Cardenas wins state and national wrestling titles, Kearny-Harrison soccer battles top Observer Top 10 Sports Stories for 2018

There were a ton of newsworthy stories that captured the attention of The Observer readers for the calendar year of 2018. There were triumphs and tragedies. There were champions and there were setbacks. Legendary traditions continued and flourished. Here’s a look at the Top 10 Sports Stories for 2018 for the Observer circulation area.

1-Cardenas wins NJSAA and national wrestling titles

It was certainly a year to remember for Kearny native Jacob Cardenas.

In March, Cardenas captured the NJSIAA state wrestling championship at 195 pounds, becoming only the second wrestler from Kearny to ever capture a state championship, joining his friend and mentor David Cordoba, who won a state title for Kearny High in 1999.

A month later, the Bergen Catholic junior went on to compete in the United States Scholastic Nationals in Virginia Beach, Va. Cardenas won all six times there, becoming the first-ever Kearny wrestler to win both a state and national championship in the same year.

Needless to say, it was a year to remember for Cardenas, one for the memory books and certainly one for the history books.

In May, Cardenas was honored by Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos and the township council with a special proclamation.

“I never imagined the town doing something like this for me,” Cardenas said after receiving the proclamation. “It’s really amazing. I’m very thankful to the Mayor and the other elected officials. I know there were a lot of people who followed me every step of the way. This is incredible, especially coming from my hometown. It’s awesome. I still can’t believe it. It means so much to me, coming from the people of Kearny, my hometown.”

“This is an impressive young man,” Santos said of Cardenas. “I hope he continues to pursue his athletic dreams in high school and college.”
Cardenas is back at Bergen Catholic, beginning his senior wrestling campaign with a shot at becoming Kearny’s first-ever two-time NJSIAA state champion.

“I think we all knew that this was going to happen,” said Tony Carratura, Jr., the current Kearny High School head wrestling coach who coached Cardenas when he was a youngster in the Kearny Recreation program. “The entire wrestling community in Kearny is very proud of him. He’s a great kid and deserves this. He’s a Kearny kid through and through. This is great for the sport in Kearny, great for the wrestling community and great for the town. It’s a celebration for everyone.”

And Jacob Cardenas’ ascent to becoming a wrestling legend is the No. 1 sports story for the Observer in 2018.

2-Kearny and Harrison renew soccer rivalry 

As everyone in the area knows, West Hudson is known for its intense soccer. In fact, Kearny is readily recognized as “Soccertown, USA.” It’s an area with fervent, passionate soccer fans.

So in September and then again October, local soccer fans were treated to two matches between Kearny and Harrison, the bitter and fierce rivals, who hadn’t played each other in a few years.

What used to be an annual get-together was set aside for a few years, but then, the powers-that-be decided that the two rivals could meet in the Harrison Soccer Cup Challenge at Red Bull Arena in September. That match was won by Kearny, the 2017 NJSIAA Group IV state champion, by a final score of 3-1.

Rodrigo Varela was the hero that day, scoring two goals for the Kardinals.

In October, the two rivals met once again, this time in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals, in a match played at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City. On a bitterly cold and windy night, Harrison’s sensational striker Omar Sowe scored three goals in the Blue Tide’s 4-3 victory.

Sowe would end the season and his Blue Tide career with a fabulous 35 goals and added 21 assists, becoming Harrison’s all-time scoring leader with 89 goals and was named Third Team All-State by

But the renewal of the Kearny-Harrison soccer rivalry ranks as the No.2 sports story for 2018.

3-Local QBs Podolski of Lyndhurst, Harrison’s DeSosa enjoy days to remember

When the 2018 high school football season kicked off in September, one could never realize that the top two quarterback performances in the entire state would come from two players who played in the same league, situated just five miles apart.

But that’s what happened when Lyndhurst senior Brian Podolski and Harrison junior Mateo DeSosa both had games to remember on the same exact day.

DeSosa rushed for 221 yards on 16 carries and scored two touchdowns while completing 20-of-30 passes for 177 yards and two more touchdowns in the Blue Tide’s 30-28 victory over Bogota.

At the same time, Podolski completed 15-of-21 passes for 305 yards and five touchdowns in the Golden Bears’ thrilling 35-32 win over Hawthorne.

The two locals ranked No. 1 (DeSosa) and No. 2 (Podolski) in total offense in the entire state of New Jersey for the first week of the season.

It certainly helped to put the two programs on the map for the entire season and was just a precursor of big things to come for Lyndhurst football in 2018.

4-North Arlington’s bowling team wins county, NJSIAA state sectional titles 

In February, the North Arlington High School bowling team literally went on a roll, winning the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference championship, the small schools’ division of the Bergen County championships and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1A, Group I title.

