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Belleville enjoying historic girls’ volleyball season

Photo courtesy John Spina The Belleville girls’ volleyball team owns an impressive 19-2 record, a vast improvement from just two seasons ago, when they won just three times. Back row, from l., are Jenna Lombardi, Fiorelys Perez, Breana Nieves, Kayla Sica, Shatia Silas, Chloe Mecka, Abigail Ocaya and Gabriella Tabago. Front row, from l., are Dashel Arizmendi, Andrea Nugent, Kirsten De La Cruz, Kristan Lombardi, Barbara Jacangelo and Ariana Douglass.

Photo courtesy John Spina
The Belleville girls’ volleyball team owns an impressive 19-2 record, a vast improvement from just two seasons ago, when they won just three times. Back row, from l., are Jenna Lombardi, Fiorelys Perez, Breana Nieves, Kayla Sica, Shatia Silas, Chloe Mecka, Abigail Ocaya and Gabriella Tabago. Front row, from l., are Dashel Arizmendi, Andrea Nugent, Kirsten De La Cruz, Kristan Lombardi, Barbara Jacangelo and Ariana Douglass.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When John Spina took over coaching the girls’ volleyball team at his high school alma mater Belleville three years ago, the program was in disarray.

“They were 0-17 the year before I took over,” Spina said. “I just tried to implement competition.”

The first year with Spina as a head coach, the Buccaneers showed a slight improvement.

“We won three games,” Spina said. “It wasn’t really frustrating, because I knew what I wanted to do.”

A year ago, the Buccaneers were headed down the wrong road, losing nine of their first 11 matches.

“But then the momentum turned in our favor,” Spina said. “We were improving. We started to beat the teams that were beating us.”

The Bucs ended the season with a 14-12 record. It meant that volleyball could be a viable sport in Belleville.

“We got girls who wanted to play volleyball all the time,” Spina said. “We had six girls playing club volleyball and another three who played during the winter. We created an atmosphere where the expectations were higher.”

So when the 2013 season began, Spina truly believed that his program was poised to take the next step.

“We didn’t want to shy away from competition,” Spina said. “We wanted to create some pressure to perform. They hated it at first, but once we started to breed competition in practice, it gave us the edge that we needed. We were going to be less likely to crumble and fold. We had a lot of good players who could play a lot of positions, a lot of depth.”

Spina said that the Buccaneers prepared for the coming season with a lot of diligence in the offseason.

“It’s a credit to the girls, who put in the hard work during the summer,” Spina said. “If they didn’t, they would have been just an average volleyball team. The hard work is paying off.”

Obviously.

The Buccaneers are currently enjoying a sensational season, one of the best in the school’s history. They have a 19-2 record, suffering losses only to Nutley in the early portion of the season and Livingston in the third round of the Essex County Tournament, and they currently are on the threshold of capturing the Super Essex Conference- Colonial Division crown.

Spina believes that the loss to Nutley early on was a turning point.

“It was the second game of the season,” said Spina, who also coaches the Belleville boys’ volleyball team in the spring. “We lost to Nutley last year, 25-1. I never lost a game like that before. We were competitive this time. I emphasized to them that they just had to chalk that one game up, because they totally wiped us off the floor last year and now we showed so much improvement. We bounced back and won 10 straight.”

The Buccaneers defeated Weequahic and Newark Academy in the Essex County Tournament before falling to perennial power Livingston in the quarterfinals.

There’s one trait about the Buccaneers that stands out. Spina does not just use seven players like most teams. There are at least 12 players who get regular time in the Belleville rotation.

“This is a team built to work this way,” Spina said. “Instead of just having seven, we have the ability to take players out and keep their legs fresh. They’re used to the fact that they’re all sharing their positions. It’s just another weapon we have. It’s the most depth we’ve ever had.”

Leading the way is senior middle hitter Shatia Silas. The 6-foot-2 Silas is an imposing presence at the net and has collected 28 blocks, 121 kills and 31 service aces.

“Anything that the other team does close to the net, she can put it back,” Spina said. “If they make a mistake, she’s going to block it. Having that much of a presence changes things. We’re able to build our game around her.”

Junior Abigail Ocaya is the other Buccaneer middle hitter. Ocaya has 57 kills and 14 blocks, including eight kills and three blocks in a recent win over Hackensack.

“This is only her second year of volleyball, but she’s already a good presence at the net,” Spina said. “She’s getting much better as the season progresses. We’re getting what we need from her.”

Sophomore Breana Nieves is a first-year member of the varsity at outside hitter.

“She’s very versatile in every aspect of the game,” Spina said of Nieves. “She can serve, pass and hit. She can also play defense.”

Nieves fills out a stat sheet. She has 58 kills, 40 digs, 83 service points and 20 service aces.

Senior Kayla Sica is the Buccaneers’ jack-of-all-trades.

“We use her in a lot of crazy roles,” Spina said. “Last year, she started at middle hitter, but we moved her to opposite hitter, where she can hit better. She also didn’t complain about being moved around. She’ll go anywhere she’s needed.”

Sica has 49 kills, 11 blocks, 34 digs, 59 service points and 11 service aces.

One setter is senior Jenna Lombardi, who transferred to Belleville last year, but she failed to join the volleyball team.

“I was concerned how she would fit in,” Spina said of Lombardi, who was the pitcher on the Buccaneers’ softball team last spring. “But she leads the team in service points.”

Lombardi has 149 service points, 56 of which have gone for aces, to go along with her 152 assists.

Another setter is sophomore Andrea Nguyen, another newcomer to the Buccaneers’ varsity. Nguyen has 87 assists.

“She’s progressing well,” Spina said of Nguyen. “I like the way the ball comes off her hands. She brings a lot of athleticism to the team.”

The team’s libero is junior Barbara Jacangelo, who has been “awesome,” according to Spina. Jacangelo has 183 digs, 119 service points and 45 aces.

In part of the Bucs’ rotation is senior Chloe Mecka, who spends most of her time at opposite hitter.

