A look at sports, politics, A Summer Place at Margate, Montgomery Inn ribs, Rigatoni Quattro Formaggi at Patsy's, Air Force Academy football, 90210, the Cardinals and Rays, The Godfather, Jaws and Airplane! trivia, Hooters wings, the Browns first Super Bowl, or whatever else comes up….
She departed this life in the way she lived it. With dignity, grace and class.
Norma Chatham Milano was a wonderful wife, mother and friend. I first met her in 1965, when she was my Sunday School Teacher at the Church of the Holy Communion, now known as the Church of St. Andrew and the Holy Communion, on South Orange Avenue, in South Orange.
Norma and her husband, PhilChatham, natives of Canada, were raising their two daughters, Peggy and Gail, in the Ivy Hill Park Apartments, on 5 Manor Drive, in nearby Newark. Meanwhile, I also lived in those apartments, with my parents, Marilyn and Elias, at 250 Mt. Vernon Place.
Peggy and I were in the same grade, at Mt. Vernon School, which was located across the street from Ivy Hill Park. We were classmates from third through fifth grade. It was a wonderful education and great place to grow up in. When we weren’t in school, we’d be at the park, just about every day. We’d ride bikes, see the Good Humor man, play on the swings and enjoyed a great time.
But at the end of the fifth grade, my parents had decided to move from Newark to a nearby town called Belleville. My parents had found a nice apartment there, in a brand new garden apartment complex, called Bridgebrook Gardens.
My parents and Peggy’s parents had become friends, mainly because of the affiliation of Norma being a Sunday School teacher and the fact that their children had become friends.
And shortly after we decided to move to Belleville, Peggy called me one night on the phone to say that her family would also be moving to Bridgebrook Gardens, and she and I would start the sixth grade in a new town.
We were literally neighbors, as the Chathams lived in apartment 245 and we were in apartment 248.
Bridgebrook Gardens was a great place. There was a pool on the complex and a lot of young kids living in the units, which meant a lot of new friends, after moving from Newark.
The Chathams would get a sweet dog, named Mr. Beasley, and we always had the family cat.
Our families would remain close, as Peggy and I went to School #7 in Belleville for a year, followed by three years at the junior high and eventually, Belleville High School. We found a church in Belleville where Peggy and I would eventually gain confirmation and first communion.
After high school, life sent us in different directions, but the families remained close. Peggy went on to serve her country as an officer in the United States Army and today is a successful doctor.
Phil Chatham died in 1982, at a young age. Later, Norma would marry a wonderful man in Rocco Milano, and the two enjoyed a beautiful life together before Rocky, a World War II hero, passed away in January, 2013.
Meanwhile, my father died in January, 2004 and my mother joined her husband in Eternity in November, 2018.
And now Norma is reunited with her loved ones and friends. And I can’t help but believe that they’re all having a great time once again, probably on a stoop at Bridgebrook Gardens, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
And this time, they can enjoy themselves for Eternity, and then some.
I am buoyed by that thought, because it is my sincere hope that one day I’ll see them again.
When my mother died last November, Norma contacted me and said simply, “Mike, she’s in a better place.”
Agreed, Norma. You always had the right thing to say. You taught me so much about life, love and respect. I hope I provided you the respect you always deserved.
And I know, in my heart, you are now in that better place, too.
Norma, there’s a reason why I remember you were my Sunday School teacher over 50 years ago. It’s because I really enjoyed everything you stood for.
May God bless you. Please say hello to my parents, as well as Phil and Rocco.
A lifetime of memories will provide solace until that day when we are all reunited.
It may be late June, but the 2019 football season at Wayne Hills is off and running. As of June 27, there’s just 64 days until the regular season opener, in Columbia, South Carolina, against Ridge View High, on Aug. 30.
The Patriots played its first 7-on-7 scrimmage, at Union City, on the fabled roof of the high school. On June 30, the team heads to its annual camp, at East Stroudsburg University, for three nights and will return on July 3.
After a short break for the July 4 holiday, Hills returns to practice on the week of July 8, with a bunch of 7-on-7’s scheduled for most of the month, as well. Since the field at Hills is being re-done, the team will practice on the adjacent grass field, with most of the 7-on-7’s on the road.
After the mandatory 10-day blackout period at the end of July, the players return for about 3 1/2 weeks of practices, in pads, and regular scrimmages, leading up to the season opener, in South Carolina. The scrimmages in August will also be a road-only show, as the turf field continues to undergo renovations.
