Nutley wrestling team enjoys ‘Gift of Life’ Day to promote organ donor awareness

NUTLEY – Mike DiPiano Sr. faced his own mortality almost 25 years when he was in dire need of a kidney and pancreas transplant. A veteran high school wrestling coach at St. Benedict’s Prep, the man known as “Big D” needed the transplant to save his life.

DiPiano, Sr. received the “Gift of Life” from a 21-year-old accident victim from Philadelphia who is simply known as Sean.

Now, 23 years after that fateful day, DiPiano, Sr. wants others to understand just how important it is to volunteer as an organ donor.

“It means everything to me,” DiPiano, Sr. said. “Without Sean, I wouldn’t be here.”

DiPiano’s sons, Mike, Jr. and Frank, are dedicated wrestling coaches like their father. Frank, the former head coach at Nutley High School, has taken over the program at St. Benedict’s Prep that his father once mentored.

Mike DiPiano, Jr. is one of the hardest working coaches in northern New Jersey, as the head coach of the Nutley High School girls’ soccer team and head coach of the Nutley wrestling team, as well as an assistant coach with the Nutley softball team.

Last Saturday, the seventh annual “Gift of Life” wrestling duals took place at Nutley, with the Maroon Raiders playing host to five other teams, including St. Benedict’s Prep, Northern Valley-Demarest, Millburn, Columbia and Kinnelon, with the entire day based on drawing awareness to organ donation.

“We’re hoping to get people to sign up as organ donors,” DiPiano, Sr. said. “It’s all pretty neat. I was able to watch my children graduate from high school and college and become coaches. I’m watching my granddaughter grow up. None of that was possible without the transplant.”

The Sharing Network was on hand to supply information to people who were interested in possibly becoming organ donors.

“It’s a great day for me,” said DiPiano, Sr., whose “Big D’s Gift of Life Foundation” was able to purchase approximately 150 Christmas gifts recently for children who were patients at St. Barnabas Hospital. “People don’t stop talking about the day. We’ve had hundreds of people check off the boxes on their driver’s license to become organ donors because of this day. We’ve had a couple of organ recipients.”

One of those is Nutley native Steven Searle, who received a kidney because of the “Gift of Life” event.

The elder DiPiano took to the microphone to speak to everyone in attendance Saturday _ athletes and spectators alike. Maybe the message hit home to a handful of others. One can never tell.

In the meantime, the younger DiPiano had to get his team ready for the competition part of the day. The Maroon Raiders field a very young roster, one that is battling to remain healthy.

“We’ve had five guys out of the lineup,” Mike DiPiano, Jr. said. “We’ve had concussions and knee injuries. We just don’t have the numbers we’ve had in the past. Wrestling is not an easy sport. You see larger numbers in other sports where the commitment is not as tough. We have a lot of new guys in our lineup.”

Justin Eltzholtz is a sophomore 106-pounder who is experienced from his days with the Nutley Recreation wrestling program.

Freshman Vincent Negra is a 113-pounder who also learned his craft in the Nutley Rec program.

“But wrestling varsity is a different level of wrestling,” DiPiano said. “He’s coming along nicely.”

Sophomore Dean Polewka is the team’s 120-pounder. Polewka won 10 varsity matches last year.

“He’s a tough kid who plays soccer in the fall,” DiPiano said. “He had a successful freshman year.”

Sophomore Jacob Gonzalez is the team’s 126-pounder. He was fourth in the district championships last year.

“He could have gone to the Regions,” DiPiano said. “He’s a talented wrestler who works all year round in wrestling. He’s committed to the sport.”

Senior John Hickey is the Maroon Raiders’ 132-pounder.

“He’s been around the program for four years, but this is the first time he’s in the varsity lineup,” DiPiano said. “He’s really tough and works hard in the practice room. I wish I had more tough kids like John Hickey.”

Sophomore Tyler Brown is the team’s 138-pounder.

