Essex Softball: Panthers softball coaching staff is buoyed as ‘J.V.’ is headed to Cedar Grove

After an outstanding playing and coaching career at Caldwell College and later, Caldwell University, Jackie Velardi will take her skills to Cedar Grove High, where she’ll be around some very familiar faces.

Velardi is a new assistant softball coach for the Panthers, where the head coach is her younger sister, Nicole, and one of the other assistants is her dad, Pete.

Jackie Velardi (left) will join her dad, Pete and sister, Nicole, on the Cedar Grove High softball coaching staff in 2022.

Jackie, a 2003 graduate of Belleville High School, was recruited to play softball at Caldwell College, starting in the spring of 2004. And immediately, she found success as a player and was a part of that school’s first, and to date, only softball squad to advance to the NCAA Division II World Series.

She went on to play four years at Caldwell, for coach Dean Johnson, and ranks among the school’s best players, where she stood out as a fantastic catcher. When she was graduated, in 2008, Jackie would stay with the program as an assistant coach, a role she held for 14 years.

Nicole and Jackie during the Caldwell College days, for Nikki.

Leaving Caldwell University wasn’t easy, but Velardi felt it was time to try something new.

“First and foremost, I spent 14 wonderful years at Caldwell as a coach, working with a great guy in Coach Johnson,” said Velardi. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I spent 18 years there, as a player and coach and loved every minute. I got a chance to coach my sister in college, and that was incredible, as well.”

Working with high school players is something Velardi is anxious to do. Nicole Velardi has been Cedar Grove’s head coach since 2016, after a year an assistant coach, in 2015, when the Panthers won a Group 1 state title. Nicole has subsequently led Cedar Grove to state championships in 2017 and 2019, as well as the 2018 Essex County Tournament championship, state sectional crowns from 2017-2019, and a berth in the prestigious Tournament of Champions final, in 2019.

“Nikki and I have always been really close,” said Jackie, known to some of her friends as ‘J.V.’, of her sister. “I loved watching her play softball at Belleville High (the younger Velardi was graduated in 2010), and then, when she decided to play softball at Caldwell College, it gave me the chance to work with her for four years.”

Jackie and her high school coach, Carl Corino.

When Nikki was hired as a coach at Cedar Grove, Jackie was a regular at the high school games, since Caldwell and Cedar Grove are not that far apart. When Nicole became the head coach, she hired her dad, Pete, as an assistant.

“Now, there’s the three of us,” said Jackie, with a laugh. “It will be interesting. We all have different styles, but we know the game and want the kids to succeed. My style of coaching in college will be different than that of high school, and that’s fine. It wasn’t that long ago that I played high school ball for (legendary Belleville High coach) Carl (Corino). I saw the way he worked with us, and I learned a lot from him.”

Family is always first for the Velardis.

Nicole Velardi is obviously thrilled to have her sister on staff. The two had discussed the possibility over a few years, but Jackie felt this year would be the right season to transition.

“We are very excited to officially have Jackie on the staff,” said Nicole. “She has always been around, behind the scenes, helping us, but to finally get her on board and put on that Black amd Gold makes me happy.

“I have had great assistants in the past. Sara Lipman-Fusco is now the head coach at Lyndhurst HS, and Cheryl Marion-Zenobi, who is retired. And, of course Coach Eddie (Capozzi) and Coach Pete who are still present. All have shaped and impacted my program in such a positive way. Jackie of course, will fit right in. Our staff will mesh well together, and each bring something different to the program and team.”

Jackie enjoys her work as an assistant coach.

“Honestly, this is perfect for me,” said J.V. “Head coaching has a lot more administrative work tied to it. I like the teaching and coaching aspect the best. I can’t wait to start coaching the kids at Cedar Grove this coming season.”

Nicole Velardi is equally excited.

“The knowledge and experience Jackie will bring to the high school team is tremendous,” said the coach. “The players will learn from her and I will continue to learn from her as well. Jackie is my idol. The catchers should be excited to work with Jackie. She’s an All-State and three-time All-County catcher. And hitting is her forte.

“I grew up watching Jackie play, and my father coach. Now it will be fun for the four of us to all be together. I know my father is proud of us. I’m looking forward to the season. It’s a true family affair!”

By mike051893

Hula Bowl-bound Joe Kenny credits his Wayne Hills football background for an All-American career at the University of Rhode Island

Joe Kenny’s tremendous collegiate football career in 2021 included earning All-American honors at the University of Rhode Island.

Now, Kenny has been selected to play in the prestigious Hula Bowl, which is set for Jan. 15, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. The game will be played at Bounce House Stadium, the home of the University of Central Florida, starting at noon.

Joe Kenny, in 2016, after signing his Letter of Intent, to play football at the University of Rhode Island He’s joined here by his mom, Sandra, and dad, James.

Kenny is a 2016 graduate of Wayne Hills, where he stood out for the Patriots’ football team. He led Hills to the 2015 state sectional championship game at MetLife Stadium.

At Rhode Island, Kenny played for four years. He’s also going to earn a double major in Criminal Justice and Psychology, and hopes to become a police officer one day.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time at Rhode Island,” said Kenny. “The football program was tremendous, and I’ve gotten a great education. I always knew this was the right school for me.”

Joe (second from right), along with head coach Wayne Demikoff and some teammates and a friend, in 2016, after college selections were chosen by Hills players.

Kenny suffered a serious knee injury during the 2019 season. A fullback, Joey bounced back in 2021 to earn third team, All-American accolades, as well as a NEFWA All-New England selection.

“I knew when I hurt my knee in 2019 that it would require a lot of work to come back,” recalled Kenny. “But I always knew I’d play again. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have a lot of injuries before that, and it felt great to come back. It took time, though.”

The son of Sandra and James Kelly, Kenny credits his strong will and love for the game to his playing days at Wayne Hills.

“There is no doubt that playing at Hills prepared for me for the next level,” said Kenny. “Coach (Wayne) Demikoff runs a great program. My sophomore year at Hills was Coach Dem’s first season as head coach (after 14 seasons as a Wayne Hills assistant), so I knew him, but learned quickly that he runs a tight ship. I remember being late for practice, once, and I never did it again.

