroni leads the way for the Golden Griffins, no question. With her versatility, she’s an inspiration for everyone involved in the Queen of Peace track and field program.

Nutley’s Mercadante belts 3-run homer, lifting Maroon Raiders to sectional semis

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

All Nico Mercadante wanted to do was make a name for himself.

But the versatile Nutley High School senior was having a tough time achieving that goal.

How tough?

Well, when the time came for Mercadante to receive his warm-up hoodie for the baseball team this spring, his last name was misspelled as “Mercandante.”

“I didn’t even notice it at first,” said Mercadante, who has played the outfield, third base and now first base over the last three years for the Maroon Raiders. “You don’t know how many times I’ve had my name misspelled over the years. I’ve almost become used to it.”

Nutley head baseball coach Bob Harbison has no problem spelling Mercadante’s last name – and putting that name in the Maroon Raiders’ lineup every game.

“I can always find a spot for him,” Harbison said. “He’s been a three-year starter for us. He started as an outfielder, but last year, we needed a third baseman, so we just put him there. This year, we needed a first baseman, so we moved him there. He’s become a very good first baseman and he also has the best arm on the team.”

Mercadante likes having the ability to play multiple positions on the field.

“I really love the game and I understand the different points of it,” Mercadante said. “I can play all over the place and I try to do that. I play for the New Jersey Athletics during the summer and I have played every position for that team. I’ve even played catcher. I love it. I love playing every position. It gives me a better look from the different positions.”

Mercadante is the quintessential team player.

“I want to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Mercadante said.

Last Wednesday, the Maroon Raiders traveled to Governor Livingston in Berkeley Heights for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III quarterfinals. The Maroon Raiders faced a Governor Livingston squad that began the 2014 season ranked among the state’s top 20 teams and were seeded second in the state sectionals.

Mercadante was in the Nutley lineup, batting seventh and playing first base.

“To be honest, I was batting fourth or fifth in the beginning of the year, but I like the seven slot better,” Mercadante said. “It takes a lot of stress off me, because pitchers don’t expect anything coming out of the No. 7 hitter.”

Harbison does expect things from Mercadante.

“He’s very dangerous,” Harbison said. “When he puts his bat to the ball, generally good things happen.”

In Mercadante’s second at-bat, he struck out, but not without a fight.

“He must have fouled off seven pitches,” Harbison said. “It was a good at-bat. He was fighting it, facing a very good pitcher. Afterwards, I told Nico that it was a great at-bat and told him to keep his head up. He did a good job remaining positive.”

“The first two previous atbats, the pitcher was pitching me outside,” Mercadante said. “So the next time, I was set up looking outside. I fouled off one pitch, but then he went outside again and I caught one.”

With runners on first and second in the top of the sixth inning, Mercadante went with the outside pitch and belted it over the fence for a threerun homer, helping to give the Maroon Raiders the 6-2 upset victory and the right to advance to the state sectional semifinals this week against the winner of West Essex and Morristown.

It was clearly the biggest single hit that Nutley baseball has enjoyed in a few years.

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

Mercadante certainly felt good helping to contribute to such a huge victory.

“It felt amazing,” Mercadante said. “The ball came off the bat great and just kept going. I’m pretty proud of myself. I’m just glad to help out.”

Harbison was a little surprised with the way Mercadante’s drive carried.

“He hit the ball to right center and it was pretty deep, so we had the runners tagging up,” Harbison said. “But I could see that the centerfielder wasn’t going to make a play on it and it just left the park. He is a power hitter and a strong kid. It was a huge hit.”

Haribson said that Mercadante is more of a “streaky hitter.” Mercadante is batting .306 with two doubles, two triples and now two home runs – none better than the shot that lifted the Maroon Raiders to the sectional semifinals.

“We needed everyone against that good team,” Harbison said. “We needed our No. 7 hitter to come up big and he did.”

Harbison likes Mercadante’s approach to the game.

“He’s a good kid,” Harbison said. “He’s pretty quiet, but he works very hard. He’s serious about baseball and plays all the time. I’ll always find a spot for a kid like him, because he’s that dangerous. He has that kind of talent.”

But Mercadante knows his baseball career will be coming to an end shortly. He plans on attending William Paterson University, but will not play baseball there.

“I am going to try to get into their dental program,” Mercadante said. “I want to go to dental school and become a dentist, so I have to dedicate myself to my education and getting into a good dental school.”

So Mercadante made a name for himself before he moved on – and will be forever remembered in Nutley baseball folklore.

“It means a lot to me,” Mercadante said. “It’s been building up to this. In the beginning of the season, I was doing pretty well, but honestly, I got too comfortable and I went 0-for-3 in a couple of games. I just had to get my head on straight and focus. Maybe this home run will start me back up again.”

If it does, then Nico Mercadante picked the right time to make that name for himself, with or without the extra n in his last name.

COUNTY CHAMPS!

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Kearny softball team wins first-ever Hudson County title

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

When the 2014 high school softball season began, Kearny High School head coach Jimmy Pickel didn’t know what to make of his team.

