Jim Hague earns his money each summer when high school sports come to a close — and the stories are much harder to come by. And yet each and every summer, he finds ways to keep the sports pages alive and well in The Observer.
But what happens when every day is slow like the summer, as in when a pandemic hits, and all sports at every level come to a complete halt? Well, just as he does every summer, Hague came through with some of the most special stories of all time in the sports section.
This week, we take a look back at the most-read sports stories in 2020 based on web traffic & Google Analytics. Two of the stories are usual — the Male and Female Athletes of the Year. Two were prompted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
So here’s a look back — these are all snippets from full stories that may be read at www.theobserver.com — and we hope you enjoy it all. Hope you’re having a good vacation week, Jim!
No. 4 — Kearny’s Osorio named Observer Female Athlete of the Year; Soccer, basketball star becomes 8th Kardinal to receive year-end award
Samantha Osorio can best be described as the reluctant athlete.
The recent Kearny High School graduate first didn’t want to play soccer, only deciding to join the sport at age 8 after watching her younger sister Natalie play.
And the elder Osorio never even picked up a basketball until her freshman year at Kearny High, never showing an interest to play.
So how does Osorio become The Observer Female Athlete of the Year for 2019-2020?
Call it a strong combination of natural athleticism with solid determination and drive.
Osorio became the eighth Kearny High graduate to receive the year-end award from The Observer dating back to 2005. Kearny has now produced the top female athlete in the area in four of the last five years.
Osorio admits that she was not intended to be an athlete at all.
“I knew I didn’t want to play soccer,” Osorio said. “I didn’t like it much. I actually found it to be pretty boring. My little sister started playing before me. But I went to watch her and I got so excited that it made me come out to play.”
At that time, Natalie Osorio was playing for the famed Kearny Thistle youth soccer program on a team coached by Stefanee Pace Kivlehan, the best girls’ soccer player in the history of Kearny High. Kivlehan later became the head varsity coach at Kearny High.
“We got Natalie on board young, but Sam was a late starter,” Kivlehan said. “We had to find a spot for Sam. But she was extremely coachable and athletic. Sam did whatever we asked her to do. She had the ability to read the game so well. She was a natural. And she is so athletic. She was able to put it all together.”
Osorio eventually became a starter for Kivlehan’s Kardinals, playing solid defender. In 2019, Osorio scored one goal and had seven assists.
“She’s just a great listener,” Kivlehan said. “She has great vision. Her size definitely played a factor with her being successful. The goal she scored was off her head. We moved her up on set pieces because of her size and her ability to jump.”
Osorio said that she truly enjoyed her role as being a defender from the outset.
“I was pretty quick,” Osorio said. “And I wasn’t much of a goal scorer. I guess I was just naturally athletic. It was just something I was naturally better at and I stuck with it…”
Osorio is ready to head to Moravian.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better four years,” Osorio said. “I’m ready to turn the page and start a new chapter to reach more goals.”
And leave a legacy for her two sisters, especially Natalie, who will be a sophomore at Kearny in the fall.
“She knows that I always have her back,” Osorio said. “She has some pretty big shoes to fill, but I told her that she can do it.”
No. 3: Lyndhurst’s Partyla named Observer Athlete of Year; All-State RB becomes fourth Golden Bear to receive honor
Four years ago, Piotr Partyla had to make a brutally tough decision – one that was excruciatingly hard for an eighth-grader.
After graduating from grammar school, Partyla chose to go to Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington.
“I always wanted to play quarterback,” Partyla said. “I wanted to play as a freshman. I had a chance to play quarterback there right away.”
At the time, Lyndhurst head football coach Rich Tuero was a little upset with Partyla.
“Honestly, I was more embarrassed,” Tuero said. “Piotr gave me his word that he was coming to Lyndhurst and I was telling everyone that he was coming here. I was not happy.”
But it wasn’t the best decision for Partyla. At the time, the Golden Griffins were struggling. Partyla was basically running for his life on every snap.
“I’ll always remember my time at QP,” Partyla said. “My teammates, my coaches, I’ll always remember them. I had a lot of fun there.”
Midway through that fateful freshman year, Partyla made the decision to transfer to Lyndhurst. The rumors were flying that Queen of Peace was about to close – which eventually it did.
“My whole approach was to never make Piotr feel like he did the wrong thing,” Tuero said. “If he wanted to come back, then the door was always open.”
So on a Friday in October, Partyla played for Queen of Peace. On the following Monday, he transferred to Lyndhurst.
From that point on, there was no looking back. Partyla was back where he belonged.
“I wanted to come back and play running back,” Partyla said. “Coach Tuero was always there for me since sixth grade. He welcomed me back. I felt a real positive vibe when I got back. I thought I was going to have to work my way in, but I felt comfortable right away.”
When Partyla’s sophomore year began with the Golden Bears, he didn’t know where he would fit in.
“I knew I would play and I knew I was ready,” Partyla said. “I had the experience of playing varsity in my favor.”
