The eighth Jim Silvestri Memorial Wrestling Match will be held at Belleville High, on Feb. 1, and a big crowd could be on hand, as the Bucs take on Nutley High, starting at 6 p.m.
Belleville’s resurgent wrestling program, under the direction of Joe Pizzi, should make this year’s match even more special. The tournament began in the winter of 2012, to honor the memory of Silvestri, who is credited by many for establishing the Belleville High wrestling team as one of the best in Essex County and Northern New Jersey, in his role as head coach.
George D’Alessandro (right) and the legendary Pascack Hills coach Bucky Rehain were reunited for the first time in almost 40 years when Rehain attended a Silvestri match in 2014. (Click on photo for larger image)
Silvestri led the Bellboys for a decade before giving up the reigns in the fall of 1976 to become Belleville’s athletic director. Silvestri remained the AD for 14 years, before retiring in the spring of 1990. He died on Nov. 29, 2010.
Having attended Belleville High during the Silvestri era, I remember Jim as not only a tremendous coach, but an excellent mathematics teacher at BHS and a friend to many. His easy-going personality made him a popular person in the building. His humbleness was also renown, as he rarely took credit for the team’s success, instead giving the athletes the bulk of the accolades.
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 (seated, left) with assistant coach Joe Zarra during a 1976 Belleville High match. (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.
Jim Silvestri (center) joined by 1976 team members (l to r) Ron Grolimond, Carl Arlt, Andy Schenke, Robert Villano and Ken Milano. (Click on photo for larger image)
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.
Jim Silvestri encourages Bobby Racioppi during a 1976 match.
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.
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 on Feb. 1, at home against Nutley, starting at 6 p.m., it will be a time to remember a great man, who put BHS wrestling, literally, on the mat.