“I thought we maybe had a chance to do well,” Pickel said. But the Kardinals stumbled out of the gate, losing three of their first five games.

Then, something magically clicked. The Kardinals won 11 games in a row, defeating some of the top teams in Hudson County.

“When we had the winning streak, that’s when I thought we were pretty good,” said sophomore pitcher Caralynne Rivera. “I thought we had the ability to take it all. I thought we had the talent.”

Sunday morning at the New Jersey City University Gerrity Complex, the Kardinals completed the journey, winning the school’s first-ever Hudson County Tournament championship by defeating Bayonne, 6-4, bouncing back from a 4-0 deficit to do so.

The win came one day after the Kardinals lost to Montclair, 6-2, in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs.

Pickel was asked if there was a hangover at all after Saturday’s loss.

“I actually don’t think it was a factor,” Pickel said. “As soon as that game ended, we forgot about it. I wasn’t concerned about it. We were ready to play.”

Rivera agreed.

“After that game, we knew we had to let it go,” Rivera said. “We had a bigger opportunity to win the county. I wasn’t going to let that game affect me.”

However, Pickel sensed that something was different with his team.

“They were a little tense early on,” Pickel said. “They got off the bus and I could sense that they were a little nervous. They were on the big stage for the first time.”

Bayonne jumped out to an early 4-0 lead on Sunday.

Photo by Robert Rodriguez Sophomore Caralynne Rivera is all smiles as she rounds the bases after hitting the two-run home run that gave the Kardinals the lead for good in Sunday’s Hudson County Tournament finale against Bayonne.

Photo by Robert Rodriguez
Sophomore Caralynne Rivera is all smiles as she rounds the bases after hitting the two-run home run that gave the Kardinals the lead for good in Sunday’s Hudson County Tournament finale against Bayonne.

 

“There was a lot going through my mind,” Rivera said. “When we were down, 4-0, the one good thing about softball is that the game is never over. That lead was nothing.”

However, as the pitcher, Rivera knew that the pressure was on her.

“Every single time someone came up, I knew that I couldn’t let that person score,” Rivera said.

Pickel kept the spirits up.

“There was never a panic,” Pickel said. “It was still early in the game. We had given them a few runs. Instead of being down, we just knew we had to chip away at that lead.”

The Kardinals scored one run, then another, then received a huge break when a bases-loaded pop up was dropped and enabled the Kards to slice the lead to 4-3.

“I think then even Bayonne changed,” Pickel said. “They weren’t getting any hits. Even Caralynne said, ‘Just get me a few runs and I’ll take care of this.’”

Little did Pickel know that it would be Rivera who would deliver the crushing blow.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Rivera unleashed a bomb to left center field.

“I didn’t think it would go out,” Rivera said. “I thought it would hit the fence.”

But it didn’t. Rivera’s shot eluded the Bayonne centerfielder who did her best to catch the ball. However, Rivera’s blast went over the fence for a two-run homer that gave the Kardinals the lead for good at 5-4.

“That was the best feeling ever,” said the sophomore pitcher Rivera, who had hit one other home run earlier in the season. “I couldn’t explain it. I knew that it gave us a better chance of winning.”

Pickel knew that Rivera had hit the shot heard around Kearny.

“Once she hit it, I knew it was gone,” Pickel said. “I know the sound it makes coming off the bat. It had that sound.”

The Kardinals added an insurance run, giving Rivera a two-run cushion to begin the final inning. She didn’t need it. The Kards had created history.

Pickel credited the defensive work of left fielder Spiradoula Dimou, who made a running catch on a short fly ball with runners on base, and second baseman Kelly Wilkinson, who snared a scorching line drive with the bases loaded.

“Those two defensive plays saved the game for us,” Pickel said. “Once we took the lead, I could sense Bayonne was down.”

Pickel believes that Rivera matured this season as a pitcher.

“She really came on since the beginning of the season,” Pickel said. “I think she wasn’t fine tuned to begin this season. I think it helped having (freshman) Sydney (Pace) to pitch a few games. It helped Caralynne that she didn’t have to pitch every game. Having those games off was for her best interest.”

After Rivera disposed of the Bees in the top of the seventh, the celebration was on.

“It’s amazing,” Rivera said. “It’s so hard to explain how I feel afterwards. I felt we earned it and deserved it. We all worked so hard to get there, so we deserved to win.”

“It’s the first championship game we’ve been to and the first time we won,” Pickel said. “I kind of like playing there and being there.”

As for the euphoria?

“It feels great,” Pickel said. “Everyone thinks of Kearny as being a soccer town. Well, now we’ve won something else. Volleyball came close (the boys’ volleyball team lost to St. Peter’s Prep in the county tournament championship match Friday night), so we had to come through. It’s nice to be able to win something different.”

The revolving door keeps spinning with QP athletics

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

There was a meeting that took place last August, set up by long-time Queen of Peace athletic director and do-everything Ed Abromaitis, with the new QP principal John Bellocchio and the sports columnist of The Observer.