Joe, as a Rhode Island Ram. (Courtesy of University of Rhode Island football)

“I’m so grateful to the entire coaching staff at Hills for what they taught me in my three varsity seasons.”

At Rhode Island this past season, Kenny caught seven passes for 126 yards and scored two touchdowns. A tenacious blocker, the 6’2″, 253 pounder has always been a force, going back to his high school days. He played in all 11 games at URI in 2021, starting seven of those contests. He helped lead URI to a 7-4 record.

Kenny’s selection to the Hula Bowl provided Joe plenty of happiness.

“I was so excited when I heard,” he said. “I’ll be heading to Florida on Jan. 10 and look forward to playing with some of the best players in the country.”

Brian Billick and Mike Smith will serve as head coaches at the Hula Bowl. Billick led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship in 2001 while Smith had a solid career at the helm of the Atlanta Falcons. A myriad of NFL coaches are also on the respective staffs, as assistants for the game.

Joe (#30). Courtesy of University of Rhode Island.

The Hula Bowl was established in 1946. Starting in 1960, the Hula Bowl game was established as an All-Star game that would only invite NCAA college players from schools across the US. The teams were divided into two teams, one team from those colleges located in the Eastern and Western United States. The teams were then split into “Aina and Kai ” teams, the Hawaiian words for Land and Water.

When the Hula Bowl is completed, Kenny hopes to continue playing football.

“I’m working hard, putting in the time in the weight room and overall conditioning,” said Kenny. “I really want to keep playing this game. I love it and feel like I can keep going.”

A versatile player in high school, Kenny led the Patriots one season in receptions, and was the team leader another year, in tackles and sacks.

By mike051893

A champion student-athlete at Wayne Hills High, Jason Modak, ‘The Throwback’, went on to a stellar football career at the College of the Holy Cross, while maintaining a superb academic record

Four years ago, Jason Modak had put together a marvelous high school career, both in the classroom and athletic venues.

Modak was a throwback (hey that rhymes!) in high school. The son of Toni and Sunil Modak, Jason played three varsity sports (football, basketball and baseball) and was a key to all three of those programs winning championships. The football team captured a state sectional crown in 2016 and won a pair of conference titles. The Hills basketball team won the Passaic County title and the baseball team also won a county crown, with Modak delivering the walk-off homer to clinch that crown.

Seemed like yesterday when Jason committed to attend Holy Cross. Now, he’s preparing to graduate soon.

While he was a tremendous all-around athlete, Modak’s first love was football, and when it came to making a college decision, he chose the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts. Qualifying for a top school was never a problem. Modak had excelled in the classroom in high school.

Four years later, Jason, a defensive lineman, has wound down his collegiate football career. Holy Cross put together an outstanding season in 2021, finishing 10-3. The 10 wins were the most for the program in 30 years.

This fall, the Crusaders won their third straight Patriot League championship and made history by winning a postseason game for the first time.

Modak is an economics major and has a 3.64 GPA; he was named an Academic All-District honoree in 2020-21. This year, he recorded 25 tackles, including four tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He also returned an interception for a 29-yard touchdown in the Crusaders’ season opener against UConn on Sept. 4. Modak is a three-time Patriot League Academic Honor Roll selection and has been named an Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar twice.

Jason has taken pride in his successes, on and off the field. He was also a first-team, All Patriot League player this season.

Being recognized for his academics, as well as excelling on the gridiron, gives Modak a lot of pride.

“It’s a great award, that really highlights the hard work that I put in off of the field,” said Modak. “Holy Cross is a very rigorous school, so being able to be successful in the classroom is a great achievement. 

“When I first committed to Holy Cross, my main goals were to be successful on and off the field. Over my four years here, it has been extremely rewarding, succeeding in the classroom, and on the field, winning three consecutive Patriot League championships. That’s something that no other Holy Cross team has done since 1991.”

Jason was a team captain in his senior year at Wayne Hills. The Patriots were 28-7 during Modak’s three varsity football seaons.

Modak was also one of four members of the Holy Cross football team who earned 2021 Academic All-District I honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). The team is comprised of players from Division I schools in the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the award recognizes outstanding combined performances on the field and in the classroom.

After graduating college, Modak hopes to work in the field of finance. His athletic background will benefit him in work, and life. His family roots and upbringing in Wayne will certainly see to that.

By mike051893

The late Drew Gibbs was a legend in Bergen County, but the iconic football coach made a positive impact as an educator in Belleville, NJ, some 35 years ago, as 2 former students recall

The sudden passing of Drew Gibbs brought back a ton of memories for those who played football for him, at Ramapo High, as well as his work as an assistant coach at Ridgewood High, and a tenure as a collegiate coach, at Kean University and Montclair State.

Gibbs died on Nov. 16, a day after experiencing chest pains at a practice, as his Ramapo team prepared for the state sectional final, against top-seeded Northern Highlands. He was 59 years old. (The championship game was ultimately moved to Nov. 26).

Drew Gibbs’ photo in the Belleville middle school yearbook.

When word came out that Coach Gibbs had died, I was surprised to receive some communications from two friends from Belleville High, Rocco Constantino and Doug Cancelliere. Both men are now in their later 40s, but they were quick to remember when Gibbs was their gym teacher, at the Belleville middle school, some 35 years ago.

“Isn’t that crazy?” said Constantino, now an college athletic director, the author of two popular baseball books, as well as the host of a popular podcast. “Drew was actually my 7th grade gym teacher in the middle school, and I always followed his success. We had a great time in his class

“Doug Cancelliere and I still talk about the fun times we had in his class. We played a lot of football in the boys gym, as you can imagine with Coach Gibbs as our teacher.”

At that time, Gibbs was an assistant football coach at Ridgewood High. He would later go on to be a head coach at Kean University, and was also an assistant at Montclair State.

The Phys Ed department at the Belleville middle school. (Photos courtesy of Rocco Constantino)

When Gibbs was a teacher at Belleville, John Senesky was the head football coach for the Bucs. The two never met, since Senesky was a graphic arts (print shop) teacher in the high school and Gibbs worked in the middle school. But Senesky still recalled a promising young coach, in Gibbs.

