15 years later, ‘Joe Dubuque Saturday’ still resonates brightly at Region 4

Having done my share of writing for nearly 41 years, I will admit there are a few stories that echo for a lifetime. When it comes to high school wrestling, there is, by far, one which stands out. It happened 14 years ago and comes to mind specifically this weekend, as the Region 4 championships are once again contested in Northern New Jersey.

To set the stage for this story, I’ll throw in a little ‘Honeymooners’ analogy. Do you remember the episode when Ralph Kramden thought Alice might be stepping out on him, and was planning a strategy with his pal, Norton, to catch her in the act? Ralph’s classic line was, ‘Oh, I’m going bowling, Norton. But I’m NOT going bowling’. Norton was clearly befuddled.

Okay, fast forward a few decades to March 2, 2001 and if Glen Ridge’s Joe Dubuque could see into the future, he might have said to some close friends on the New Jersey high school wrestling circuit, ‘I’m going to win the states, again. But I’m NOT going to win the regions.’

Confused? Okay. But after reading this story, you’ll learn a little more about determination, some incredibly good luck and a bit of fate that not only won Dubuque a second state title, but quite possibly changed his life’s direction. Enjoy.

Long after the final whistle sounded, and the cheering ended on a wrestling mat in North Jersey, three friends remain tied to each other, in part due to a weekend 15 years ago, that will forever bond them.

This is the story of Joe DubuqueAnthony Montes and Anthony Messina, wrestlers from neighboring Essex County high schools in Glen Ridge, Nutley and Bloomfield, respectively, who formed a triangle at Passaic Valley High in Little Falls, which has transcended time.

It’s what makes high school wrestling, and its subsequent competition, so special. And while the friendship amongst the three had begun long before a fateful weekend in March of 2001, what occurred over a seven day period 15 years ago has forever changed their lives. It’s a story of courage, raw emotion and the ultimate victory which would alter Dubuque’s life and strengthen a friendship already cemented in respect.

In 2001, Dubuque was a senior at Glen Ridge, having won a NJSIAA championship at 112 pounds a year earlier. He was rolling through his senior year at 119 pounds, undefeated, and for that matter, unstoppable. Dubuque had won his fourth straight Essex County Tournament championship earlier in the 2000-2001 season, and had just turned in a dominant effort at District 13, for his fourth straight title there.

Even in elementary school, Dubuque was a wrestling fanatic. His idol growing up was Belleville High’s Anthony Conte, a 1996 state champion and Belleville’s lone four-time NJSIAA medalist, to date.

“My friend, Joe Schoch, was a big Rami Ratel (from Bloomfield) fan and I was a Conte fan,” said Dubuque, today the assistant wrestling coach at Princeton University, following a successful stint in the same capacity at his alma mater, Indiana University, and before that, at Hofstra University. “When Anthony and Rami wrestled, we’d go to the match together, but sit on opposite sides of the gym while they had their match. After they finished wrestling, we’d sit together again. It was that intense, even for us kids.”

mon jpeg

Anthony Montes (center) with Joe Dubuque (left) and Anthony Messina following the Region 4 championships on March 3, 2001.

Regions, March 2-3

On Friday, March 2, 2001, Dubuque won his Region 4 quarterfinal at Passaic Valley. Already a three-time region champion, he was scheduled to wrestle Messina, then a sophomore who was just beginning to gain credibility in the sport, the following morning in a semifinal. Dubuque was also excited about having just set a new state record for takedowns in a season, eclipsing the mark of 204 by perhaps the best high school wrestler, ever, in New Jersey, Damian Hahn of Lakewood.

“I remember going to bed that night and thinking I had to wrestle Joe the following morning,” Messina recalled. “I knew I didn’t have much of a chance, but I was also looking forward to wrestling him. I figured, no one was expecting me to win and I had nothing to lose. What’s the worst than can happen? I lose? Okay.”

The two stepped on the mat around 9:15 a.m. on March 3. Messina planned to be aggressive and see if he could gain some momentum.

“Right off the bat, I caught him with a high crotch and thought I got the two points, but (referee, MarkSherman said my foot was out of bounds,” Messina recalled. “We’re walking back to the center of the mat and I’m thinking ‘(Joe) is going to kill me now.”

