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NA’s Fisher wins NJSIAA sectional gold in pole vault


By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The way Travis Fisher looks at it, he was born to compete in the pole vault.

After all, Fisher’s grandfather, Lance Cooper, was a standout in the pole. As were Fisher’s two uncles, Don and Bruce Cooper. Not to mention, Fisher’s older sister, Tara, the former Observer Female Athlete of the Year in 2010.

They all preceded Fisher with the pole vault at North Arlington, so it made perfect sense that Travis would follow suit.

“I was definitely fascinated by it,” Travis Fisher said. “I liked watching Tara doing it. I guess I was in the fifth or sixth grade, when I went down with my grandfather and I tried it for the first time. I jumped only about nine feet. I was pretty good right away.”

It was definitely in his blood. It also didn’t take long for Fisher to want to pole vault all the time.

“It became an obsession,” Fisher said.

So twice a week, Fisher would take lessons and train at the Apex Vaulting in Fairfield.

However, once the winter track season begins, the training becomes just a tad more tedious. That’s because there is no facility for a North Arlington athlete to use for practice during the indoor season.

“It does get hard,” Fisher said. “I do training and conditioning with my teammates, but then I have to go to Apex.”

Famed coach Branko Miric has helped Fisher work on his technique to become a better pole vault athlete.

“I have gotten bigger and stronger,” Fisher said. “I do practice more. It’s all good.”

What is also good was the effort that Fisher and his mother, Leanne, put in to convince the North Arlington Board of Education that indoor track should be a viable varsity sport in the winter months.

It used to be that the track team pretty much had to train on their own during the winter months. Fisher and his mother thought that idea was foolish.

“We were the driving force behind it,” Fisher said. “We made the push to get indoor track as a sport. We saw other schools have it and said, ‘Why can’t we have it? We put out a petition and got a lot of signatures. The Board of Education was up for it. So were the coaches. We figured it would be hard. I thought it would take a couple of years. I honestly thought it would happen when I was out of high school, or maybe my senior year at the earliest.”

The program was initiated last year and in its first year of existence, North Arlington crowned a state champion in Danny Cordeiro, last year’s Observer Male Athlete of the Year who is now a soccer standout at NJIT.

Now, the program is in its second year and maybe it’s only fitting that the next state sectional champion should be the guy who helped initiate the program.

Fisher cleared the bar at 12 feet, six inches last Saturday at the Bennett Center in Toms River, to capture the gold medal at the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships.

Yes, Travis Fisher is a state sectional champion.

For his efforts, Fisher has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week, much like his older sister did on a couple of occasions during her brilliant athletic career.

“It feels pretty good to win,” Fisher said. “I’ve already hit 13 feet twice this year. My goal is 13-6. Fourteen feet would be awesome. I feel pretty confident now. I’ve had a couple people close to me who tell me what I should do. I think I have a pretty good shot to go higher.”

Fisher was once a football player at North Arlington, spending time on the gridiron both as a freshman and a sophomore.

“My grandfather and I had a conversation about it and I didn’t want to injure myself playing football,” Fisher said. “I also like doing the pole vault more.”

North Arlington indoor track coach John Zukatus likes Fisher’s determination.

“He’s very dedicated to the sport,” Zukatus said. “He comes to do training and conditioning with us, then goes to Apex and works out there. That’s what you need these days to be competitive in that sport.”

During the outdoor season, Fisher will also compete in the high jump, but his main focus in the pole vault.

“That’s where his heart is,” Zukatus said. “He’s quite reserved, but he can also be funny. He’s a mix of everything. But when he’s getting ready to vault, he’s very focused. He makes things easy for me as a coach. All I have to do is go over heights with him and watch him go.”

Zukatus was asked what it was like to have a second state sectional champion in only two years of the program.

“It’s good for the kids and good for the program,” Zukatus said. “They asked for the program themselves, got their parents involved and this is the result. I’m happy for Travis. He’s worked very hard to get where he is.”

Zukatus believes that Fisher could reach even better heights at the overall Group I state championships on Feb. 14.

“I’m not going to be shocked if he wins,” Zukatus said. “We have to see what happens. He definitely has a shot.”

Fisher said that having Tara Fisher as an older sister has been a motivation to him.