“She’s second on the team in blocks and makes a lot of noise at the net,” Spina said. “She does everything for us. She has great hands and she’s very versatile. She’s one of the best athletes on the team.”

Junior Gabriella Tabago is the team’s defensive specialist. She has contributed 72 digs, 28 kills and 38 service points. Sophomore Kristan Lombardi, Jenna’s younger sister, has contributed 101 digs from the back row.

Notice the statistical contributions of the reserves. That is uncommon for most volleyball teams.

Senior Fiorelys Perez is one of the team’s captains and she is the team’s service specialist, collecting 48 service points, 21 for aces. Senior Dashel Arizmendi is another key server and opposite hitter. Kirsten De La Cruz is another defensive specialist.

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

“I used to talk to my old wrestling coach Joe Nisivoccia (who recently retired as the Belleville wrestling coach) and he would tell me when you have a great season, you should enjoy it while you have it,” Spina said. “I’m happy for the kids, because they can walk around the halls of the school with pride. They have a feeling that they’re special and they are. They should be proud. They’re champions.”

Kearny turns hoop reins over to local guy McDonnell

Photo by Jim Hague Kearny resident Bob McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer, has been named as the new head boys’ basketball coach at Kearny High School.

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny resident Bob McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer, has been named as the new head boys’ basketball coach at Kearny High School.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

In his heart of hearts, Bob McDonnell never wanted to be anywhere else than coaching the kids of Kearny.

After all, being a Kearny guy is what Mc- Donnell has been for the last 30 years. He’s lived here, raised his family here. He served as a police officer in Kearny for 15 years, as a patrolman, as a DARE officer.

And McDonnell was a youth coach, volunteering his time coaching wrestling and basketball in Kearny. He spent seven years coaching the freshman, junior varsity and assistant on the varsity basketball teams at Kearny High.

For nine years, Mc- Donnell was involved with the Kearny AAU basketball program and served on the town’s basketball committee, organizing and supervising clinics and leagues for the youngsters of the town.

But four years ago, after failing to secure the head coaching position at Kearny, a slot he coveted so much, McDonnell moved outside the town. McDonnell took a job as an assistant coach at Berkeley College in Newark.

“I actually became more of a student of the game,” McDonnell said. “I learned more about fundamentals, learned about the quickness of the game, the difference between high school and college. I saw different coaching styles and it really opened my eyes up.”

McDonnell kept himself busy as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Berkeley.

“I saw over 600 high school games over the last few years,” McDonnell said. “So I know what’s going on, especially in Hudson County.”

So when Bill Schoener left Kearny after one season to take a new position at Saddle River Day School, it left the position open that McDonnell always coveted.

Last week, the Board of Education officially appointed McDonnell as the new head coach at Kearny High.

“I’m extremely excited,” McDonnell said. “I think the program can work. I’m willing to work to make it better.”

It’s not going to be an easy task. Ever since Kearny has joined the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League five years ago, the Kardinals have not been at all competitive. Last season, the Kardinals posted a 5-22 record. It’s an uphill climb toward respectability for McDonnell and the program.

But McDonnell is not a complete newcomer to the returning players. The kids know him from the different youth teams – AAU, PAL – that McDonnell has coached, recognize him from the camps and clinics. He’s not an outsider.

“I think it helps me greatly,” McDonnell said. “I have a good rapport with the kids. A lot of them went to my camps or played for me. Most of the juniors and sophomores were on my PAL team when we won the state championship when they were in seventh and eighth grade. I believe that’s a great start. They know my coaching style and know what to expect. They know what to expect when it comes to discipline, both on and off the court. They know what’s expected of them athletically.”

McDonnell was asked if he has changed over the last four years that he was away from high school basketball and coaching on the collegiate level.

“What’s different about it is that I know that there’s more of a teaching aspect on the high school level,” McDonnell said. “On the college level, the players already have their own style of play. On the high school level, you’re teaching the finer points of basketball.”

McDonnell has modest goals with the program.

“We definitely want to be more competitive,” McDonnell said. “We definitely have enough talent to be competitive. The talents just need to be brought to fruition. We definitely have a lot of kids in town that want to play.”

One thing is for sure: Mc- Donnell is going nowhere. He’s in this for the long haul.

“Coaching will be my full-time attention,” said McDonnell, who retired from the police department three years ago. “It’s a point of fact. This is my last coaching stint. I have a good relationship with the teachers and administrators. I also have a good relationship with the business leaders in the town who will be willing to help the program. By being here in Kearny for so long and working with the kids, I have a lot invested in this.”

McDonnell wants to see if he can implement a traveling team comprised of seventh and eighth graders and perhaps add more teams at the AAU level.

“Without a doubt, we can be competitive,” McDonnell said. “I have seen numerous games in the area and I know what’s coming back. We can be competitive. I’m out for the kids first. I have their best interests in mind.”

So what does it mean for McDonnell to finally get the chance to have the one coaching job he always wanted?

“I think I have a lot of perseverance,” McDonnell said. “I think by me waiting a long time is giving me the incentive to want to do this and want to run the program the right way. It’s going to take some time, maybe a few years, but I have that time.”

And Kearny has a true Kearny guy as its new head boys’ basketball coach.

NA’s Seca becomes instant player of impact

Photo by Jim Hague North Arlington sophomore center midfielder Joanna Seca

Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington sophomore center midfielder Joanna Seca

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Joanna Seca has been playing soccer in North Arlington since she was five years old.

It didn’t take long for others to notice that Seca was a player of immense talents, as she was scooped up from the regular North Arlington Recreation program to play at higher levels, like Kearny Thistle and even more impressively, the Players Development Academy (PDA) of Zarepath, N.J., an organization for strictly the elite players in the state.

When it came time for Seca to enter North Arlington High School, she elected to continue to play for PDA, which meant she could not play for the Vikings.

“I was a little upset and disappointed,” Seca said. “Some of my friends on the team asked me not to play PDA, but it was too much to try to do both. I was looking forward to playing at North Arlington, but it was my first year with PDA, so I didn’t want to upset that.”