At that time, before he ever played one snap with the Golden Bears, Partyla had major goals in mind.
“I was already thinking of breaking records,” Partyla said. “I was always chasing that goal.”
And by breaking records, Partyla was going to have to surpass the totals that were set by Petey Guerriero four years earlier.
“It’s crazy, but that’s what I wanted to do,” Partyla said. “I just pretty much put my mind to it.”
Partyla is already working out with the Rutgers football team as a walk-on. If Partyla makes the roster, he will become a scholarship player. Once again, he has no guarantees. He has to prove himself all over again.
“It’s my dream school,” Partyla said. “It’s what I always wanted. Things happen for a reason.”
One thing’s for sure. If and when the high school football season kicks off again, Lyndhurst’s all-time leading rusher won’t be there.
“I’ll be lucky as all hell if I get another one like Piotr Partyla,” Tuero said. “But no way, because Piotr is such a beautiful person, a great kid. That’s hard to find.”
No. 2: RINGING BELLS: Pandemic won’t stop Lyndhurst grid coach from presenting rings
This is a sports story that will certainly warm the cockles of your heart, even in today’s emotionally trying COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.
In fact, it’s the best “feel good” local story – news, sports or otherwise – that has ever been written by this writer in nearly 40 years of popping out words, phrases and clauses.
By now everyone knows – and if you don’t know, then you’ve been living in a cave for the last six months – that the Lyndhurst High School football team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship last November.
It was the first football state championship that the Golden Bears celebrated since the 1983 season.
So to make the season even more memorable, Lyndhurst head coach Rich Tuero – who was already a candidate for sainthood before last week – wanted to purchase rings for each of his 88 players, as well as team managers and cheerleaders.
There was only one problem. Because of the recent budgetary problems that the Lyndhurst Board of Education had experienced, there was no money available to purchase the rings.
Undaunted, the head coach, who will be called Saint Richie from now on, decided that he was going to raise the money – on his own – and purchase the Golden Bear players and cheerleaders rings and pendants.
It didn’t take long for Tuero to receive a sales pitch from championship ring manufacturers.
“I got a lot of calls, including one from Lincoln, Nebraska,” Tuero said. “They saw we won and shipped me a catalog to look at.”
Signature Championship Rings said that they were willing to match any price that Tuero received as an estimate.
“That’s who we went with,” Tuero said.
So Tuero and his wonderful wife, Koriann, sat down and designed the championship rings and pendants.
Now came the time to get the $22,000 needed to purchase the rings. Tuero raised the money – by himself. And the kids didn’t have to pay a single dime for their rings.
“I went around the town and asked if people would be willing to donate,” Tuero said. “My assistant coach (and Lyndhurst police sergeant) Steve Passamano helped me and drove me around.”
It took the Tueros about a week to design the ring. It took about three more weeks to raise the funds.
“It was honestly amazing,” Tuero said. “The town came together to honor these kids once again. They worked so hard and deserved something nice. The town came together and all chipped in.”
Some donors kicked in as much as $2,500. Others gave what they could, a dollar here and there. It was truly a community effort, honoring the kids who gave Lyndhurst so much pride throughout the fall.
“It was really humbling to see this unfold,” Saint Richie said.
So the rings were designed, manufactured and eventually purchased. A big ring ceremony was planned. There was only one problem.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone in the town to stay at home. School is out. You can’t even shake hands with your neighbor or hug the person across the street. It wasn’t sure when Lyndhurst would be able to have a ceremony to honor their grid heroes.
Then, equipment and field manager par excellance Rich Gress and Koriann Tuero came up with an idea to deliver the rings to the kids door-to-door.
However, no one expected Tuero to do it all in one day.
But before he did, Tuero wanted to make sure to capture everything on video to preserve for posterity. So Koriann and Saint Richie got in their car and drove around Lyndhurst, presenting rings to each and every kid. Tuero made sure the kids were home (where else would they be in a pandemic?), then rang the bell, placed the ring on the front porch and waited for the kids’ reactions.
“The kids knew I had the rings, but they had no idea I was delivering them,” Tuero said.
The first player Tuero contacted was senior captain Tommy Ryan. Saint Richie fibbed a little (the Man Upstairs will let this lie slide) by saying that he had an assignment from a teacher that he had to give to Ryan.
“I honestly had no clue,” Ryan said. “He said that one of my teachers needed me to do something. I said, ‘Great,’ so he was going to drop it off. And there it was.”
“I love Coach Tuero,” Ryan said. “I saw his face and wanted to hug him. It was so amazing that he brought the ring to my house. I’m not shocked, because that’s the kind of guy that Tuero is. I love him. He’s like a father figure to me. It’s crazy that he did this, but he’s a crazy guy.”
After Tuero dropped off the ring for the state’s leading rusher Piotr Partyla, the one who had 2,381 yards rushing and 34 touchdowns and is headed to Rutgers in the fall, Tuero stopped at the Lembo house, where there were two recipients, quarterback Anthony and his younger brother John.