“He’s a first-year wrestler,” DiPiano said. “He’s learning the sport. He’s a ju-jitsu kid, a kid with tae kwon do background. He asks a lot of questions.”

Sophomore Ryan Ycaza is the team’s 145-pounder.

“He’s competing in one of the toughest weight classes,” DiPiano said. “He needs to commit to wrestling year-round.”

Senior Frank DeMaio is one of the mainstays in the Maroon Raiders’ lineup. The 160-pound DeMaio is undefeated right now, posting a 13-0 record thus far. He’s already committed to Delaware Valley University, a school that former Maroon Raider wrestling standouts Bobby Trombetta and Rob Duxbury competed for. Duxbury is currently at Delaware Valley as a 149-pounder. Trombetta is an assistant coach with the Nutley wrestling program.

“Frank has defeated some good opponents,” DiPiano said. “His goal is to get to Atlantic City (site of the NJSIAA championships in March). I think he has a good shot to get there. He’s had a great career with us. He’s a great kid.”
DeMaio should reach the 100-win milestone in the coming weeks.

Senior Frank Gabriele is the team’s 170-pounder. Gabriele owns a 13-1 record thus far.

“His goal is to get to Atlantic City as well,” DiPiano said. “He’s ready to make the attempt to get there. He’s made it to the Regions twice. He most likely will wrestle in college.”

Freshman Nick Polewka is the team’s 182-pounder.

“He’s in a really tough weight class for a freshman,” DiPiano said. “But he’s working real hard and learning a lot. He’s made a huge jump in his ability.”

Sophomore Dan Jennings is the Maroon Raiders’ 195-pounder.

“He had a nice year last year as a freshman,” DiPiano said. “He’s a good athlete who plays football and baseball. He has a lot of promise in wrestling. He’s going to be a team leader down the road.

Senior Joey D’Alessio is the Maroon Raiders’ 220-pounder. He’s already won 10 matches this season.

“He’s having a good year,” DiPiano said. “He won the recent TCNJ Invitational. He’s a different wrestler than what he was last year.”

Luis Abreu is the team’s heavyweight.

“He’s a big guy (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) who we’re looking for more consistency from,” DiPiano said. “He’s been working hard to get better.”

The Maroon Raiders also have senior Justin Luna cracking at the lineup at 220 pounds.

“Justin just came out for wrestling for the first time,” DiPiano said. “I wish I had more kids like Justin.”

Junior Dominic Coffone is out of the lineup right now, but DiPiano is hopeful to get the 113-pounder back soon.

“He’s placed in the top four in the county twice and made it to the Regions,” DiPiano said. “We’re excited to get him back.”

The Maroon Raiders are ready for the Essex County Championships Thursday and Friday at the Codey Arena in West Orange.

“We’re teaching more than we ever did,” DiPiano said. “But we’re having fun. The results may not have been where we want, but we have hard working kids in the program.”
The assistant coaches are also hard workers, guys like Trombetta and Nick Ritacco, former Maroon Raider wrestling standouts. Neal Pucillo, the former head coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy, is also with the Nutley program these days, along with Ralph DiPasquale.

But it all began with a special day last Saturday.

“We may have saved a life or two already,” Mike DiPiano, Jr. said. “We hope that the hundreds of other kids we touched will save other lives as well.”

If anyone needs proof, they should look no further than the guy who is affectionately known as “Big D.”


Nutley senior John Hickey (top) has become a mainstay in the Maroon Raiders’ lineup this season. Hickey defeated this Millburn wrestler, 10-2, in Saturday’s seventh-annual “Gift of Life” Duals at Nutley High School. Photo by Jim Hague

There was a special feeling at the “Gift of Life” Duals Saturday at Nutley High School. From left are Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano, Jr., senior captains Frank DeMaio and Frank Gabriele and legendary wrestling coach Mike DiPiano, Sr. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”