Abromaitis told me that Bellocchio was concerned about negative publicity the athletic program had received in the paper and wanted to make sure that the Golden Griffins would get a fair shake in the future under his watch.

Bellocchio was told at the time that I was concerned about the direction that former QP principal Brother Larry Lavallee took the athletic program, that there was a constant revolving door at the school with coaches coming and going almost on a yearly basis.

Since Brother Larry had resigned last June and Bellocchio was hired as his replacement, he assured me that things were going to change in the future, that QP athletics was moving in a positive direction.

Well, it certainly didn’t last long.

It’s not even a year in Bellocchio’s tenure and already changes are being made.

For one, Abromaitis, who has had to endure two strenuous tenures as the school’s athletic director, has been reassigned by Bellocchio to a non-athletic role as a mentor to the school’s younger teachers and a physical education teacher.

Abromaitis, who declined to comment for this column, was reportedly not happy with the shift. But Abromaitis, who has spent nearly 40 years at the school as a coach and athletic administrator, has always been one to fall on the sword for Queen of Peace.

As Abromaitis’ replacement, Bellocchio has hired Mike Miello, the former Hackensack, Ramapo and William Paterson head football coach. Miello had been an associate of Bellocchio when the two worked together in Hackensack.

Miello may have a name recognition, but he’s certainly not a true green and gold bleeder like Ed Abromaitis.

Bellocchio, to his credit, did return my phone calls.

“Eddie Abromaitis is as good as it gets,” Bellocchio said. “I described him best as being a legend here. He’s done a phenomenal job. I’m able to offer him as a role model, as someone who knows tradition, who has impeccable and exceptional character. He’s going to help us grow. I needed him internally to help as a mentor. In my eyes, he has extraordinary talents there. This is right for Queen of Peace.”

Bellocchio continued to sing Abromaitis’ praises.

“He’s been a role model to me,” Bellocchio said.

Then why replace him? Why rip the man’s heart out – now for a second time – in order to give him a thankless position inside the school? Abromaitis is and was Queen of Peace athletics. Anywhere in the state that you could go, if you mentioned Queen of Peace, the first name that came to mind was Ed Abromaitis.

During his tenure, not only was Abromaitis the athletic director for almost 30 years in two different stints, but he was also the highly successful head baseball coach. He also served as an assistant football coach for many years and was asked to step in as an interim head football coach when former coach Tom Ferreiro was removed a few years ago.

In fact, when someone asked Abromaitis to do something there, he did it without a question or qualm. When the school was replacing coaches left and right a few years ago, Abromaitis was left to pick up the pieces and tell the media the reasons why the coaches were gone. The school administration left Abromaitis to twist in the wind time and time again. Then, the school replaced him and then brought him back after three years.

Now, he’s out again and replaced by an outsider in Miello.

“Mike Miello is my former colleague,” Bellocchio said. “He’s another legendary character in northern New Jersey. He’s a very decent man and an exceptional individual.”

Now, there’s another coaching change to deal with.

Mike Flynn – who was another soul dedicated to Queen of Peace in every facet imaginable – has decided to step down as the girls’ soccer coach after serving 16 years.

Flynn was saddened by his decision, but he realized he couldn’t remain at the school, especially after what took place with his longtime friend Abromaitis.

“He’s the principal and he set down rules,” Flynn said of Bellocchio. “I don’t have to agree with them. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I love that school. I just don’t like the direction the school is going in. I don’t like the way they treated Eddie. And I don’t think I could work for anyone else other than Eddie. I would go up there on an August morning at 8 a.m. and Eddie would be there. Don’t get me wrong. We had our arguments. But he’s a great man and a great man to work for. He bled Queen of Peace colors.”

Added Flynn, “Everywhere I go, everyone asks me, ‘How’s Abromaitis?’ He’s so well known. It’s just a pleasure to know Eddie and he deserves much better than this. John’s the principal and he’s the boss. I just don’t have to listen to him.”

Flynn served a variety of roles for the school. Not only was he the girls’ soccer coach, but he was also the former head softball coach, worked the sidelines at football games and drove the athletic teams to different games and events.

“I’m going to miss a lot of the girls,” Flynn said. “The hardest thing I had to do was to call parents and tell them that I wasn’t going to be there. I wish nothing but the best for the school. I just didn’t like the direction in which the school was headed.”

Flynn took pride in the fact that his soccer teams qualified for the Bergen County Tournament 14 times in 16 years. He hopes to find another coaching job somewhere.

“I love coaching and I love the game of soccer,” Flynn said. “It’s a sad day.”

Flynn said that he was promised a tuition break for incoming freshmen, so he went out and found five promising players, all coming to QP as long as they were receiving some tuition assistance.

“He told me that he never offered that deal,” Flynn said of Bellocchio. “I said, ‘You most certainly did.’ But he denied it. How can I tell those parents that they went back on their word? Maybe it’s better if they bring someone else in.”

Bellocchio sang Flynn’s praises as well.

