The Top 10 sports stories of 2016

Compiled by Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer

The calendar year of 2016 produced its share of compelling local sports stories. Here’s The Observer’s Top 10 Sports Stories for 2016.

1-Kearny, Harrison win respective NJSIAA state sectional soccer titles on same day

On the very same day, Thursday, Nov. 10, no more than a quarter mile apart, the Kearny and Harrison boys’ soccer teams did what they do better than any other programs in the state of New Jersey: They won an NJSIAA sectional championship.

And both the Blue Tide and the Kardinals won their championships in similar fashions – winning via penalty kicks after overtimes.

Harrison defeated Dover via PKs to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship. Standout defender Omar Sowe scored what proved to be the game-winning penalty kick. When Dover misfired, the Blue Tide secured the state sectional.

“It’s always a goal of ours,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said. “We had a very good season. We just had that week where we lost three straight. John (Rusek, Mike’s brother and assistant coach) and I never experienced that before.”

After winning the first 11 games of the season, the Blue Tide lost to Ridgefield, Dwight-Englewood and Dickinson in the second round of the Hudson County Tournament. Just like that, the Blue Tide seemingly went from state-ranked power to mediocre.

“We made a few changes and got the team together,” Rusek said. “They all said that we weren’t going to experience another loss and they were right.”

After that loss to Dickinson, the Blue Tide has rolled off nine straight wins.

“Everyone has responded very well,” Rusek said. “When you’re on a run, you try to take advantage of it.”

Kearny head coach Bill Galka was a lot more subdued with his championship.

“It’s always special to win a sectional title,” Galka said. “But we’re not satisfied with it. We have more work to do. Our seniors Adrian Velasquez, Matt Farias and Joao Fernandes, made sure that we were focused. I think they were so disappointed last year of getting knocked out early and they wanted to make sure they had a run in them.”

Galka said that his team was playing well and that play carried over.

“For some reason, we’ve kept playing to penalty kicks,” Galka said. “We were controlling the game and were the more creative team, but we didn’t score. We have not let up a goal in the state tournament. We didn’t want this game going to PKs, but it did. For the last few weeks, we’ve been practicing penalty kicks at the end of practices just to get ready. We tried to replicate what we might have and what it might be like.”

Galka said that the scene afterward was exciting.

“The kids were elated, so it was good for the school, the principal and the administration,” Galka said. “Our team didn’t want to leave the field afterward. It took an hour or so to get everyone off the field. It was great to see the whole school behind us, supporting us.”

It was great for both legendary soccer programs to secure yet another championship trophy.

2-Nutley girls’ basketball star Watson earns McDonald’s All-American status

Nutley senior Blair Watson became only the ninth girls’ basketball player in New Jersey history to earn the distinction of McDonald’s All-American.

In March, Watson, currently at the University of Maryland on a basketball scholarship, went to the McDonald’s High School All-American basketball game at Chicago’s United Center to participate in the contest with the top 24 girls’ high school basketball players in the entire nation.

But before Watson got on a plane and traveled to the Windy City, Watson had to enjoy a celebration with her family, friends, teammates and coaches.

And the fitting place to hold such a party?

McDonald’s, of course. Where else?

That’s right. Watson went to the McDonald’s at the Belleville/Bloomfield border to have a grand old send-off, complete with Big Macs and balloons, happiness and hamburgers, proclamations and politicians, smiles and shakes.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Watson said. “Why not have it here? It makes sense.”

Watson, who averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds per game this season for the Maroon Raiders, reached the 2,000-point plateau toward the end of the season and leaves her mark as the all-time leading scorer, both for boys and girls, in Nutley history.

“At this point, you really can’t describe all of this,” Watson said. “I’m just very grateful. I’m ecstatic.”

Watson was the lone player selected for the All-Star Game from New Jersey and the entire Tri- State area.

Watson said that she ap-

preciated what she was able to achieve during her career at Nutley, leading the Maroon Raiders to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III state sectional championship last year

“I’m pleased with what I was able to accomplish,” Watson said. “It’s all great. I never dreamed it could all happen. No one can ever take away our state championship. Some days, I think to myself and say, ‘Did I really live up to all of that?’”

Nutley head girls’ basketball coach Larry Mitschow liked the McDonald’s concept.

“I think this was great,” Mitschow said. “It’s very original. It’s a different experience for Blair and for all of us. Having the mayor and county executive come out and honor her. I don’t think anyone could ask for more. Blair’s one of the best players in the United States. She’s a McDonald’s All-American. It’s all definitely well deserved. It’s not too much of a surprise that she’s an All-American, but this was a surprise.”

3-Harrison boys’ volleyball team goes to NJSIAA T of C finale

Three years ago, Harrison High School boys’ volleyball coach Nick Landy brought his team in unison to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions finale to watch the match together.

“He said to us, ‘That’s going to be you some day,’” said senior setter Jimmy Vega. “We all thought he was nuts, but he was serious. So we started thinking that maybe it could be us.”

Sure enough, the Blue Tide took the leap from being a good volleyball team to a great one.