“I didn’t meet him, personally,” said Senesky. “Drew never coached for us, but he did assist other staffs, including Montclair State.  This is such a sudden and tragic loss to a great coach, and a positive influence on those he mentored.”

Like Constantino, Cancelliere recalled Gibbs’ gym class, and class overall, in Belleville.

“We played indoor football in gym class, part of the year,” said Cancelliere. “It was probably the first marking period. We split the class in two teams, for the entire marking period. The last game of the year, the team Rocco and I were playing on, won the game on the last play.

“It was literally right when the first class bell rang. Mr. Gibbs went absolutely nuts!! You would have thought we won the Super Bowl. He was giving us high fives as we left class…….who knew that he was actually a coach at that part of his life. Amazing to see where he went, from there.

“Good guy, good teacher. Drew never raised his voice, and was always encouraging.”

Constantino also recalled that moment.

“The bell rang and Coach gave us one last play for a Hail Mary,” said Rocco. “Says a lot about Coach Gibbs and how he made us feel as students.”

Needless to say, Constantino was proud to have known Gibbs, even for a short time, as a youngster.

“Yes, great memories, said Rocco. “Lucky for me, I caught him right at that time. When we knew him, he was a kid, himself, in his mid 20’s. I was so sorry to hear of his passing. I still can’t believe it.”

Drew Gibbs’ legacy will certainly shine bright, throughout Bergen County. But he also made his mark in Belleville, and from the comments made by Constantino and Cancelliere, that mark was an A-plus.

By mike051893

Wayne Hills visits Wayne Valley in a crucial game, on Oct. 22, as the schools meet for the 19th time on the gridiron

For the first time in the history of the football rivalry between Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley, both schools will come into the game with a sub .500 record. Nevertheless, there’s always plenty on the line when the Patriots and Indians meet up.

This year’s game is set for Oct. 22, at Wayne Valley, in a 6:30 p.m. kickoff. Both teams are 2-5.

All five of Hills’ losses this year were close games. The team lost two in overtime, each by 13-7 decisions, as well as a 1-point loss in the season opener, at Harrisonville Missouri, a 5-point setback at Irvington and a 7-point defeat to undefeated Ramapo, last week. The combined record of the five teams Hills lost to is 25-9.

While Hills leads the all-time series, 15-3, there have been some classic games. The build up to the first-ever meeting in 1991, in a state sectional final, was epic. Valley won, at home, 7-0, before an overflow crowd.

Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley played a classic championship game in 2016, at the ultimate venue, MetLife Stadium.

It would be 10 more years until the next meeting, in 2001, when Hills won in a playoff game. In 2007, both teams were 11-0 heading into a sectional final, at Giants Stadium, which Hills won, 27-7.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the schools met in the regular season, and Hills won a close game, 7-0. Theyve met every year in the regular season since.

Perhaps the most exciting game in the series occurred at MetLife Stadium, when Hills rallied from 24-10 down in the fourth quarter to win, 31-24, in overtime, for the sectional championship.

In 2019, Valley would travel to Hills, the defending sectional champ, in a first-round playoff game and won, 13-6, en route to the school’s first sectional crown, in 18 years. It was Valley’s first-ever win at Hills, in varsity football.

Valley concluded the 2019 campaign by winning a Bowl game, at MetLife Stadium, similar to what Hills had done a year earlier.

In 2019, Christian Puntolillo made a tremendous catch for Wayne Hills against Wayne Valley. The reception ultimately made it on ESPN as a top 10 play.

Consistency in coaching has also been a key component in the rivalry. Since 1991, Valley has had five head coaches in Dave McMahon, 1989-1995, Bob Bishop, 1996-2000, Frank Mattiace, 2001, Brian O’Connor, 2002-2013 and current head coach
Roger Kotlarz. Hills has had just two head coaches in Chris Olsen (1991-2012) and Wayne Demikoff (2013-Present).

This year, the schools are in diffeent sections, and this late in the season, every game is crucial toward a possible playoff berth.

Here’s a look at the past 18 games. Wayne Hills leads the all-time series, 15-3, including a 4-2 record in the playoffs.

1991-Wayne Valley 7, Wayne Hills 0. (Sectional final)

2001-Wayne Hills 41, Wayne Valley 6. (Playoff)

2007-Wayne Hills 27, Wayne Valley 7. (Sectional final, Giants Stadium, both were 11-0 coming in)

2009- Wayne Hills 7, Wayne Valley 0. (First-ever regular season game between the schools. Theyve’ met every year in regular season since)

2010-Wayne Hills 21, Wayne Valley 16.

2010-Wayne Hills 48, Wayne Valley 0. (Playoff)

2011-Wayne Hills 41, Wayne Valley 0.

2012-Wayne Valley 23, Wayne Hills 17.

2013-Wayne Hills 17, Wayne Valley 14.

2014-Wayne Hills 36, Wayne Valley 0.

2015-Wayne Hills 28, Wayne Valley 18.

2016-Wayne Hills 25, Wayne Valley 24.

2016-Wayne Hills 31, Wayne Valley 24. (OT, Sectional final, Giants Stadium)

2017-Wayne Hills 31, Wayne Valley 0.

2018-Wayne Hills 14, Wayne Valley 9.

2019-Wayne Hills 14, Wayne Valley 7.

2019-Wayne Valley 13, Wayne Hills 6 (Playoff)

2020-Wayne Hills 20, Wayne Valley 15.

By mike051893

‘Never Give Up’: Jake Walsh and Frank DeMaio recall their Nutley High School football coach, Steve DiGregorio

When it came to playing football, Steve DiGregorio only knew one way, whether it was as a player on the high school and collegiate levels and later, as a coach.

Win, or lose, DiGregorio was all about competing. And whatever the obstacles were to getting on the field, all DiGregorio ever wanted from his players was their best effort.

So, when the beloved head football coach at Nutley High passed away on Oct. 12, after battling cancer for two years, it was no surprise that four of the players who competed for him in high school, and now play on the collegiate level, went out and did their job this past weekend.

