6 seniors receive NJSIAA honors for brilliance in sports and the classroom

About 10 years ago or so. the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association decided it would be an excellent concept to reward the top scholar/athletes among the NJSIAA’s member schools.

So the NJSIAA instituted an awards program that would recognize the top scholar/athletes in the state.

In the pre-COVID era, there was a luncheon that brought everyone together for a celebration of excellence. It was perhaps the finest event that the association could put out every year.

However, for the past two years, the coronavirus put a kibosh on the awards presentation. The prized student/athletes received their certificates of academic and athletic greatness, but there was no awards dinner to go along with the academic and athletic greatness.

The students’ parents got to witness the presentations firsthand, but there was no dinner to go along with the preinsentations.

Hey, this way, there’s something to talk about in the days, months and years that follow. The six local students who earned the distinction of being their respective school’s top student/athlete received a nice certificate – and the opportunity to be interviewed one last time by a veteran reporter who has always expressed his immense pride to tell neighbors, friends and colleagues that I do indeed reside with greatness.

So here goes: The six top local student/athletes who reside in The Observer’s circulation area and will head on to their respective colleges in the fall with the hope of continuing their greatness in the classroom and on their respective fields of play.

Kassandra Jovellanos, Kearny

Cross country and track and field

Jovellanos had already conquered the first mountain to climb. That’s because she is also the Kearny High School Class of 2021valedictorian. She will graduate this week with a 5.14 grade point average out of a 5.0 scale.

“My parents (mother Velinda and father Jerome) pushed me a lot,” said Jovellanos, who ran cross country and track for four years. “I have to give some credit to them. If I got an 89 on a test, they would tell me I could do better. They would say, ‘What’s this?’ I had bombed a few tests before.”

But obviously, not a lot of those times. Not to be No. 1 in the entire class.

And as for being the top student/athlete in a school the size of Kearny?

“I guess I’m really proud of it,” said Jovellanos, who was a fine sprinter for the Kardinals. “The fact that I was good enough to be considered is good enough for me. But it’s a really big honor. I had no idea there was such a thing (the NJSIAA Scholar/Athlete). Then, when I found out, I didn’t think I’d get chosen. In track, there was always someone who was faster and better. I guess I was expecting the worst. This way, you’re either right or pleasantly surprised.”

Jovellanos was then pleasantly surprised when she received word that she was getting the NJSIAA award.

“It’s kind of insane to know that I beat out so many people,” Jovellanos said. “We have more than 400 students in our senior class.”

Jovellanos has only one regret – and it’s one that is shared by many athletes.

“We didn’t have an outdoor season last year and we had a chance to be very good,” Jovellanos said. “That really sucked.”

Jovellanos is headed to SUNY-Albany to study criminal justice. She hopes to work for the FBI in some capacity someday.

“I used to be into watching all those shows,” Jovellanos said. “I guess that’s what got me into it.

She was asked for a hint about her valedictory address.

“The future is never certain,” she said. “You have to live your life.”

Looks as if Jovellanos has already lived her life so far – with a lot more life left to go.


Tiffany Miruelo, Nutley

Cross country and track and field


Make no bones about it. Tiffany Miruelo loves running long distances.

“I love my distance races,” said Miruelo, who was named to the All Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division cross country team last fall. “I just like running for a long time. I have a habit of calculating what my next time should be in order to run a specific goal. It helps me run throughout my race.”

It also helped that Miruelo was a standout in the classroom as well. She finally achieved her goal of maintaining a 4.0 grade point average during her final marking period in school.

“Ever since my freshman year, my GPA was like 3.9,” Miruelo said. “I wanted to hit that 4.0 and I finally hit it my senior year. I’m really happy with that. I was able to balance running track with doing my school work. As it turned out, I was equally good in both and that was important.”

But to be named the top student/athlete in the graduating class at Nutley?

“It’s like Christmas all over again,” Miruelo said. “I got called down to Mr. (Joe) Piro’s (the Nutley athletic director) office and I was confused why. I was wondering if I was in trouble for something. When he told me what it was for, I was the one athlete chosen from Nutley, I was really happy. I felt special in a way. The one person in the entire school? It’s just unbelievable.”

Miruelo is off to Rutgers University in New Brunswick in the fall to major in accounting.


Gabriel Arias, Harrison



Although Gabriel Arias concentrated on one sport, namely soccer, he made sure that he made the most of that sport, as well as his academic standing.

“I tended to focus on my soccer,” said Arias, who is headed to Rutgers-Newark in the fall to continue his soccer career. “I was always focused on my education as well, but my parents (mother Isabel Valencia and father Victor Arias) made sure I did my school work. They were always supportive of me, considering how much I loved playing soccer.”

Arias was born in the United States, but both of his parents were born in Peru.

“I was very happy and excited to tell my parents about this award,” Arias said.

Arias believes that his love of soccer helped him become a better student in the classroom. Arias maintained a 3.8 grade point average throughout his days at Harrison.

“I think soccer gave me more confidence with my academics,” Arias said. “I had to work harder to keep those grades up when I needed to.”

Arias was a standout defender for the famed Harrison Blue Tide soccer program.

“I think I was a defender because of my speed,” Arias said. “It helped me get up and down the wing.”

Getting the top scholar/athlete award meant a lot to Arias.

“I was able to achieve something I always wanted to have,” Arias said. “I always wanted to keep a good balance between soccer and my grades. This let me know I did a good job at both.”


Pete Ziakos, North Arlington

Football, Basketball and Baseball


Pete Ziakos never thought much about being a good student until he was in the seventh grade.

