Sports year in review

Photo courtesy Brianna Balkin The Lyndhurst bowling team earned the distinction of being the first-ever from northern New Jersey to ever capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title, earning the No. 1 Sports Story of 2015 here.
Photo courtesy Brianna Balkin
The Lyndhurst bowling team earned the distinction of being the first-ever from northern New Jersey to ever capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title, earning the No. 1 Sports Story of 2015 here.

The calendar year of 2015 produced its share of compelling local sports stories. Here’s The Observer’s Top 10 Sports Stories for 2015.

1-Lyndhurst wins NJSIAA bowling Tournament of Champions 

Last February, the Lyndhurst High School bowling team loaded up the team bus and headed south to Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick with modest expectations.

“Honestly, I was just hoping to see if we could get Group I,” said Lyndhurst second-year head bowling coach Brianna Balkin. “Last year, we finished second in Group I, so I wanted to win that. Last year, we broke all the records, had all the high scores, had the state sectional title and went down there and couldn’t get it together.”

So as the Golden Bears made another sojourn south on the New Jersey Turnpike, Balkin had one thing in mind.

“In my mind, the goal was to win Group I,” Balkin said. “Anything else that happened would be a bonus.”

But as the bus got closer to Carolier Lanes, the aspirations of the bowlers started to rise.

The Golden Bears seemed to catch lightning in a bottle. Senior Michael Hayes was inserted into the lineup to go along with the Bears’ usual stalwarts Jordan Lopez, Daijon Smith, Ryan Donohue and Emily Young.

The Golden Bears started the day by winning Group I title over Pompton Lakes.

From there, the Golden Bears moved on to the Tournament of Champions to lock horns with Group IV champion Freehold Township, Group III champ Sayreville and Group II champ Rahway.

The Golden Bears defeated Rahway in the state semifinals, then defeated Freehold Township to win the overall T of C title.

Lyndhurst became the first team from northern New Jersey to ever capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title.

“It’s been one amazing ride,” Balkin said. “I credit the kids. My seniors, who I call ‘The Fab Five,’ have been tremendous. It’s not just bowling. It’s outside of the lanes. They’ve done so much for this program.”

The seniors are Lopez, Smith, Young, Hayes and Richard Sawires.

“It’s really amazing,” Balkin said. “They put in the work. They practice a lot on their own.”

Lopez, Smith and Donohue have all bowled perfect games in their lives, so that is also a huge help.

Balkin said that there was a huge sense of pride becoming the first northern New Jersey team to ever secure the NJSIAA T of C title.

“It’s big for North Jersey,” Balkin said. “A lot of people think that we’re at a disadvantage, being from North Jersey. But we proved we can be just as good as the rest of the state. It really is amazing. I think it’s something they’ll all remember for the rest of their lives.”

Observer file photo The Nutley girls’ basketball team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship as the No. 13 seed, the lowest seed to win a state sectional title in more than 20 years and the first Nutley state champion since 1976.
Observer file photo
The Nutley girls’ basketball team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship as the No. 13 seed, the lowest seed to win a state sectional title in more than 20 years and the first Nutley state champion since 1976.

2-Nutley girls’ basketball wins NJSIAA North 2, Group III title as No. 13 seed 

The Nutley High School girls’ basketball team had a 7-12 record a few weeks before the start of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs.

The sub-.500 record forced the Maroon Raiders to earn the No. 13 seed out of 16 teams in the state sectional.

But the Maroon Raiders defied the odds in March when they went to western New Jersey and knocked off Voorhees, 57-53, to earn the state sectional championship.

Led by junior sensation Blair Watson, who scored 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, the Maroon Raiders became the lowest seeded girls’ basketball team to win a state sectional title in 20 years and became the first Nutley squad to win a state championship since 1976.

Sara Grueter said it the most succinctly.

“If my kids go here, they can look up at the wall and say that I had a part of that,” Grueter said. “That banner will be there forever and I was a part of that team. It’s really a speechless feeling. It’s so hard to put it into words. No one believed that we could go this far. I’m just so glad to be a part of the experience.”

Being the 13th seed meant that the Maroon Raiders had to load up the bus and play every game on the road. So it meant traveling to places like West Morris and Mendham in western Morris County and even Orange before heading to the remote spot called Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County.

“We knew we were going to be on the road and playing in some hostile environments,” said Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow. “It’s just not expected to happen.”

The Maroon Raiders climbed aboard the shoulders of Watson, already committed to the University of Maryland, who was just sensational in the state playoffs, averaging close to 30 points per game.

“She’s not one of the best players in the state,” Mitschow said of Watson. “She’s one of the best in the country. Maryland is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. They’re not recruiting players unless they are great.”