North Arlington veteran head girls’ soccer coach Sharon O’Brien Romer knew of Seca, because of some afterschool counseling programs. But O’Brien Romer didn’t know how good of a player Seca truly was.

“I knew that she was a nice girl who played club soccer for a long time,” O’Brien Romer said.

O’Brien Romer didn’t make any attempt to convince Seca to play for the Vikings. It’s not something the coach feels comfortable doing. If Seca wanted to play varsity, she could sign up and come to practice like everyone else.

And that is what exactly took place last spring.

“I just signed up to play,” Seca said. “I knew a lot of the girls on the team from playing recreation and travel soccer.”

During summer workouts, O’Brien Romer saw almost immediately that Seca would make a positive impact on her team.

“I knew right away that she could handle the challenge,” O’Brien Romer said. “I saw that there was a lot of potential there.”

O’Brien Romer inserted the sophomore at center midfield. There wasn’t exactly instant success.

“I think it took her a little bit of time to get accustomed to everything,” O’Brien Romer said. “She had a lot of good shots and was making good plays, but she just wasn’t scoring.”

“I definitely had to step up my game,” Seca said. “Playing in high school was much more aggressive than I thought it would be.”

After a few games, Seca became more comfortable with her new surroundings.

“Something just clicked,” Seca said. “I knew I had to do better and I did.”

O’Brien Romer said that Seca just took over and lived up to expectations.

“She’s been contributing a lot, both on and off the field,” O’Brien Romer said. “She has a great personality and work ethic. She’s a natural leader. She has all the intangibles you need. She also has great skills and can control the ball well. She handles the game gracefully. She plays with such grace and ease.”

Seca said that she changed her approach from the beginning of the season.

“I’m holding the ball more,” Seca said. “I’m shooting it when I get inside the 18 (yard line). That has definitely helped. I didn’t do that earlier in the year.”

The Vikings didn’t do a lot of winning early on either.

“We needed to get to a certain level of play to get into the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I) state playoffs,” O’Brien Romer said. “They had to prove that they belonged.”

Two weeks ago, the Vikings suddenly became a vastly improved team, with Seca leading the way. They went on a streak where they won four out of five games, including three wins over NJIC opponents (Weehawken, Becton/ Wallington and St. Mary’s of Rutherford) that the Vikings lost to earlier in the season.

One of the main reasons for the hot streak is the immense contributions from Seca, who has scored seven goals and added eight assists in those games.

Last week, Seca had three goals and two assists against Becton/Wallington, one goal and two assists against Weehawken and one goal and four assists against St. Mary’s.

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

O’Brien Romer is more than pleased with Seca’s performance.

“She’s made the other girls on the team around her much better,” O’Brien Romer said. “Not only is she a good player, but she makes the others better. She could develop into something really special. I’ve had a lot of girls come through the program over the years and Joanna could become one of the truly special ones.” O’Brien Romer put Seca in the same class as former standout Katie Mallack, who went on to play rugby at Sacred Heart University.

“She has a chance to be better, one of our very best,” O’Brien Romer said of Seca. “She has natural leadership qualities. She keeps her cool when other teams notice her and guard her. She’s a team player who is always looking to help the team win. She’s really been a great addition to our program.”

Seca likes the way she’s playing now.

“I thought I could play the same way I played in PDA, which is focused on passing,” Seca said. “I realized that it wasn’t working in high school. I can pass it, give it to someone else to shoot, but also get the chance to get it back. It’s working better. We’re winning. I definitely feel better about it.”

As for playing for North Arlington?

“I like it,” Seca said. “I like representing my school and getting to know the girls. It’s good to know that I have a good relationship with them on and off the field. It’s been really exciting. I’ve gained a lot of confidence so far and I hope it just continues.”

So does everyone involved with the North Arlington girls’ soccer program.

Harrison wins Hudson County boys’ soccer tourney

First time since 2009 for Blue Tide, who defeated Kearny in semifinals

Photo by Ronald Shields The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after defeating Memorial, 2-0, to capture the Hudson County Tournament championship, the school’s first since the initial HCT in 2009.

Photo by Ronald Shields
The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after defeating Memorial, 2-0, to capture the Hudson County Tournament championship, the school’s first since the initial HCT in 2009.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Jose Neto hasn’t had the easiest of high school soccer careers. The Harrison High School senior had to endure knee surgery after a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the extensive rehabilitation that comes with the operation. Neto also had to deal with his share of ankle injuries over the years.

“The rehab was tough, but I kept going,” Neto said. “I knew that anything could happen.”

As it turned out, Neto returned to form for his fourth and final season with the Blue Tide.

“He never really had a full season to show us what he could do,” said veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek. “We’ve been real fortunate this year that he hasn’t missed a game. He was determined to have a great senior year and really stepped up his play.”

Neto is definitely saving his best for last.

With standout defender and team leading scorer Modou Sowe on the sidelines with a knee injury, Neto took it upon himself to lead the Blue Tide in the Hudson County Tournament championship game Sunday against Memorial at Caven Point Cochrane Field in Jersey City.

Neto scored two first half goals and that was enough to propel the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory and to capture the Hudson County championship for the first time since the initial tourney in 2009.

What made the Blue Tide’s championship more rewarding is that they also knocked off local archrival Kearny, 1-0, in the semifinals last Wednesday.

Sowe had a spectacular defensive game against Kearny.

“He must have cleared away 25 balls with headers,” Rusek said. “He was so solid.”

However, doctors determined that the ball hitting Sowe’s head so many times caused a slight concussion.

“He said he was feeling dizzy a little after the game, so doctors said that he’s out for a week,” Rusek said. “I was a little nervous playing without him.”

There was also the emotional letdown effect after having such a huge win against the arch nemesis.

“I wondered whether we got up too high for the semifinal,” Rusek said. “After all, it was an emotional game, a rivalry game. I started to think that maybe we played our best against Kearny and didn’t have anything left for the championship game.”

Rusek said that there was a sense of emptiness to go that long without a county title.

“Sure, we had been disappointed,” said Rusek, whose team lost in the second round last year to Union City and in the semifinals to St. Peter’s Prep in 2011. “But I think last year was a surprise group. No one expected us to go far. This year, we had a good group of juniors and seniors coming back. After we beat Kearny, I knew we had a good shot.”