“Then, it was like someone flipped a switch and it became very important to me,” said the three-sport standout. “I think a lot of it came with maturity. My parents always had high expectations of me and expected me to do well in school.”

He also had a good idea of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life after an injury playing basketball during his sophomore year.

“I was in Beth Israel Hospital in Newark and one of the nurses there was pretty cool with me,” Ziakos said. “It was something that I decided that I wanted to do.”

So Ziakos is headed to Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania to study nursing.

“Not many football players want to become nurses,” said Ziakos, who will play football at Alvernia. “You don’t find many nurses my size.”

Ziakos said that there is another lineman at Alvernia who is studying nursing.

“I won’t be alone,” said Arias, who maintained a 3.3 grade point average. “I think being a student and an athlete should go hand in hand. Getting this award is very important to me. I’m proud to receive it. I wasn’t expecting it. My parents were also excited about it.”

Ziakos said that it was a little tough remote learning since the onset of COVID-19.

“It was definitely challenging, but I kind of liked it,” Ziakos said. “I had to stay on top of myself to get good grades. The teachers could only do so much. I had to do it.”

Ziakos said that he will miss playing basketball and baseball, but football represents his future.

“I’ll focus on doing my football workouts this summer,” Ziakos said. “All in all, it was a fun year, a pretty good year.”


Derek Leigh, Belleville



Derek Leigh remembers the day that his mother, Yemma, reminded him how important his education was.

“I think I was in seventh grade,” said Leigh, the standout running back who rushed for 1,240 yards and 14 touchdowns in his junior year, his final full season of high school football. “I wasn’t even paying attention to school before then. But my mother would tell me every day that I couldn’t have one without the other. That’s when I started to try harder to get better grades.”

Leigh, who maintained a 2.9 grade point average in high school, said that he always had the dream to play college football. He said that he once tried his hand at track and field and also wrestling, but football was always the main goal.

“I always wanted to go to college to play football,” Leigh said. “I tried the other sports, but I didn’t like them as much as I liked football.”

Leigh thought about going back to run track this season, but a hamstring injury curtailed those chances.

Leigh also admits that the pandemic might have hurt his chances of going to a bigger school, but he’s headed to Montclair State in the fall to study business administration and play football for the Red Hawks. Leigh hopes to become a real estate agent down the road after his football days are done.

“Montclair State is a good school,” Leigh said. “I’m okay with going there. I’m just glad I realized that school is important. I take a lot of pride in being a scholar/athlete. I was able to balance both school and football. In high school, we all should be able to multi-task. I’m just very grateful that I was able to balance the two.”

And Leigh is grateful to have had a mother who made him see the light.


Adam Venezia, Lyndhurst



Adam Venezia really didn’t have much of a choice in becoming a good student or a good athlete. That’s because his father, Frank, is the vice principal at Lyndhurst High School and was a highly respected football and softball coach during his coaching days.

“I think I always had to balance sports and school,” said Adam Venezia, who used to play football and basketball in his younger days, but elected to concentrate on baseball for his senior campaign. “My parents always said that if I wanted to go to a good school, I had to do well in the classroom. My Dad definitely wanted me to do well in high school. He was the same way with Frankie (Adam’s older brother who is currently a baseball player at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell). When I was younger, my Dad helped me with studying. I had to prioritize my grades.”

So Venezia was able to maintain a 3.9 grade point average, which has enabled him to head to Eastern University in Pennsylvania in the fall, where he will study exercise science and physical therapy. Venezia will also play baseball at Eastern, a top-flight NCAA Division II school.

“I really wanted to stay around sports,” Venezia said. “I like it a lot. Science has always been something I cared about. I always tried to balance sports and school.”

Needless to say, there was a certain amount of pride that the vice-principal Venezia had when his prized offspring was the recipient of this year’s NJSIAA award.

“My Dad was the one who told me that I was getting it,” the younger Venezia said. “He was definitely proud of me getting that award. I could tell. There are a lot of good student/athletes at Lyndhurst, so being named at the top of that list is pretty awesome. It’s a great thing.”

Venezia was asked jokingly what was better to have, a high GPA or a low ERA.

“That’s a tough question, but I’d have to say ERA,” Venezia said. “But it’s really close.”

Hate to serve as a reminder, but Venezia’s ERA this season (4.80) was higher than his GPA of 3.9. Just saying.

But Venezia’s next-to-last start in high school will be the one he will forever remember. On May 27 against archrival and nemesis Secaucus, Venezia fired a four-hitter, striking out nine, and had 4-for-4 at the plate, including a home run and two RBI, in a 7-2 victory. That’s one to keep in the record books, along with being the Lyndhurst top student/athlete for 2021.


All in all, it was a great representation of academics and athletics by these six outstanding student/athletes, six solid reasons for the area to be very proud once again.




Kearny’s Kassandra Jovellanos proudly displays the NJSIAA Scholar/Athlete award she received this year for being Kearny’s top student-athlete. Oh, by the way, track star Jovellanos is also the Kearny High Class of 2021 valedictorian. Photo by Jim Hague


Nutley track standout Tiffany Miruelo. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Miruelo


Harrison soccer standout Gabriel Arias. Photo by Jim Hague


North Arlington three-sport standout Pete Ziakos. Photo by Jim Hague


Belleville football standout Derek Leigh. Photo by Jim Hague


Lyndhurst baseball standout Adam Venezia. Photo by Jim Hague










Learn more about the writer ...

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.”