“She helped me a lot,” Fisher said. “She’s now serving as a volunteer coach with us. Having Tara and watching her as a kid gave me someone to look up to and admire. My uncle Don (the former head volleyball coach at North Arlington) also helped me a lot. And having my grandpa as a personal coach has been a huge help. I have a good relationship with my family. I know that my family all did well in the pole vault. It made me really get into it.”

Fisher said that he’s looking into the possibility of competing on the college level. Seton Hall, Caldwell and Rutgers- Newark have all shown interest. He would like to major in accounting because Fisher said he’s an excellent math student.

Right now, he’s busy being excellent in the pole vault, because after all, it was all in his family.

Four Nutley wrestlers earn Essex tourney titles


Bellevillle’s Greene also earns county gold

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Nutley High School wrestling coach Frank DiPiano didn’t know what to expect of his Maroon Raiders at Saturday’s Essex County championships.

“We finished seventh last year,” said DiPiano, who is in his eighth year at Nutley and recently collected the 100th dual match victory of his coaching career. “As a coach, you always want more from your team.”

That’s why DiPiano was fairly pleased with the Maroon Raiders’ second place finish in the county tournament, trailing only champion West Essex.

“To come back and finish second this year is pretty impressive,” DiPiano said. “Not only am I happy with the performances of some individuals, but the entire team.”

The Maroon Raiders had four wrestlers earn Essex County gold medals. They are senior Kenny Pena (120 pounds), senior Joe Ferinde (126 pounds), junior Robert Duxbury (132 pounds) and senior Darwin Pena (145 pounds).

Also, John Zarro was a runner-up at 138 pounds, falling in a tough decision in his championship bout. DiPiano was particularly pleased with the performances of the Pena cousins, both of whom have improved tremendously over the past year.

“Kenny Pena was a .500 wrestler last year,” DiPiano said. “He’s 22-2 now. He has put in his time to get better and to see his rise in improvement is tremendous.”

Pena defeated Isiah Adams of West Orange, 4-3, in the 120-pound finale. DiPiano believes that Adams is a contender for a championship at Region 2 in a few weeks.

Ferinde won his second straight Essex County crown. His record now stands at 25-1.

“He is just zoned in right now and very focused,” DiPiano said of Ferinde, who defeated John Cadela of Glen Ridge via technical fall in the 126-pound finals. “I believe he’s ready to make another run to get on the podium in Atlantic City.”

Ferinde finished eighth in the state last year. He’s definitely looking to improve on that performance this year.

“I believe he can do it,” DiPiano said.

Duxbury is in the midst of an almost unprecedented leap in weight classes, going from 106 pounds last year to the 132-pound class this season as county champion.

“It is a big jump,” DiPiano said. “I don’t know if I have ever seen it done before. But he’s a physical kid and he’s settled in where he is now. I think it helps that they all battle each other every day in practice. He has incredible work ethic. He puts in a lot of work into getting better.”

Duxbury now owns a 21-2 record for the season after defeating Chris Palmieri of Bloomfield, 6-0, in the 132-pound finale.

Photos by Jim Hague A trio of Nutley wrestlers, namely Robert Duxbury (l.), and cousins Kenny (c.) and Darwin Pena (r.), all won their respective weight classes at the Essex County Championships Saturday.

Photos by Jim Hague
A trio of Nutley wrestlers, namely Robert Duxbury (l.), and cousins Kenny (c.) and Darwin Pena (r.), all won their respective weight classes at the Essex County Championships Saturday.


The final Maroon Raider champion is senior Darwin Pena, who won the 145-pound title by a 2-1 decision over Brendon Seyfried of Newark Academy.

“Darwin is slowly getting from under everyone’s radar,” DiPiano said. “His improvement is unbelievable. I think we all have to keep an eye on him. He was 20-13 last year and he’s 22-2 this year. It’s tremendous. Darwin just loves everything about wrestling. He’s the real deal now.”

DiPiano said that Darwin Pena went to a youth tournament Sunday morning with DiPiano to assist with the Darwin is slowly getting from under everyone’s radar,” DiPiano said. “His improvement is unbelievable. I think we all have to keep an eye on him. He was 20-13 last year and he’s 22-2 this year. It’s tremendous. Darwin just loves everything about wrestling. He’s the real deal now.”