Neto recalled both goals.

“The first one came off a corner kick by Kevin (Villanueva) and I was able to head it in,” Neto said. “The second one, Kevin hit a through ball to me. I got it, shot it and it hit the post and went in. It was crazy. I was lucky enough to score both goals.”

Neto also worried that there would be an emotional letdown after beating the Kardinals.

“Beating Kearny was such a big accomplishment for us,” Neto said. “It’s our biggest rival. The coaches told us that we had to treat this one as a bigger game than Kearny, because this was for the championship. Winning this was one of my dreams. I love being around my teammates so much that I wanted this for them.

Added Neto, “It’s overwhelming for me to score two goals in the county championship game. It’s a really big accomplishment. For me to be the one to come through is amazing.”

“I’m so happy for Jose,” Rusek said. “He really stepped up for us and led us. Kevin now has 18 assists this season. You never hear of anyone getting 20 assists in a season, but Kevin’s right there.”

Photo courtesty Ronald Shields Jose Neto, who scored the game’s lone goals, dribbles past two Memorial defenders. Neto carried the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, ending a drought in the Hudson County Tournament.

Photo courtesy Ronald Shields
Jose Neto, who scored the game’s lone goals, dribbles past two Memorial defenders. Neto carried the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, ending a drought in the Hudson County Tournament.

 

Nick Araujo stepped up as well. The junior goalkeeper turned aside nine shots to record his 12th shutout of the season in 15 games.

“He’s coming into his own,” Rusek said. “We knew Nick was going to be good for us. We didn’t expect this good. He’s surpassed our expectations.”

The Blue Tide continues to exceed everyone’s ideas, because they are now 14-0-1 on the season.

“This team has definitely surpassed our expectations as well,” Rusek said. “We have everything we could have asked for and more. It’s pretty remarkable. I hope it carries into November for us. We just beat the No. 1 seed (Kearny) and No. 2 seed (Memorial) in Group IV and we’re Group II. I think we’ll be in pretty good shape for the state tournament.”

As long as Neto keeps finding the net and as long as Sowe gets healthy, the Blue Tide should keep rolling along.

Nutley girls’ soccer: League champs

Photo courtesy Mike DiPiano The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team celebrates after clinching the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week, the first-ever in school history.

Photo courtesy Mike DiPiano
The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team celebrates after clinching the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week, the first-ever in school history.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Nutley High School girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano knew that the competition would get much tougher in the second half of the current season.

“I knew that teams would be packing it in on us defensively,” DiPiano said. “We knew that people would try to knock us around. It was all about us staying composed.”

It also meant that the Maroon Raiders had to play tougher defensively.

“I think we’re still playing the same way that we did early in the season,” DiPiano said. “It’s just that our defense has gotten better. We’re playing a little better soccer. We knew that this could happen when you’re playing teams a second time. We still have the dynamic scoring up front, but our defense is much stronger.”

The Maroon Raiders are getting solid play from defensive whiz Brittany Currie along the back line.

“She’s doing a great job of leading and keeping everyone composed,” DiPiano said.

The other defenders are all seniors, so that experience helps. Grace Montgomery, Katherine Calitsos and Alyson Zeiher are all steady defenders, giving the Maroon Raiders a solid line of defense.

Junior Rachel Nichols has been a godsend of late. Nichols stepped into the starting role at goalkeeper when starter Meghan Montgomery dislocated her thumb. Montgomery will be out of action for another two weeks, so Nichols has to lead the way – and she has, collecting two shutouts among her three victories in goal.

“Rachel has done a fantastic job in goal,” DiPiano said. “The girls in front of her are making her job much easier, but she’s been steady.”

The result: A historic moment in Nutley girls’ soccer history. For the first time ever, the Nutley girls’ soccer program has captured a league championship. They clinched the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week.

“It’s a really big deal,” said DiPiano, who inherited the Nutley program after the Maroon Raiders posted a 4-17 record just three seasons ago. “It’s the first time in the school’s history that the girls’ team won a league championship. It means a lot to the girls.”

The Maroon Raiders were ranked 19th in the state last week, before falling to Livingston in the Essex County Tournament semifinals, falling to 11-1-1 overall.

“I am surprised how fast we turned things around,” DiPiano said. “It’s a testament to the girls. They bought into the change in philosophy and they trusted me. They stepped up the improvement process with their hard work.”

DiPiano still has three forward players on track to be among the state’s leading scorers.

Freshman Zoe Stack has scored 20 goals. Victoria Kealy has added 18 goals and Natalie Melillo has knocked in 12 goals and added an outstanding 18 assists.

They’re on pace to score 25 goals each this season.

“That would be an amazing accomplishment,” DiPiano said.

DiPiano just enjoys the camaraderie on the entire team.

“It’s a great group, a special group,” DiPiano said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime group. They do everything together. They have breakfast together. They went apple and pumpkin picking together. They go to watch the boys’ games together.”

DiPiano knew that he had a close-knit contingent last week, when the entire team went to watch a recreation under-9 girls’ soccer game.

“They were all there together, cheering on the little ones,” DiPiano said. “That shows how special they really are.”

The Maroon Raiders still have four regular season games remaining. Their standing in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket is still at stake.

“We want to get as many home games in Nutley for the state tournament as possible,” said DiPiano. “We want to play in Nutley as long as we can. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

For now, the Maroon Raiders achieved a slice of history. A league championship can now be added to the banner on the wall of the school’s gymnasium.

“The only thing there is a county championship in 1991,” DiPiano said. “So it will be nice to add the league championship to the banner.”

And it’s a title that no one can ever take away. It will remain there through the ages for posterity, the first-ever league champion in girls’ soccer. Quite an achievement indeed.