They first won more matches than any team in Harrison history. Then they won a New Jersey Interscholastic League divisional crown. Then they won the Hudson County Tournament for the first time a year ago and won it again this year.

The Blue Tide rolled to heights in volleyball that no one could imagine. A year ago, they won their first-ever NJSIAA state sectional title and headed to the state’s Final Four.

This year, it was more of the same, only the Blue Tide managed to defeat East Brunswick in straight sets to advance to the overall state championship, the Tournament of Champions finale against Southern Regional in May.

The Blue Tide just didn’t have one more victory in them and they lost, 25-21, 25-21, in the T of C title game at South Brunswick High School.

“It’s a mixed bag of emotions,” Landy said. “There’s the spirit of accomplishment for the whole team to get as far as they did, but we’re disappointed that we could get the four seasons a state championship. But we got beat by a really good team. I knew it was going to be a tough one.”

The two teams met three times during the regular season. The Blue Tide, who finished the season with a brilliant 37-5 record, won the first meeting, then Southern won the last two, especially the big one that counted most.

“We made too many mistakes,” Landy said. “We never got more than a few points ahead. They got up by eight in the second set, then we ran six points, but it just wasn’t enough. Once you lose that first set, it’s tough to overcome. Talk about being right there.”

Vega believed that the Blue Tide had a shot.

“We went there thinking we had a chance,” Vega said. “It came down to the team who made the fewer errors. We made too many errors.”

Vega said that he was trying to focus on the positive since suffering the loss.

“I’m very proud of my teammates,” said Vega, who had 21 assists in the setback. “We did a lot for the program and got a lot of things accomplished that never happened before. We have to look at winning the league, the county, the state sectional. All those things never happened before we got there. We had a successful season, but we just didn’t come out with the last win.”

Vega said that the season came with a ton of due diligence.

“We put in a lot of hard work,” said Vega, who is headed to New Jersey City University to play in the fall. “All of us play club (volleyball), so that helps a lot.”

Landy recalled his four seniors, a group that includes Vega and the greatest player in the history of Harrison volleyball.

Piotr Namiotko ended his Harrison career with more than 1,000 kills, one of just 20 people in New Jersey volleyball history to reach the historic plateau. Namiotko had 15 kills in the title match.

“I never saw anyone play like the way Piotr did this year,” Landy said. “He’s just an amazing player who got better. He was dominant and I can’t wait to see him dominate on the next level.”

“Piotr is absolutely incredible,” Vega said. “He can do anything. He gets the whole team hyped. He’s just incredible.”

Landy praised Vega.

“He’s been our go-to guy for three years,” Landy said. “We depend so much on Jimmy.”

4-Formation of the New Jersey Super Football Conference, headed by Nutley’s Piro

Throughout the course of 2016, a center of attention was the formation of the nation’s largest high school football league, the 119-team North Jersey Super Football Conference that combined five existing conferences into one super league, with the idea of getting parity among the league participants and getting more teams to qualify for the NJSIAA state playoffs.

The new NJSFC was spearheaded by the man eventually named as the league’s first president, Nutley athletic director Joe Piro.

“Fortunately, I have some great coaches working with me and a great staff. I’m not the only guy putting it together. I’m just the guy in front.”

The Super Football Conference was devised last December in order to level the playing field in high school football in New Jersey, designed to give every single school a fighting chance to qualify for the NJSIAA playoffs, to give every school a relatively equal schedule and to separate the public schools from the private schools.

It was believed that the private schools had a much better chance to compete because they could draw students from all over the place, while the public schools had to stay within the borders established by the respective school districts.

Piro was determined to be the organization’s face and voice. He coordinates league meetings and press gatherings.

“Because of the nature of what we’re doing, I’m just leading the pack,” Piro said. “But I’m not doing it all.”

Piro was quick to mention Dan Vivino of Westwood, who headed the scheduling aspect.

“Once we got the divisions down, he was like a machine,” Piro said.

Rich Hansen of St. Peter’s Prep is the league’s vice-president, but Denis Nelson of River Dell was very instrumental.

“Denis was my right hand man,” Piro said of the River Dell AD. “We had others like Tony Karsich (St. Joseph Regional) and Jack McGovern (Bergen Catholic) who have their fingers on the pulse of what the Parochial schools are doing. We have to be real careful, because we’re not just putting together that will be groundbreaking for New Jersey football, but we are setting a national trend.”

5-Nutley’s Pena wins 100th match; finishes fourth in the state on same day

When Darwin Pena arrived in the United States in Nutley from his native Dominican Republic five years ago, he was intrigued in becoming a wrestler.

“I knew a little bit about wrestling because my cousin (Kenny) started a year before I got here,” Pena said. “I knew about it coming into this country. Kenny told me about wrestling. I was always athletic and loved competing. I figured it was something I could do together with Kenny.”

Pena said that he liked contact sports like mixed martial arts.

“I liked tae kwon do and boxing,” Pena said. “I like combat sports. But I had to learn a lot about wrestling.”

Amazingly, almost astonishingly, the kid who knew nothing about wrestling five years ago became Nutley High School’s most decorated wrestler in 35 years.