DiPiano said that Darwin Pena went to a youth tournament Sunday morning with DiPiano to assist with the younger wrestlers.

“That’s just the way he is,” DiPiano said.

Zarro had a tough draw in the tournament, so DiPiano was pleased with his runnerup status.

“John has wrestled well of late,” DiPiano said. “I think he’s turned the corner.”

DiPiano said that the best thing for the team’s improvement is the practice room.

“When you have five or six guys right around the same weight battling each other and looking to improve every day, it has to pay off,” DiPiano said. “I feel good for all of them. They wrestled well.”

Belleville had one of its wrestlers earn Essex County gold, namely 160-pound senior Jordan Greene, who defeated Michael Dugan of Cedar Grove, 7-0, in the title bout. Greene has the potential to be a contender for district and region honors in a few weeks.

DiPiano now has to get his team ready for the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs. The Maroon Raiders currently are second in the section and appear headed for a home match in the opening round.

“I think it’s a wide open section,” DiPiano said. “Hopefully, we will be home for a couple of matches. I think you just have to be in it to have a chance to win it.”

Buccaneers hope ECT win is a solid start

Antonio Tyler_web

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The boys’ high school basketball season was not going according to plan for the Buccaneers of Belleville High School and their second-year head coach Jim Stoeckel.

The Bucs lost 12 of their first 14 games this season, causing Stoeckel to alter his coaching approach.

“If we’re going to change the culture here, we just had to forget about wins and losses,” Stoeckel said. “We just had to play hard for 32 minutes and see what happened. That’s been our motto. We’re asking them to play hard and feed off that. We’re not worried about wins and losses. We’re just changing the culture of Belleville basketball.”

It’s a good approach for any coach who has a 2-12 team. Some of the losses were tough to swallow, like a four-overtime setback to Caldwell and a disappointing setback against neighboring rival Nutley.

“It’s incredible,” Stoeckel said. “We had a great game against Caldwell and lost in four overtimes, then came back and laid an egg against Nutley.”

So the Buccaneers really couldn’t have high hopes as they entered the Essex County Tournament, facing a Technology team in the preliminary round of the ECT that defeated the Bucs just a few days prior.

It was actually a lot to ask for, considering the way the Bucs dropped the game against Technology, falling in the final few seconds, then finding themselves down again by 10 points after three periods in the rematch last Friday night.

“I didn’t yell or scream,” Stoeckel said. “I just told them that if they played the way they’re capable of, that they were capable of coming back. We just started chipping away at the lead.”

That happened thanks to the heroics of junior guard Andre Velez, who scored 11 of his career-high 33 points in the final quarter, spearheading a huge turnaround that led to an 18-4 fourth quarter, and the Bucs live to see another day in the tourney.

Belleville had the improbable 55-53 victory over a team that the Bucs had just lost to five days prior.

“I’m so proud of them,” Stoeckel said. “We were up three at half, then in the matter of two minutes in the second half, we were down five. The heads were down, between the knees. I was saying to myself, ‘Here we go again.’ Then we were down 10 at the end of three (quarters).”

But this was not going to be like any of the 12 prior losses. Remember, the culture is being changed. The Buccaneers just had to play hard.

“We kept chipping away at the lead and cut it to one,” Stoeckel said. “Andre got the ball with a minute left and was fouled. He made the two free throws and that put us ahead. We then got another free throw. With 10 seconds left, we kept three guys in the paint and they shot a 3-pointer instead. They bricked the shot, we got the rebound and the game was over.”

Stoeckel said that his team kept the faith.

“I told them that after all the other times we lost, we couldn’t let it happen again,” Stoeckel said. “We couldn’t give up. We knew we could do it.”

Stoeckel is hopeful that the win over Technology can lead to bigger and better things.

“Maybe this is the start of something,” Stoeckel said. “Winning is contagious. Maybe we’ve turned the corner.”

Velez has been a mainstay all season, averaging close to 17 points per game, but struggled recently in losses to Nutley and Technology. Stoeckel said that it was good to see his point guard rebound in a huge way.

“It was absolutely an amazing turnaround,” Stoeckel said. “Andre just let the game come to him. He was focused on getting us the win.”