Dubuque was a devastating wrestler on his feet and would often shoot toward opponents’ legs to gain leverage. As Dubuque moved in, his head collided with Messina’s forehead and Dubuque crumpled to the mat, losing consciousness for about 20 seconds.

“My friends had nicknamed me ‘Rock’, because I have a hard head,” Messina said. “When we hit, I didn’t feel anything, but then I saw Joe lying there.”

Dirk Phillips, Glen Ridge’s wrestling coach at the time and today the Glen Ridge High School principal, recalls the moment like it was yesterday.

“I remember him lying on the mat, and I’m saying ‘Joe, Joe, you okay,’” Phillips said. “He wasn’t responding, but he eventually started coming out of it. Back then, while we had trainers, the response to head injuries is not nearly what it is today. The trainers would not let him continue, and a doctor who was at the match wouldn’t allow him to continue without being examined first.”

Messina, admittedly confused by what was happening, suddenly had his hand raised in victory, marking Dubuque’s first loss of the season.

“At first, I was happy because I won,” Messina said. “But I was more concerned at that point about Joe. I went down to the locker room and apologized, but Joe was quick to say there was nothing to apologize for and that it was a part of the sport. It happens. Still, it was weird.”

With Dubuque off to a doctor, the buzz around Passaic Valley was deafening. I remember calling my editor at the Star-Ledger, Bruce Moran, seconds after the injury to inform him that Dubuque might be out of the tournament. Moran had already set up ‘art’ as we called it, meaning Joe would be featured on the front page of the special supplement, leading up to the NJSIAA championships the following week at the Meadowlands Arena.

“Keep me posted,” said a frazzled Moran. “I have to change everything. But seriously, I hope he’s okay.”

Dubuque left Passaic Valley quickly, hoping to get a doctor’s clearance to continue wrestling. Having lost, he would need to wrestle back for third place if he any hope of winning a second consecutive state championship. His first wrestleback would be 90 minutes after his loss to Messina, so time was critical.

“I was determined to wrestle back,” Dubuque recalled. “It was a freak accident, but that stuff happens. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the sport.”

Dubuque hurried to an Immedi Center-type facility to get a clearance, which was obtained.

As Phillips had said earlier, the protocol for head injuries today is so much different than it was in 2001. Had the injury occurred today, there’s no way Dubuque could have wrestled later in the day, and of course, the hope for a second straight state title would have disappeared.

Dubuque returned to the gym in time to face Angel LaPorte of Kearny in the first of two wrestlebacks he would need to win to clinch third place. Montes, then a junior who had won the other 119-pound semifinal, remembers well watching Dubuque try and wrestle LaPorte.

“I didn’t think he should be out there,” said Montes, one of Dubuque’s best friends to this day. “He was wobbly throughout the match. I remember when I was wrestling my semifinal at the same time Joe and Anthony were on the mat and all the commotion when Joe got hurt.”

Dubuque’s eyes were red and he appeared to wobble at times when standing up. But somehow, he caught LaPorte, who in his wildest dreams never thought Dubuque would be in a wrestleback, for a pin in the third period. What probably saved Dubuque’s season that day was referee Joe Luongo, a seasoned wrestling official who was keeping a close eye on him.

“When you’re officiating at that level, you have to know the kid,” Luongo said. “I had worked enough of Joey’s matches to realize he could wrestle his way through it. I handled him with kid gloves that day, but also knew how tough Joey was. I had to give him the opportunity and didn’t want to stop it, especially after he was cleared to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation for a kid. You don’t want to stop it and the kid turns out to be okay.

“However, if I saw any indication he was in jeopardy, I was stopping it. With Joey, he always talked a lot during his matches, so I had a few conversations with him in that particular match. When he’d go out of bounds, I’d ask him ‘how are you’ and ‘what day is it’, stuff like that, and he was responding like usual. It also helped that I had a good relationship with his head coach, Dirk Phillips. We had spoken before that match and Dirk seemed okay to let Joey go out there. Ultimately, it was still my decision and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

After defeating LaPorte, Dubuque had another hour to try and recoup before he faced Lou Rabelo of North Bergen for third place. Only the top three wrestlers from each weight class advance to the state championships, so there was just one way for Dubuque to qualify. The extra hour seemed to do him some good. His eyes were much clearer and he seemed more focused.

Dubuque put on a typical take down show against Rabelo, building up a big lead before registering a fall to clinch third place.