“It’s coming up quick,” said Wayne Hills head coach Wayne Demikoff. “That’s why I was glad to get the work in today at Union City, before heading to East Stroudsburg. We had a lot of new kids playing varsity football today, and overall I thought it went well. There’s a lot of work to do, but we’re looking good.”
As he spoke to the team after the scrimmage at Union City, Demikoff was quick to remind his team what’s ahead.
“Where we go from here,” said the coach, “is up to you. This is your season.”
Offensive coordinator John Jacob was also pleased.
“Every day, when you come to practice, you should be excited,” Jacob told the team. “Every day is a chance to get better.”
Hills had a tremendous 2018 season, which included the program’s 10th state championship, since 2002, and a first NJSIAA Bowl game win, as well, at MetLife Stadium. The Patriots were 11-2 last season and are 49-19, with a pair of state championships and an undefeated season, since Demikoff became head coach, in 2013.
John and Carmela Senesky moved out of their hometown of Belleville, NJ, some 17 years ago, first to the West Coast, in San Diego, and now, residing in Florida.
And while it’s been 23 years since he coached a high school football game in town, the memories of a lot of good times with John are easy to conjure.
As he celebrated a birthday recently, it seemed like a nice time to look back at the accomplishments of a good friend and mentor.
Senesky was the head football coach at Belleville High, for 20-year period, from 1977-1996. Prior to that, he was the freshman football coach for six years and then an assistant to then head coach Tom Testa for an additional three years.
John was a long-time industrial arts teacher at the Belleville Junior High, then later at the high school. Having had him as a teacher in the seventh and eighth grade, we all called his class, ‘print shop.’
And a funny story about print shop comes from Phil Cuzzi, the MLB umpire, who also had John for that class and has never forgotten that Senesky gave Cuzzi a ‘B’ in that class, when Phil thought for sure, it should have been an ‘A’.
When John wasn’t teaching us about silk screen, or linoleum printing (and don’t cut yourself on the blade while cutting the linoleum), or how to develop black and white film, he would, on occasion, break down some football tape, in class, going over the freshman team’s latest game.
John’s classic sense of humor, with that dead-pan look when telling a joke, has been legendary.
I remember the first time I was ever on the sideline for a high school football game. I was in the eighth grade, and the game at Belleville High matched the freshman against the sophomores, which was always a big-time event. In this particular year, the freshman won, which was a big upset back then. My appreciation for football began that day, nearly 50 years ago.
I covered 99 percent of John’s games as Belleville High’s football coach, beginning in 1977, for the local newspaper. I saw and heard John take ridiculous criticism if the team didn’t win on a particular week and never saw him get the credit he truly deserved, when the team won.
When the Bucs defeated Passaic, 3-2, in THE GAME, back in October, 1982, John deflected the praise, choosing to credit assistant coach Joe D’Ambola with his tremendous work on the special teams.
John’s football acumen spoke for itself. He worked long and hard at becoming a better coach. He led the Bucs to playoff berths in 1979, 1980, 1982 and 1984. There were seven straight winning seasons, from 1978-1984, as well as winning campaigns in 1986 and 1990 and a .500 season, in 1993, against a really tough schedule.
In his final game as head coach, on Thanksgiving Day, 1996, the Bucs sent John out a winner, with a 20-0 victory over Nutley, as Senesky concluded his 20th season as head coach, with 20 seniors on the roster, with a 20 point win.
His football coaching career would continue long past Belleville, with stops at his alma mater, Montclair State, before the move to San Diego, where he was once again a high school head coach and won a conference title, in 2007.
Since Senesky’s departure from Belleville, no less than eight coaches have held that job since 1997. That’s an average of about 3 years, per coach. During the past 22 years, the program’s record is well over 100 games, under .500, and one playoff appearance. The longest run by a Belleville head coach since John’s 20 years was four, each, by Pat Dowling, from 1997-2000 and Joe Fischer (2004-2007).
Off the field, John and his wife Carmela celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, last December. The couple has two children, Danny and Michael.
The family’s Faith speaks volumes. Carmela and John are devoted to their church. When John was a head coach, at Belleville, he was heavily involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
When Carmela and John were faced with what was ominous news that their eldest son was very ill, their faith carried them through difficult times. Dan Senesky, a long-time officer in the United States Navy, is back at work for his country, after battling a serious illness, thanks, in part, to bone marrow donated by his younger brother.