“You never like to see talented people leave,” Bellocchio said. “I wish him the best for the future. Everyone has said nothing but the best about Mike Flynn.”

The principal is saying all the right things. But the purist knows that Abromaitis didn’t want to leave his position and Flynn didn’t want to walk away from the school and the kids he loved.

So the revolving door spins once again, this time involving two of the rare longtime coaches. It’s astounding the number of coaching changes this school has gone through in the past decade. No one seems to learn from past mistakes and the door just keeps spinning and spinning, this time involving two of the truly good people in local athletics.

NA’s Nardini earns 3 gold medals at Bergen County championships

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

Truth be told, Cristina Nardini always thought she would become a soccer standout.

“I went into high school being a soccer player,” Nardini said.

Nardini was actually a soccer player throughout her four years at North Arlington High School and she played varsity basketball at the school for three years.

But she found her real niche in life as a participant in track and field.

“I ran in eighth grade, in a CYO meet, but I did it for fun,” Nardini said. “I think it was sophomore year, when it just kind of clicked for me. I didn’t even realize it.”

Cristina and her dedicated father, Tony, went to a track and field camp one weekend at Ramapo College.

“That’s when I started to get into it,” Nardini said. “I saw a lot of elite girls there and they inspired me. I wanted to be like them. That’s what I wanted to do.”

So Nardini started to take track and field very seriously. She went to a personal trainer named David Leto in Oakland three times a week.

“He was so knowledgeable about everything,” Nardini said of Leto. “He knew the proper technique to make me faster and work on my jumps. The extra work was definitely beneficial.”

Nardini realized that her future was in track and field, so she had to make a tough decision this year.

“I gave up basketball to concentrate on track during the winter,” Nardini said. “I missed basketball, but it was a good decision for me to stick with track.”

North Arlington instituted an indoor track team for the first time this year, so it made perfect sense for Nardini to walk away from basketball.

But still, as a hurdler and a jumper, it was hard for Nardini to get the proper work in.

“We don’t have the best facilities,” Nardini said. “I really wanted to get better. When I went to the camp at Ramapo, I saw how the college coaches handled working with us and how they ran practices. I just felt I needed a little one-on- one attention. That personal attention really made me excel and I was able to get a lot more work in.”

Nardini didn’t know how she was going to react with all the extra work, once the outdoor track season began in April.

“I didn’t have much confidence in myself,” Nardini said. “I was very hesitant. I was nervous because I didn’t do what I wanted to do for the first couple of meets.”

But North Arlington girls’ track and field coach Bernadette Afonso knew that Nardini was ready to have a breakout season.

“She’s been doing exactly what I thought she could so,” Afonso said. “She’s made a lot of progress in the past year. Running in the winter helped her, because she came to spring track in track shape. I expected her to be at the top of our league.”

Afonso likes the determination that Nardini displays.

“She’s very self motivated,” Afonso said. “She puts a lot of time in during the offseason. As a high school coach, our first goal is to make sure the kids love the sport. Cristina always expressed interest in getting better and that’s the first step. I never have to worry about her working hard, because she’s putting in the extra time on her own. She’s really come a long way.”

Because the school has such a small enrollment, track participants have to learn to compete in more than one event.

“I almost had to force her to learn the triple jump,” Afonso said. “I tried her in the hurdles and the jumps and she did well. But she just wants to succeed in everything. After a while, I could just put her anywhere and I knew she would be fine.”

Nardini was more than fine at the recent Bergen County Group Championships at Northern Valley-Old Tappan. She won three gold medals (the 100-meter hurdles in 16.27, the long jump in 16-3 1/2 and the triple jump in 34-10 1/2) and finished second in the 400-meter hurdles to neighboring rival Natalie Negroni of Queen of Peace. Four events: three gold medals and a silver. Not a bad day at all.

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

“It just kept happening for me,” Nardini said. “I’m ecstatic about it. I never would have suspected that this is where I would be today. I knew I had a chance in the 100 hurdles. My favorite events are the 100 hurdles and the triple jump. I looked at the other girls’ times. I did some research and thought I had a chance. When it comes to the other events, I’m not confident.

“So doing what I did, I’m actually honored and blessed. I finally made a name for myself and I think that’s great.”

She’s also etched her name in the school record book, scoring the most points in school history, as well as setting new marks in both hurdles events.

Nardini broke the school mark for career points that was set by former Observer Female Athlete of the Year Tara Fisher, who had 626 points during her brilliant track career. Nardini has 686 and can surpass the 700-point mark with a solid effort at the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships. That’s a mark that may never be broken.

“My name will be left behind when I graduate,” said Nardini, who has already committed to The College of New Jersey to compete there in the fall. “I think that’s the coolest part.” “

She just has a lot of natural athletic ability, a lot like Tara Fisher,” Afonso said. “She’s just one of those naturally athletic young girls. I think the extra time she put in helped her.”

Nardini also trains periodically at FASST on Park Ave. in Lyndhurst, a facility that has helped countless local athletes with their speed and agility training.