Mitschow was still trying to process the idea that this team was indeed a state champion.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” Mitschow said. “We had so many injuries and illnesses that we had to cancel our JV (junior varsity) team this year. At times, we had to practice with just seven or eight girls. We had to have our assistant coaches practice. We had to be creative with our practices. The kids who stuck this out and made it through the tough times. It’s a testament to them. I tried not to tell them that they achieved more than I believed, but deep down, they did. It’s something we’re all going to remember for a very long time.”

Observer file photo The Harrison boys’ volleyball team had a sensational spring, as the Blue Tide captured the Group II state sectional title for the first time ever.
Observer file photo
The Harrison boys’ volleyball team had a sensational spring, as the Blue Tide
captured the Group II state sectional title for the first time ever.

3-Harrison boys’ volleyball team captures NJSIAA Group II state title 

In June, the Harrison High School boys’ volleyball team achieved a level of excellence never before reached. The Blue Tide won a volleyball state title.

Harrison defeated Livingston, a perennial state volleyball powerhouse, in three sets, losing the first set, 25-22, then storming back to win the final two by 25-22 and 25-16 margins, to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Group II state sectional title.

The Blue Tide, who had previously captured their league and Hudson County championships, had to knock off another perennially powerful program in St. Peter’s Prep just to get to the state sectional title game.

Harrison head coach Nick Landy said that defeating local rival St. Peter’s once again provided the impetus needed to take on a powerhouse like Livingston.

“I felt at least we were on the same level with Prep,” Landy said. “We beat them twice before in the regular season. We knew we couldn’t take them for granted and knew that they would be a different team facing us again. We were ecstatic to get that one, then we had to get ready to face Livingston.”

In Livingston, Landy knew that the Blue Tide would have to work especially hard to claim the state crown.

“Two other times in the past, they stopped us in the state tournament,” Landy said of Livingston. “We’re the smaller school playing the bigger school, so we knew that it was going to be tough. But we’ve been saying that for most of this season. We had to beat all bigger schools.”

Landy said that the local turnout was fantastic and that gave the Blue Tide an added edge.

“There’s something about our gym and our kids playing in our gym,” Landy said. “The kids were up for it. The crowd was unbelievable. I hadn’t seen it like that for any sport. Some of our opponents, like Kearny, were there, cheering for us. It really was amazing.”



OBserver file photo Local sports legend Tom Longo of Lyndhurst, who went on to gain fame at Notre Dame and later the New York Giants, died in July at the age of 73.
OBserver file photo
Local sports legend Tom Longo of Lyndhurst, who went on to gain fame
at Notre Dame and later the New York Giants, died in July at the age of

4-Grid legend Longo of Lyndhurst passes away at 73 

Dick Vitale, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame announcer, perhaps summed up the passing of his friend Tom Longo the best.

“Tom Longo is a genuine solid gold Hall of Fame father, grandfather and friend and the best athlete to ever come out of Lyndhurst High School,” Vitale said after the passing of his longtime friend in July at the age of 73.

“He was one special guy,” Vitale said in a phone interview from his home in Bradenton, Fla. “We became really close when his son (Tomas) was at Notre Dame at the same time as my two daughters. We would get together every weekend of every football game. We didn’t miss a single Notre Dame home game. He had a heart of gold.”

Longo, the former Lyndhurst High School great who went on to have a fine career at Notre Dame and later played in the NFL with the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, died in a hospice near his home in Wayne after a two-year long battle with cancer, specifically mesothelioma.

“It was a courageous battle for 21 months,” Vitale said. “I spoke with him the other day and told him how much I loved him. We would tease each other about him being from Lyndhurst and me from East Rutherford. I’m going to miss my battles with him about the Giants and the Yankees. We would have incredible battles going back and forth. He will be remembered for his love of his family and his love of Notre Dame. He loved Notre Dame. Nothing even makes up for it.”

Longo had a brilliant high school career at Lyndhurst in the early 1960s, earning a football scholarship to Notre Dame, where he first played quarterback, then running back and defensive back for the Fighting Irish under legendary coach Ara Parseghian.

Longo was originally drafted in the 14th round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1965, then finally battled his way to make the Giants’ final roster in 1969 at age 27 as a defensive back and kick returner. In 1970, Longo was the Giants’ starting strong safety for all 14 games that season, collecting two interceptions and recovering three fumbles for a surprising Giants team that finished 9-5 and just missed making the playoffs.

After two seasons with the Giants, Longo spent the 1971 season with the Cardinals, but saw action in only two games.

In his later years, Longo was very active with the NFL’s Retired Players Association.

5-NA’s Fisher wins state pole vault title in indoor track 

North Arlington’s Travis Fisher achieved state greatness in February, when he won the NJSIAA Group I state championship in the pole vault at the Bennett Center in Toms River.

Fisher cleared the bar at 14 feet, which was a personal best, and topping Andrew Accardi of Pompton Lakes in a match of jumps.