Make it five straight county titles for Kearny girls’ soccer team

Kards defeat Bayonne, 2-1

Photo courtesy Stephanie Kelly The Kearny girls’ soccer team celebrates winning the Hudson County Tournament championship Sunday afternoon in Jersey City, giving the program fi ve straight tourney titles. Kearny is the only school to win the tourney in its five-year history.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Kelly
The Kearny girls’ soccer team celebrates winning the Hudson County Tournament championship Sunday afternoon in Jersey City, giving the program five straight tourney titles. Kearny is the only school to win the tourney in its five-year history.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When the girls’ high school soccer season began in earnest in August, there were some doubts about the Kearny High School squad.

There were a ton of losses to graduation, not to mention the other losses to illness and injury.

“It was difficult to find the proper mix and chemistry,” Kearny head girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida said. “We had to have a lot of the young girls mesh together in a hurry.”

“So many people doubted us,” said senior midfielder Nicole Kelly. “So many people got injured. It was tough.”

It might have looked as if the Kardinals’ four-year reign as Hudson County Tournament champions would come to an end.

Guess again.

Thanks to goals from Barbara Paiva and Amber Crispin and solid goaltending from Laura Vilar, especially making clutch saves down the stretch, the Kardinals defeated Bayonne, 2-1, Sunday afternoon at Caven Point Cochrane Field in Jersey City to capture their fifth straight Hudson County tourney title.

The Kards defeated Bayonne just two weeks after playing to a 1-1 tie in Bayonne.

“It’s such a relief and so satisfying,” said Kelly, who had the three-goal hat trick in the tourney semifinal win over Union City last Wednesday. “You would think that after winning three in a row, we’d get used to it. But it keeps getting better and better. To end my career with the county championship is so gratifying. We had so many people step up and contribute.”

Almeida said that he always believed the Kardinals had the makings of a fifth straight title.

“I had a lot of confidence in them,” Almeida said. “We have a lot of girls with great ability. It was just a matter of them believing in themselves and establishing some sort of rhythm together as a team.”

Almeida said that the prior tie with Bayonne got the Kards prepared for Sunday.

“I think we used that first game as motivation,” Almeida said. “But they were really motivated on their own. They were very strong minded.”

The Kardinals scored the two goals in the first half, which enabled them to play smart, yet aggressive soccer in the second half.

“It’s always great to go up early,” Almeida said. “We could establish a nice playing style. But give the girls from Bayonne credit. They always fight to the end and took us to the limit.”

The Kardinals managed to hold on, with Vilar making five saves in the second half to protect the lead.

The coach and his co-captain both agreed that this county title was a special one.

“It’s honestly so crazy to think we’ve won five in a row,” Kelly said. “Definitely, as a senior, being this is the last one for me, it’s very special. It feels so much better.”

“They’re all special,” said Almeida, who has been the head coach for each of the five titles. “This one may be a little more special considering all that went on. I knew that this team had great work ethic and that work ethic definitely paid off.”

Almeida said that the win over Bayonne will help the Kardinals as they prepare for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs, where they hope to be among the top seeds.

“It definitely helps,” Almeida said. “This takes one goal off the plate. One of the goals we had was to win the county championship again. We’re very fortunate. There aren’t many programs in New Jersey that can say they won their county five straight years. It’s great to have.”

And chances are that the well hasn’t run dry. Most of the key players return. The Kardinals graduate only three seniors.

“The prospects look good,” Almeida said. “But every year, the county gets more difficult and the teams get better. Bayonne really battled us to the end this year. It’s good to see that there’s a rivalry. It’s never easy to win.”

But five in a row?

“It’s something we hoped for,” said Almeida, whose team prepared to face state-ranked Nutley in an independent game this week.

Almeida and Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano are former classmates and soccer and wrestling teammates at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, so they know each other a long time.

“It’s a good challenge for us,” Almeida said.

So will the rest of the schedule for the five-time defending Hudson County champions. There’s a slogan for three in a row, called “three-peat.” What’s there for five? “Thrive for Five” perhaps.

Kearny’s ‘Oarsome Foursome’ tackles the Passaic River

Crew moms band together and race in PRRA event

 

Photo courtesy Paula Cavalier The Kearny Oarsome Foursome, namely from l., Amy Beth Baptista, Cindy Springer, Paula Cavalier and Patti McCurrie, take to the Passaic River Saturday to race in the Fall Regatta. It was the first time the quartet of Kearny crew moms raced together.

Photo courtesy Paula Cavalier
The Kearny Oarsome Foursome, namely from l., Amy Beth Baptista, Cindy Springer, Paula Cavalier and Patti McCurrie, take to the Passaic River Saturday to race in the Fall Regatta. It was the first time the quartet of Kearny crew moms raced together.

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Back in 1982, out of athletic curiosity, then-Kearny High School student Paula Cavalier wanted to see what it took to become a member of the school’s prestigious crew team.

At the time, Cavalier was told that she could not be a part of the program because she was a girl and Kearny didn’t offer crew for girls.

“I wanted to see what I could do to start a girls’ team,” Cavalier said.

Fortunately for hundreds of young ladies over the years, a girls’ team was eventually formed and the girls’ crew program at Kearny has won countless championships and even produced a United States Olympian in Jen Dore.

“I was always fascinated by the Passaic River,” said Cavalier, who is a spin instructor at King’s Court, the athletic training facility located right on the banks of the river in Lyndhurst. “I was always intrigued.”

It turns out that Cavalier wasn’t alone.

Amy Beth Baptista is a Kearny High School teacher.

“Ever since I moved to Kearny, I always watched the boats racing, coming down the river,” Baptista said. “I always loved rowing, going to camp, canoeing, row boating.”

The fascination spread.

Patti McCurrie is another Kearny resident with rowing curiosities.

“I always wanted to do it, but I was from Harrison and we didn’t have a team,” McCurrie said.

It was more of the same for Cindy Springer.

“I was always curious about it,” Springer said. “I grew up in Kearny and watched the races on the river. I was always impressed by the kids who did it. I thought it was kind of cool. I knew I couldn’t do it.”

The four Kearny residents also all had something in common. They had children who were all part of the Kearny High crew program. Cavalier’s daughter, Jessica, is a sophomore on the team – the same for McCurrie’s daughter, Erin, and Springer’s daughter Amanda.