After earning two medals at the Bergen County Meet of Champions, finishing fifth in the triple jump and sixth in the 100-meter hurdles, Nardini said that she was a little anxious about the upcoming state sectionals.

“It actually makes me a little nervous, going up and competing against the elite in the state,” Nardini said. “It makes me on the edge. But I’m going to go hard in every event. I’m not going to go in overconfident, but it’s kind of strange now that I’ll be the one that others will watch. It’s great how everything has turned.”

It would be even better with a few more medals at the state sectionals.

North Arlington golf team heads to NJSIAA state sectionals

Photo by Jim Hague
The North Arlington golf team qualified for the NJSIAA state sectionals for the very first time Monday. From l. are seniors
Kenny Kuzmuk and Matthew Karras, head coach Dan Farinola, junior Darian Nogueras, sophomore Louie Davio and freshman
Tyler Sheffler

 

 

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Dan Farinola knew that when he took over as head golf coach at North Arlington High School seven years ago, there was a lot more teaching involved than coaching.

“It was a lot more about golf etiquette and course management than anything else,” Farinola said. “We didn’t get too many seasoned golfers.”

After all, there aren’t a lot of golf courses in the general vicinity of North Arlington, so the chances of finding a homegrown Tiger Woods were slim and none.

“We had to hope to find a kid whose father was a player,” Farinola said. “Maybe their uncle played.”

The nearest Bergen Countyrun courses were in places like Teaneck and Paramus. You’re not exactly crawling right out of bed and hitting the links.

And in those early days, practices were held on the stage in the North Arlington gym. No need for distance yardages there.

“If we were going to make a mistake, it was going to be on the indoor mat,” Farinola said.

Needless to say, those first few years were a little lean for the Vikings.

But three years ago, Farinola started to see some improvement. At the very least, there was a hint of respectability.

“We had back-to-back seasons where we won four matches,” Farinola said.

That was the first sign. The other?

“Kids kept coming back,” Farinola said. “Getting kids to come out for a couple of years in a row was big. The group I had worked extremely hard. They wanted to play and wanted to learn. You could see the progress.”

Last spring, the Vikings finally had more wins on the course than losses. You have to crawl before you can walk.

“We had a 13-12 record last year,” Farinola said.

For a school without a home course and a program without a visiting golf pro, winning 13 matches was practically unheard of.

“No one knew if we ever had a winning record before,” Farinola said.

That included the school’s resident sports historian, Joe Spaccavento, who is the former head girls’ basketball coach and the chairman of the school’s Hall of Fame committee.

“Even Spac didn’t know,” Farinola said. “We figured it had to be some sort of a record.”

So when the 2014 golf season began in earnest last month, Farinola thought his team had a chance to be slightly better than competitive.

“We knew we had a good group of kids who had been here a little bit,” Farinola said. “In the past, we might have had one or two kids who could shoot consistently. Now, we had five kids who could all shoot 50 or lower (for nine holes). We had a shot to do something.” As it turned out, the Vikings became consistent winners. Five wins led to seven, then eight, then nine. There was the seemingly unthinkable talk of a possible berth in the NJSIAA state sectionals.

“Every year, our goal was just to get better than the year before,” Farinola said. “But once we started winning a few this year, people started to think we might be able to qualify for the states. We didn’t even know what the cutoff was.”

The Vikings already earned 12 victories for the season and that 12-5 record was good enough to indeed qualify for the NJSIAA Sections North 1&2, Group I championships at Bowling Green Golf Club in Oak Ridge in Morris County.

So the Vikings got up before the crack of dawn Monday morning, loaded up the bus and headed for their place among the very best golf teams in the state. Yes, little old North Arlington, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in the school’s history.

“They feel like they belong,” Farinola said. “Their hard work is finally paying off.”

Senior Matthew Karras is one of the Vikings’ more dedicated golfers. He’s been a part of the program for three years.

“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” Farinola said. “He was part of those four-win teams.”

Kenny Kuzmuk, who played baseball his first three years at NA, joined the golf team this season for his senior year.

“He’s good friends with Karras,” Farinola said of Kuzmuk. “He told me he wanted to try golf. The two of them worked really hard together in the offseason.”

Junior Darian Nogueras was a member of the track team who somehow participated in two golf matches last year.

“He’s a big part of the rebuilding,” Farinola said. “He’s a good golfer.”

Junior Phil Rosalis-Goncalves, sophomore Louie Davio and freshman Tyler Sheffler round out the Viking varsity squad.

“The good thing is that they’re all relatively close to each other in terms of scores,” Farinola said. “They have all progressed nicely.”

Nogueras has the lowest average, carding 50 per nine holes on a regular basis. Karras and Kuzmuk are right around 51, with Sheffler at 53, Davio at 55 and Rosalis-Goncalves a few shots back.

“There is good consistency,” said Farinola, who has taken his team to Overpeck Park in Teaneck and Orchard Hills in Paramus, two public Bergen County courses, to prepare. The Vikings also got a few chances to play at the Forest Hill Country Club in Bloomfield.