Incredibly, both Fisher and Accardi trained together at Apex Vaulting in Fairfield. Still, the victory gave Fisher a state gold medal – the second gold medal for a North Arlington track and field athlete in as many years.

Last year, Danny Cordeiro, now playing soccer at NJIT, won the 800-meter run gold medal at the state meet.

Not bad for an indoor track program that didn’t even exist before last year. Two years of existence, two state gold medal winners.

Incredibly, it was due to the hard work of Fisher and his mother, as well as others, that pushed the North Arlington Board of Education to consider having indoor track as a varsity sport. Fisher went around collecting signatures on a petition two years ago and made a presentation to the Board of Education, calling for the implementation of indoor track as a sport.

“If it never happened, then Danny and I would never have the chance to win a state championship,” Fisher said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment. It’s such an awesome feeling.”

6-Nutley, Lyndhurst and North Arlington all qualify for NJSIAA football playoffs 

It was a memorable local high school football season, as three local teams, Nutley, Lyndhurst and North Arlington, all qualified for their respective state sectional tournaments in football, the first time that three locals ever headed to the postseason in the same year. Nutley earned the No. 2 seed in the North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket, while Lyndhurst earned a place in the North 2, Group II bracket and North Arlington made it in North 2, Group I.

7-Kearny wins Hudson County Tournament titles in both boys’ and girls’ soccer 

For the second straight year, Kearny reigned supreme in both boys’ and girls’ soccer in the Hudson County Tournament, taking home the coveted county crown. The Kearny boys defeated Union City to win for a second straight year, while the Kearny girls knocked off Bayonne to win their unprecedented seventh straight county crown. No wonder why Kearny is called “Soccertown, USA.”

8-Lyndhurst/North Arlington, Nutley, Queen of Peace make NJSIAA wrestling playoffs 

It was also a great year locally for wrestling teams, as Nutley, the Lyndhurst/North Arlington co-operative and Queen of Peace all earned berths in the NJSIAA wrestling team playoffs. It marked the first appearance ever for the Lyndhurst/North Arlington co-op and it was a return to glory for the QP wrestling program, which became moribund for two seasons, but made a triumphant return. For Nutley, it was the third straight state tourney appearance, but the program lost head coach Frank DiPiano at season’s end. DiPiano went to take a job at his alma mater, St. Benedict’s Prep, and was replaced at Nutley by his brother, Mike, who was already the head girls’ soccer coach at Nutley.

9-Ferinde, Velez earn Region 4 wrestling gold 

Two local wrestlers, namely Nutley’s Joe Ferinde and Queen of Peace’s Jeff Velez, won NJSIAA Region 4 wrestling championships last March. Ferinde was the champion in the 126-pound class after defeating former teammate Anthony DeLorenzo of Queen of Peace in the final bout by a 3-1 score. Velez won the 195-pound class by defeating Mauro Altamura of Hasbrouck Heights in the title bout by a 6-2 score.

10-Nutley American Little League 10’s earn state tourney berth 

The Nutley American Little League 9-and-10-year-old All- Star team made an appearance at the New Jersey state tournament last August.

The Nutley Americans earned their berth in the state tourney by coming from behind to defeat Elmora of Elizabeth, 14-9, winning the Section 2 championship. Nutley American had already earned the District 8 championship to get to the Section 2 tourney, held in Lodi.

In the title game, Nutley American showed a ton of resiliency, first falling behind by four runs, then coming back to tie the game at 4-4, then falling behind again, 8-4, only to pull away down the stretch. “There was no room for error,” said Nutley American manager Carmen Alberti. “Every game was crucial. These kids never flinched. They were unfazed. They remained positive and just kept coming back after them.”

Alberti said that the Nutley American kids didn’t care how much playing time they received.

“Whether they were a six-inning player or a two-inning player, they all bought in,” Alberti said. “They’re a great group of kids and that’s the first step. Every kid did something, whether it was fielding, base running, hitting. They’re just a great group of kids, with no one bigger than the team. That says a lot.”

The Nutley Americans had a solid three-headed pitching staff in Joe DeLanzo, Dylan Santos and Ryan Gencarelli. All three talented right-handers saw action in the Section 2 tourney.

Others of note: 

Nutley’s Carly Anderson earned The Observer Female Athlete of the Year award, the second straight for a Nutley girl and Belleville’s P.J. Gencarelli was named The Observer Male Athlete of the Year, the first-ever honoree from the school; North Arlington sports legend Nick Mazzolla, still the track and field coach at Queen of Peace, died suddenly; Harrison resident Jose Morillo, who earned his place as a volunteer coach in his adopted hometown of Harrison, died tragically at the age of 32; the Belleville boys’ volleyball team captured the Essex County Tournament title for the first time; Nick Edwards resigned as Kearny football coach to become Queen of Peace baseball coach.

All in all, it was another fine year in local sports, all documented here in the pages of The Observer. Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”