In the league, the Vikings were undefeated, posting an obscene record of 112-0.

“You can’t get more consistent than that,” North Arlington head coach Dan Farinola laughed. “They didn’t drop a single game all year.”

At the state sectionals at Bowler City in Hackensack, the Vikings trailed Leonia by almost 200 pins after the first game.

But the resilient Vikings came back, thanks to the exploits of senior Kenny Bennett, who was part of the North Arlington team that last won a state sectional title in 2016. Bennett rolled a 283 in the final game to defeat Leonia and capture the state sectional crown. Senior Brandon Barth and junior Eric McKenna were also instrumental in the season to remember. Remarkably, all three are two-handed bowlers.

Needless to say, it was a season to remember for the Vikings. 

5-Kearny native Raftery earns NJSIAA Hall of Fame distinction

In December, Bill Raftery, Kearny’s favorite native son and the best basketball player to ever hail from his hometown, was inducted into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame.

“It was so long ago that people don’t even remember me as an athlete,” Raftery laughed, much like he does thousands of times when he tells a tale of his storied past. “Everyone thinks of you as being one thing. Being an athlete is a distant memory to most. I guess they have to rely upon what they can read.”

Raftery is now known more as a respected television broadcaster, but was remembered for his basketball playing prowess when inducted at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village, recalling his days as a player at the now-defunct St. Cecelia’s High School of Kearny.

Raftery’s achievements at St. Cecelia’s were legendary, setting then a new single season state record by scoring 827 points in 1958-1959 and ending his career with 2,193 points, another state record.

Those totals obviously set records in Hudson County as well. While Raftery’s scoring marks were eventually eliminated in any state-wide ranking, his scoring prowess remained at the top of the Hudson County scoring list for more than 30 years.

“Kearny is still home,” Raftery said. “I’m always running around from place to place, but I always say it’s my home. It was a great place to grow up. And who would have thought it was a great place to play basketball. Everyone knows Kearny for soccer, but at that time, we had some great basketball in Kearny. It was an area for good basketball. We had a bunch of guys who just loved to play basketball all the time.”

But it wasn’t the only sport Raftery excelled at. He was also a fine baseball player in the spring and a soccer player in the fall. However, basketball was Raftery’s bread and butter.

“The biggest place to play was the Tappan Street playground,” Raftery recalled. “A lot of kids would go there and just hope to get into a game.”

6-Dream season for Lyndhurst football, standout performer Partyla 

Although the Lyndhurst High School football team lost in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship game to rival Rutherford in November, it was clearly a season to remember and worthy of its spot in the local top 10 sports stories.

The Golden Bears had their best season in 35 years, winning nine games.

“There were a lot of positives,” Lyndhurst head coach Rich Tuero said. “It was a great ride. A lot of great things happened. Our kids can’t hang their heads. They have a lot to be proud of.”
It was only the third time in Lyndhurst history that the football team won as many as nine games in a season and the first time since 1983. That’s a lifetime ago, like Coach Tuero’s lifetime, as he’s only 34 and wasn’t born in 1983.

Tuero said that his team stood proud in the Rutherford game in a moment that will last a lifetime.

“Anyone who was at the game will tell you that it was special,” Tuero said. “It was an old school event. There had to be 2,000, maybe 3,000 people there. There were so many Lyndhurst people there. It really was amazing. These kids brought the town together. They did it. This team will never be forgotten in the history of Lyndhurst. I always heard about how great it was at one time. Now I got to watch it happen. It was awesome. I got chills just watching it. We had people standing two, three deep. We had hundreds of Lyndhurst people sitting on the Rutherford side. It really was great.”

It was a great season for the Bears’ top player, namely junior Piotr Partyla, who had a season that legends are made of.

Partyla merely rushed for 1,696 yards and 26 touchdowns. Defensively, he collected 87 tackles, including 15 quarterback sacks. That is really an epic season, one of the finest seasons in Lyndhurst history.

It puts Partyla in the same category as Lyndhurst legends like Tom Longo and Ted Shoebridge and Brian Kapp and yes, even Petey Guerriero, the latter two who were named Observer Male Athlete of the Year their senior years.

“He has to be right there,” Tuero said of Partyla.

He sure does and so do the rest of the Golden Bears.

7-North Arlington youngster Piperato plays football on artificial leg

In August, we were all introduced to a brave 11-year-old from North Arlington named Josh Piperato.

Young Josh suffered a traumatic injury to his leg in 2014 after an accident on a trampoline. He developed compartment syndrome.