“We were very fortunate to get the chance to play there,” Farinola said. “Forest Hill invited us and we gladly accepted.”

Needless to say, it’s been a memorable spring for the North Arlington golf team, one that has historic proportions.

“It’s been fun, but golf is fun,” Farinola said. “It’s been fun seeing the improvement. There has been a lot of buzz going on with the golf team and that’s new.”

Farinola, who is also a soccer coach, said that coaching golf has been a little different than coaching soccer.

“It’s a completely different animal,” Farinola said. “There’s a different bond with the kids. There is a lot more time spent working with them as individuals. And not as much yelling.”

While Farinola is pleased with the players’ dedication, the coach is a fairly dedicated soul as well.

You see, Farinola married fiancée Deidre Bielicka, an orthopedic surgeon who was a standout athlete at Bloomfield High School during her heyday, last Saturday. Two days later, Farinola was boarding that bus for the state sectional golf tourney. No time for a honeymoon just yet.

“She gets it and understands it,” Farinola said of his newlywed wife. “We’ll take a late honeymoon.”

By then, the honeymoon for the North Arlington golf program might still be ongoing.

Versatility a key for NJCU local trio

Photo courtesy of NJCU Sports Information
The New Jersey City University baseball program got major contributions this
season from three local products, namely, from l., Nick D’Errico of Kearny,
former Queen of Peace standout Mark Petrucelli and Kearny’s Kevin DeMauro.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

While most of their baseball comrades in the New Jersey Athletic Conference had already called it a year, the Gothic Knights of New Jersey City University still had something to play for last week, even if it was simply pride.

The Gothic Knights had two previously postponed games against Centenary College and FDU-Florham rescheduled for last week, so the Gothic Knights had two more chances to build on what should be a very promising 2015 season, thanks to the versatility of three local products.

The locals helped the Gothic Knights win their final two games of the year, heading into the offseason on a positive note.

Kevin DeMauro and Nick D’Errico of Kearny and former Queen of Peace standout Mark Petrucelli all played predominant roles this season with the Gothic Knights and all three should return next season.

Incredibly, all three of the locals have similar backgrounds, having been utilized mostly as position players in high school, but have been transformed into pitchers by NJCU head coach Jerry Smith and his staff.

“I think I pitched like 10 innings in high school,” said Petrucelli, a native of Wood-Ridge who just completed his freshman campaign at NJCU. “But Coach Smith liked what he saw out of my arm and thought I could be a reliever this year.”

“I think I was born to be an outfielder,” said DeMauro, who finished his junior season with the Gothic Knights. “I still love playing the field. But if Coach Smith needs me to be a pitcher, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ve learned to accept that.”

DeMauro turned out to be the Gothic Knights’ best pitcher in 2014, pitching to a 4-5 record with a 3.64 earned run average. DeMauro saw action in 16 games, making nine starts. He also collected two saves, striking out 39 in a team-high 71 innings.

“I was a pitcher all through Little League, but I hurt my arm sophomore year and that was it,” DeMauro said.

DeMauro suffered a stress fracture in his elbow, derailing his high school pitching career.

“Ever since I was younger, I always knew that pitching could take me,” DeMauro said. “I thought I pitched pretty well this year.”

D’Errico was the Gothic Knights’ regular shortstop, batting .253 with 10 RBI. He also pitched in nine games, pitching to a 0-3 record.

Petrucelli ended up tying a school record by making 22 appearances, tying the record set in 2009 by former Harrison High School pitcher Steve Hallam.

“I got the opportunity to pitch like in the third or fourth game of the season,” Petrucelli said. “After the first couple of outings, I felt more comfortable. I was just trying to get back to the infield, but if Coach Smith thought I was good enough as a pitcher, that was fine with me.”

Petrucelli believes that it’s remarkable that three of the most versatile Gothic Knight performers, being used both as pitchers and position players, would come from the same area.

“I think that’s pretty crazy,” Petrucelli said. “It was first great to know that they were from Kearny, but when I learned they were position players who pitched, it was even better. It turned out we have a lot in common. It’s pretty cool to have something in common with those guys.”

Petrucelli still can’t comprehend how his season evolved.

“If someone would have told me that I’d be a college pitcher, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Petrucelli said. “I then saw the history book and saw that I tied the record (for appearances in a season). That’s just amazing.”

Petrucelli knows that better days are ahead for him, his local teammates and the entire program.

“Instead of going through the motions last week, we came out to play hard and now have a lot going for next year,” Petrucelli said. “After we found out that we weren’t going to the (NJAC) playoffs, we were all pretty down. But we came back and won the last two games. It means a lot. Now, we’re definitely going into next year with a lot more confidence.”

DeMauro also likes the way the Gothic Knights headed into the offseason.

“I think it would have been terrible if we went out with losses,” DeMauro said. “Our record (13-25) didn’t show what we did this year. We really took a step up this year. No one wants to lose, but we played well, win or lose. D’Errico and I both have one year eligibility left and we want to make it our best year. He’s a little older than me and took me under his wing. He’s lucky, because he gets to play the field. It’s almost like we’ve reversed roles. It’s awesome we have one year left together.”