The Buccaneers moved on to face No. 11 seed Barringer in the second round of the ECT, a game that had to be rescheduled after the Tuesday blizzard.

Senior Quayrze Smith also played a big role in the Bucs’ win.

“He played great defense for 32 minutes,” Stoeckel said of Smith, who is averaging close to eight points per game.

Sophomore Alcides “Tchi- Tchi” Dos Reis was also big in the victory, scoring a season-high 14 points.

“He has really been stepping up over the last three weeks,” Stoeckel said. “He’s been solid.”

Senior forward Antonio Tyler is another key contributor. He had 13 points in the loss to Technology Tuesday and added four in the avenging win Friday.

Senior Will Smith is the team’s 5-foot-9 center. That’s no misprint.

“He’s constantly taking on guys that are 6-foot-5,” Stoeckel said. “He’s been holding his own in the paint. He’s as tough as nails.”

Senior Joseph Al-Masri is a solid forward.

“He rebounds the ball,” Stoeckel said. “We need him to get rebounds.”

Needless to say, Stoeckel is a happy camper these days.

“I never thought I would be happy being 3-12,” Stoeckel said. “They are making me proud. I grew up in Essex County and grew up on Essex County basketball. There’s nothing like a win in the Essex County Tournament. I don’t care if we were the No. 45 seed. We got a win.”

And it was an improbable win at that, but the Bucs survived where other teams have been eliminated.

Kearny’s Fernandes emerges as dominant inside force

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

When Emilia Fernandes was in eighth grade, still in the fledgling stages of learning about the game of basketball, she made a bold prediction.

“She said that she would love to play college basketball some day,” said Kearny High School head girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill.

It was that year that Janitza Aquino was a senior at Kearny and she was selected to play in the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Basketball Association’s North-South All-Star game, so a busload of people – Fernandes included – made the journey south to Toms River to cheer Aquino on before she headed off to a fine career at Montclair State.

“I watched Janitza play and that really inspired me,” Fernandes said. “Seeing her play at a higher level really intrigued me and motivated me. I got a chance to see her shine.”

But Fernandes was admittedly not a good basketball player.

“I only started playing in eighth grade, but I wasn’t very good,” Fernandes said.

“I was always impressed with her size,” Hill said. “She’s a great kid, but she was just a little raw.”

When the time came for the 6-foot-1 Fernandes to join the varsity at Kearny as a sophomore, she was prepared to become a full-fledged basketball standout.

“I knew then that I had to work hard to become a good player,” Fernandes said. “That’s when I started taking it seriously.”

So Fernandes went to camps and clinics to learn more about the game. She enrolled in a training facility in Lyndhurst to work on her speed and agility. She signed up to play for an AAU program, also based out of Lyndhurst called the North Jersey Celtics, to play more basketball at a higher competitive level.

“As long as you’re playing more against better athletes, it’s definitely going to help,” Hill said. “She did everything you would want her to do to get better. She worked on her mobility and agility. She played with us in the summer league and came to open gyms. She really wanted to get better. She was a work in progress as a sophomore.”

But toward the end of her junior year, Fernandes started to see some rewards for her hard work and diligence.

“I think a lot of it had to do with her confidence,” Hill said. “I think she realized that she could perform at a high level.”

Fernandes also did some summer workouts with Aquino, the former Observer Female Athlete of the Year who is enjoying a sensational senior year as the point guard for nationally ranked Montclair State.

“She helped me out tremendously,” Fernandes said. “She’s become a friend.” Between Hill and Aquino, the pair convinced Fernandes to become more of an inside presence.

“I am taller than most, so I had to use my size to my advantage,” Fernandes said. “I had to become more dominant inside, in the paint. The most successful place for me is in the paint. I’m most comfortable there and I definitely feel more confident.”

Fernandes credited her time with the North Jersey Celtics as a source for her confidence.

“When you play against the better competition all the time, it helped me tremendously,” Fernandes said. “I knew that was going to make me more confident come time for the high school season.”

Fernandes’ confidence has been quite evident of late, especially the last week, leading the Kardinals to three straight victories.

Fernandes started the week off with a dominating performance against St. Dominic Academy, scoring 28 points and hauling down 17 rebounds. In that game, Fernandes had 22 of her points in the second half, leading the Kards to victory.