“Yeah, I remember that well,” said Jerry Maietta, North Bergen’s head coach then, and now. “That was some day. Actually, I talk to Lou Rabelo a lot, now. He’s on the Board of Ed at North Bergen.”

As the day’s events at Region 4 were concluding, Dubuque received a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd of nearly 2,000 at Passaic Valley. Dubuque was somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention. He even garnered some votes as the tournament’s outstanding wrestler, which was unheard of for someone who finished third.

“Honestly, I still don’t remember a thing from that day,” Dubuque said recently. “The entire day was a blur, literally.”

The injury affected other wrestlers in different weight classes at the region. Pat Trabucco of Livingston, an eventual four-time Essex County, District 14 and Region 4 champion, as well as a four-time NJSIAA medalist, was noticeably down after winning his fourth region title.

“Joe and I are best friends,” Trabucco said that day. “We were supposed to be winning this together.”

Trabucco, who was head wrestling coach at his alma mater through the 2010-2011 season, also recalled the day Dubuque was injured with a vivid memory.

“The reason why we’re all pretty close today is the bond we formed as competitors back in high school,” Trabucco said. “Montes, Frank DiPiano (Nutley’s head coach for many years) and I were all at Joe’s wedding and they were at my wedding. Wrestling is that bond. To be honest, I never doubted Joe’s ability to come back that day and eventually be a champion again. He was that cocky and that good. He just had to get a doctor to clear him.”

There were two newsworthy events going on at Passaic Valley that afternoon. One was Dubuque’s injury and the other was a massive snowstorm which was supposed to hit the local area. The predictions were for more than two feet of snow for early the following week, with 40 mile-per-hour winds that could produce five foot drifts. (If you knew then Passaic Valley coach Nick Zarra, he gave the best description of the storm, with that raspy voice).

On spec, the NJSIAA pushed the next round of wrestling, then called the super regions, back a day to March 7, in deference to the storm. Because Dubuque finished third in the region, he would need to win his first match at the super regions to assure himself a trip to Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands that weekend for the state championships, then win a second time that evening for a chance at winning a second state title.

The aforementioned snowstorm never occurred. But the extra day off for the super regions would help Dubuque’s recovery. This is also where the friendship between Montes and Dubuque took another turn.

Super Regions, March 7

Dubuque and Montes had hoped to wrestle each other in a state championship final in 2001. A year earlier, Montes had made it to the 112-pound semifinals before losing and eventually finishing sixth in the state. Dubuque, who was wrestling in the other semifinal that year, went on to win the state championship at the Meadowlands.

“We had come pretty close to facing each other a year earlier for a state title,” Montes said. “So we both felt that it would be our year. When Joe got hurt, it changed all the matchups for the super regions. There was even talk after he originally got hurt that maybe I’d medically forfeit the region final, so we would avoid having to wrestle each other in the super regions.”

Montes didn’t forfeit the Region 4 final. He defeated Messina, 13-8, for the 119-pound title. But that meant he would most likely face Dubuque in the super regions at Union High School, assuming Dubuque defeated Roselle Park’s Dan Appello in the preliminary round earlier that evening.

“I couldn’t forfeit a region final,” Montes said. “You have to understand that when we competed back then, wrestling was everything to us. That’s the way it was meant to be (15) years ago. I always kid (Messina) that he messed everything up that year. In a way, the best thing I ever did was wrestle Joe that night in Union. I’ll never forget it.”

Nor, would the large crowd in attendance that evening at the super regions.

Dubuque won his first round match over Appello, ending Appello’s season and setting the stage for his match with Montes later that night. Both guys were assured of a trip to the Meadowlands, but the victor would be advancing to the winner’s bracket.

Dubuque, who was back in good health, won a 7-5 decision. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the two embraced and Dubuque raised Montes’ hand in victory, even though Dubuque had won. Many in the crowd had tears in their eyes. The standing ovation lasted at least two minutes.

“There were other matches going on, and most of those matches stopped for a few seconds,” Montes said. “It was unbelievable. The crowd was so loud. Our A.D. back then (Angelo Franicola) often talked about what an incredible level of sportsmanship that match had represented. I’ll never forget it, and I had lost. While you never like to lose, I felt good in that I had wrestled really well that night.”

Dubuque would later say, and continues to reiterate today, that there was no loser in that match.

