It’s safe to say that 2022 was a memorable year for local sports. Champions were crowned, new ground was broken and some of The Observer coverage area’s athletes became nationwide celebrities.
Whether it was at home or in countries a world away, local athletes excelled. Here is a look at the Top 10 Sports Stories for The Observer circulation area in 2022.
- Nutley’s Doug Edert becomes the face of March Madness
Every March the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament produces a new batch of unlikely superstars, who seemingly come from nowhere to earn their “One Shining Moment.”
In a sporting event best known for upsets and odds-defying heroes, this past March produced its greatest Cinderella story ever and a new-found celebrity from right here in Nutley.
For 11 days, Saint Peter’s University, the tiny Jesuit school out of Jersey City took over the sports world with its historic run to the Elite Eight. The face of that team was Doug Edert, equipped with an attention-grabbing mustache, unrelenting confidence and a deadly accurate shot.
The nation got to see all three characteristics when Edert scored 20 points when the Peacocks, a 15th-seed, stunned Kentucky, 85-79, in overtime in the first round of the tournament. Edert forced overtime with a fearless jumper in the paint with 23 seconds left in regulation. Then, in overtime, he buried a 3-pointer as part of a 10-1 Saint Peter’s run and later sealed the win by sinking two free throws in the final seconds.
“He was always the kid at the end that was looking at you and saying alright, just run that play for me and I got it. Give me the ball and whether I pass it to the open guy or finish it, we’re going to win,” said Marty Higgins Sr., who as the founder of Suburban Elite, was Edert’s first basketball coach. “The ball was always in his hands at that time because he always wanted it. When they’re in the backyard and it’s game point, he’s got the ball.”
Two nights later, Edert scored 10 consecutive second half points in the Peacocks’ 70-60 win over Murray State to become the first 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.
In the days ahead Edert and the Peacocks became overnight celebrities, his mustache seen on TVs across the world and his suddenly famous mustache appearing in ad campaigns for Buffalo Wild Wings and t-shirts.
On March 25, in front of a decidedly pro-Saint Peter’s crowd in Philadelphia, the Peacocks shocked the world again with a 67-64 win over Purdue as Edert scored 10 points. March Madness’ greatest Cinderella story ended two days later when Saint Peter’s lost to North Carolina, but the memories of those 11 days will last forever.
- Lights On at Tangora Field
For generations, Tangora Field, located right in the middle of downtown Nutley, has been one of the state’s best venues for high school football. Each fall, the venue and its surrounding community produced images that can be described as Rockwelian.
In a nod to changing times and an effort to energize its business district, Saturday afternoons have shifted to Friday Night Lights.
On Sept. 1 the Raiders played its first ever night game at Tangora Field, defeating rival Bloomfield, 20-7.
The addition of lights, a project years in the making, allows the field to be used for more activities, both sports and non-sports alike. That, in turn, should have help generate more business for the many restaurants that share Franklin Avenue with the multi-purpose venue.
“It is tough to let go of that (tradition). But I have a very funny feeling that this new vibe is going to be the vibe,” Nutley athletic director Joe Piro said. “It will be the new norm and it’s going to be even better than those Saturday afternoons once we all get used to it.”
- Football? Wrestling? Kearny’s Jimmy Mullen commits to Virginia Tech for both
Throughout Jimmy Mullens’ college recruiting process one question always followed the Kearny native – football or wrestling?
When Mullen committed to Virginia Tech we got our answer, both. The ACC school has offered Mullen the opportunity to play both sports in college.
“It definitely takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders knowing I don’t have to give up a sport that I’ve been doing since I was 5-years-old,”Mullen said. “They’ve both been a big part of my life and done so much for me.
“As long as I can remember my favorite sport was football during the football season and wrestling during wrestling season.”
A senior at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, Mullen is considered the best heavyweight wrestling prospect in the country and with two state titles already on his resume is one of the greatest wrestlers in New Jersey history.
Not to be outdone by his exploits on the mats, Mullen was named Third Team, All-State Defense by NJ.com after recording 76 tackles and eight sacks his senior season for football.
- Nutley softball wins state sectional title
Nutley’s senior softball class had accomplished during its four years at the school, but despite countless wins and multiple trips to tournaments finals did not have the championship to full complete an otherwise stellar resume.
That all changed on May 26 when the Raiders exercised some demons with a 10-5 victory over West Morris to win the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 title.
“Coming into this game we were like we’re getting this win. We wanted this win so bad,” said Lia DeMaio, one of three four-year starters on the team. “We’ve come up short so many times that we wanted this win for us and for our team so it was a great feeling to finally get that.
“It means the world to me. We’ve been fighting for this since our freshman year so to finally get this, it was a great feeling to do it with my sisters.”
DeMaio’s leadoff single sparked a five-run bottom of the first inning to put Nutley ahead for good.
Nutley’s season came to a heart-breaking end the following game when it dropped a 2-1 decision to Roxubry in an epic 13-inning showdown that stretched out over two days. Fallyn Stoeckel struck out 14 batters and had 307 on the season, the most by a Nutley pitcher in more than 25 years.
Despite losing their sophomore year due to COVID, the senior core of Stoeckel, DeMaio and Sydney Hess won 60 games, made two Essex County Tournament and two North 2, Group 3 finals.
“This group has raised the bar, they really have with what they’ve accomplished in three years,” head coach Luann Zullo said after the season. “It breaks my heart they didn’t have the fourth year, but what they accomplished in three years (was incredible).”
- Kearny soccer owns Red Bull Arena
When it comes soccer in Hudson County, “Soccertown USA” remains title town as Kearny continued its dominance on both the boys and girls sides.