“Something just clicked in her,” Hill said. “She just took over. She had that look in her eyes.”

In the next outing, Fernandes scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a win over Lyndhurst. She completed her three-game run with another solid outing, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a win over Snyder of Jersey City, a game where Fernandes only played in the first half.

The three wins enabled the Kards to improve to 8-4 on the season.

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

“She’s playing her best basketball right now,” Hill said. “I’m excited about the way she’s been playing. She just had to believe in herself. In the past she used to think too much if she missed a shot or make a mistake and worry about it for a while. She’s now mentally stronger. She now realizes she’s just as good as anyone else and she’s playing with that confidence. She’s really become dominant.”

Fernandes has noticed the change in her play, which has seen her collect double figures in all but one game this season, seen her grab 10 or more rebounds in seven games and earn a double-double in points and rebounds seven times. She’s averaging 15.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest this year.

“I really am impressed,” Fernandes said. “I’m also surprised. I don’t pay attention to the numbers, but when the coaches say something, it surprises me. I’m just glad I can make my coaches and my teammates happy.”

Fernandes has yet to declare her intentions for college. Montclair State and Felician are two schools that have shown interest. Fernandes hopes to major in physical education or athletic training in college.

“Someday, I want to be a high school basketball coach,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes’ first goal of wanting to become a college basketball player like Aquino is about to become reality, so there really should be no denying her ultimate goal of being a coach. For now, Fernandes is playing like one of the best players in Hudson County – and that’s truly a blessing for Kearny.


Lyndhurst North Arlington wrestling co-op moves forward


By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Mike Goff is in his third year coaching the Lyndhurst-North Arlington High Schools wrestling cooperative and the energetic coach feels much more at home now.

“I’m a little more settled in,” Goff said. “The kids all know me. The team is made up of juniors that I had as freshmen. I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re still a work in progress, but we’re much improved. We’re fighting and going into matches thinking we can win. We’re putting ourselves in situations where we can win.”

That was evident on Saturday, when the Golden Bears/ Vikings defeated Kearny and Orange and battled perennial Group IV playoff contender Livingston down to the final bout.

“I think we’re at the point where we’re starting to break through,” Goff said. “We’re in a good position right now.”

Lyndhurst-North Arlington, which features wrestlers from both high schools, lost close matches to Belleville and Lodi in the last few weeks.

“We were in both matches,” Goff said. “I think that shows the kids that we’re moving in the right direction.”

The interest is definitely there as well. Goff had a total of 31 prospective wrestlers try out for the team last month.

“It’s the most we ever had,” Goff said. “I do like the makeup of this team. There’s good chemistry.”

So much so that they went to a wrestling team camp at The College of New Jersey last summer – despite the fact that the team is comprised of kids from two different neighboring schools that are generally archrivals.

“They all hang out together and get along so well,” said Goff, who took his entire team bowling Sunday afternoon.

There’s another aspect to the team’s camaraderie – namely their hair color. More than half of the team has dyed their hair bleach blond as a sign of unity.

“It’s a close-knit group,” Goff said. “We have a group of juniors who have been doing it (dying their hair) since fifth grade. I didn’t think we’d have that many this year, but 16 kids have done it.”

As long as the Golden Bears/ Vikings continue to win, they could dye their hair green and it wouldn’t matter to Goff.

“It just shows that we’re all on the same page together,” Goff said.

A quick glance of the Golden Bears/Vikings’ roster right now shows a very young team with a good balance of both Lyndhurst and North Arlington students.

Freshman Matt Daub is the team’s 106-pounder.

“He’s doing very well,” Goff said. “He wrestles all year round, so he has good experience as a wrestler. There’s still a big learning curve as a freshman.”

Sophomore Conor Yunis is a fixture at 113 pounds.

“He had a good year for us last year at 106 pounds,” Goff said of Yanis.

Junior Corey Leclerc is one of the team’s top returning wrestlers. Leclerc holds down the 120-pound weight class. “Corey was third in the districts and made it to the second day of the regions,” Goff said. “We’re expecting bigger things from him this year.”

Junior Devin Yunis is the team’s 126-pounder.

