As the seventh Jim Silvestri Memorial Wrestling Match nears at Belleville High, on Jan. 26, those who were influenced by Silvestri’s leadership, compassion and good humor remember the advent of a great wrestling program for the Blue and Gold.
Silvestri’s wrestling teams at BHS had reached a new pinnacle in 1976, when the Bellboys finished 13-1 in the regular season. And, of course, when it comes to great matches, it’s hard to top the one held on Valentine’s Day, 1976. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Belleville was scheduled to host Pascack Hills, a powerful team out of Bergen County.
The legend of Pascack Hills was well known. The team, coached by the legendary Bucky Rehain, hadn’t lost a dual match in close to five years. A season earlier, when Belleville traveled to Hills for the first-ever meeting between the two schools, Pascack had won handily.
Jim Silvestri (front row, checkered jacket) and Gene D’Alessandro share a happy moment in 1977. D’Alessandro succeeded Silvestri as wrestling coach at BHS when the later was named athletic director in the fall of 1976. (Click on photo for larger image)
The crowd had arrived quite early for that 1976 match. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, 1 p.m., start, a lot of the fans were there by 11 a.m. In fact, Rehain, a gracious man who returned to Belleville a few years back to honor Silvestri’s memory, recalled when his team had arrived for that match, two hours early, the gym was just about packed.
Despite all the hype, Pascack Hills was indeed the consensus favorite, with four future state champions in the lineup. After Belleville’s Carl Arlt had won the first match at 101 pounds, the Cowboys won the next two matches, but one of those wins, a forfeit at 115 pounds, would turn the match around. Silvestri made a tactical move, bumping Vin Mustacchio to 122 pounds and forfeiting at 115, where Pascack’s best wrestler, Tom Husted, was waiting. Husted, a two-time state champion, was indeed the motivating force behind Pascack Hills, and although the Cowboys got six points for the forfeit, some of the steam was taken out of its attack.
Mustacchio would win a major decision at 122 pounds, moving Belleville to within 9-8. Pascack then won convincingly at 129, 135 and 141 pounds to extend its lead to 23-8. The 148 pound match would be critical for the Bellboys, as Robert Villano had to wrestle a future state medalist, in Bob Waldron. Had Villano lost, Pascack would have all but clinched the bout, making the last four matches inconsequential. But Villano worked hard and earned a 2-2 tie, which kept the Pascack lead at 15 points, 25-10.
Chris Tremel would begin Belleville’s comeback, with a pin at 158 pounds and Keith ‘Wildman’ Waddell followed with a major decision at 170. By the time Waddell had gotten on the mat, the fans, which had been loud all match long, were in euphoria, sensing the comeback. Waddell’s win cut Pascack’s lead to 25-20, and when Ken Milano followed with a decision at 188 pounds to make it 25-23, the dejv vu was clearly evident, as George D’Alessandro took the mat at heavyweight for the Bellboys. A year earlier, D’Alessandro stepped on the mat in the final match against Essex Catholic, with his team trailing 24-19. Big George would get the pin to provide Silvestri his biggest win, to date, 25-24.
Now a year later, D’Alessandro only needed a decision to give Belleville the improbable win, but George, with a flair for the dramatic, would get the pin early in the second period. Belleville won, 29-25, and the reverberation of the gym walls was telling. It would be Silvestri’s last dual match as head coach, since he would be promoted to Belleville’s athletic director the following fall.
Over 40 years later, those who were there on Feb. 14, 1976, still say it was the best high school sporting event they ever witnessed.
And that’s why, when the Silvestri Memorial Match is held this coming Jan. 26, at home against Millburn, starting at 6:30 p.m., it will be a time to remember a great man, who put BHS wrestling, literally, on the mat.