“I looked down and saw the box,” said Anthony Lembo, headed to Stevenson University in Maryland in the fall to play safety. “When I opened it, I was just shocked. I never expected it to be that big. It weighs about two pounds on my finger. It was the best feeling in the world. I knew that if Coach Tuero was going to do it for one, he was going to do it for the whole team.”
That he did. The journey continued.
Tuero went door-to-door, delivering each and every ring to his players in one shot, eight hours in all, from noon to 8 p.m. Even the student managers, special kids Tyler Banuls and A.J. Leone, got rings.
“They’re just like everybody else,” Tuero said.
The story was featured on Channel 4, Channel 2 and News12 New Jersey, but not in as much detail as this.
No. 1: Long-time friends from NA enjoy same career path in education — Edwards, Sprague both serve as grade-school principals
Their enduring friendship was first reported in the pages of The Observer in the May 12, 2004 editions.
North Arlington natives Nick Edwards and Dana Sprague were featured that week for their sports prowess at their respective schools, Edwards with the baseball team at St. Peter’s College and Sprague as a softball slugger at Montclair State.
Edwards and Sprague were close friends from their childhood days, attending Queen of Peace grammar school together, playing every sport imaginable on dead-end streets like Devon and Elm that featured very little vehicular traffic.
“There were about eight kids that played sports together,” Edwards recalled. “We played soccer, stick ball, football, you name it. And Dana was the only girl. But she was just one of the crew. She was just as competitive. It wasn’t even a question that she was one of us.”
“I never thought anything else of it,” Sprague said. “I grew up living with an older brother (Bobby, who was a standout baseball player at Queen of Peace and later Fordham and was once a draft pick of the Chicago Cubs), so that made me as tough as I could be. I always tried to outdo the boys in everything, box ball, roller hockey. I just knew I wanted to show up the boys and teach them a thing or two.”
Sprague said that having a highly respected older brother “lit a fire under me,” she said.
“My father (retired Kearny school principal Bob Sr.) always said that I was the best hitter in the family,” Sprague laughed.
Edwards said that Sprague was better than most of the kids playing on the streets of North Arlington.
Throughout their lives, Nick and Dana remained close friends.
The two followed each other through their respective high school days, Edwards at St. Peter’s Prep, where he was an All-Hudson County football and baseball player (and one of only three Marauder baseball players to ever reach the 100 career hit plateau) and Sprague as a multi-sport athlete at North Arlington High School.
Edwards and Sprague both chose education as their field of study in college and both Edwards and Sprague ended up being selected as captains of their respective college teams, which was also reported in that first article here some 16 years ago.
“My final two years of college is when I started to shine,” Sprague said. “Sitting on the bench my first two years was really a test of my character. I wanted to play, so I knew I had to get better. My father always told me that if I hit, they couldn’t take me out of the lineup. So I just came into my own. In my last at-bat in college, I hit a double off the fence.”
After graduation from college, both Edwards and Sprague pursued careers in teaching and coaching. Edwards was a teacher in the Kearny school district and was once the head football coach at Kearny and the head baseball coach at the now-defunct Queen of Peace. Sprague was once the head softball coach at East Orange and won her 100th career game as a coach in her ninth season.
“We rebuilt that program,” Sprague said. “We had girls who never even picked up a ball before and we ended up winning. We always made the state playoffs. I’m so proud to have had that experience.”
Both attended their respective colleges to receive their Master’s in administration with the ultimate goal of becoming principals. Both had the same role model, although one was just a little closer than the other.
“Dana’s father was my biggest educational mentor,” Edwards said. “I always picked his brain. He knew my life in teaching and coaching.”
Edwards always thought he would spend his life coaching, even when he was getting up at 4:30 a.m. to monitor the weight room at Kearny High.
“But I knew I also wanted to start a family and coaching would have taken up too much time,” Edwards said. “I wanted to have a stable position.”
So Edwards first became a vice principal at Smalley School in Bound Brook, with about 430 students from grades three through six.
“I was the vice principal for three weeks and I learned that the principal was leaving,” Edwards said. “It was kind of nerve wracking, learning the students and the staff. But I knew I had the ability to be a leader from my days of being a captain, then a coach. I knew I had the ability to work with others.”
The 39-year-old Edwards is completing his second year as a principal.
Sprague, now 38, is the principal at Little Falls School No. 1 for grades 5 through 8. She has about 400 students to supervise.
“The Little Falls community is so strong,” Sprague said. “We have supportive family members and it’s a diverse community, which I love.”
Sprague said that she’s proud to be part of an all-female administrative team in Little Falls, headed by superintendent Tracey Marinelli, the former superintendent in Lyndhurst.
It’s safe to say that amazingly that these two lifelong friends are both successful grade school principals. It’s a far cry from those childhood days on Devon and Elm.
And certainly makes a local sportswriter take a flashback to 16 years ago almost to the very day.
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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.”