Baptista has two children involved, daughter Gabriella, a junior, and Jeremy, a freshman.

So the women always found themselves at Kearny crew events, watching their children and wondering if there was somehow, someway to get on the river themselves.

Enter the Passaic River Rowing Association, which instituted a “Learn to Row” program earlier this year.

The PRRA, headed by Belleville High School coaches Jeff and Gail Lahm, a dedicated husband-and-wife team, has been allowing adults the opportunity to first learn the proper techniques of rowing with extensive lessons and training, then giving them the chance to get on the river and race competitively.

Baptista was the first of the Kearny crew moms to join the program in June.

“I guess I was the pioneer for the Kearny women,” she laughed. “I found out that the PRRA had this program and that adults could do it. That was it. I was convinced I was doing it.”

Baptista had a major change in lifestyle a year ago.

“I used to weigh more than 300 pounds,” Baptista said. “I was morbidly obese. But through diet and exercise, faith and perseverance, I lost 160 pounds. I never imagined I could get in a boat. I thought I probably would have sunk the boat.”

Photo courtesy Paula Cavalier From l., Kearny crew moms Amy Beth Baptista, Cindy Springer, Paula Cavalier and Patti McCurrie get together after racing for the first time as a crew team, namely the Kearny Oarsome Foursome

Photo courtesy Paula Cavalier
From l., Kearny crew moms Amy Beth Baptista, Cindy Springer, Paula Cavalier and Patti McCurrie get together after racing for the first time as a crew team, namely the Kearny Oarsome Foursome

 

Baptista, who is regularly seen running up and down Kearny Ave. with weights in hand, also competed recently in the Kearny 5K road race. She was able to lose that much weight naturally, with no surgery.

“Thank God, I’m doing things now I never would have been able to do,” Baptista said.

Soon after Baptista signed up for the “Learn to Row” program, the other three moms followed suit.

“I did it just to see if I was coordinated,” Cavalier said.

“We had a picnic last year and I was allowed to go in the boat,” Springer said. “But I couldn’t even get the oar in the water. It was so embarrassing. So when I heard about the program, I signed up because I didn’t want my daughter to be embarrassed. I found it amazing what these kids are able to do.”

McCurrie was encouraged after she found out Baptista got involved.

“I knew Amy Beth was doing it, so I just said, `Let’s all do it,’” McCurrie said. “Cindy, Paula and I all joined together (in July).”

The “Learn to Row” program was certainly extensive. It was not just getting together and then getting on the river. The Kearny moms got to learn about the pain of the ERG – the stationary device called an ergometer that measures the amount of work and simulated distance.

“Because we were older, it was definitely challenging,” said McCurrie, who works as a paralegal and a realtor. “Starting off was very tough, but we stuck with it. I actually found it addicting. It’s like when you learned how to drive a car. You wanted to get back in the car as soon as you could. Well, this is not like joining a gym, because there were four of us involved.”

“We trained together as a team,” Baptista said. “We got together three days a week and we really worked hard.”

Baptista was the team’s driving force.

“She’s the strength,” Cavalier said. “She’s the one who pushes us. I’m more of a clown, goofing around. Amy Beth takes it very seriously. She tells me, ‘Paula, focus.’ It makes for a nice blend.”

“Our daughters laugh at us, because we’re so corny,” Springer said. “We drive to the girls’ meets together at 4 a.m., giggling and slapping each other silly. It’s good we get along so well. We have a lot of fun together.”

Cavalier is the eldest of the group, but all four are over 40. Women’s ages should never be published as just common courtesy.

Springer loved the attention to detail that the team received from the PRRA coaches and instructors.

“The people are so great,” Springer said. “Our first coach, Fabian (Cortez, who recently started the competitive program at North Arlington High School), was really amazing with us. Gail Lahm was awesome with us. They really taught us well.”

Last Saturday, the quartet of Kearny crew moms took to the water as a team for the first time in a competitive race as part of the PRRA’s Fall Regatta. They had T-shirts made, proclaiming themselves as the “Kearny Oarsome Foursome.”

“I saw the buoys in the water and I started to get a nervous stomach,” Cavalier said. “I was excited. I was scared. I definitely feel like I’m the weakest link of the group. I didn’t want to mess it up. It was taking me the longest to get it down. I just had to get it out of my head and just do it.”

It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a boat to race against. There wasn’t another novice quartet entered.

“We crossed the finish line, so in my mind, we won,” Baptista said. “The goal was to row and learn the sport, learn to love it. We didn’t care about time or winning medals. We’re unified. We’re Kearny’s Oarsome Foursome.”

Baptista had medals made, just so the group felt like winners.

“It was great fun,” Cavalier said. “It taught me how to challenge myself.”

Cavalier has also taken on a recent challenge, training in cycling with a local organization, the Portuguese Cycling Group.

Chances are that the “Oarsome Foursome” will be challenging each other on the Passaic River – and as dedicated Kearny crew moms – in the future as well. A new crew quartet has been formed, thanks to the PRRA.

For more information about the Passaic River Rowing Association’s “Learn to Row” program, log on to www.prra.org.

Buccaneers remain strong with new coach Gaccione

Photo by Jim Hague Junior Max Correa is having a ball, leading the way for the Belleville boys’ soccer team. Correa, the team’s leading scorer last year, is contributing goals and assists this season as well.

Photo by Jim Hague
Junior Max Correa is having a ball, leading the way for the Belleville boys’ soccer team. Correa, the team’s leading scorer last year, is contributing goals and assists this season as well.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Mike Gaccione started to get the idea last spring that Belleville High School veteran head boys’ soccer coach Len Marino was considering stepping down.

“He started throwing hints around,” said Gaccione, who was Marino’s top assistant and junior varsity coach the last few seasons. “I always said to him, `You have to come back.’ But in the spring, he told me that he wanted me to take over.”

Gaccione was asked what it was like to take over for Marino.

“Lenny was such a great mentor,” Gaccione said. “We coached together for so long that we became a good coaching team. We would bounce ideas off each other. Lenny was always such a great help to me.”