“Joshua was unconscious and in a coma,” Ana Piperato said. “He developed blood clots and his heart was failing. He was developing water in his lungs. He was so sick. I knew in my heart something was seriously wrong. I thought Joshua was gone. I saw a bunch of nurses rush in and there were wires going everywhere as they were trying to revive him. I was in shock. I was not expecting that to happen to him.”

Since Josh wasn’t treated immediately, it left doctors with no recourse.

They had to amputate Josh’s left leg from just above his knee in order to save him.

“I was sad,” young Josh Piperato said. “Because I didn’t have a leg.”

But last year, Josh got an idea. He wanted to play football.

Liking football and wanting to play are two totally different things, especially for a youngster who is missing a left leg. But Josh wanted to play. He asked his mother to sign him up for the North Arlington Junior Vikings program.

“I got a little worried,” Ana Piperato said. “I didn’t want to discourage him, but I was worried. I had to give it some time to see if he was really interested.”

When the 2018 season approached, Josh Piperato wanted to play football. So Ana relented and signed Josh up to play.

Josh was more than ready.

“I’m going to do it,” Josh Piperato said. “All my friends said I could do it. Football is fun. I play with my friends all the time, so I thought I could do it for a team.”

Jay Leiner, who coaches the North Arlington Junior Vikings program and has done so since 1979, didn’t know what to expect from Piperato..

“It’s the first time I ever had to deal with anything like this,” Leiner said. “I was concerned, because I didn’t know if there was any kind of ruling making him ineligible to play. I don’t think there’s ever been another case like this. I had to find out if it was legal. And there were no rules that prohibited him from playing.”

When Josh came down to Rip Collins Field for the first practice, Leiner was skeptical.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Leiner said. “But I’ve found out that Josh has the heart to play the game. And the leg is not holding him back. He’s running, tackling and blocking.”

And playing, making young Josh one of the top 10 sports stories of the year.

8-Nutley-Belleville football rivalry rekindled 

When the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association started to pair off similar teams for November’s “regional crossover” football game, formerly officially known as the “consolation” game, for grid teams that failed to qualify for the NJSIAA state playoffs, there was some chatter that the NJSIAA would actually pit local rivals Belleville and Nutley against each other.

After all, it was once one of the longest standing rivalries in New Jersey. The two geographical rivals used to face each other every year. For 76 years, Belleville vs. Nutley was one of the fiercest grid rivalries in northern New Jersey.

Most years, from 1984 through 2011, the game was played with a lot of fanfare on Thanksgiving Day, but then schools around the state started to shy away from playing on Turkey Day because it either interfered with state playoff preparation or it extended a losing season by an unnecessary three weeks.

After the 2015 meeting, a totally non-competitive mismatch that saw the Maroon Raiders win by a final score of 62-12, the two schools mutually decided to discontinue the series.

At that time, Belleville was really struggling as a program, trying to find its identity with a revolving door of head football coaches and athletic administrators coming and subsequently going. So it made perfect sense to end the rivalry, even if the football traditionalists were against its demise.

However, this season, with both teams not headed for the state playoffs, the powers-that-be with the NJSIAA decided it would be a good idea to revive the rivalry and pit the Buccaneers against the Maroon Raiders once again.

So for the 76th time in the rich and storied history of the rivalry, Nutley and Belleville met once again on the gridiron.

Guess what? It wasn’t only a good idea. It was an absolutely marvelous idea.

The game turned out to be highly competitive, a contest that Michael Jackson might have dubbed a thriller.

The final score read Nutley 20, Belleville 13, but in reality, everyone was a winner.

It was a contest that brought back a lot of the alums from the two schools, proudly wearing their respective school colors. Some of the old-timers squeezed their way into their old varsity jackets after dragging them out of the deep corners of the hall closet.

The atmosphere around the Nutley Oval was electric. Fans in the stands ranged in age from eight to 80, some were even younger and yes, some were even older.

This was what high school football is supposed to be all about. Sure, other schools in New Jersey had playoff games to worry about, but this was once again for the Mayor’s Trophy. The trophy itself was brought out of hibernation and was presented to Nutley after the Maroon Raiders held on for the great victory.

Both head coaches had nothing but positive reactions after the game.

“I was overwhelmingly supportive of the game,” said Nutley head coach Steve DiGregorio, who saw his team finish the 2018 season with a 4-6 record. “I grew up with the Belleville-Nutley rivalry. We played them all the time when I was a player and then a coach. I just thought last week that when it was playing out that wouldn’t it be great to revive this rivalry and we did.

Added DiGregorio, “This was pretty big. We probably set a new record for a crowd for a consolation game. This was a heck of a game. It was two teams trying to get better. To me, this is what high school football is all about.”

Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson agreed.

“It was a great atmosphere for a high school football game,” Johnson said. “It was great for both towns. We have to get this back on board.”