On Oct. 21, at Red Bull Arena, both Kardinals teams repeated as Hudson County champions.
First, the girls won their 13th consecutive title, defeating Bayonne 2-0, on goals by Gianna Charney and Maci Covello. Then, just two hours later, the boys repeated as county champs with a decisive 3-0 victory over Union City, spurred on by Alejandro Alvarado’s two goals.
Since Kearny joined the HCIAL in 2009, the girls soccer team has never lost to a Hudson County opponent. The boys soccer team extended its unbeaten streak against county competition to 33 games heading into next season.
- Nutley native Devin Ortiz signs contract with the San Diego Padres
Disappointed at not hearing his name called during the annual MLB First Year Player Draft, Nutley native Devin Ortiz did what he did hundreds of times before – find a local park to work on his baseball skills with his father Jose.
Midway through that workout at Belleville High School, Devin Ortiz got a call from the San Diego Padres, looking to sign the former University of Virginia and St. Joseph Regional star as an undrafted free agent.
A few days later, Ortiz was officially a Padre and reported to the team’s rookie ball complex in Arizona.
“It was a great moment,” Ortiz said after signing. “We celebrated. I got to be with my friends and family and have dinner with everyone at my mom’s house and just enjoy the day.”
This spring at Virginia, Ortiz was one of the country’s best two-way players. Now that he’s with the Padres, the versatile Ortiz will be able to focus on being a hitter as he begins his professional career.
- Harrison boys’ soccer wins North 2, Group 3
For all the championships Mike Rusek has won at Harrison, in recent years, he and his brother John couldn’t help, but think about the ones that had slipped away in heart-breaking fashion the last few years as they watched other teams celebrate on Harrison’s home field.
After multiple near-misses, the Blue Tide were once again champions. On Nov. 5, Harrison erased the past memories and shut down a red-hot Voorhees team, 1-0, to win the North 2, Group 2 championship.
Diego Flores Sanchez scored what proved to be the only goal of the game in the 15th minute and a defense led by breakout star, goalie Ismael Kone, made sure the lead stuck.
Incredibly, Harrison hadn’t won a sectional title since 2016. During that six year drought, it lost a trio of section finals on its home field.
“The thing about these kids though is they weren’t a part of any of that stuff,” Mike Rusek said about the three previous sectional finals losses on its home turf. “So for John and I it’s been a weight on our shoulders, but the good thing about Harrison kids is that they’re very resilient and very forgetful.”
Harrison’s quest for a 26th state title ended in penalty kicks against Ramsey four nights later, but with several key member set to return, the Blue Tide look poised to add to a trophy collection that rivals any other program in the state regardless of sport.
- Kearny boys volleyball beats Harrison for first county title
Over the past handful of years, Kearny’s boys volleyball program had established itself as one of the state’s better teams. But despite that rise in prominence and plenty of victories, a championship had proven elusive for the Kardinals.
That all changed on May 14 when Kearny won its first ever Hudson County title, defeating arch-rival Harrison, 25-16, 25-22, in the final in Jersey City.
All-State outside hitter William Mullins led the way with 15 kills for Kearny, which overcame a 1-2 start to the season by winning 18 matches in a row, culminating in the championship.
“In the beginning, we all doubted each other. We all doubted each other because we all played different ways, half of us played at different club (teams), so coming together as one means a lot,” senior outside hitter Ethan Lugo said. “Getting this county trophy, especially with these guys, means a lot. We busted our tails every single day just to get our hands on this trophy.”
- Girls’ Flag Football comes to the area
Football is no longer just for the boys in the area.
In 2021 the New York Jets started a high school girls flag football league featuring eight teams. The overwhelming success of the pilot program saw the league grow to more than 40 schools in North Jersey and Long Island. Among the schools part of the expansion, Harrison, Lyndhurst and Nutley.
As part of the league each school was given flags and uniforms for 25 girls. As Harrison and Lyndhurst quickly found out, the demand for the new sport, which is not under the jurisdiction of the NJSIAA.
“I was not surprised at all. I knew these girls were competitive,” said Rich Tuero, who is Lyndhurst’s head coach and the father of two young daughters eager to play when they get to high school. “I had no doubt that there were going to be a lot of girls.”
Based on the overwhelming success so far, there’s little doubt that girls flag football will continue to grow both locally and statewide.
“To me this has been a long time coming,” Harrison head coach Dan Nankivell said. “Flag football, for girls to be able to play the sport, should have happened years ago and with the direction the sport is going, it’s a no-brainer.”
- Lyndhurst-North Arlington girls soccer play at Red Bull Arena
When Lyndhurst head coach Kim Hykey learned that there was an opportunity for her girls soccer team to play at Red Bull Arena, it was an opportunity too good to pass up on.
Seven months later, on Sept. 20, Lyndhurst and long-time neighboring rival North Arlington became the first Bergen County girls soccer teams to ever play at Red Bull Arena.
In order to raise the funds needed to help offset operating expenses, both teams sold tickets to the Red Bulls’ Aug. 27 game against Inter Miami FC.
“We were just geeked because these kids will never have an opportunity like this again,” said Hykey before the game. “We both wanted to make sure that we did as much as we could to get this opportunity because they don’t come around too often.”
After getting the professional treatment, which included using the team locker rooms, North Arlington went out and defeated Lyndhurst, 1-0. Star striker Lia Cruz score the only goal of the game in the 50th minute and keeper Daliana Rojas made seven saves for the shutout.
“This was a really important game to us,” said Rojas. “We got lucky to have this opportunity, it was amazing to play here. Since we were little we were dreaming to play here and we won!
“We had this one opportunity and we made it great.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)