And NJCU can point to a promising future, thanks to the versatility of the talented local trio.

Kearny’s ‘No-Hit Kid’

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny High School sophomore pitcher Corey Sawyer pitched another nohitter,
his third of the season, as the Kardinals defeated Dickinson, 2-0, to
advance to the quarterfinals of the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County
Baseball Tournament.

Sawyer fires third no-hitter of season in county tourney opener

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

It’s safe to call Corey Sawyer “The No-Hit Kid.” When a baseball pitcher throws one no-hitter, it could be perceived as a fluke. A second one might be a trend.

But a third? In a span of five weeks? That’s bordering on habit forming.

Well, Sawyer, the Kearny High School sophomore, earned his nickname last Saturday, firing his third no-hitter of the 2014 season, not surrendering a single hit against Dickinson in the Kardinals’ 2-0 victory over Dickinson in the opening round of the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament.

Sawyer struck out nine and walked two in his second no-hitter of the season against Dickinson. Sawyer had previously thrown a perfect game against the Rams in the regular season April 21.

In his varsity debut April 3, Sawyer tossed a no-hitter against Memorial.

Sawyer had just joined the Kearny baseball program this season, after transferring to the school. Last year, Sawyer attended St. Joseph Regional in Montvale in Bergen County, but did not participate in varsity baseball.

Kearny head baseball coach Frank Bifulco said that he never heard of a Kearny pitcher ever throwing one no-hitter in a season, never mind three.

“The last one I remember was (former Kearny teammate and current Harrison head coach) Jairo (Mendez)’s in the state tournament,” Bifulco said. “That was it. It’s really remarkable, three no-hitters, one of which is a perfect game, among his first seven starts.”

Even Sawyer is having a tough time believing the no-hit phenomenon himself.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Sawyer said. “I was just hitting all my spots. Everything was working. My curveball was really working. I think that was my best pitch. I’m able to get a lot of people out with it.”

There’s a superstition involved with pitching a no-hitter, one that Sawyer is obviously well aware of now. No one is supposed to speak a word about flirting with the milestone pitching performance, because it’s apparently bad luck.

But Sawyer knew he was flirting with another gem Saturday.

“I knew, but I didn’t tell anyone,” Sawyer said. “I just had to go out there and pitch.”

Bifulco didn’t know Sawyer had the no-hitter going.

“We have a tradition that before the final out, the entire bench stands up,” Bifulco said. “Well, I looked over and they were all sitting down. I wanted to know what they were doing, but they said they didn’t want to jinx the no-hitter. I couldn’t believe he was doing it again. So I just yelled, ‘Strike the kid out.’ That’s what he did. He got into little jams, with an error and a walk, then struck out the side. Not even one ball was hit hard. He just got into a groove.”

Bifulco used the most descriptive term about Sawyer’s performance this season.

“It’s shocking,” Bifulco said. “You always want your pitchers to do well, but no one could have imagined three no-hitters. He pitches well every time out.”

Incredibly, Sawyer has a 4-3 record this season with a 1.09 earned run average. One has to wonder how the “No-Hit Kid” could actually have three losses.

One of the losses was a 1-0 setback to Hudson Catholic, a game where Sawyer surrendered only two hits.

“He never gets flustered, never gets upset,” Bifulco said. “You want to make sure your pitcher keeps focus. Well, that’s never a worry with Corey. It’s focused all the time. It’s really just a pleasant surprise. He has matured so much this year already. He just gets the ball and goes.”

Sawyer said that he was in a good pitching rhythm all game.

“Every time I caught the ball from (catcher) T.J. (Witt), I just went right back out to the mound and threw another pitch,” Sawyer said. “I like the mound (at Franklin School Field). I pitch well there.”

All three of his pitching masterpieces this season have been at Franklin.

“I don’t know what it is,” Sawyer said. “I just feel more comfortable there. It’s definitely a good feeling.”

Sawyer doesn’t want to jinx his great streak.

“I just want to find a way to keep it going,” Sawyer said. “After the first no-hitter, I never thought I could pitch a perfect game. Now, after this one, I don’t even know what to think. It’s all a little ridiculous now.”

And how about the nickname of “No-Hit Kid?”

“Yeah, I like that,” Sawyer said. “It’s a good one.”

Kearny defeats Harrison in volleyball showdown

Photo courtesy Arke Milewski
The captains of the Kearny and Harrison volleyball teams, namely Piero Martinez and David Penaherrera (r.) for Harrison
and Brian Fonseca and Doug Chemin (l.) for Kearny, shake hands before Saturday’s big rivalry match, won by Kearny.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Kearny High School boys’ volleyball coach Bill Mullins summed it up perfectly.

“I think Kearny and Harrison should play in every sport,” said Mullins, who was the longtime boys’ basketball coach at the school. “It should be the favorite game of the year for the kids.”

