Observer Sports 2020: COVID takes over everything

Of course, the calendar year of 2020 will be remembered for one major story that not only dominated the local sports scene, but also took hold of the world. But we also had another impressive championship to marvel and a remarkable football team to behold. Here’s a look at the Top 10 Sports Stories for 2020 for the Observer circulation area.

1-COVID-19 shuts down local sports

By March, there was one term that became part of everyone’s vocabulary. We might not have known what the coronavirus COVID-19 was, but we certainly knew what it was going to mean for everyone. The pandemic ravaged everything and anything, including the local sports scene. The entire outdoor spring sports season, namely baseball, softball and track and field, was canceled. All activities were put on hold. When school opened again after Labor Day, the scholastic sports calendar was first delayed, then cut down. The NJSIAA football playoffs were not held for the first time since the playoff system was adopted in 1975. Everything that was held was done with strict safety regulations, most without any fan participation. It was a sad time for everyone involved. While there have been some steps made toward bringing athletics back to where it once was, the upcoming indoor sports seasons, already delayed by a month, remain in jeopardy. Unfortunately, it’s the one story that was prominent more than any other in 2020.

2-Kearny’s Mullen wins NJSIAA wrestling title; first-ever for a freshman heavyweight

Kearny native Jimmy Mullen kept a streak going when the then St. Joseph of Montvale freshman won the NJSIAA state wrestling championship, marking three straight years that Kearny crowned a state champion. Mullen joined his good friend Jacob Cardenas (now part of the Cornell University wrestling program), the two-time state champion, as state champ. But Mullen earned a place of distinction last March when he captured the 285-pound state crown. He became the first freshman to ever win the state heavyweight championship. Mullen did so, even though he weighed 220 pounds, surrendering as much as 65 pounds to every opponent. Mullen also won the state championship despite being the No. 13 seed, which gave him a much tougher path to get to the state title. In order to claim the gold medal, Mullen had to defeat the No. 5 seed, the No. 4 seed, the No. 2 seed and finally, knocked off the top seed J.T. Cornelius of Southern Regional by a final score of 9-4 in the championship match on March 6. Mullen posted a 41-3 record, but lost no matches whatsoever in the state of New Jersey all season. Because of the pandemic, Mullen could not receive his honors from the town of Kearny until September.

3-Nutley’s football team goes undefeated, first since 1939

When the Nutley High School football team defeated Belleville, 42-7, in November, it capped a historic season for the Maroon Raiders. That’s because Raiders finished the truncated 2020 season, shortened due to COVID-19 restrictions, with an undefeated 6-0 season, the school’s first undefeated mark since before World War II. It wasn’t a conventional season by any means for the Maroon Raiders, who had to endure veteran head coach Steve DiGregorio’s battle with pancreatic cancer. But DiGregorio returned triumphantly to the sidelines and led the Maroon Raiders’ remarkable season. The Maroon Raiders won the Super Football Conference-Freedom White divisional championship, the Maroon Raiders’ first divisional crown since 2015.

4-Belleville wins NJSIAA soccer title for first time

At one point of the 2020 high school soccer season, the Buccaneers of Belleville High School had a dismal 1-6-1 record. It appeared as if veteran head coach Gary Polewka had to start making plans for the 2021 season. But the Buccaneers remarkably turned their season around dramatically and got on a late-season roll. And courtesy of a great set play from Fernando Fajardo to Jonathan Sanchez, the Buccaneers defeated Dwight-Morrow of Englewood, 1-0, in late November to win the NJSIAA Northeast F, Group III-B state sectional championship. The win marked the first NJSIAA state sectional boys’ soccer championship in the history of the school. The Buccaneers capped the incredible and improbable run by winning the title despite holding a sub-.500 record. The Bucs finished the season with a 7-8-1 record, but holding a state championship trophy.

5-Guerriero’s journey as a pro football player

Talk about your highs and lows. Well, Lyndhurst native Petey Guerriero experienced them all on the road to becoming a professional football player. Guerriero, who led the entire nation in rushing in 2019 for Monmouth University, collecting 1,995 yards, decided to forego his final season of college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. When Guerriero went undrafted, he then signed on as a free agent with the New York Jets, only to be released two days later, then re-signed Sept. 1 and cut again right before the season began in September. Guerriero then was signed to the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad in early October, only to be cut three weeks later. Finally, with their running back corps in shambles, the Jets brought him back for a third time in the beginning of December and remains on the Jets’ practice squad. With an injury to Frank Gore last Sunday, Guerriero has a chance to be activated by the Jets for the final regular season game this week. No one said that life in the NFL was going to be easy.

6-Lyndhurst grid coach Tuero’s ring dash

After the Lyndhurst High School football team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state sectional championship in 2019, rings were purchased to honor the squad. But the pandemic put any hope of an awards banquet ever taking place, so the players went without receiving their rings. However, in April, Rich Tuero, the head coach of that championship squad, decided to take it upon himself to hand deliver each and every one of the rings to his players and the cheerleaders, some 88 trips in all. Because of the pandemic, Tuero rang the doorbell and placed the ring box on their front steps. The reactions of the players were so priceless that they were featured on several television news outlets and the front page here. It was clearly the “feel-good” story of the year.

