The Top 10 Sports stories of 2023

It’s safe to say that 2023 was a memorable year for local sports. These last 12 months saw tears of joy and tears of sorrow, dramatic endings, champions crowned and, for one week The Observer area became the epicenter of one of the world’s biggest sports stories of the year.

Whether it was an international icon or a hometown hero, there were several big sports stories this year, far more than there’s room to acknowledge. So here is a look at the Top 10 Sports Stories for The Observer circulation area in 2023.

  1. Messi Mania comes to Harrison

Red Bull Arena has hosted plenty of big moments since its opening. But this August saw the soccer world descended upon West Hudson in a way it hasn’t in generations. The reason, Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian soccer legend brought a jolt of energy to this country when he signed with Inter Miami FC. As fate would have it, Messi’s MLS debut came against the Red Bulls, attracting thousands of his fans to Harrison.

With tickets going for more than $400 a seat, Messi didn’t despite those who paid big money to see him playing, scoring a jaw-dropping goal in the 89th minute of Inter Miami’s 2-0 win in front of a sold out crowd, many wearing Messi’s No. 10 jersey.

The MLS released its 2024 league schedule earlier this week, announcing thatMessi and Inter Miami are set to return to Red Bull Arena on March 23.

  1. Longtime Observer sports writer Jim Hague passes away

For 21 years Jim Hague’s coverage of local sports graced the pages of The Observer, providing a space for local athletes and teams that didn’t previously exist. This June, Hague, who grew up in Jersey City and was a longtime resident of Kearny, passed away at the age of 62, leaving a void in the sports scene that can never truly be filled.

During his four-plus decade career, Hague covered Super Bowls, the World Series and both NBA and Stanley Cup finals, but those high profile assignments didn’t carry the meaning to him that covering sports in Hudson County and The Observer coverage area.

“There was only one (job) that mattered in recent years, that being the sportswriter for The Observer, my hometown newspaper,” Hague wrote in his 2022 story announcing his retirement.”I loved every minute that I covered local sports for this newspaper for the last two decades. I gained an identity in my home area that I could have never dreamed of taking place.”

To honor Hague’s legacy, The Observer decided to rename its annual boys and girls Athlete of the Year after Jim.

  1. Kardiac Kardinals advance to the Group 4 final.

State tournament runs are nothing new for the Kearny boys soccer team. This year’s run however brought a different level of late game drama.

Displaying a flair for the dramatic to go with quite a bit of resilience, Kearny recorded three consecutive overtime victories.

The run started when Denilson Salinas one-touched a Jeckson Rivera pass for the lone goal in a North 1, Group 4 semifinals win against Livingston. Three days later, in Clifton, it was Benji Silva who served as the hero, when, in the 82nd minute he fielded an errant clear and scored at the top of the 18 for a 2-1 victory.

The most shocking might have been the Group 4 semifinals against Westfield, when Gabe Gomez tied the game in the 72nd minute. Then, after a Westfield shot struck the crossbar, Hans Zoller poked in a shot for the winning goal in the 87th minute.

“It’s the mentality of not wanting the season to end in these state games,” Kearny head coach Bill Galka said after the Westfield win. “They showed their great desire to play again.”

Kearny’s stellar season finished one win short of a third state title since 2017 when it lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Princeton.

  1. Kearny native Mullen has storybook ending

It’s unlikely that New Jersey will see a heavyweight wrestler with the talent and charisma of Jimmy Mullen.

This March saw the Kearny native get his storybook ending to one of the greatest high school careers in state history when he defeated Max Acciardi, 5-3, in the final for his third state championship at Broadwalk Hall. Mullen delivered a takedown in the final seconds of the third period to earn the win over his longtime friend.

Mullen, now a freshman at Virginia Tech, closed his high school career with a 111-7 record, none of those losses coming against NJSIAA competition. He also helped lead his St. Joseph of Montvale team to a Non-Public A championship this season.

  1. Kearny girls soccer dynasty remains alive with PK thriller

It would be understandable if some view the Kardinals girls soccer team winning the Hudson County Tournament as a given. Afterall, Kearny has rarely broken a sweat since becoming a part of the tournament in 2009.

This season saw the Kardinals’ status as No. 1 in the county challenged in a way it hasn’t before, but once again Kearny emerged as champions.