With that, Gaccione’s role instantly changed. However, not much else did.

“We didn’t change much,” Gaccione said. “We wanted to add on to what we did last year. Most of our key players were sophomores last year, so they were a year older, bigger, stronger and better. We won the league (the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division) last year, so we wanted to do the same this year and do more in the state and county tournaments.”

It was time for the Buccaneers to raise the bar a bit. “It was nice to win the league,” Gaccione said. “That was fine. Now we want more. We have to have higher expectations. Last year, after we won the league, we didn’t take the state and county as seriously as we should have. I feel this year we have the ability to win the state sectional (the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV).”

That’s saying a lot. “I really believe it,” Gaccione said. “If we just play our game, we should have a shot. We have the same amount of ability as the others.”

The Buccaneers lost only three starters from the team that won the SEC title and won 17 games in 2012.

“Even when we lose kids, we always have others waiting in the wings,” Gaccione said.

You can’t argue with the success. The Buccaneers currently own a 9-2 record and are tied for first place in the Colonial Division race.

“I’m very pleased with the way we’re playing,” Gaccione said.

The Buccaneers have been utilizing three goalkeepers. It’s rare for a team to have that much depth in goal and even rarer for a team to use three.

“I told them in the summer that we were going by committee,” Gaccione said. “I’m pretty pleased with the way they’re playing. We’re going to go by committee until someone stands out. It’s good to keep them all active, because if you have poor goalkeeping, you’re going to lose games. They push each other and go hard every day.”

Junior Kevin Coronel and sophomores Elias Tapia and Jason Cadena are sharing the load in net. Cadena may be getting the edge on the other two with his play of late. The Buccaneers have a standout at sweeper in junior Marlon Rodriguez, who was the starter there last year.

“He’s our quarterback back there,” Gaccione said. “He’s our leader. He’s all over the field and keeps everyone in check.”

The stopper is junior Randy Fernandez, who according to Gaccione, “has stepped up big.”

At one defender is junior P.J. Gencarelli, who was both a forward and a midfielder last year.

“We dropped him back to help with the defense,” Gaccione said. “He’s doing well there. He’s just a great athlete who can play anywhere.”

The other defender is junior Nelson Pichardo, who did not play last year.

“He grew up playing with our core group,” Gaccione said. “He took a year off, then his friends talked him into coming back.”

The Belleville midfield is deep and talented.

Leading the way is junior Max Correa, who had 17 goals last year as a sophomore and is on pace to top that total this year.

“He’s our big playmaker,” Gaccione said. “He’s scoring goals and assisting a lot. We play with a lot of ball possession from the midfield.”

Senior Carlos Castro is another key contributor from the midfield.

“He’s able to control the flow of the game,” Gaccione said. “He’s able to make a run up. We play a free game with our midfield.”

The other midfielders are senior Kevin Mariscal and juniors Matthew Gavidia and Francis Herrera. Gaccione has faith in all three players and uses all three.

“Francis is more of an offensive midfielder,” Gaccione said. “He has a possession game and can move to center midfield if we need him. We don’t lose much with any of them.”

The Buccaneers also have depth at forward.

Junior Luis Lopez has been a great addition to the lineup.

“He came in new to the program last year, but when he came, it was late in the season and we didn’t know much about what he could do,” Gaccione said. “Now, we all know him and he’s more settled in with us.”

The other forwards are seniors Diego Campoverde and Jefferson Chaury, who tallied some clutch goals a year ago down the stretch.

Gaccione is encouraged by the way his team has played recently.

“We’re very happy with what we’re doing so far,” Gaccione said. “I’ve told the kids that we want to win the league, do well in the county and do some damage in the state tournament. We have the team to do it.”

Time will definitely tell as the second half of the season kicks in this week.

NA’s Cordeiro enjoys goal scoring explosion

 

Photo by Jim Hague North Arlington senior center midfielder Danny Cordeiro

Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington senior center midfielder Danny Cordeiro

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

A lot of local soccer coaches, experts, followers and fans were asked about the recent scoring explosion of North Arlington High School senior center midfielder Danny Cordeiro and the answer was fairly unanimous.

It was unprecedented. Never before seen. Certainly one of a kind.

“It is amazing,” North Arlington head coach Jesse Dombowski said. “He’s been controlling the game on both sides. It’s amazing what he’s doing.”

Cordeiro is just letting it all fall into place. He’s certainly not fazed by the recent string of domination.

“I wasn’t really amazed,” Cordeiro said. “I just keep playing and scoring. I want to keep scoring as many goals as possible to help my team. I’m just happy we won the games more than anything else.”

As much as Cordeiro is trying to downplay his incredible achievements, it is hard to ignore. He managed to score a school-record six goals in one win over St. Mary’s of Rutherford. One game later, Cordeiro found the net four more times in a victory over Lyndhurst.

That’s right, 10 goals in just two consecutive games.

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

On the season now, Cordeiro has scored 23 goals and collected nine assists in just 11 games for the Vikings, who now own a 7-3-1 record.

It’s also fairly astounding that Cordeiro is gathering all these goals from the center midfield slot. Most goal scoring opportunities are reserved for strikers.

“He’s been involved in a lot of give-and-gos,” Dembowski said. “He comes up with the others and then gets the ball back. But he also has the ability to take the ball all the way up. He’s had some great opportunities to score. We knew we needed that game (St. Mary’s) and he was going to find ways to score.”

Cordeiro has a method to his goal-scoring madness.

“I try to always keep the ball at my feet,” Cordeiro said. “I want to be able to control the pace of the game. I also try to get everyone involved as much as possible.”

Cordeiro has already surpassed last year’s goal total. He had 16 goals for the entire season last year.

“I’m happy about that,” Cordeiro said. “I want to have a lot more goals before the end of the season.”

“Every year, he keeps getting better,” Dembowski said. “It’s amazing that he keeps getting marked by two or three guys every game and he keeps putting them in.”

Dembowski was asked what are the main reasons why Cordeiro has been so successful.