When Jake received the Diane Greco Sajle Scholarship Award in March, 2021, Coach DiGregorio made sure to be on hand for the presentation at the Oval.

After all, it was what ‘Coach D’ would have expected.

Jake WalshGennaro Longobardi and Anthony Haines all played on DiGregorio’s last team, in 2020, and helped the Raiders to a 6-0 record. Walsh, Haines and Longobardi were freshmen in 2017, when DiGregorio returned to Nutley as its head coach.

Frank DeMaio played only one year of varsity football for Coach D, before graduating in 2018. DeMaio, Longobardi and Haines all play on Caldwell University’s sprint football team, and have paced Caldwell to its best start in the program’s history, with a 4-0 record. DeMaio is the starting quarterback at C.U., Longobardi is a tailback and wide receiver and Haines is a quarterback and holder on place kicks.

Ironically, Caldwell University’s head coach is Jim Kelly, the man DiGregorio succeeded as Nutley’s head coach in 2004. Kelly and DiGregorio were also high school teammates, at Nutley, for two years.

Walsh is a freshman long snapper at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Ct., after a standout career on Nutley’s offensive line.

Both Sacred Heart and Caldwell won its games last weekend, just days after DiGregorio’s passing. And while the former Raiders certainly played with heavy hearts, they also did what Coach D expected.

“Coach D was one of the first coaches I have ever had, that inspired me,” said Walsh. “He went through so much, throughout my years of playing for him, but it didn’t stop him from being there every day and coaching us. I always knew, no matter what, (that) Coach D had my back.”

Like Walsh, DeMaio wasn’t sure he’d play in his senior year.

“Yes, Coach D and I only had one year together,” recalled DeMaio. “I wish it could have been more, but he had a huge impact on me in that one year. My last year of football, I was really planning to just sit out for wrestling after my injury, but after being at every practice and seeing the way he coached, I really wanted to be able to go out and play for him.

Frank DeMaio and Coach DiGregorio in 2018.

“Coach D never once doubted me, and always believed in my ability to have one of my best defensive years of my football career. A thing I’ll never forget about him is when he came out to a dinner where I was receiving the Brian Piccolo award. He didn’t have to show up to it, but he did because that’s the type of man he was. At the dinner, he talked to me and handed me a box, but told me not to open until I got home.

“Inside that box was a game football, with my wrestling wins painted on it, combining my two high school sports into one. This gift was one of the best things I have ever received. The ball has been set up in my room since receiving it. And I can confidently say this ball will be with me, forever, knowing it came from a great coach, in my life, and an even better man.”

In his junior year of high school, 2019, Walsh suffered a serious knee injury, which required major surgery. While he rehabbed the injury, it was DiGregorio who would offer support. And bear in mind, DiGregorio was going through chemotherapy treatments.

“There are two memories I will remember, forever, with Coach D,” said Walsh. “It was the day I got hurt (and) I had just got back from the doctor’s office. Coach immediately called to ask how I was doing, and, said, no matter what, to never give up. This was while he was going through chemo, and dealing with his own battles.

“Fast forward 7-8 months later, when I thought I was going to play football my senior year. He sent me a text, telling me that ‘no matter what, the door is always open to come back and play.’ A few weeks later, when I made the best decision and decided to play, he called me, and I can still hear his voice, saying ‘you just made my day’! It was one of the best feelings in the world. I am so honored to say I got to play for him.”

And a few months after that memorable 2020 season, when Walsh made his college choice, deciding to play at Sacred Heart, DiGregorio was on the phone with me, talking like a proud coach.

“Jake was a terrific leader,” said DiGregorio. “He really did a great job in knowing everyone’s assignment on the offensive line.  He made all of our pass protection calls, and we could always count on him.

“Lots of guys could have packed it in after missing a full season, like Jake did, in his junior year. But that’s not Jake. He worked intently on rehabbing his knee, and got back into great shape for his senior season. I’m very proud of Jake’s accomplishments, and it was an honor to coach him.  He earned the respect and admiration of our entire staff.”

Coaching football could be in Walsh’s future, as well.

“Being someone that wants to get into coaching in the future, Coach D is someone I look up to,” said Walsh.

A hard-nosed coach with a big heart, certainly left his mark.

By mike051893

Saying a Prayer: Family, Faith and Mentorship made Steve DiGregorio someone special

Having known Steve DiGregorio since 1978, and developing a nice friendship with him since 2004, I came to know a man whose love of family was unparalled. He and his wife, Nadia, recently celebrated the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary. Steve and Nadia raised three tremendous sons.

When Steve was diagnosed with cancer a few years back, we had the chance to discuss his illness. He never hesitated in discussing, publicly, the battle that was ahead. He was the picture of optimism, and that mindset helped in a recovery and ultimately back to the job he loved, as the head football coach at his alma mater, Nutley High School, in 2020.

Seconds after Nutley had wrapped up an undefeated season last fall, defeating Belleville on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Steve called my name, as I was standing on the Nutley sideline.

“Mike,” he said. “Can you do me a favor? Please take a photo of (Belleville head coach) Jermain (Johnson), (Jermain’s brother) Rashone and me?”

Obviously, I was thrilled to do it. This again, is what made Steve a really special guy. It might have been about competition on the field, but strong friendships off it. And, it turned out to be Steve’s final game as Nutley’s head coach.

Steve and Jermain in 2018.

When Steve wasn’t gushing about his family, he’d be raising money for food banks, especially around the holidays.

We learned so much about a rare disease that Steve’s son, Derek, has battled for years. And there was plenty of pride for eldest son, Zack, an Ivy League graduate and collegiate quarterback, and youngest son, Aaron, who graduated college last spring, and is also a standout athlete.

Steve was not only a proud husband and dad, but an unofficial older brother to Nutley athletic director Joe Piro (pictured far right).

Steve and I would reminisce about the great Nutley football games of the past, including the legendary scoreless tie with Westfield, in 1973, when a 12-year-old Steve was perched in a tree, at the Oval, and giving fans, who couldn’t get in that sold out game, updates.