“We had wanted to face each other in the state final,” Dubuque said. “But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

State Championships, March 10-11

Now at the Meadowlands, Dubuque would not be stopped. On March 10, he won by technical fall in a bout that lasted just four minutes. The following day, he started with a 15-5 victory in the semis, setting the stage for the state final opposite Matt Anderson of South Plainfield, himself a state champion in 2000 at 103 pounds. Dubuque would wrestle a vintage match in the finals, recording four take downs en route to an 11-5 victory. As the final horn sounded before nearly 14,000 fans that day, Dubuque broke down and cried.

“If you knew Joe, you’d know he wasn’t the type to be emotional,” Phillips said. “But he had been through so much that week and to realize he was a state champion again meant the world to him.”

Dubuque called Anderson, today a highly successful assistant wrestling coach at his alma mater, the nicest person he had ever met in the post-match press conference. He thanked his family and friends for their love and support. He would stand on the top deck of the podium that afternoon, and Montes would stand on the podium as well, having finished seventh in the state at 119 pounds.

“When you deal with an injury that could end your season, it puts things in perspective,” Dubuque had said at the time. “I got a second chance, and I’ll never forget it.”

That second title meant so much more to Dubuque in the subsequent weeks.

“If he was unable to continue after the injury,” Phillips said, “I doubt he would have had the college career he did. At the time, Joe wasn’t known, nationally, as a great wrestler. But winning in 2001 gave him a chance to compete in the senior nationals, and he won there as well.”

Aftermath

Dubuque received a scholarship to wrestle at the Indiana University. In 2005 and 2006, he would win a pair of NCAA championships.

“Winning two national championships was great,” said Dubuque, who finished his high school career with a 134-7 record. “But I’m not sure any of it happens without winning that second state title. It changed my life.”

Phillips admits to this day that he’s still not sure he did the right thing in allowing Dubuque to continue wrestling at the regions back on March 3, 2001.

“It still have doubts,” Phillips said. “Obviously, it turned out good for Joe, but I wonder if I should have let him continue. For sure, if that kind of injury happened today, there’s no way he could have continued. There are so many safeguards in place now for head injuries and a lot more awareness.”

Messina, whose season ended at the super regions in 2001, also wouldn’t trade the experience of that weekend.

“I remember watching the state finals with some friends on television that year and hearing them announce Joe’s name and that his record was 30-something and 1, and my friends saying ‘yeah, his only loss was to you,’” Messina said. “I know he was the better wrestler, and I wish he hadn’t gotten hurt, but it does mean a lot to me, today, to know that I was a part of that story.”

Montes would go on to earn a third state medal in 2002 and later was a successful assistant wrestling coach at Nutley High, working with DiPiano.

“Messina and I are great friends,” Montes said. “He works out with some of our kids on the mat, but it’s funny, we’ve never gotten back on the mat and wrestled each other, even for fun. We’ve left those experiences to memory.”

Looking Back

“There were so many good wresters from that era in New Jersey,” said Dubuque, who today is a husband and father of two. “I think of guys like Montes, Messina, DiPiano and Trabucco and how talented they were. To be a part of that experience was something I’ll never forget. I’m still close to all those guys because of that and I’ll always be grateful.”

Dubuque won his second state title on March 11, 2001. Many will recall what happened six months to the day later as a timeline in their own lives.

“Things were really different,” Dubuque said of his high school days in the pre 9-11 era. “The times were less complicated. Yeah, there were cell phones and computers, but it wasn’t like now. I’m glad I grew up when I did. I’ll never forget the little things which made that time special. As close as we were off the mat, when we wrestled, it was a battle. When it was over, we were back to being friends. And that will continue for the rest of our lives.”

And thus, the legend of Dubuque Saturday, March 3, 2001.

By mike051893

Ashley LaGuardia and Joe Leicht recall Anthony LaRezza’s class and passion

Reflection has been deep and somewhat painful for those who cared sincerely about the late Anthony LaRezza. We’ve heard from many former players and coaches, as well as life-long friends and appreciative acquaintances, on the lasting impression the Immaculate Heart Academy softball coach left.

The latest to speak on his sudden passing and lasting legacy are perhaps LaRezza’s biggest coaching rival, Joe Leicht, the head softball coach at Indian Hills and Ashley LaGuardia, a phenomenal pitcher at DePaul High School, who is now a sophomore pitcher at Princeton University.

