Crowning moment for Buc wrestlers Guerra, Fennell

Hakim Fennell was introduced to the sport of wrestling a little more than two years ago, when Fennell was a sophomore at Belleville High School.

“I just thought it would be a good opportunity to try something different,” Fennell said. “I came in, saw all the other guys working hard and wanted to do the same thing.”
But Fennell didn’t have a lot of success as a sophomore newcomer, winning just a handful of matches.

“I lost in the first round of the districts (District 10) as a sophomore,” Fennell said. “And from that moment on, I never stopped working.”
It was after that setback that Fennell walked away from football and concentrated on wrestling.

“I saw what the others did and I said, ‘Why can’t I do that?’” Fennell said. “What’s so hard about the sport that I can’t do?’ I knew I had to stop football if I wanted to work on wrestling.”

So Fennell started to regularly work out at a gym in Belleville owned by former Belleville wrestling champions Filiberto and Justin Colon.

“I had been to their house and saw all the trophies and medals they won,” Fennell said. “It really motivated me. It put me on the right track. It was something I wanted to become.”

Last season, Fennell took third in the District 10 tourney and went on to lose in the first round at Region 4.

“I took a lot of losses last year that I could have won,” Fennell said. “I just had to put a lot of hard work into it.”

Last Saturday, at the District 10 tourney at Randolph, Fennell got his well-earned prize. He will forever be remembered as a Belleville district champion.

Fennell captured the gold medal in the 160-pound weight class, pinning Anthony DeMarco of Lyndhurst/North Arlington in the finals in 3:32, improving his record to 29-4 on the season.

“I worked hard for it,” Fennell said. “It’s been a long road, but this was rewarding. It feels amazing.”

Buccaneer teammate David Guerra also claimed a gold medal at 145 pounds, pinning Zayln Smith of Irvington in the title bout in 2:51.

“I got second last year at the districts,” said Guerra, whose record now stands at 35-2 for the season. “I always said that this was the year that I was going to get one. I tried not to think about it too much. After the (Essex County) counties, I knew that I had to gear up for this. I was a little nervous, because the districts are always so tense. If you lose in the first round, you go home. But I won my first match and I still felt nervous. By the finals, I was in full gear and ready to go.”

Belleville head coach Joe Pizzi was proud of his two champions.

“It’s amazing and he’s an amazing kid,” Pizzi first said of Guerra. “Last year, he faced a tough wrestler and wasn’t able to get it. But this year, he just ran right through the competition and took it handily. It was awesome to see.

Added Pizzi, “Hakim has become an amazing young man. He’s come a long way. He has become committed to the sport. Not every kid can do it like this. He’s always been athletic and strong, but Hakim put in the time to become a better wrestler. He showed how much he wanted it. Another kid wouldn’t have given the same effort. But Hakim earned this. Any time he gets to go on the mat, he’s going to do it.”

Pizzi said that Fennell morphed into a wrestling body from football.

“He’s a big kid and a lean kid,” Pizzi said. “It wasn’t easy for him to handle the change at first, but you can see the difference now. Kids he couldn’t beat before, Hakim now hammers. In order to develop as a wrestler, he had to become more specific and train differently. That’s where he is now.”

Guerra now moves on to Region 4 this weekend at West Orange with a sense of purpose.

“I think it’s actually coming at a good time,” Guerra said. “I think it’s great that me and Hakim both won. It’s long overdue and a great moment. Hakim can do it all. He’s worked so hard and I’m really happy for him. I’m glad things worked out for both of us.”

Of course, Fennell sings the praises of his senior teammate.

“David is an outstanding wrestler,” Fennell said. “He’s intense and keeps pushing me. He helps me to work hard.”

Guerra and Fennell are not the only two Buccaneers to extend their seasons. They are: 126-pound Josh Dabon and heavyweight David Peterkin, who both finished second; and 220-pound Jostin Gomez, who finished third.

Pizzi said that Guerra didn’t take time away on Sunday after his victory.

“Nope, after he wrestled all day, he came with us to coach on the girls,” Pizzi said of Guerra, who helped to coach the Belleville girls at the Region 1 tournament strictly for girls. “He definitely wasn’t looking past the districts. This was the moment he was looking for. He was extremely focused on the prize.”

Belleville wasn’t the only local wrestling program to fare well over the weekend.

Competing at the District 9 tournament at Livingston, Nutley will send of its wrestlers to Region 4 without having a single champion, finishing a strong third out of a tough field.

The Maroon Raiders moving on are Billy Searle (heavyweight), Jacob Gonzalez (145 pounds), and Sal Maniero (160 pounds), all of whom finished second and Franco Graffeo (106), Peter Haverick (152), Anthony Haines (170), Dan Jennings (195) and Nicolas Polewka (220), who all finished third.

“Our guys wrestled a really tough tournament,” Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano said. “Getting eight through really shows how strong this team has been all year. We finished 16-12 and nine of those losses were all decided by one weight class.”

DiPiano expects a better turnout than what the Maroon Raiders gave last year at Region 4.

“Last year, on the Wednesday of regions, we had a really bad round,” DiPiano said. “One of our team goals this year was to get back to that point and perform on a different level. We have been working towards that goal and now have the opportunity to right last year’s wrong. We want guys wrestling on Saturday for a chance at AC (the state championships in Atlantic City).”

We will see how all the locals fare this weekend at the regions.




Belleville’s 160-pound District 10 champ Hakim Fennell. Photo by Jim Hague


Belleville’s 145-pound District 10 champ David Guerra. 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.”