Steve talked about the 7-0 win over Belleville in 1977, in his junior year, and how he stood on the field with two of his closest friends and Nutley teammates, afterward, taking in the moment.

He remembered the 1978 Raiders win over Essex Catholic, and how Nutley rallied from 14-0 down in the last minute to win, 15-14, at the Oval, and the great party at his house afterward, as teammates and friends took in Steve’s mom’s delicious post-game food, at the family home on Margaret Avenue.

I grew up in Belleville, so we would talk about those Belleville-Nutley games, and recall the intensity of the rivalry. When Johnson was named Belleville’s new football coach in 2018, there was no one happier than Steve. And even though Steve’s Raiders held the upper hand against Jermain’s Bucs in a couple of games, the respect the two men shared was special.

Steve and former Belleville High football coach John Senesky would finish tied for most wins in the Belleville-Nutley rivalry as a head coach, with nine each. Steve tied John with last year’s victory. And while Steve was proud of the milestone, he preferred to honor Senesky, and all he did as a coach a generation earlier.

When Steve felt it was time to retire after last season, he firmly supported the man would succeed him, a J.D. Vick.

And when it came to his students and players at Nutlry, no one was more supportive.

One of the passions I have enjoyed was serving as a Lector at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In that regard, there were some conversations we shared about Faith. Those conversations will remain private between he and I. Most of those talks would revolve around Scripture.

There was one comment he wrote that I wanted to share, after hearing of Steve’s passing today. He had written this to me a while back, and describes a man whose life was about helping others, and, in essence, being selfless. It says all you need to know about Steve DiGregorio.

“Maybe you can say a prayer- I know you’re a lector at St Patrick’s. This is a tough time for my wife who has dedicated her life to helping (middle son, Derek). She certainly didn’t need this heaped on. Thank you.”

Thank you, Steve. You were, and will continue to be, an amazing man.

By mike051893

Steve DiGregorio: Family man, wonderful friend, outstanding coach and a man who ‘instilled faith in others’, succumbs at 60

Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms once said of Steve DiGregorio, “Steve instills faith in people. It’s amazing.”

DiGregorio, a long-time high school football coach, administrator and educator, lost a courageous battle with cancer on Oct. 12. He was 60 years old.

Read more about DiGregorio’s legacy here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2021/03/23/phil-simms-lauds-steve-digregorios-ability-to-instill-faith-in-people-credits-the-nutley-high-football-coach-and-his-team-for-a-tremendous-2020-season/

A graduate of Nutley High School, DiGregorio would return to his alma mater as a football coach and educator some 25 years after he was a student there. DiGregorio also played varsity football for the Raiders from 1976-1978.

DiGregorio (second from right) and friends, including good friend, Phil Simms.

He would coach the Raiders for eight seasons (2004-2011), then stepped down to spend additional time coaching his sons, Zack and Aaron, who played football at Princeton High. Zack also played collegiate football at the University of Pennsylvania while Aaron was a standout on the track team, at Franklin & Marshall College.

“I had the chance to work with Steve’s son, Zack, who is the spitting image of his father,” recalled Simms. “I remember working with Zack, when he was playing quarterback (in high school and college) and how much he and his dad were so eager to learn. Steve loved watching Zack throw the ball.”

In 2017, DiGregorio would return to the coaching ranks at NHS. He had remained at Nutley as a teacher, after stepping down as coach after the 2011 season.

Steve, with wife Nadia and sons Derek (seated) Aaron and Zack

Two years later, he was diagnosed with cancer and began a rigorous course of chemotherapy. In October of 2019, DiGregorio would be honored on ‘Coach D. Day’, as his Raiders won a big home game, en route to a NJSIAA playoff berth. DiGregorio would be carried off the field in victory, by his players, at the conclusion of the game.

In 2019, DiGregorio was carried off the field, in triumph on ‘Coach D. Day’.

Read more about DiGregorio’s day here.. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/10/20/coach-d-day-another-beautiful-afternoon-in-nutley-with-an-inspirational-pre-game-piro-chat-and-a-grand-raiders-effort-as-steve-digregorio-leads-the-raiders-to-a-big-win-and-is-carried-off-the-f/

Despite the chemotherapy, DiGregorio’s uplifting spirit would inspire others, and his positive attitude buoyed a recovery.

Steve and J.D. Vick.

J.D. Vick had served as Nutley’s interim head coach in 2019, then returned to his role as a top assistant when DiGregoorio was able to return in 2020. Last season, Nutley put together its first unbeaten, untied season in varsity football, in 90 years.

In what would be DiGregorio’s final game as head coach, Nutley defeated arch rival Belleville, 42-7 on Nov. 28. The win made DiGregorio the winningest NHS coach in the history of the storied rivalry, with nine victories.

A few months after that win, DiGregorio announced his retirement as Nutley’s head coach, and Vick was named Steve’s successor.

DiGregorio and his coaching staff, in 2020.

Read more about DiGregorio’s decision here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/nutley-highs-steve-digregorio-announces-his-retirement-as-football-coach-ending-a-successful-tenure-which-included-an-undefeated-untied-season-in-2020/

Along the way, DiGregorio was inducted into the Essex County Football Coaches Hall of Fame and was later named the East’s head coach for the 2021 Robeson Football Classic. DiGregorio was named the state’s Coach of the Year, for 2020, by a local newspaper.

He was also honored with the Lou Rettino High School Coach of the Week for Week 4 of the 2020 season. In addition, he guided Nutley to its 500th victory as a program, when the Raiders defeated Columbia High in October, 2020.

After Nutley defeated Belleville in 2020, DiGregorio got to hold the trophy once again.

At the Nutley High team dinner at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the Raiders were presented rings for its undefeated season.

While his successes were well documented, DiGregorio’s favorite role was as a husband to his wife, Nadia, and the couple’s three sons, Zack, Derek and Aaron. Steve and Nadia celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this past summer.

Nadia’s incredible relationship with her family was documented in this story, written earlier this year. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/nadia-digregorio-wears-many-hats-including-one-as-dereks-advocate-and-speaks-with-pride-of-her-sons-8-world-titles-in-taekowndo-as-well-as-love-of-family-and-a-special-trip-to-holland/

The family’s devotion to Faith, love and commitment would be lauded by players, coaches and administrators, throughout the state.