“He has talent, but he also has incredible stamina,” Dembowski said. “He has great touch with a great shot. He’s been taking our free kicks and put a few in from out there.

But he’s able to just keep going. He never gets tired. It’s amazing to see.

”Safe to say that Dembowski likes saying ‘amazing’ when it comes to Cordeiro.

Cordeiro also believes that there is another key to his prowess.

“I really like playing at home and I like playing on the new turf,” said Cordeiro, crediting the new FieldTurf facility at Riverside County Park. “The new turf field really helps me. The game is faster and that helps me. It’s much easier than on grass.”

Cordeiro wants to continue his goal scoring barrage.

“It’s important that we all keep playing well,” Cordeiro said. “We want to get a good seed in the state tournament, so we have to get into a rhythm and win a few more games.”

Cordeiro is motivated to get a high seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs, so the Vikings can get a home game. Last year, the Vikings earned a home game, but couldn’t play at home due to the damage to Riverside County Park’s grass field caused by Hurricane Sandy, so instead, they had to play on the road.

“We definitely want to get on the turf this year,” Cordeiro said. “Especially after what happened last year.”

While no college has officially contacted Cordeiro, he definitely wants to play on the next level.

“We’re talking to colleges now,” Dembowski said. “We spoke with Drexel and Rutgers. We’re putting out some applications now. He absolutely can play on the college level. His knowledge of the game and his skill level, his athleticism are all reasons why he can. He’s the total package.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing from schools,” Cordeiro said.

Hopefully, a week where he scored 10 goals can help.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” said Cordeiro, who might want to pursue a degree in engineering in college. “We have to see.”

For now, Cordeiro will just continue to have a senior season most soccer players simply dream about.

Kearny girls’ tennis: Doubles trouble

Both Kardinal doubles teams win Hudson County championships

Photo by Jim Hague Both the Kearny High School girls’ tennis first and second doubles teams won Hudson County Tournament championships recently. Front row, from l., are first doubles champs Gabriella Robles and Jessica Martinez. Back row, from l., are second doubles champion Mallory McBride, head coach Amy Lasker and second doubles champ Monica Shenoda.

Photo by Jim Hague
Both the Kearny High School girls’ tennis first and second doubles teams won Hudson County Tournament championships recently. Front row, from l., are first doubles champs Gabriella Robles and Jessica Martinez. Back row, from l., are second doubles champion Mallory McBride, head coach Amy Lasker and second doubles champ Monica Shenoda.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Perhaps the toughest aspect of the game of tennis is playing doubles. With a singles player, you just grab your racket, take to the court and go.

In doubles, there are a lot of factors to consider. There’s teamwork, camaraderie and togetherness. There’s timing and chemistry. There’s communication at the highest level.

“It takes patience,” said Kearny High School head girls’ tennis coach Amy Lasker. “You need someone who is a good listener, someone who is trustworthy. It takes a lot of teamwork and trust in each other. It’s one of the most difficult positions to be in tennis.”

There’s also the strategy behind pairing one player with another. For example, on the Kearny team this year, sophomore Mallory McBride and junior Jessica Martinez were first-year members with the varsity. Both girls had to find their own bearings before worrying about the proper pairing for doubles.

“I think the key is being supportive of each other,” McBride said. “We also worked hard.”

“Honestly, there was a little bit of doubt whether we could do it,” Martinez said. “We didn’t know each other well, so we didn’t know if it would work out.”

But Lasker saw something in her doubles teams.

Lasker paired senior returnee Gabriella Robles with Martinez for the first doubles team and then placed senior Monica Shenoda with McBride for second doubles.

The strategy worked out brilliantly, as both Kearny doubles teams won their respective flight in the recent Hudson County Tournament championships. It was the first time ever that Kearny won both doubles county titles.

“They all had great teamwork,” Lasker said. “I think it helped that there was a senior with the younger girls to help with their confidence. Gabriella has a champion’s attitude. She doesn’t like to lose and she’s always working. Jessica has the same attitude, so it’s good that they’re together. They work well together.

Added Lasker, “Monica and Mallory are both a little softspoken and less emotional, so it’s good that they’re together. They’re both a little more strategy oriented.”

It also helps that the Kardinals have had incredible success this fall. They are currently undefeated in dual matches, winning all nine of their contests.

“They all have a little bit of confidence now, playing together,” Lasker said.

The Kardinals just defeated Belleville, 4-1, in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs and will now face Ridgewood in the second round. By virtue of that undefeated 9-0 team mark, the Kardinals were the No. 6 seed in the bracket.

“It’s the highest seed Kearny ever received,” Lasker said.

First singles player Valeria Siquenza qualified for the NJSIAA state tournament in first singles.

So it’s been a great year all around, capped by the two doubles teams winning county crowns.

“It feels really good,” said Shenoda, who attends High Tech in North Bergen and has to shuttle back and forth in order to play tennis in her home school district. “Going into the season, I think some of us were a little hesitant, but now that we’ve won, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Shenoda was asked what it was like to worry about getting from North Bergen to Kearny in time to practice and play in matches.

“Sometimes, it gets pretty hard,” Shenoda said. “I have to leave school early in order to get to Kearny in time for a match. But I love this sport and I love this team. I wouldn’t want to play with anyone else other than the girls from Kearny.”

Martinez knows what the most important aspect is of being a successful doubles partner.

“Communication is the key,” Martinez said. “You really have to be able to get along. It’s all set in now that we won, set in, but in a good way.”

Shenoda believes that the county title is the culmination of a lot of effort.

“This is something I’ve wanted for a long time,” Shenoda said. “It’s our biggest goal and it’s still a little hard to believe that we did it.”

“It took a lot of hard work to get here,” Robles said. “We all became friends on and off the court. I think that helps. We were all very positive and I’m very proud of that.”

The Kearny girls had reason to be proud. They achieved a slice of history, both earning county championships at the same time.

Lasker said that there’s another reason for the girls to be proud.

“A lot of them never played tennis before high school,” Lasker said. “I think it shows that hard work and determination can pay off. They’re all finally seen by everyone as being successful.”

Not just successful – but successful Hudson County champions.