“He’s come a long way since freshman year,” Goff said of the elder Yunis. “Now, he’s quick on his feet and picked up from where he left off last year. He’s a tough kid.”

All four of the aforementioned wrestlers attend Lyndhurst High School.

The team’s 132-pounder, Louis Arzuaga, is from North Arlington, so he has to commute daily from NA to Lyndhurst for practices. Now that’s dedication.

“Louis has picked up where he left off last year and he’s part of the junior class I have that is rock solid,” Goff said. “Louis is another tough kid who puts up a fight every time out. He’s a fighter.”

Photo by Jim Hague Lyndhurst/North Arlington head coach Mike Goff has revitalized the program and has the team geared toward respectability.

Photo by Jim Hague
Lyndhurst/North Arlington head coach Mike Goff has revitalized the program and has the team geared toward respectability.



Junior Andrew Fernandez is another North Arlington student. Fernandez is a junior at 138 pounds.

“He’s very strong and very agile,” Goff said of Fernandez. “He uses his strength to his advantage.”

Christien Campana is a newcomer to the local scene. Campana, the team’s 145-pounder, is a transfer from Pennsylvania.

“He’s a very technical wrestler and fits in well with the rest of the team,” Goff said of Campana.

Nick Fernandez, a freshman and the younger brother of Andrew, is the team’s 152-pounder.

“He’s jumping into a tough weight class,” Goff said of the North Arlington freshman. “But he’s holding his own.”

Senior Rocco Russomano is the team’s 160-pounder. Russomano missed all of last year with a foot injury that required surgery.

“He’s back and on the right path,” Goff said of Russomano, a Lyndhurst student. “It helps us a lot having Rocco back.”

The team’s 170-pounder is perhaps the team’s best wrestler in junior Matt DeMarco, who finished second in the District 15 last year and was a qualifier for the Region 2 tournament.

“If we have him healthy, it means a lot to the team,” Goff said. “I’m expecting a lot from Matt.”

North Arlington High School senior Giuseppe Gugliuzza is the team’s 182-pounder.

“He’s a tough kid and a very strong kid,” Goff said. “He knows how to use his strength to his advantage.”

Junior Michael Cooper is the team’s 220-pound student. Cooper attends Lyndhurst.

“He’s improved like five times more than he was last year,” Goff said.

Junior Ryan Smith, also a Lyndhurst student, is the team’s heavyweight.

“He’s a new kid that I got from off the football team,” Goff said. “He fits in well with our lineup.”

Even though Smith is brand new to wrestling, he won all three of his matches Saturday in the tri-meet at Kearny with Orange and Livingston.

“He’s done pretty well so far,” Goff said.

The team holds a 5-6 record, which isn’t good enough to qualify for the NJSIAA team sectional championships.

“We don’t think the idea of being in the state tournament is farfetched,” Goff said. “It can happen. We’ve been in every match this year. There have been no blowouts. We set the goal of competing for a state sectional title. We just need a little patience.”

The team faces Becton on the road Wednesday, followed by a matchup with 13-3 Garfield at the North Arlington gymnasium at 7 p.m. That should be a treat for the North Arlington contingent, getting a chance to wrestle on their home floor.

The team then returns to action Saturday in a quad meet with Vernon, Cliffside Park and Hasbrouck Heights at Hasbrouck Heights. Sure looks like a make or break week for Goff and his young team of blond merry men.

“It’s a big week for us,” Goff said. “There’s no question we have to do well this weekend.”

At least the term winning is being associated with Lyndhurst wrestling once again.

QP boys’ hoops: Getting better with time


By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The Queen of Peace boys’ basketball team continues to work its way through major growing pains, but head coach Tom McGuire is hopeful that the tough times are behind the Golden Griffins.

“Absolutely, our best basketball is ahead of us,” McGuire said. “We haven’t played our best yet. The one thing I appreciate about us is that we always tend to get better as the season goes on. We’re never the same team that started the season.”

The Golden Griffins now own a 5-5 record after soundly defeating Bergen Charter, 73-37, last Thursday night.

McGuire said that the Golden Griffins are still relatively young.

“We’re pretty green,” McGuire said. “We start a freshman and play another one. I didn’t realize how big of a loss that the seniors from last year would be. It’s a chemistry thing right now. We’re still working on the chemistry. We’re working hard in practice and trying to get everything we can out of this team. We haven’t had a signature win yet, so that’s something we need.”