It’s tough for the two neighboring schools to agree on a lot of things, but the coaches of the respective volleyball teams decided to schedule a game with each other.

The match took place last Saturday at Kearny, with the Kardinals emerging victorious by two set scores of 25-10 and 25-21.

It was a momentous victory for the home team.

“It was the first time we ever beat Harrison,” said Mullins, who has been the volleyball coach the last four years. Kearny has only had a boys’ team for the last seven years. “Harrison has been the premier program in the area. I told the kids that if they wanted to be good, then they have to beat Harrison. We were fortunate to beat them. We may get to play them again. This was just our day. Harrison has a solid team. They’re always tough.”

In fact, it marked the first time that both the Kardinals and Blue Tide had almost matching stellar records. The Kardinals, enjoying the best season in the brief history of the program, now own a 14-2 mark. The Blue Tide now owns an impressive 12-5 record.

“I have a good relationship with Nick (Landy, the Harrison head coach) and Anthony (Sabia, the assistant and junior varsity coach),” Mullins said. “I told our guys to go in and play their best and see what happens. I think it’s good to have a local rivalry like this. It’s a great rivalry.”

“It’s really good to play Kearny,” Landy said. “Billy and I go way back together. We’re trying to push this as a rivalry. It’s a friendly rivalry because the kids all know each other. We go to clinics together. We work together. Maybe someday, we’ll get the rivalry to the extreme that the soccer one is.”

The Blue Tide had been breezing through the season, getting some good wins, especially defeating perennial Hudson County powerhouse Bayonne for the very first time.

“We lost a lot of the offense we had last year,” said Landy, whose team won 17 matches last year and advanced two rounds in the NJSIAA state tournament. “I was a little bit nervous in the beginning of the season. We tried to concentrate on the offense, but it was tough to do. We did have two setters back with experience, but it was still hard.”

Sophomore Piotr Namiotko is the Blue Tide’s top returning player. The 6-foot-4 Namiotko had a sensational year as a freshman and has been moved to outside hitter this season.

Seniors Piero Martinez and Vinny Yoshimoto are the team’s two returning setters. Frank Contreras is a sophomore libero, but he injured his back and has been out of action.

Junior David Penaherrera was moved from libero to outside hitter.

“He’s really been like our utility guy,” Landy said. “He can play anywhere.”

Senior Ramon Madeira is the team’s opposite hitter. He was a mainstay in the Blue Tide’s rotation a year ago.

Senior Pedro Carvalho is the team’s new libero.

“He’s adapted pretty well to the role,” Landy said. “He’s a hard worker. We also move him around.”

Senior Anthony Williams is one of the team’s new middle hitters.

“He’s been a huge help,” Landy said. “He never played volleyball before and picked it up pretty well.”

Senior Rafael Diaz is another middle hitter. At 6-foot-5, Diaz has some good size at the net.

“He’s a big kid,” Landy said. “When he wants to hit it, he hits it pretty hard. It helps having size at the net, especially when there’s a double block. If you don’t have size, you can’t compete with the big teams.”

Sophomore Gerson Pachas is another opposite hitter.

“He’s improved greatly,” Landy said. “He’s surprised us.”

The Blue Tide will have to do some work to reach the finals of the Hudson County Tournament like they did a year ago.

“We should be seeded among the top four,” Landy said.

The Blue Tide remains in first place in the North Jersey Volleyball League-White Division.

“We still have a lot to play for,” Landy said. “We didn’t think we’d be this successful this year, but here we are.” Mullins has been graced by the play of senior middle hitter Doug Chemin.

“He’s very strong and one of the more powerful hitters,” Mullins said.

Junior Brian Rodriguez has been “one of the nicest surprises,” according to Mullins.

Photo courtesy Arke Milewski The Kearny volleyball team was flying high over the net during their match Saturday against Harrison.

Photo courtesy Arke Milewski
The Kearny volleyball team was flying high over the net during their match Saturday against Harrison.

 

“He has a lot of natural instincts,” Mullins said.

Joel Vivas, the basketball standout, is a mainstay on the volleyball court.

“He’s just a good athlete who can play both sports,” Mullins said. “I think he’s pretty equal between the two sports.”

Senior Matheus DeCastro is a “powerful player for us,” Mullins said.

“He’s solidly built and powerful,” Mullins added.

Senior Brian Fonseca is a strong setter and junior Gustavo Chemin, Doug’s brother, is an opposite hitter.

The libero is senior Matheus Oliveira, with senior Kevin Serrano seeing time at both libero and opposite hitter.

The win against Harrison has catapulted the Kardinals.

“We knew we had a pretty good team,” Mullins said. “But this win helps. It’s nice to see us gain a little confidence. Harrison is a very good win for us. We are getting much better each day. We’re trying to play smart and aggressively. I’m just hoping that they can keep trying to play that way.”

It’s good to have both local schools have success in one sport – and that those successful teams could face each other. It goes a long way to establish a sense of togetherness and camaraderie between the two schools and towns.