Facing a Bayonne team that had dominated the HCIAL, Kearny was taken to overtime by the upstart Bees and then to penalty kicks. It took seven rounds of PKs, but the Kardinals emerged on top as freshman Makayla David scored on a shot inside the left post, then, senior goalie Aracely Vasquez made a diving save on Riley Williams’ shot to give Kearny a 15th consecutive Hudson County title.

  1. Lyndhurst’s Tozduman makes history, medals in Indoor Track MOC

After a strong sophomore season, Lyndhurst’s Julia Tozduman entered her junior year with a clear goal – medal in the Meet of Champions.

This March saw Tozduman reach that goal, and make history, when she finished fifth in the Girls Long Jump Finals at the Indoor Meet of Champions. Her final leap of 17-04.25 made her the first Lyndhurst jumper to ever medal at MOC for indoors or outdoors.

Said Tozduman after the MOC, “I wasn’t going to let myself leave without a medal this time.”

Tozduman’s performance was one of several highlights of her season. During the spring she set a school record in the Long Jump, won North 2, Group 2 titles in the Long and Triple Jumps, and once again finished ninth at the Outdoor Meet of Champions.

In November, before the start of her senior season, Tozduman signed to jump at Sacred Heart University.

  1. Toranzo enjoys breakout year, wins MOW at Essex County Tournament

When Brandon Toranzo made the decision to transfer home to Nutley after spending two years at St. Joseph of Montvale, it provided a chance for the junior to be a household name in high school wrestling.

It was a chance Toranzo took full advantage of. Starting with winning MOW at the Kearny Holiday Tournament, the Nutley heavyweight dominated the competition. Arguably the highlight of his breakout season came in January when he was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Essex County Tournament.

Toranzo, who was also MOW at District 9, won 39 consecutive matches before his season came to a sudden and sad ending when he suffered a knee injury in the Region 3 semifinals.

This season saw three Observer-area wrestlers win county titles. Lyndhurst senior Damian Weaver won his second straight Bergen County championship and Belleville junior Rocco Negron won an Essex County title, one year after missing the tournament due to a shoulder injury,

  1. Harrison boys volleyball gets its revenge, beat Kearny for HCT title

For Guillherme Queiroz and several other veterans on the Harrison boys volleyball team, it was a matter of unfinished business.

Fifty-three weeks after losing in the Hudson County Tournament final, the Blue Tide got its revenge, defeating arch-rival and defending champion Kearny, 25-21, 25-19 in the HCT final.

Queiroz had 10 kills, including the match clinching point to give Harrison its third county title and first since 2016.

“We had unfinished business from last year and that’s all we were thinking about,” Harrison head coach Nick Landy said after the match. “They worked really hard for this in the offseason and it’s just unbelievable.”

  1. Milestone wins for local coaches

This year saw three lifelong staples of the local sports scene record coaching milestones.

In October, Lyndhurst’s Kimberly Hykey won her 200th game as girls soccer coach when the Golden Bears defeated Secaucus. Despite having arguably the youngest roster in her 14-year tenure, Hykey once again finished with a winning record for a program that she remains the career scoring leader.

Later in the month, Kearny boys soccer coach Bill Galka won his 300th game in the Kardinals’ 4-0 win at North Bergen. Placed in the unenviable position of replacing a legend in Hall of Fame coach John Millar, Kearny has remained one of the state’s premier programs on an annual basis, winning five sectional titles in Galka’s 18 years as head coach.

This December, Kearny celebrated another milestone when longtime girls basketball coach Jody Hill won her 400th game when the Kardinals blew out St. Dominic Academy on opening night. One of the greatest point guards in Hudson County history while at Harrison, Hill has become one of the most decorated coaches in the county as well, becoming just the sixth girls basketball coach to reach the 400 win mark.

  1. Pizzuti scores 53, smashes school record

Based on the way he was feeling in the hours before his team’s game against Kearny, Lyndhurst forward Anthony Pizzuti thought he was in for a struggle.

Instead it was a performance for the record books as Pizzuti scored a school record 53 points in an 88-49 win.

“Before the game I just wasn’t, I didn’t (feel well),” Pizzuti said a few days later. “During warmups I felt shaky. But then right when I got in the game, I felt good.”

Pizzuti was completely unstoppable in the paint on this night, scoring 30 points in the first half, then adding 17 more in the third quarter.

Learn more about the writer ...

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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)