Let’s start with LaGuardia. An incredibly intelligent young woman, a Valedictorian of her high school class who is now excelling academically and athletically at Princeton, LaGuardia had always shared a good friendship with LaRezza, even though she was usually competing against his teams.

Ashley was informed of her friend’s death on Feb. 4, by her father, John, and needless to say, the news hit hard.

She was able to put some words together tonight, remembering some great times.

(As an aside, having gotten to know Ashley’s family over the last past year, any time I’d tell Anthony that I was having dinner at the LaGuardia house, Anthony would always ask about Ashley, and for that matter, her entire family.)

Ashley recalled a wonderful man in LaRezza, who was sincerely committed to her future success.

“Although I never had the opportunity to play for him, LaRezza felt like he was one of my coaches,” said Ashley. “Whether it was playing IHA, or growing up through the years playing against Pride, I could always count on a good competitive game, followed by jocularity from him.

062515-td-laguardiatrioAshley LaGuardia (far right) with her sisters Alyssa (left) and Amanda, counted LaRezza as a good friend and mentor.

“He had a way with players and the sport of softball, that will make him a legend in the softball community. It was like I was one of his own players, and to this day I have the utmost respect for him.

“May he Rest in Peace.”

John LaGuardia, who never missed a high school game his daughter played, concurred.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do with my kids, telling Ash about Anthony,” John said. “But I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else.

“Anthony was an incredible guy. IHA and DePaul had some great games, but in the end, Anthony was all about the kids, in general. He wanted to win as much as anyone, but he cared about all of them. He was a huge influence in my daughter’s life, and for that matter, a good friend to my family.”

Joe Leicht has put together a Hall of Fame high school coaching career. At Wayne Valley, he passed the 500 win mark earlier this season, as that school’s boys basketball coach. In the spring, Leicht coaches the Indian Hills softball team. In 2014, he guided that program to a state-best 34-0 record. He is closing in on 500 wins as a softball coach, too, and could hit that plateau in the next few years, making him a rare 1,000 victory coach.

Hills4HillsIndian Hills softball coach Joe Leicht was joined by his 2014 undefeated squad, after a Wayne Valley basketball game in early 2015. Leicht and LaRezza shared a great rivalry and good friendship.

If you know Bergen County softball, then you understand the rivalry between Indian Hills and IHA is potent, to say the least.

In the 2014 Bergen County championship game, IHA and Indian Hills met, in a battle of unbeatens. IHA led, 4-3, before Hills won it on a dramatic two-run, walk-off homer, in the bottom of the seventh inning.

LaRezza would often say afterward that Leicht made it a point of reaching out to LaRezza to congratulate him on a great game, before joining his team in a crazy celebration.

“If he was celebrating with his kids after that kind of game, that would be have been fine with me,” LaRezza said back then. “But Joe took a minute to come over, in the euphoria of a great moment for them, to say something to me. That’s not only a great coach, but a classy guy, too.”

Leicht was coaching a basketball game today, but took a few minutes before the tip off, to remember LaRezza.

“It’s just so hard to believe,” Leicht said. “Anthony wanted to win as much as anyone, but the way he went about his business was something you had to see. I always said for a Non-Public coach, he had a conscious. He was all about the kids, whether it was his team, or any team he’d play. There are so many kids on my team that thought the world of him.

“When I won my 400th career game at Indian Hills (in 2014), he and his team sent over a card congratulating me. Who does that? He was really special. I’ll miss him.”

Anthony LaRezza will be waked at Biondi Funeral Home, in Nutley, on Feb. 8, from 2-8 p.m. The Funeral Mass will be on Feb. 9, at 10:30 a.m., with internment to follow at Glendale Cemetery, in Bloomfield.

 

 

 

 

By mike051893

Sergio Rodriguez tearfully remembers his surrogate brother, Anthony LaRezza, and ‘The Times of Their Lives’

(Good morning yesterday. You wake up, and time has slipped away. And suddenly, it’s hard to find, the memories, you’ve left behind. Remember, do you remember?)

When you go to the number of New Jersey high school softball games that most us in the media cover on a yearly basis, some of the results can be forgotten, over time, past looking back at a specific article.