“Steve has dealt with a lot, but you’d never know it,” said Simms. “Everything with him is in a positive light. I’m not surprised. I’ve gotten to him pretty well. He, and his family, are really special people.”

When DiGregorio retired as coach, he was lauded by All-State lineman, Billy Searle.

“I’ve known Coach DiGregorio since I was 5 years old,” said Searle, who is a freshman and plays at Wilkes University. “I’m an all-state player because of him. Coach was my biggest fan and my biggest critic. It was tough when Coach told he was retiring, but we understood, first and foremost, that his health and his family come first. I never played a down of football until I played for Coach. He taught me line play, on offense and defense.

“He’s the greatest mentor I ever had.”

Steve, with good friend Mike Carter (center) and J.D. Vick.

Bloomfield High coach Mike Carter has had a long friendship with DiGregorio.

“Steve is a tremendous guy,” Carter said after DiGregorio had announced his retirement. “I’ll tell you what, he’s leaving on a great note, with one of Nutley’s best teams in years last season. I’m happy for that. It’s a tribute to Steve and his staff. He is an intense coach, who gets the best out of his players.

“Family is number one for him, and we’re all rooting for him. Steve is a classy guy, and he’ll be missed on the sidelines.”

Belleville coach Jermain Johnson was also close to DiGregorio.

DiGregorio greets Belleville coach Jermain Johnson, in 2018.

“Belleville and Nutley may be a football rivalry, but Steve DiGregorio is family to me,” said Johnson after DiGregorio’s retirement was announced. “Steve is also very close to my brother, (Rashone) as well. Steve was one of my biggest supporters, when I got the head coaching job at Belleville.

Steve, with Belleville coach Jermain Johnson (right), along with good friend Rashone Johnson, Jermain’s younger brother, in 2020.

“He’s always been there for me and I have tried to do the same for him. Steve means a lot to me. I wish him all the best. I’m really glad his last season was such a success. The man is an icon, and I hope the younger coaches will strive to be like him”

By mike051893

Undefeated seasons, state championships and future pro players describe the incredible football rivalry between Wayne Hills and Ramapo, as the rivalry renews for the 54th time, on Oct. 15

They first met during the heyday of the Richard Nixon administration. And 49 years later, the gridiron rivalry between Wayne Hills and Ramapo has stood the test of time.

There’s so much history and memories attached to this game.

The huge crowds which accompanied the matchups in the late 1990’s.

The state sectional championship games between the two, not to mention a bunch of playoff games, in general, before the schools moved to different groups.

Because both programs have been tremendously successful, there haven’t been many head coaches at Ramapo or Hills. The Patriots and Green Raiders have had two coaches, each, since 1995.

There have been improbable comebacks, by both. There was also a championship game played in a blizzard, 12 years ago, at the old Giants Stadium.

A few offensive explosions also accompanied this game. Future NFL players have competed in it. But through it all, it’s been a series filled with intensity, but a lot of respect, too.

Both schools have had great kickers. Ramapo’s Ross Krautman held the state record for consecutive point-after kicks made, with 84, before Erik Martinez of Wayne Hills broke that record, in 2013, by converting 105 straight.

Here are some fun facts, to get you ready for the next meeting, when Ramapo travels to Hills, on Oct. 15, in a 7 p.m. start.

1-Wayne Hills leads the all-time series, 30-22-1.

2-Ramapo won the first-ever meeting between the schools, 13-8, in 1972.

3-The lone tie was a scoreless game, in 1976.

4-Since the rivalry started in 1972, Ramapo has put together a record of 342-159-5, which includes this year’s 6-0 start. Other than the abbreviated 2020 season, the Green Raiders haven’t lost a game since the 2017 state championship game, against River Dell.

Included in Ramapo’s overall record are 12 state championships, the first coming in the initial season of playoff football, 1974, with a 46-14 victory over Dumont, at Convention Hall, in Atlantic City.

And in that ’74 campaign, Wayne Hills defeated Ramapo in the regular season, 19-7, for Ramapo’s only loss.

There have been five undefeated seasons for the Green Raiders, including back-to-back in 2018 and 2019.

5-Since 1972, Wayne Hills has a record of 356-153-5. which includes this year’s 2-4 start. The program has won 10 state titles, with the first coming in 2002. Hills has the states’s second longest winning streak, 55 games, from 2004-2009. (And in a perfect irony, that 55-game winning streak began after a loss to Ramapo, in 2004, and later that season, the Patriots avenged the loss to the Green Raiders in the sectional semifinal).

Wayne Hills’ first playoff appearance came in 1975, where it lost in the first round to the eventual champion, Passaic Valley. The program has six undefeated seasons to its credit.

6-Since 1972, Ramapo has had four head coaches in Mike Moran, Mike Miello, Paul Granatell and, since 2001, Drew Gibbs.

7-Since 1972, Hills has had five head coaches in Ray McCrann, Ralph Polito, Ray Riker, Chris Olsen and Wayne Demikoff, who was an assistant, beginning in 1999, before being promoted to head coach in 2013, when Olsen retired.

8-Since the inception of the state playoffs, in 1974, Hills has qualified for the playoffs in 30 seasons while Ramapo has been to the playoffs, in 27 seasons.

9-Wayne Hills and Ramapo have met eight times in the playoffs, with the first matchup in the 1993 final, which Ramapo won, 23-17. They next met in the 2000 finals, which would be Miello’s final game as Ramapo’s head coach. The Green Raiders won, 14-7. Ramapo also defeated Hills in the 2001 final, 14-10, after winning the regular season contest, 31-21. Wayne Hills defeated Ramapo in the 2002 final, 19-0.

In the playoffs, Ramapo leads the series with Hills, 5-3, including four wins in state sectional finals.

10- The teams met regularly, from 1972-2008. In 2009, there wasn’t a regular season game, but they played in a blizzard at Giants Stadium, in the sectional final, with the Green Raiders winning, 16-8. There are just three seasons, 2012, 2013 and 2020, when the teams didn’t meet, in the regular, or post-season, since ’72.