The Griffins are fortunate enough to have 6-foot-3 junior forward Jeremy Joseph back from last year. The talented Joseph is averaging 19 points and seven rebounds per game. Joseph had consecutive games against Dwight- Englewood and Rutherford where he tallied 27 points and 11 rebounds (Dwight-Englewood) and 28 points and 12 rebounds (Rutherford).

“He’s done everything we’ve asked of him,” McGuire said. “He’s such a team player. You like players who are pass first and shoot second. Well, Jeremy is pass first and pass second. We need him to be more selfish. We’re also trying to establish him more down low, get him more involved in the paint. He’s so strong that he can handle it. He’s starting to get it.”

McGuire knows that Joseph is definitely a college prospect.

“Without a doubt, we’re working on college already,” McGuire said. “He’s a very good student, so that helps. I think playing AAU ball in the summer (with the Wayne PAL) has also helped him.”

Another key contributor is 6-foot senior guard Joe Cook.

“He was the off-guard (shooting guard) last year and this year, he’s playing more of the point guard role,” McGuire said. “He has that point guard mentality. He’s such a tough kid, a tough player. He gets the job done.” Cook is averaging eight points and four assists per game.

Another solid contributor is senior guard Mike Pettigrew. The 6-foot Pettigrew, a standout baseball player in the spring who has already committed to playing baseball at Drew University in the fall, is averaging seven points per game this season.

“He’s our shooter,” McGuire said. “He’s done a good job from the outside. If he’s shooting well, then we’re a better team. He’s also a good defensive player who goes up against the other team’s best player and holds his own against the best.”

One of the key freshmen is 6-foot-3 forward Raphael Castillo.

“He has a lot of promise,” said McGuire of Castillo, who is averaging 10 rebounds per game. “He’s going to be one of the better players in the county. He has a ton of potential.” Castillo is also averaging nine points per contest this year.

Senior James Lia, another fine baseball player, is a 5-foot-7 guard who has been battling an ankle injury.

“We want to make sure he’s healthy before we put him back out there, because he is such a good baseball player and don’t want to jeopardize that,” McGuire said.

Sophomore Dante Small is a 5-foot-11 guard.

“He’s been a little bit of a surprise, because I didn’t know whether he could play,” McGuire said. “I like his athleticism and intensity. It’s only his second year of organized basketball, so he’s still learning. But he’s a very athletic kid who could become a very good player.”

Senior Sammy Tait is a 5-foot-11 guard who comes off the bench. The same for 5-foot-7 junior Jordan Moran. Both add depth at the guard position.

Another freshman who is getting considerable playing time is 6-foot-3 Jasiah Provillion, who had 12 points in the win over Bergen Charter.

“He also has a lot of promise,” McGuire said. “He just needs to develop. He’s starting to get meaningful varsity minutes. He’s extremely athletic and working on all facets of the game with him.”

The Griffins were bolstered recently by the return of former head coach and QP standout athlete Christian Boyce to the sidelines as an assistant to McGuire. A few years ago, the roles were reversed, with Boyce as the QP head coach and McGuire as the assistant.

“Oh, God, yes, he’s helped coming back,” McGuire said. “He’s helped a lot with our post players. He’s a basketball coach and needed to be back coaching.”

The Golden Griffins have an important stretch of games coming up this week, facing off against Leonia, New Milford and Kinnelon. While qualifying for the Bergen County Jamboree might be a little bit of a stretch right now (the Griffins need wins in all three games this week to have an outside shot), the NJSIAA Non-Public B North playoffs are still a strong possibility.

“We want to think we have a shot of playing well this week,” McGuire said. “It is an important week for us. We want to make sure we get into the states.”

If the Griffins keep moving in the right direction – and get that quality, signature win – they should be in good shape.

Ford’s long-range shooting boosts Vikings

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nutley girls’ hoop squad experiences growing pains

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kearny coach Hill reflects on late father

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

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

Anthony Hill was 67 years old.

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

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

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

But the inspiration to compete came from her father.

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

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

Most of the time, Hill was indeed that.

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

And Anthony Hill was there every step of the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kearny’s Baez comes of age in a hurry

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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