NJIC honors local athletes for best sportsmanship

Give credit to the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference. The league and its officials realize that sportsmanship is a major ingredient – perhaps the most key component – in high school sports.

So every year, the NJIC goes out of its way to honor the top senior student/athletes who best personified sportsmanship in their respective sports.

They didn’t have to be the ones who hit the ball furthest or ran for the most yards. They weren’t the ones who scored the most points or ran the fastest times.

In fact, the award has nothing to do with their athletic prowess. These student/athletes were being honored for one thing — just being themselves.

Anthony Zamora is a three-sport athlete at Harrison High School, participating in football in the fall, basketball in the winter and if there was no such thing as the coronavirus pandemic, Zamora would have starred on the diamond for the Blue Tide baseball team.

Since the students have not attended regular classes anywhere locally since March, Zamora had no idea that he was even being considered for the award, representing his school.

“I didn’t see it coming at all,” Zamora said. “I got an e-mail from Mrs. (Kim) Huaranga (the school’s vice-principal and athletic director). I was in shock when I heard I got it. It’s a great award to receive. I take a lot of pride in my sportsmanship. I take pride I showing people that I’m more of a leader.”

Each member school in the 36-member NJIC was allowed to select one male and one female athlete from their respective athletic programs to receive the award.

Since its inception in 2009, the NJIC has gone out of its way to make sure sportsmanship is promoted. There is generally an awards luncheon at the Chart House Restaurant in Weehawken, but it was unfortunately canceled this year because of the COVID-19 virus.

However, the athletes were still honored and will receive a nice award to remember their days as being a true sport.

The presentation serves as proof that the student/athletes in the NJIC can get recognized for other things than their athletic prowess.

The athletes also get recognized by their opponents for their respective demeanor on their fields of play.

“I know that other teams and coaches recognized the kind of person I am,” Zamora said. “I think it’s good for the school as well.”

Zamora has already signed a letter of intent to play sprint (formerly known as lightweight) football at Caldwell University in the fall. Sprint football is designed strictly for players 178 pounds or less.

“I’m just happy that I’m getting the chance to play football again,” said Zamora, who will be a defensive back for the Cougars. “It was always a dream of mine to play on the next level.”

The head coach of the sprint football team at Caldwell is Jim Kelly, who was once the head football coach at Nutley High School and the now-defunct Queen of Peace in North Arlington. Kelly is the one to recruit Zamora to play at Caldwell and join former Harrison teammate Ray Chico there.

“Coach Kelly contacted me,” Zamora said. “I didn’t know they were interested. I’m glad that they recognized me.”

Just like Zamora was recognized for his sportsmanship by the NJIC.

Zamora’s classmate Julia Caciolo, who played on the Harrison girls’ volleyball team, also lost out on her final season to compete in high school with the outbreak of COVID-19.

Caciolo, who was also on the Blue Tide swim team during the winter months, was stunned when she learned that she was getting the award.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Caciolo said. “I don’t usually get sports awards, so I was really happy to get it. It feels nice to be appreciated as a person. It’s nice to know that people would remember me for my personality. Other coaches see so many players. It’s crazy to think that coaches could remember me.”

Caciolo said that swimming is usually a sport where competitors end up cheering for the opposition.

“I like being friendly with the other teams,” Caciolo said. “It’s very special to me to be friendly with the other team.”

Caciolo is headed to New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall. NJIT has a brand new pool in its majestic $110 million Wellness and Events Center, so Caciolo will appreciate that, although she won’t compete for the team. She plans on majoring in computer science after maintaining a 4.1 grade point average and scoring 1220 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

“This award is really special,” Caciolo said. “It’s speaks to my character as a person.”

Another swimmer recognized for her sportsmanship is Lyndhurst’s Alicia Henrichsen, who didn’t know she was being honored with the NJIC Sportsmanship Award until she was contacted by a reporter.

“I’m really excited about it, because I honestly didn’t know about it,” Henrichsen said. “It’s award based on my character and my true colors as a competitor.”

Henrichsen swam the butterfly for the Golden Bears, but also competed in the medley relay and the individual medley.

“I had to learn all three strokes,” Henrichsen said. “I practiced a lot. I always loved being in the pool with my teammates. The team felt like a family. The coaches always worked with me and my teammates encouraged me. We’re really lucky to have the newer pool. It’s top-notch.”

Henrichsen said that she prided herself in being there for others.

“I know I did a lot of cheering for the other teams,” Henrichsen said. “I always cheer for everyone. I wasn’t the best swimmer, but since I knew what it feels like to come in last, I made sure I cheered for others.”

Henrichsen, who has a 3.7 GPA and scored 1040 on the SAT, is headed to Richard Stockton University in the fall. A member of the National Honor Society, Alicia is undecided about a major, but is leaning toward exercise science.

“I’m happy with the bonds I made with people in the pool,” Henrichsen said. “I love swimming so much. I’m happy to have been recognized for doing things I’ve always done.”

North Arlington’s Marissa Bunnell played volleyball and softball. She was also happy and surprised to receive the NJIC honor.

“It shows that I’m a good person,” Bunnell said. “It shows that I was always willing to help other girls on the team. I wanted to make sure that everyone on the team was thinking positively. I wanted to motivate the others on the team and make them happy. It does mean a lot to me to receive this award.”

Bunnell is headed to Montclair State in the fall to major in elementary education with a focus on special education. It’s quite a noble approach to learning.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Bunnell said.

However, there was a sense of sadness this spring, not being able to play second base or left field for the Vikings’ softball team, which appeared to be drastically improved this season.

“I’ve been playing softball since I was five years old,” Bunnell said. “Not being able to play my last year really hurt. We had a good bunch of girls. It would have been a good year. But receiving this award is nice and it’s not bad to be recognized.”

Eddie Walters played baseball at North Arlington, also losing his senior year, while he was also part of the Kearny/North Arlington/Secaucus co-operative hockey program that made its varsity debut last winter.

Walters was one of the captains of the hockey team.

“I always want to lead by example, just by wearing the (captain’s) letter on my uniform,” Walters said. “You don’t have to be the best player to have the biggest heart. I always like helping other guys out. This award really shows that I can be a leader and act like a leader.”

Walters said he enjoyed playing for a Kearny-based team, yet being from North Arlington.

“Having the three towns come together, it really made us one,” Walters said. “I think my past experiences playing hockey really helped.”

Walters was really looking forward to playing his final season of baseball in the spring.

“I was looking forward to it,” Walters said. “I saw Coach (Paul Marcantuono) every day in class. He was my teacher. We had a very good team coming back this year.”

Walters, who will go to William Paterson in the fall and play hockey there, was proud to receive the NJIC Sportsmanship Award.

“It means a lot to me,” Walters said. “I always made sure I shook the opposing coach’s hand before games. I loved being respectful. I wanted to be a good captain and be a good person.”

Walters plans on majoring in sports medicine at William Paterson and explore the field of physical therapy.

“I’ve always been involved with sports and love being around sports,” Walters said.

Being a good sport comes with the territory.

Piotr Partyla, the superstar football running back who led all of New Jersey in rushing yards last fall, leading Lyndhurst to its first state championship in 36 years, was the Lyndhurst male recipient of the NJIC Sportsmanship award, but could not be reached for comment for this article.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
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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.”