But on May 19, 2015, I remember, well, going to a what appeared to be a routine game at Newark Academy of Livingston, as the Minutemen played host to Immaculate Heart Academy, on a warm, sunny afternoon.

On paper, it didn’t look like much of a game. IHA was on its way to an eventual state championship, just a few weeks later, while Newark Academy was young and gaining varsity experience.

ihaThe late Anthony LaRezza, in this 2014 photo with the state’s all-time winningest pitcher, Stef Thomas (center) and assistant coach Diana Fasano, following another IHA victory. Perhaps the softball field at IHA will one day be named in LaRezza’s memory.

I remember going to this game, because I wanted to see the two head coaches compete. Sergio Rodriguez would always convince you his Newark Academy team can play with any squad in the state while Anthony LaRezza would downplay his team’s chances. I remember spending a few innings on the Newark Academy side, and a few by the IHA dugout, and trying to keep a straight face was next to impossible.

(The laughter and the tears. The shadows of misty yesteryears. The good times and the bad you’ve seen, And all the others in between, Remember, do you remember, The times of your life?)

Rodriguez and LaRezza were as close as brothers. And in the early stages of this game, as Newark Academy stayed within a run through four innings, Serg was doing his usual magic act, pushing every button, while LaRezza was having a meltdown, basically saying his team stunk and they were destined to lose this game.

Well, IHA would go on to win, 10-0, breaking the game open in the late innings. And afterward, there was Serg and Anthony, making fun of each other, and saying they’d catch up at the Franklin Steakhouse, in Nutley, sooner, than later.

Fast forward to today, and a heartbroken Rodriguez could barely talk, when discussing his best pal, who died a day earlier, at the age of 50.

sergSerg, coaching his Minutemen.

“He impacted so many lives,” said Rodriguez of LaRezza. “I mean, I can’t believe he’s gone. And, yes, I hurt, but I really feel for those kids who never had the chance to play for him, and for the current team, that was looking forward to a chance at repeating a state championship with him leading the way.

(Reach back for the joy and the sorrow, Put them away in your mind. The mem’ries are time that you borrow, To spend when you get to tomorrow)

“But you know what? It’s about those players who did play for him, that won’t be able to invite him to their wedding, or to meet the children of the kids who played for him one day. That’s all a part of what Anthony meant to so many. And those kids will be cheated, by not having him in their lives.”

Rodriguez and LaRezza’s friendship went back a quarter century.

hoopsWhere did the time go? Serg and Anthony playing hoops, some 20 years ago. (Courtesy of Sergio Rodriguez)

“We met 25 years ago, at a softball game,” said Serg. “Anthony was coaching Project Pride, and one of the players on the team was my then-girlfriend. We started talking at a game and really never stopped. He was eight years older than me, but we hit it off right away.

(Here comes the setting sun. The seasons are passing one by one. So gather moments while you may
Collect the dreams you dream today, Remember, will you remember, The times of your life?)

“Anthony was a great baseball player as a kid at Bloomfield Tech. We later played in a pretty good fast-pitch softball league and Anthony was one of the best players I ever saw. I always said he was the only white guy on a team with Dominicans and natives of Puerto Rico. I remember once Anthony hit a homer at during a game, and it was a shot. He could really play.”

Rodriguez played his high school ball at Newark East Side High. Later, he began coaching the Pride, with LaRezza, from 1996-2006, before taking on a new summer team. The two had talked about reuniting and coaching together again in the summer.

Both Rodriguez and LaRezza are dads. Serg’s eldest daughter is already in college, playing softball at Rowan University, while he has two younger sons, in elementary school. Anthony had a young daughter, whom he adored.

Serg admits he’s pretty numb.

“People tell me that the pain will subside,” he said. “But I don’t see how. Everything I do, especially coaching, will remind me of Anthony. I can’t imagine going to a (summer) tournament, and not seeing him there. Thirty five years from now, if I’m lucky to be around that long, I’ll be thinking of him.

“He’s my best friend.”

(Gather moments while you may, Collect the dreams you dream today, Remember, will you remember
The times of your life?)

By mike051893

LaRezza’s influence felt by many, including Phil Delgado, Mike DiPiano, Ed Bates and opposing team’s parents and players

Phil Delgado’s coaching style is wearing his emotions on his sleeve. His passion for the game and love of teaching his players the proper way to play consumes him.