That they do. 

9-Lyndhurst’s Jorge breaks gender barrier in baseball

Alexia Jorge was a baseball player through Lyndhurst Little League, playing shortstop and pitching, before settling into her natural position of catcher. She played baseball with and against the boys, even going up against her older brother Victor a few times.

Alexia has stuck to her guns and played baseball, even when others tried to convince her to play softball with the girls.

“I never wanted to go play softball,” Jorge said. “I wanted to keep going with baseball. I’ve played baseball my whole life and I feel it’s more competitive with baseball.”

So when the time came for Alexia to enroll at Lyndhurst High School last September, she had one idea in mind.

“I was going to play baseball,” Jorge said. “That was always my goal.”

Jorge was prepared to reach her goal by playing for a competitive travel club team called Nutley Central. She regularly plays with and against the boys with that team.

“My teammates never had any reaction towards me,” Jorge said.

When Alexia decided she wanted to try out for the Lyndhurst High School baseball team, head coach Pat Auteri had no problem with it.

So Jorge earned her spot on the Lyndhurst freshman squad this year. She regularly plays catcher for the Golden Bear freshmen and sometimes gets a chance to throw her knuckleball.

In May, Jorge traveled to Vero Beach, Florida, where she will play with the Team USA girls’ national baseball team.

Jorge earned a spot on the squad, for girls ages 14 through 17, at tryouts on Long Island and later Virginia and Maryland.

Jorge has one more goal in mind.

“Absolutely, varsity baseball is definitely in the future,” Jorge said. “That’s what I want.”

And there’s no talk at all about playing softball with the girls.

“That’s not what I want,” Jorge said. “I think the world is starting to conform to allow girls to play varsity baseball. I want that. I want to play baseball. I feel baseball and softball are two different sports. I’m better at baseball.”

Auteri is willing to give Jorge a shot.

“We’re going to give her every opportunity to make the team,” Auteri said. “She’ll be in the mix. The door is always open. She’s a kid who plays the game she loves. She knows the game and loves the game. You can’t ask for more than that.” 

10-Three locals reach 1,000 point milestone in same week

It was an incredible feat that happened within a few days of each other, but local basketball standouts Timothy Daniellan of Harrison, Nick DeGrace of North Arlington and Matt Schettino of Nutley all reached the 1,000-point plateau in February.

Daniellan scored his 1,000th point after severely breaking his nose. He broke the nose when he was just eight points shy of the milestone, but then scored 28 against University Charter of the first round of the Hudson County Tournament against University Charter, then had corrective surgery.

DeGrace of North Arlington had to endure losing their first 16 games of the season and needing 320 points over the final 10 games to reach the milestone, but went on a scoring rampage, scoring 38, 39 and 33 in successive games. He kept the scoring going and became the school’s first 1,000-point scorer since 2012.

Schettino was a former football player who only turned to basketball after suffering a few scary concussions. But in February, Schettino became only the fifth player in Nutley history to reach the impressive milestone.

Just missed list 

We had other local sports stories that captured the attention of readers in 2018, but just missed the Top 10. There were the welcoming of three new head football coaches to the area in Belleville’s Jermain Johnson, Kearny’s Stephen Andrews and Harrison’s Danny Hicks, all three who made major strides in their first years as head coach; there was the induction of North Arlington’s John Galante and Harrison’s Mike Rusek into the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame; there was Nutley native Carly Anderson, a former Observer Female Athlete of the Year, earning NCAA Division III All-America honors in softball at Rowan University; there was the distinction of Kearny native Jovan George being selected to play for Team USA Youth Football at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; Nutley American Little League’s 12-year-old All-Star team captured the District 8 championship for a second straight year; North Arlington’s Junior Vikings won the Meadowlands Youth Football Super Bowl; Harrison basketball legend and current athletic director Kim McDonough Huaranga was inducted into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame; Kearny High School junior Matthew Escobar was selected to the Allstate All-America soccer team for underclassmen; there were the tragic losses, way too soon, of local soccer standouts Adrian Velazquez, Stephanie Miller and Fausto Arcentales; Velazquez was a former All-State soccer player at Kearny who was playing at Rutgers-Newark and died at age 19 in a car crash in March, Miller was a former All-County player at Kearny High who died at age 29 in July and Arcentales was the assistant soccer coach at Lyndhurst who died at the age of 47 in October, may they rest in peace; and there were the presentations to Kearny’s Meagan McClelland and Harrison’s Dustin Huseinovic for being The Observer Female and Male Athletes of the Year respectively. McClelland is now a standout soccer goalie at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Huseinovic just completed a stellar football season at Pace University in New York.

All totaled, it was a sensational year to remember in local sports.

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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.”