Belleville wrestlers surviving super schedule

Before the 2019-2020 high school wrestling season began, Belleville High School head coach Joe Pizzi believed that he had the makings of a highly competitive squad.

“We had a veteran roster,” Pizzi said. “We thought we were going to have a much stronger lineup.”

So Pizzi packed a highly competitive independent schedule against solid programs like North Bergen, Passaic County Tech, Passaic Valley and perennial state playoff contender Hanover Park.

Add in the excellent teams that are part of the Super Essex Conference like Caldwell and recently re-crowned Essex County Tournament champion Seton Hall Prep, which won the ECT for the fifth straight year last week and you have perhaps the toughest schedule the Buccaneers have faced in years.

But there were a handful of solid wrestlers who didn’t come back out for the squad this year. And then there were some others who became academically ineligible. Sprinkle in a few injuries that happen during the course of the season and almost suddenly, the veteran talented roster that Pizzi believed he was going to have turned into a torn and tattered shell of what could have been.

“We put some really tough teams on the schedule,” Pizzi said. “We’re not going to back down to anyone.”

So despite having the tough 2-7 dual meet record, the Buccaneers are getting better rapidly.

“It’s been going pretty well,” said Pizzi, who is in his fourth season as head coach. “We’ve gained some resistance facing the tougher teams. The kids are showing that they will face anyone and get better from it. You can throw out our record. Once I realized that we weren’t going to have a strong dual meet team, we concentrated on what the kids would benefit from going out there. A lot of our seniors took on the leadership roles in the (practice) room.”

It’s been a sensational transformation, watching the older kids mentor the younger ones during practice.

“The older kids are really inspiring the younger ones,” Pizzi said. “The older kids are doing a great job, showing the younger ones how it’s done. The younger ones look up to the seniors in the practice room and in matches. It’s basically how things should go. We don’t have time to baby them. The younger ones are going out there and proving that they belong.”

Junior Alisa Safforld, who finished fourth overall in the state in her weight class in the first-ever all-girls’ NJSIAA state championships, is the Buccaneers’ 106-pounder in the regular lineup. And Safforld is holding her own against the boys. She owns a 4-2 record thus far.

“She’s put in a lot of work,” Pizzi said. “She’s become a better wrestler.”
Pizzi believes that Safforld has a solid chance to do well in the upcoming girls’ wrestling Region tournament and subsequent states, but for now, she’s getting tougher facing male competition.

Safforld finished third in the recent all-girls Bloomfield Tournament and placed third in the Belleville Buccaneer Holiday Classic that featured eight teams.

“She absolutely has a chance to do well in the all-girls divisions, but right now, she’s doing a good job for our team.”

At 113 pounds is senior Malvin Gavarrete.

“It’s his first year as a varsity wrestler,” Pizzi said. “He thought about coming out for wrestling in the past, but never did. So he has the lack of knowledge about the sport.”

Still, Gavarrete owns a 7-8 record thus far, so he’s being competitive.

At 120 pounds is senior captain Lawrence Mendoza, who owns a record above the .500 mark. Mendoza qualified for Region 3 last year, so he has the experience in the bigger matches.

At 126 is senior Joshua Dabon, who finished third in his weight class at the Essex County Tournament last week at the Codey Arena in West Orange. Dabon is another of the Bucs’ team captains. Dabon had better than 25 wins last season.

At 132 pounds is senior captain Brandon Vitale, who has been a member of the Belleville wrestling program for all four years of high school. Vitale owns a 10-6 record this season.

“He’s an extremely focused young man,” Pizzi said. “He’s taken on the leadership role very seriously. He’s also extremely motivated to do well.”

At 138 pounds is sophomore Jimmy Cicchetti, who is a product of the Belleville Recreation wrestling program.

“He’s a tough feisty kid,” Pizzi said. “He’s a football player. He just needs to learn the sport of wrestling a little more.”

At 145 pounds is senior David Guerra, who took second in the recent Essex County Tournament, a tourney title he won a year ago. Guerra had some major success last year, finishing second in the 145-pound class at Region 3, becoming the first Belleville wrestler in seven years to qualify for the states in Atlantic City.

Guerra owns a 17-1 record thus far and has his sights once again for a trip to Boardwalk Hall.

“He’s a mature kid,” Pizzi said of Guerra. “He’s mature beyond his years. You get a kid like him once in a lifetime.”

At 152 pounds is sophomore Christian Vitale, Brandon’s younger brother.

“He’s still young and still learning,” Pizzi said of the younger Vitale. “But he’s emotionally invested in the sport. He’s an athletic kid with a lot of promise.”

At 160 pounds is sophomore Diego Viera, who is a student at Payne Tech, but comes to his native school district in Belleville to wrestle.

“Last year, he was 3-16 and this year he’s already won five times,” Pizzi said. “He took first in the Belleville Buccaneer Classic. We expect big things from him. He’s made huge strides.”

At 170 pounds is Hakim Fennell, who shocked everyone last week by going from the No. 4 seed to winning the Essex County Championship.

“He did well last year, but this year, he’s been phenomenal,” Pizzi said. “He’s having a phenomenal year.”

Fennell shocked the No. 1 seed Zach Merlino of Seton Hall Prep with a pin in the second period in the semifinals, then defeated Stratos Kantanas of Livingston, 5-4, to win the gold medal at the Essex County Tourney to improve this season to 14-1 overall.

The Buccaneers don’t have wrestlers in the 182 and 195-pound weight classes, so forfeiting 12 team points every dual meet was also a bitter pill to swallow for Pizzi. But you can only go with what you have.

At 220 pounds is senior Jostin Gomez, who was 10-3 last year when he tore his ACL in his knee, ending his season. Gomez is 6-3 this season as he still recovers from the gruesome surgery.

And at heavyweight, football standout David Peterkin decided to give wrestling a try this season. The heavyweight never wrestled before and he’s more than holding his own.

“He was third in the county tournament,” Pizzi said. “I’m very impressed with David.”

The Bucs have three girls who will head to the Region tournament later this month. Alisa Safforld hopes to medal there, while her younger sister Soraya Safforld continues to improve and will compete in the 114-pound weight class. Esma Embaby is the team’s other female wrestler and she will compete at 127 pounds.

All in all, Pizzi is pleased with the performance of the kids he has in his makeshift wrestling room.

“We’re preparing all of them the best way we can,” Pizzi said. “We’re putting out our best, our most competitive team. Of course, there are challenges. You can’t have success in this sport without challenges.”




The Belleville wrestling team is blessed to have a share of senior leaders in their lineup this season. Front row, from left, are Diego Viera and Joshua Dabon. Back row, from left, are David Guerra, head coach Joe Pizzi and Brandon Vitale. Photo by Jim Hague


Belleville 106-pound wrestler Alisa Safforld has been getting ready for the girls’ wrestling postseason by wrestling against the boys. 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.”