Eight years before its current head coach was born, Cedar Grove and Belleville met in the 1984 Essex County Tournament softball championship. Belleville had won the previous two titles, impressively, and were a favorite to make it three straight, behind a talented senior battery of Dina DeAquino and Tracy Buono.
In the early 80’s, Cedar Grove and Belleville were the top teams in Essex County softball. The Panthers had beaten an upstart Belleville team in the 1980 final, behind its stalwart pitcher, Laurel VanDerMay, the younger sister of head coach Ray VanDerMay. In 1982, Belleville would win its first title, defeating Livingston, and the following year, head coach Carl Corino’s team won a second straight crown, downing Bloomfield. And en route to the ’82 championship, Belleville defeated Cedar Grove in the ECT quarterfinals.
Now, Cedar Grove and Belleville would meet in the 1984 final, and Cedar Grove pulled off what was then an upset, defeating the Bucs, 8-5. Among the players on the field that night, at Pulaski Park, in Bloomfield, were Francene Ricciardi of Cedar Grove and Belleville’s Cheryl Marion.
Fast forward some 34 years and Marion (now Cheryl Marion Zenobi) is in her first year as an assistant coach to Nicole Velardi. Like Marion, Velardi also played softball at Belleville High. Meanwhile Ricciardi would marry Paul Faieta in 1999 in a royal wedding similar to last Saturday’s event in London (Kidding, somewhat, but the Plaza in NYC is a neat place). Over a year later, around Thanksgiving, the couple would welcome their first child, a daughter, named Mia.
Last Sunday, Mia pitched a complete game, as Cedar Grove won its first county championship in eight years and fifth overall. And Fran, the softball junkie who played shortstop in 1984, can now join her daughter as a county champion from Cedar Grove High. (And it should be noted that before Mia discovered pitching, she was a shortstop in her younger days on the youth level).
Gabby Castelli was a freshman in 2010 when Cedar Grove won its first county title in 26 years. Castelli also has a Belleville connection, as her father, Jim, was a standout athlete for the Bucs in the early 1980’s.
They’re not the first mother-daughter to accomplish the ECT championship feat for the Panthers. One of Fran’s teammates on that 1984 team was the former Kim Fitzgerald. In 2010, Kim’s daughter, Briana Weinstein, starred on coach Rob Stern’s team, which won Cedar Grove’s first county championship since 1984, defeating West Essex, 2-0. Kim and Brianna were both second basemen for the Panthers.
And now, another Weinstein, Kim’s daughter, Chloe Weinstein, a sophomore, is also playing well for the Panthers.
Marion’s roots are also deep. As a player, she would be a part of two county champions at Belleville, in 1982 and 1983, and played in the championship game in 1984 and 1985. (Belleville lost the 1985 final to Livingston. All tolled, Belleville was in nine ECT finals in the 1980’s).
Four years after graduating high school, Cheryl returned to her alma mater as an educator and coach, and was an assistant to Corino, on the 1989 BHS team which defeated Livingston, 1-0, in 10 innings for the school’s last county title, to date, in softball.
Nearly 30 years after that ’89 title, Marion was proudly holding a championship plaque, last Sunday at Ivy Hill Park. And who was standing next to her? Carl Corino.
Cedar Grove assistant coach Cheryl Marion and her high school coach at Belleville, Carl Corino, after Cedar Grove won the 2018 championship on May 20, at Ivy Hill Park. (Courtesy of Cheryl Marion Zenobi. Click on photo for larger image).
From Fitzgerald, to Weinstein, to Riccardi and Faieta, along with a Corino and Marion, the history of the Essex County Tournament is certainly a proud one.