That same passion is also directed to his family and friends. And when someone he loves has departed this life, that emotion is evident for all to see.

So, when news of Anthony LaRezza’s passing became known, Delgado, the second-year head softball coach at Montclair High School, was quick to credit a man who did so much for his professional career.

“Keep your head up,” said Delgado, to me. “We lost a great one today. Anthony was my guru, in many avenues of life.”

Mike DiPiano, the head girls soccer and wrestling coach at Nutley High, as well as that school’s assistant softball coach, also recalled a good experience with LaRezza.

“My first game as a softball coach was against Ridgewood, at the IHA tournament,” said DiPiano. “Anthony knew me and my family, growing up. He treated me like a seasoned vet, from that first softball game. He sat behind our bench when we went to the (2010) state final, and cheered so hard for us to win. He wanted us to win so bad. He was such a genuine guy.”

I received a wonderful note from ‘Tim‘, who recalled LaRezza’s class and love of the game

“My girls, Lyndsay and Jessica, never had the honor to play for Anthony,” he said. “They were always in the other dugout. However, their five years of travel ball and high school ball in New Jersey would not have been as memorable without meeting and becoming friends with Anthony. Win or lose, we would always look forward to our talks and our shared laughter with Anthony! He was a great guy, who cared about his girls and the world of softball.

“He will be missed by all.”

Kaitlin wrote, “A very sad day for the softball community.”

Ed Bates wrote, “Hard to believe you no longer with us, and all why why this have to happen you the best coach there was.”

edbEd Bates’ pals are sad tonight. LaRezza was always good to Ed, often driving him to games.

Gianna wrote, “RIP to the best coach I’ve ever had. You inspired and pushed me to the player I am today. we love you& miss u Ant.”

The Verona High School softball team tweeted, “Thoughts are with the LaRezza family, IHA, & all the players along the way.”

Just another, in a long line of those who are saddened this night, by the loss of a legend.

By mike051893

Tributes pouring in for Coach LaRezza, from grief-stricken players, friends and coaches

I had just picked up the phone to call my friend, Jason Daily, the head softball coach at Livingston High School. I didn’t want to bother him, during work hours, and wasn’t sure he’d be able to pick up his phone, but on the second ring, he was there.

“Hi Mike,” he said. “Anything wrong?”

Jason must have known something was up. I didn’t want him to read, somewhere, that his friend, Anthony LaRezza, had passed away today.

When I told him, the silence was devastating. “Oh man,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”

Daily and LaRezza had shared some great coaching moments together, as Jason’s Livingston team, and Anthony’s Immaculate Heart Academy squad, had some intense encounters over the years. I often kidded Anthony that the “game that never was”, in 2012, between the state’s top two teams, Livingston and IHA, would have been something special. (I was always a Livingston ‘fan’. LOL)

“I’m not sure we could have beaten Livingston that year,” LaRezza often told me. “But it would have been fun to play it.”

lar

The game was scheduled to be played at Ivy Hill Park, but was rained out and never made up.

Daily had the highest regard for LaRezza, who returned that admiration many times.

As news spread today, the friends, players and coaches turned to social media to express sadness, but also to say thank you.

The softball community lost a great coach and friend today,” said Nutley softball coach Luann Zullo. “This news is unimaginable. I will miss him. May he rest in peace.”

Zullo’s assistant coach, Mike DiPiano, echoed those words.

lareLaRezza’s final game as a high school softball coach was a state championship last June.

“He left us way too soon,” said DiPiano.

The Mount St. Dominic softball program tweeted its condolences. IHA and the Mount had some marvelous games over the years, but the friendships enjoyed by the players was always paramount.

Raritan softball coach Aado Kommendant wrote a beautiful tribute, on Twitter.

West Essex’s star pitcher, Sami Huetter, was also devastated.

“It’s unbelievable, I’m shocked,” Huetter said. “I will be forever be grateful I was able to know such an amazing man. I will always play for him.”

Jim Stoeckel, III, who contacted me with the news, spoke like a true coach.

“I feel so bad for those IHA (softball) players,” said Stoeckel. “Those kids really responded to Anthony, and he was great with them.”

College softball teams quickly extended their condolences. Former IHA players quickly posted pictures they had of Anthony. In everyone, LaRezza had that special smile, indicative of a man who loved working with kids.

