Sixteen years ago, he was a rising star in the Belleville recreation wrestling program. James Soprano would go on to a tremendous high school career for the Bucs, winning 140 matches, as well as a Region 4 championship in 2007.
Now, after a successful collegiate career at Johnson and Wales, the 2008 BHS grad is back where it all started, and he’s running the recreation team, in the hopes of getting that program back to the success it once enjoyed regularly.
Soprano is excited about working with the younger kids, who generally range from grades 4-8, but also includes kids from grades 1-3.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Soprano last weekend. “The kids are great. Right now, our numbers aren’t where I’d like to see them, as far as overall turnout, but that’s something I hope improves for next year.”
Right now, there’s about 15 to 16 wrestlers competing in the program. When varsity head coach Joe Pizzi reached out to Soprano to run the recreation program, ‘J.J.’ never hesitated.
“Joe is working hard to get that old time Belleville pride back in wrestling,” said Soprano. “It’s what I remember growing up here, when Ron Dileo was my coach, along with Jimmy Palo. Those were good times.”
Soprano’s high school career was outstanding. He and Filiberto Colon were drill partners for four years and the duo did a tremendous job at the lower weight classes. Colon won 156 matches, which was a Belleville High and Essex County record until Filiberto’s younger brother, Justin, eclipsed that record in 2012, winning 163 career matches, the most in the county and fourth, all time, in state history. (Filiberto Colon is still in the state’s top 10 for most victories, as well).
Soprano’s 140 career wins rank him third, all time, in BHS history. He won the 112 pound championship at Region 4, as a junior, and captured an Essex County Tournament crown the following year, at 125 pounds. He was a Region 4 finalist at 125 pounds in 2008 and also competed at the NJSIAA championships at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, on multiple occasions.
This year’s recreation team had put together a 3-1 record through matches of Jan. 13.
“We’re coming around,” said Soprano. “We don’t have enough kids to field a full lineup, but the weight classes we are competing in, we’re doing really well. I’m trying to teach the kids the style of wrestling I grew up with. It worked pretty well for me.”
Joe Anello, himself a standout wrestler at Belleville High, is also on the staff and works well with Soprano.
Belleville’s schedule through the rest of January included road matches at Millburn, on Jan. 20, at 2 p.m., Maplewood, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m., West Caldwell, Jan. 27, at 1 p.m. and Nutley on Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. The next home match is slated for Jan. 31, opposite Bloomfield, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Belleville High gym.
Belleville’s wins, so far this season, have come against Livingston, Glen Ridge and Montclair, with its one loss coming to Cedar Grove.
The wrestlers this season, are Rocco Negron (100 pounds), Jakob Ferrer (65), Huey Tiankee (60), Leo Tiankee (70), Ayden Fox (105), Fernando Collado (112), Elias Collado (105), Luis Petrozzino (105), Jimmy Cicchetti (126), Richard Castro (135), Jayden Goolcharan (80), Michael Zula (90), Colin Soto (75), Jojo Guancione (105 and 112) and Yadiel Flores (60).