7-Saga of NA’s soccer/baseball star Velazquez

In October, we learned the story of North Arlington High School senior Jared Velazquez, who was looking forward to his final year of school playing soccer and baseball for the Vikings. But just as the Vikings began practice in September, Velazquez didn’t feel right, getting nauseous and not eating. A trip to the emergency room at Hackensack University Medical Center revealed that Velazquez was suffering from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis or FSGS. It’s a disease that attacks the tiny filtering units inside the kidneys where blood is cleaned. FSGS is the type of glomerular disease and scarring, also known as sclerosis that eventually renders the kidneys useless. It is very rare among 17-year-old high school kids, but Velazquez was rendered to life in dialysis, with no sports and in dire need of a kidney transplant. The heart-tugging story earns a spot here.

8-Kearny girls bowling team ends fourth straight season undefeated

In February, the Kearny girls’ bowling team capped an undefeated season, winning all 84 of their matches, including the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League tournament championship. But what makes it all even more remarkable is that the Kardinals capped their fourth straight undefeated season, which means that the Kards have posted a record of 336-0 over four years. The Kards also finished second in the NJSIAA North Jersey Group III tournament and third overall to Brick Memorial and Toms River North, two long-established bowling power houses in New Jersey. Senior Olivia Montanino was crowned the Queen of the HCIAL’s King and Queen Tournament, not only posting the top average (179) in the county, but winning the overall tournament crown as well. Montanino rolled a 639 series to qualify for the final and won by 10 pins.

9-Kearny’s Waters wins NJSIAA state sectional hurdles gold

When Melissa Waters was introduced to hurdles as a freshman at Kearny High School, trying out for track and field for the very first time, she was intrigued by the event. Well, Waters’ diligence and dedication to hurdling paid off in February when she won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship in the 55-meter hurdles at the Bennett Center in Toms River.

Rivers’ time of 8.61 seconds in the finals was three-tenths of a second ahead of runner-up Kayla Hudson of Livingston. Waters became the first Kearny girl to win a state sectional championship since Anna Czykier won the 400-meter dash gold medal in 2016.

10-Lyndhurst manager Leone gets chance to play

A.J. Leone lives every day with autism, but it didn’t stop him from being an active member of the Lyndhurst High School athletic teams, serving a team manager for both the football and basketball teams. Leone even tried out for the varsity basketball team last season, but was cut, much to his chagrin. But Lyndhurst head boys’ basketball coach Tom McGuire offered Leone the chance to be the team manager, a role Leone accepted. And the Golden Bears players all agreed that if there was a chance to get Leone into a game, they were going to do it. So when the Golden Bears faced Park Ridge in the season finale in February, McGuire surprised Leone by presenting him with a jersey, uniform No. 21. With a little more than a minute left in what had become a one-sided affair and with the Golden Bears holding a comfortable lead, McGuire looked down his bench and spotted No. 21. McGuire called for Leone to enter the game, much to delight of the crowd, who was anticipating Leone’s opportunity. With the crowd in a frenzy, the Golden Bears all worked to get Leone the chance to make a bucket. Park Ridge helped with the situation, as the Owls and the Bears watched Leone fire his first shot. He missed. His teammate ran down the rebound. The clock kept ticking. Leone got another shot. He missed that one. Another rebound from Sebastian Ribaniera, who snared four rebounds in like 40 seconds. Another miss. Leone got another shot and misfired on that one as well. Park Ridge snared the rebound this time and fired it back to Leone. Finally, with four seconds remaining, Leone got one last chance from behind the top of the key. It swished through the nets as the buzzer sounded. Leone’s teammates rushed the court to embrace him. Fans rushed on to the court. Lyndhurst won 66-37 and A.J. Leone was in the box score forever.

Just missed list

There were other stories that just missed out on making the Top 10. The Kearny girls’ track and field team won the Hudson County Relays indoor championship for the first time in school history; three Kearny wrestlers (Jacob Baeza, Kyle Ostanski and Matthew Mauricio) won their second straight District 11 wrestling championships; Belleville’s Hakim Fennell and David Guerra each won a District 10 wrestling gold medal; Belleville’s Alisa Safforld became the first local girl to ever win a medal at the girls’ NJSIAA state championships, placing third at 107 pounds; Lyndhurst/North Arlington’s Dylan Weaver finished fourth in the entire state in wrestling at 152 pounds; U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell honored Lyndhurst football standout Michael Failace for his participation in the New York Giants’ “Heart of a Giant” program, after Failace helped his mother Dawn battle cancer; Lyndhurst’s Mackenzie Gress earned a spot with the Team USA 14-and-under Women’s World Cup in England, a tourney that was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic; Harrison’s Omar Sowe leads Red Bulls II squad in scoring with seven goals, enhancing his professional soccer career; Kearny High School’s Emily Horvaht explodes for six goals in one game against Memorial of West New York; Kearny’s Juan Rojas came out of nowhere to score 23 goals this season, among the top five goal scorers in New Jersey; Nutley participates in the Last Dance World Series baseball tourney and finishes among the top 32 teams in the state; Lyndhurst had four seniors, namely Dylan Weaver, Maggie Fodera, Kaydee Yallo and Bryan Cosman, sign NCAA Division I National Letters of Intent to play major college sports; the Lyndhurst youth football team won the 8-and-9-year-old Super Bowl in the Meadowlands Youth Football League; the Stone family of North Arlington became YouTube sensations with their backyard basketball clinics during the pandemic; two pairs of identical twins, namely Gabriela and Tatyanne Schivel of Kearny and Rachel and Rebecca Echevarria of Nutley, graded local soccer fields and Lyndhurst’s Piotr Partyla and Kearny’s Samantha Osorio were named The Observer Male and Female Athletes of the Year respectively.

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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.”