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.”
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.
“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.