In March at the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City, Pena finished fourth in the 152-pound classification, needing to win four matches on Saturday just to get to Sunday.

Pena became the first Nutley wrestler to stand that high on the podium since John Monaco won the state championship in 1981 before transferring to Clifton High.

In recent years, wrestlers like Bobby Trombetta, Joe Ferinde and Dante Montes enjoyed fine runs in Atlantic City, but only finished as high as sixth. Pena’s fourth place finish is the best since Monaco.

One of those four wins on Saturday came against Steve Bonsall of Newark Academy, who defeated Pena in the Essex County championships, the NJSIAA District 14 championship and the Region 4 championships.

Earlier that day, Pena won the 100th match of his career, making his trip to Atlantic City historical and memorable.

6-Queen of Peace survives and stays open with last-minute pledge push

In June, the news was downright frightful. Queen of Peace school officials announced that they had to raise an astounding $1 million by the end of the month to keep the doors of the 83-year-old high school open.

So the QP family rallied around the plea for financial assistance, doing anything and everything to raise funds. A GoFundMe page was constructed on Facebook. Fundraising events were held practically every weekend.

Finally, three benefactors stepped forward and donated over $200,000 between them to enable QP to stay open another year.

It meant that the school’s athletes didn’t have to scurry to other schools. QP has excellent wrestling and girls’ basketball teams and both stayed intact.

7-Harrison grid coach Ferriero removed after DUI with township van

In August, the news was also bad in Harrison, when newly hired football coach Tom Ferriero allegedly took a township Board of Education van and drove it under the influence and was involved in a series of crashes and accidents that left several cars totaled. Ferriero was subsequently removed from the position and replaced by Michael Hinchcliffe, who did a remarkable job in restoring sanity to the Blue Tide program.

8-Kearny wins Hudson County Tournament girls’ soccer title for eighth straight year

Maybe as a send-off to coach Vin Almeida, the newly hired athletic director at Kearny High, the Kearny girls’ soccer team won their eighth straight Hudson County Tournament championship in October, defeating Bayonne, 2-0, in the title game. Skyler Matusz and Bre Costa scored the goals in the title game that enabled the Kardinals to claim yet another county championship.

9-QP’s Joseph becomes school’s all-time leading scorer

Queen of Peace has been a school with a rich basketball history, so that’s why it was newsworthy when Jeremy Joseph became the school’s all-time leading scorer

In February, Joseph lived up to his bold prediction that he would become the school’s all-time scoring leader. Before he ever enrolled in a class at Queen of Peace Joseph uttered the words after looking up at the banner that graced the QP gym for ages.

Joseph looked up at a banner in the school’s gymnasium, honoring all the 1,000-point scorers that the boys’ basketball program had produced. Joseph saw the total of 1,418 points tallied by 1985 graduate Guy Indyk and promised to anyone within an earshot that he was eventually going to surpass that record.

By scoring 27 points in a 64-24 victory over Leonia on Feb. 18, Joseph surpassed Indyk as the all-time leading scorer among boys’ basketball players at Queen of Peace.

10-Harrison makes NJSIAA football playoffs for first time since 1989

New Harrison High School football coach Michael Hinchcliffe could performed magic this season, leading the Blue Tide to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs for the first time since 1989.

That alone is borderline miraculous for a program that hasn’t won five games in season before this year since 2003 and haven’t been to the playoffs in 27 years.

There was a lot of losing in between. A lot of losing. In fact, since the 2003 season, the 5-5 version of the Blue Tide, Harrison had posted a 20-93 combined record, including two winless campaigns.

So Hinchcliffe didn’t know what to expect, after he was thrust into the head coaching position.

“I wasn’t sure if the kids could play well,” Hinchcliffe said. “I wondered, ‘What are my chances of getting something done?’ But the kids never wavered once. They all knew they had a chance to do something special. I thought the hardest thing was going to be for the kids to lose that losing mentality. But they got rid of it before I got there. They just knew that they were all in to do something special.”

Hinchcliffe, an alumnus who played on the last team to go to the state playoffs in 1989 and was a freshman when Harrison won the North Jersey Section 1, Group II team for Ralph Borgess in 1986, said that he told the kids about earning a berth in the postseason.

“I told them that I knew what it was like,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was also a coach at Ridgefield two years ago when we faced Hoboken. I told them that the first thing they had to do was to get to 4-0. Once they achieved that, winning the first four games, then they put themselves into position to believe.”

Others of note:

Kearny soccer legend John Millar retired as athletic director, ending a 44-year tenure as a teacher, coach and administrator; Millar is named to the NJSIAA Hall of Fame; Kearny’s Amber Crispin wins The Observer Female Athlete of the Year award and Lyndhurst’s Petey Guerriero was named The Observer Male Athlete of the Year; Kearny wrestling legend Tony Carratura dies of cancer at the age of 57; the North Arlington boys’ soccer team won the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference championship in the first year of the playoff system; Kearny baseball coach Frank Bifulco resigns to become the new athletic director in Millburn; former girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida named new athletic director at Kearny; the Kearny softball team won the Hudson County Tournament;

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.”