11-In a 2005 regular season game, at Ramapo, the Patriots trailed, 26-7, at the half, as Ramapo’s Chris Hogan, a future Super Bowl champion, ironically with the Patriots, dominated the first two quarters.

Chris Hogan was part of a Super Bowl championship team with the New England Patriots. At Ramapo High, he was a tremendous football player, as well as an outstanding lacrosse athlete. Many Hills players who competed against him on the gridiron called Hogan the best they had ever played against.

But Wayne Hills made some adjustments at the half, Hogan was hurt in the second half, and the Patriots rallied back to win, 27-26. Former Wayne Hills coach Chris Olsen called it one of the top five victories of his career.

Another big comeback for Wayne Hills came in 2017. The Patriots, at one point, trailed, 21-0, late in the first half, but rallied to win, 29-24, in Franklin Lakes, as Jaaron Hayek led the way.

12-Beginning with the 2004 playoffs, Hills has won 11 of the last 15 games in the rivalry.

13-Most of the games have been pretty close. The biggest margin of victory for Ramapo was a 42-0 win, in the 2003 regular season, while Wayne Hills won a 41-7 contest, in 2007.

14-Ramapo’s highest point total was 56 in a home victory, in 1997, while Hills put up 49 in a 1994 victory.

15-Ramapo hadn’t defeated Wayne Hills, on its home field, from 2003, until an exciting overtime contest in the last meeting between the schools, in 2019.

16-In the first year of the NJSIAA ‘Bowl Game’ concept, both Wayne Hills and Ramapo won its games, at MetLife Stadium, in 2018, after winning state sectional titles in Group 4 and 3, respectively.

17-Among the players in the rivalry who went on to play in the NFL were Chris Hogan, Blake Costanzo and Chris Simms of Ramapo and Greg Olsen and Ryan Neill, of Wayne Hills. Hogan and Olsen were teammates with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers for a season.

Wayne Hills celebrated its first state championship in 2002, as Greg Olsen, here with his dad and Hills head coach, Chris Olsen, led the way. The ’02 Patriots defeated Ramapo in the sectional championship game, 19-0. Greg Olsen, of course, played at the University of Miami and was a star in the NFL, playing tight end with the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. He retired in 2021, after a 14-year professional career.
Ryan Neill had a tremendous career at Wayne Hills, then played at Rutgers before an NFL career with the Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers.
Blake Costanzo led Ramapo to a pair of state championships. He played his college ball at Lafayette College before a 9-year NFL career with five different teams, including a pair of stints with the San Francisco 49ers.
Chris Simms had a marvelous career at Ramapo and went on to play well at the University of Texas. He was a third round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 and went on to play eight years in the NFL.

18-Talk about domination. In the 1990s, Hills was 81-23-1, and then, in the first 10 years of the new century, the Patriots were 108-11, with six state championships and four unbeaten seasons.

19-In that same span, Ramapo was 75-26 in the 1990s, with two state titles and a pair of undefeated seasons and then 88-24 in the first 10 years of the 2000s, with four state championships and an undefeated season.

20-From 2010-2019, Hills was 82-31, with four more state championships and an unbeaten season in 2016. Patriots also won a Bowl Game crown in 2018. Ramapo’s success from 2010-2019 included a 90-25 mark, four more state titles and unbeaten seasons in 2018 and 2019.

21-Ramapo coach Drew Gibbs has a career record of 176-50, with seven state championships and a Bowl Game title.

22-Wayne Hills’ current coach, Wayne Demikoff, is 62-29, with two state titles and a Bowl Game victory.

23-In 26 seasons at Hills, Chris Olsen put together a 232-53-2 record along with eight state titles and was the architect of the 55-game winning streak.

24-There’s been two overtime games in the series, in 1999, as Hills won, 17-14, and 20 years later, in 2019, as Ramapo prevailed, 35-28.

25-Here are the scores of all 53 games.

1972- Ramapo 13, Wayne Hills 8.

1973- Wayne Hills 20, Ramapo 14.

1974- Wayne Hills 19, Ramapo 7.

1975- Wayne Hills 15, Ramapo 10.

1976- Wayne Hills 0, Ramapo 0. (Tie)

1977- Wayne Hills 21, Ramapo 0.

1978- Wayne Hills 14, Ramapo 6.

1979- Ramapo 21, Wayne Hills 0.

1980- Wayne Hills 7, Ramapo 0.

1981- Ramapo 19, Wayne Hills 14.

1982- Wayne Hills 21, Ramapo 13.

1983- Ramapo 14, Wayne Hills 0.

1984- Ramapo 38, Wayne Hills 6.

1985- Wayne Hills 18, Ramapo 6.

1986- Ramapo 31, Wayne Hills 0.

1987- Wayne Hills 14, Ramapo 6.

1988- Ramapo 20, Wayne Hills 17.

1989- Wayne Hills 13, Ramapo 0.

1990- Wayne Hills 27, Ramapo 14.

1991- Wayne Hills 14, Ramapo 0.

1992- Ramapo 21, Wayne Hills 7.

1993- Ramapo 43, Wayne Hills 6.

1993- Ramapo 23, Wayne Hills 17. (Sectional final)

1994- Wayne Hills 49, Ramapo 20.

1995- Wayne Hills 24, Ramapo 7.

1996- Ramapo 20, Wayne Hills 19.

1997- Ramapo 56, Wayne Hills 21.

1998- Wayne Hills 21, Ramapo 9.

1999- Wayne Hills 17, Ramapo 14 (OT).

2000- Wayne Hills 27, Ramapo 24.

2000- Ramapo 14, Wayne Hills 7. (Sectional final)

2001- Ramapo 31, Wayne Hills 21.

2001- Ramapo 14, Wayne Hills 10 (Sectional final)

2002- Wayne Hills 23, Ramapo 12.

2002- Wayne Hills 19, Ramapo 0. (Sectional final)

2003- Ramapo 42, Wayne Hills 0.

2003- Ramapo 35, Wayne Hills 12 (Sectional semifinal)

2004- Ramapo 24, Wayne Hills 20.

