The Belleville High School wrestling program is undergoing another transition period, with former assistant coach Joe Pizzi taking over for Junior Nardone, who resigned at the end of last season.
In Pizzi’s eyes, the transition has been a breeze, considering he already knew all the kids from his days as an assistant.
“The kids are all familiar with me,” said the 28-year-old Pizzi, a Belleville native and current resident who attended St. Peter’s Prep, the University of Rhode Island and then William Paterson. “Junior and I had pretty much the same philosophy and beliefs, so the transition has been good.”
But Pizzi has been left with a young and inexperienced roster, so the challenges are there from the start.
“I want to be able to build the program the right way,” Pizzi said. “We have a young team with some veterans sprinkled in. I want to be able to get kids to come out, stick around for a while and there’s no telling what might happen.”
When Pizzi realized that Nardone, the former two-time state champion from Belleville, was stepping down, he wanted to make sure that he would get consideration to replace him. Pizzi is a full-time physical education teacher in the district, working at Belleville Middle School.
“When I heard that Junior was stepping down, I knew what being the head coach would entail,” Pizzi said. “I wanted to try to make the program my own. Being from Belleville, I know what Belleville wrestling is all about. I looked up to a lot of the guys who wrestled at Belleville, back in the days when they were dominant. I want to try to bring it back to that level.”
It won’t be easy.
“Building a program is all about getting as many kids out as possible and then watch them grow as much as they can,” Pizzi said.
Pizzi has assembled a good coaching staff that is willing to work with the wrestlers and show the patience needed as the youngsters endure some growing pains.
“We know as a staff that it takes time,” Pizzi said. “We’re going to put as much time as neces sary into the program. We know that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The Buccaneers have only competed in two dual meets thus far, losses to Columbia of Maplewood/South Orange and Northern Valley- Demarest of Bergen County. They also competed in the holiday Bloomfield Tournament, where Pizzi saw some positive signs.
“A lot of our kids wrestled very tough,” Pizzi said. “It’s a pretty tough tournament. But the good thing about it was that there was a varsity tournament and one for JV (junior varsity). So we put the guys out there who were ready to go varsity and let the others gain some experience at their level.”
In all, seven Buccaneers wrestled on the varsity level and 13 got to get their feet wet on the JV side.
“I think that helps our younger kids and we can build from there,” Pizzi said.
Looking at the Buccaneers’ lineup, they currently do not have a 106-pounder, nor do they have a heavyweight. So that puts Pizzi in a bit of a bind, realizing he’s in a 12-point hole every dual meet before any wrestler takes the mat.
“It is a little tough right now, but we have to see if we can get through it,” Pizzi said.
Senior Luis Cardenas is the team’s 113-pounder. “He’s a first-year wrestler who is giving everything he has,” Pizzi said. “But it is all new to him.” Senior Thomas Graziano is the Bucs’ 120-pounder. Graziano, one of the more experienced members of the squad, finished second at the Bloomfield Tournament.
“He should do well this year,” Pizzi said. “He definitely has the experience.”
Senior Luis Ovando is the team’s 126-pounder, but Ovando was bothered by some preseason injuries and just received clearance to return to the mat. Ovando placed at District 14 last year and advanced to Region 4.
“We’re looking forward to getting him back,” Pizzi said.
Junior Giovanni Altamirano has been replacing Ovando in the lineup at 126 in the early going.
Senior Joe Buonanno is the 132-pounder. Buonanno has been active in Belleville wrestling since his days with the town’s great recreation program.
At 138 pounds, the Buccaneers have a bit of a novelty in sophomore Katelyn Araujo. Yes, Araujo is a girl going up against boys.
“She’s doing well,” Pizzi said. “She’s a very tough wrestler and she’s holding her own against the boys, doing her best. She did some good strength training in the off-season to get ready. The other guys on the team are very respectful and she doesn’t get treated any differently.”
Junior John Centanni is another wrestler at 138 pounds, but he’s been injured of late.
Senior Jefferson Renard is the team’s 145-pounder. Renard was around the .500 mark last season.
Justin Ungab is the Bucs’ 152-pounder.
“He’s a hard worker,” Pizzi said of the senior Ungab. “He’s become a pretty good wrestler and does a good job.”
Senior Joseph Nguyen is the Buccaneers’ 160-pounder. Nguyen won 14 matches last season.
“He has only one loss this season,” Pizzi said. “He’s very strong in his upper body and that helps him. He also trained hard in the offseason to get ready for this year.”
Senior Johannes Ortiz is the team’s 170-pounder.
“Last year was his first year wrestling and he learned a lot,” Pizzi said. “He’s a strong kid who’s come a long way.”
Freshman Gabriel DePalma is the team’s 182-pounder. It’s not an easy weight class for a freshman, going up mostly against kids three and four years older with a ton more experience.
“He’s a football player who decided to come out this year,” Pizzi said of DePalma.
It’s with wrestlers like DePalma that the patience has to show.
Sophomore Santino Imparato is the 195-pounder. His name sounds like it came off the script for “The Godfather.” Imparato is another wrestler still learning the ropes – of course, without ropes – but he has a lot of potential.
“He’s doing much better, but he still has a long way to go,” Pizzi said.
Sophomore Jhordan Cubas is the 220-pounder. Cubas is another first-year wrestler.
Pizzi is trying to find a way to get sophomore Brad Murillo into the lineup. Murillo just received clearance to return to the team, but he’s missed almost a full month, so it will take some time for Murillo to work his way back.
“He’s a good wrestler,” Pizzi said. “He trains with wrestling clubs all year. We have to find a way to get him into the lineup.”
The road for the young Bucs doesn’t get any easier. They have to face neighboring rival Nutley and always tough Millburn this week.
But that will not detract young Pizzi at all. He’s a young coach with a young team. It’s a perfect recipe for growth in a program.
“It’s absolutely an exciting experience for me,” Pizzi said. “Once I got the head coaching job, it’s all anyone could talk about. I’m excited about it. The kids are great and receptive. We have a long way to go, but I’m up for the challenge.”
A homegrown Belleville kid who still lives in the town and teaches in the district. It seems like a perfect setting for someone like Joe Pizzi and the Belleville wrestling program.
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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.”