“This is just incredible news,” said MaryAnne Dondarski Loperato, whose daughter, Ally, played for LaRezza at Montclair Kimberley, in 2004, when it won a state title. Lopreato’s daughter, Nikki, played for LaRezza’s ‘Pride’ squad and another daughter, Gianna, was a player on a college exposition team that LaRezza coached.

“As Luann Zullo said, this is a tremendous loss for the softball community. Anthony was funny, passionate and competitive. My daughters were lucky enough to have been coached by him. So so sad.”

Newark Academy coach Sergio Rodriguez said his life will never be the same again.

The NJ Pride Softball team tweeted, “God needed a coach, and He got the best.”

Other high schools teams in New Jersey, including Wayne Valley, Wayne Hills and Mahwah, sent their thoughts. During the season, the competition is fierce, but on this day, it’s about friendships and relationships.

The reactions will continue for days to come. Anthony LaRezza was a friend to many, a mentor to thousands and a role model for a new generation of athletes.

His influence will not soon be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

By mike051893

Anthony LaRezza: Friend, Sports Fanatic, Championship Coach, Rutts Hut Fan, Firefighter and Spiritual Man

There are moments where words will never tell the true story.

Such is the case today, as the news of the passing of Anthony LaRezza shuttered through. The news came with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Anthony’s faith had guided him, as he worked through some health issues. He never wavered, instead he did what he loved most, which was coaching high school softball.

Immaculate Heart Academy was Anthony’s stomping grounds, as he guided that program to greatness, including the 2015 NJSIAA, Non-Public A championship, with a team of all underclassmen.

larePhoto by Sean Reilly…Anthony celebrating another state championship last spring. What a moment.

There was that moment, when the winning run scored in the state final, at Kean University, where Anthony jumped up and down in pure joy, as IHA won, 1-0, in extra innings. Anthony had coached state champions before, but this team was special. And has he celebrated with the kids, on the field, drenched in Gatorade, he was quick to remind those kids that 2016 would be just as good.

larLaRezza was a legend.

I’ve written about him for years, on this blog. We had more fun at his tournaments than one deserved to have. We talked about sports trivia, movie trivia, horse racing, and anything else that popped up. But when it came to his players, man, that was special.

indexI will stop at Rutts and have a few for my pal…

Anthony and I had just spoken recently. He called to let me know that he would be going through some treatments, but that he and I would be meeting up soon, at Rutts Hut, for some rippers. Anthony loved that place.

I had taken him to Rutts, a few days after the state championship last spring, to celebrate.

iha 2Anthony loved coaching IHA. Ed Bates (second row, far left) was his friend, too.

Pictures will tell a much better story of Anthony. This was a fun-loving guy, but also a devoted parent. He was the constant whirlwind.

ihaLaRezza’s 2015 IHA team would win what some called an improbable state championship.

But he always had time to say hello. He always made sure to congratulate an opposing team, win, or lose, on Twitter, after a game.

The last tweet, on Jan. 26, was perfect LaRezza.

On April 30th we play in the Coaches vs Cancer event. will donate 1 dollar for every Retweet to pediatric cancer research. Goal 1000

It was about a softball game, of course, and the ultimate goal to raise money for cancer research. There was always a goal, always a motivation.

iha 2It was a special day in 2014, when Stef Thomas won her state-record 113th game for IHA.

I’ll miss this man more than I can ever describe. I’m not quite sure how I can go to a softball game this spring, and watch. However, the last thing Anthony would ever want is for anyone to feel bad.

iha

Anthony LaRezza was so many things. But most of all, he was a man. He stood for decency, integrity and, having a lot of fun.

downloadTypical Anthony, taking in a softball game, even if his team wasn’t playing, at IHA.

I still want to call your cell and hear you say ‘hello’. Or just get a text from you.

20111012-233439LaRezza often liked to tell the story of the chicken and the pig.

Something…

I always believe God has a better plan. And sometimes, we are faced with surprises when He calls someone home. Anthony always believed that, and I feel somewhat happy in that Anthony will flash that smile again. And one day, we’ll all see each other.

He always loved my horse racing analogies, especially calling Stef Thomas, Affirmed.

And Anthony always got a kick out of my ‘get your popcorn ready’ quote, for a big softball game.

stock-photo-4276574-bag-of-popcorn

Thank you, pal. I’ll never forget you.

 

By mike051893