2004- Wayne Hills 38, Ramapo 20. (Sectional semifinal)

2005- Wayne Hills 27, Ramapo 26.

2005- Wayne Hills 41, Ramapo 13. (Sectional semifinal)

2006- Wayne Hills 28, Ramapo 7.

2007- Wayne Hills 41, Ramapo 7.

2008- Wayne Hills 31, Ramapo 21.

2009- Ramapo 16, Wayne Hills 8. (Sectional final)

2010- Wayne Hills 36, Ramapo 14.

2011- Wayne Hills 31, Ramapo 24.

2012- No Game.

2013- No Game.

2014- Wayne Hills 22, Ramapo 21.

2015- Ramapo 34, Wayne Hills 7.

2016- Wayne Hills 14, Ramapo 7.

2017- Wayne Hills 29, Ramapo 24.

2018- Ramapo 38, Wayne Hills 22.

2019- Ramapo 35, Wayne Hills 28 (OT).

2020-No Game.

By mike051893

40 years later, the 1981 Belleville High football team has stood the test of time

For a 9-year period, from 1978-1986, the Belleville High football team put together some impressive seasons. Coached by John Senesky, the Bucs had eight winning seasons, as well as four playoff appearances, and a conference title.

Belleville put together a 58-27 mark during that 9-season span, including playoffs. And included in that run was a 7-2 campaign, in 1981, when the Bucs lost two games to a pair of state champions, each of which finished 11-0, and missed the playoffs by a half game.

In looking back at the ’81 Bucs, Senesky recalled a high-scoring offensive team, with a lot of experience in the skill positions.

The 1981 Belleville Buccaneers.

“Sometimes, the years start to melt together,” recalled Senesky from his home in Florida. “But that was a great group. It’s been 40 years, that’s hard to believe. Those kids were great to work with. They practiced hard, listened and always strove to be better.”

In 1978, Senesky’s second year at the helm, Belleville had finished 6-3 in the program’s first year as the Buccaneers. A year later, the team was 8-2 and earned the program’s first playoff berth. A second playoff appearance in 1980 resulted in the team’s lone playoff win, to date, and a 9-2 record after a loss in the sectional final, to West Essex.

Many had felt the 1980 team were a ‘year away’, after losing a number of seniors to graduation following the ’79 season. In 1981, the Bucs were considered a top team in the county, with players like Frank Fazzini, Phil Cerza, Angelo Centanni, Jeff Wash, Bill Cook, John Bucciarelli, Jimmy Castelli, Brian Carpenter, Frank Kokos, Anthony Guarino, Tom Apicella, Greg Bevere, Steve Sorce, Bob Cassin, Ray Kimble, Eugene Cancelliere, Adam Pappas, Ron Charles, Bob Dalla Riva, Robbie Cancelliere, Craig Mack, Pete Haverick, David Grant, John Borrello and Danny Palumbo returning from the ’80 squad. Many of those players had competed on the ’79 and ’80 playoff teams.

“I remember the 1981 team had 25 seniors, so it was an experienced group,” said Senesky. “And we had some really good underclassmen, too.”

The Bucs opened the season with a 31-8 win over Livingston, in what would be the final meeting betwen the two schools on opening day. From 1976-1981, the teams had a spirited rivalry in the season opener, with each school winning three times.

“It was always a tough game with Livingston,” said Senesky. “They were always well coached.”

Belleville would win its next two games, defeating Barringer, 39-14, and Nutley, 26-0.

“Our offense was in gear,” said Senesky. “We had a really good running game, with Frankie (Fazzini), Jeff (Walsh) and Angelo (Centanni), along with a solid quarterback in John Borrello. Our defense, with Phil Cerza leading the way, was playing very well.”

At 3-0, the Bucs would host Passaic in a classic game, which the Indians won, 7-0, at Muncipal Stadium, before a packed house.

“We had a touchdown called back late in that game,” said Senesky, of what appeared to be a TD pass from Borrello to Eugene Cancelliere. “We did have a first and goal late in the game, but couldn’t score. As you know, there were some great games with Passaic during that era.”

Belleville had defeated Passaic in 1979 and 1980, in tremendous games. And, of course, in 1982, there would be THE GAME.

Belleville bounced back with a 44-7 home win over Marist and a 21-3 victory, at Clarkstown North High, in upstate New York. Remember, the Bucs were playing an independent schedule in ’81. It became part of a conference the following year.

“We didn’t know much about Clarkstown,” said Senesky. “I remember they ran the option and it was tough to defend. We were up 7-3 at the half, and had to work hard.”

At 5-1, Belleville welcomed Seton Hall Prep to Municipal Stadium for a big game. Like Passaic, Seton Hall was undefeated. A year earlier, the Bucs had won a 34-8 decision at Seton Hall, and the ’81 game promised to be a battle.

The game was tied at 7-7 in the fourth quarter before Seton Hall Prep rallied for 20 unanswered points and a 27-7 victory.

At 5-2, the Bucs were still in the playoff hunt, but needed some help, as Barringer, a team Belleville had defeated in week two of the season, was 5-1-1. Only the top four teams made the playoffs back in 1981 and Belleville was, in essence, the fifth seeed.

Belleville would defeat Carteret, 54-0, for its sixth win, but Barringer won its game, over Paterson Eastside, 14-8, eliminating the Bucs from the playoffs.

The season finale, on Thanksgiving, ended well, as the Bucs defeated Kearny, 28-19, in Belleville, to conclude a 7-2 season.

Ralph Borgess was Kearny’s head coach and he had worked on our staff for a while,” said Senesky. “Ralph had his kids fired up for that season finale.”

Belleville’s two losses came to teams with a combined 22-0 record. Fazzini would lead Essex County in scoring, and earned All-State honors, along with Cerza. The seniors on the ’81 team would be undefeated in its games against Nutley.

“It was a special group,” said Senesky. “We had a good year in 1981. I would have liked to see how we could have done in the playoffs, but it wasn’t meant to be that year.”

Forty years later, the 1981 squad can certainly look back, with pride on a special year of football in Belleville.

By mike051893