When Carmela and John learned their second grandchild would need additional attention upon his birth, they would move from Belleville to San Diego, in 2002, to be there for their family.
The love of God, and life, in general along with tremendous decency, have defined John Senesky for the first 73 years of his life, and will continue for many years to come.
When John was inducted onto the Belleville High Wall of Recognition in 2010, I was honored enough to give the induction speech. Take a look at it, because it defines some of what this man had accomplished in a lifetime wearing Blue and Gold. It speaks of John’s commitment to his family and student-athletes.
My speech that evening, was entitled,
“WHAT IS THE MEASURE OF A MAN?”
WHAT IS THE MEASURE OF A MAN? IS IT THE WAY HE TREATS HIS FAMILY, WITH LOVE, COMPASSION AND RESPECT? IS IT THE WAY HE PREPARES FOR HIS JOB, EVERY DAY, WITH THAT SAME DILIGENCE AND ATTENTION TO DETAIL?
IS THE MEASURE OF A MAN HIS COMMITMENT TO SPIRITUALITY? IS IT THAT DEVOTION TO GOD WHICH MAKES HIM A PERSON THAT MANY WILL SEEK GUIDANCE AND COMFORT FROM?
IS THE MEASURE OF A MAN, PARTICULARLY THIS MAN, WHAT HE ACCOMPLISHED AS A COACH? WAS IT ABOUT X’S AND O’S? HOW MANY TIMES DID BELLEVILLE BEAT NUTLEY WHILE HE ROAMED THE SIDELINES? (9, IN CASE YOU FORGOT). IS THE MEASURE OF THIS MAN NOT NECESSARILY ABOUT HIS COACHING RECORD, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, HIS COACHING LEGACY? WHAT DID THAT MAN TEACH SO MANY PLAYERS THAT THESE MEN, TODAY, INSTINCTIVELY USE AS A GUIDELINE TO THEIR LIFE’S SUCCESSES?
JOHN SENESKY IS BEING ADDED TO THE BELLEVILLE HIGH SCHOOL WALL OF RECOGNITION FOR FAR MORE REASONS THAN WHAT HE DID FOR THE BELLEVILLE FOOTBALL COMMUNITY. AND FOR THE RECORD, HE DID A LOT. AFTER EXCELLING AS A PLAYER FOR THE BELLBOYS FROM 1961 TO 1963 AND GRADUATING COLLEGE, HE WAS A FRESHMAN COACH AND A VARSITY ASSISTANT AT HIS ALMTA MATER FROM 1968 TO 1976. IN 1977, HE BEGAN A 20-YEAR LABOR OF LOVE AS BELLEVILLE’S HEAD FOOTBALL COACH.
HE COACHED IN WHAT WAS, TO ME, THE GREATEST GAME I’VE EVER WITNESSED. ON OCT. 2, 1982, SENESKY’S BUCS BEAT THE PASSAIC INDIANS, 3-2, AT MUNICIPAL STADIUM WHERE, BELIEVE ME, THERE WERE NO SEATS AVAILABLE. AND AFTERWARD, WHILE THE ENTIRE TOWNSHIP BASKED IN THE MOST IMPROBABLE OF WINS, THERE WAS SENESKY, TALKING NOT ABOUT THE GAME PLAN, BUT A YOUNG MAN’S SPIRIT OF COMPETITION AND DRIVE TO WIN, IRREGARDLESS OF THE SCORE.
FOR 35 YEARS, HE WAS ALSO A TEACHER IN THE BELLEVILLE SCHOOL SYSTEM. I FIRST MET HIM AS MY PRINT SHOP TEACHER IN THE 8TH GRADE. HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO DEVELOP BLACK AND WHITE FILM, SILK SCREENING AND TO BE CAREFUL NOT TO CUT MYSELF WITH THE KNIFE WHILE WORKING ON CUTTING LINOLEUM BLOCKS.
HIS TEAMS WON FOOTBALL GAMES WITH CLASS. THEY LOST THEM WITH DIGNITY. BUT HIS TEAMS WERE ALWAYS PREPARED. ASK ANY OF THOSE PLAYERS TODAY AND THEY’LL TELL YOU THEY LEARNED MORE ABOUT ORGANIZATION AND STRUCTURE BY WATCHING JOHN SENESKY DIAGRAM PLAYS, OR LAY OUT A PRACTICE SCHEDULE.
HE FINISHED WITH A RECORD OF 125-102 AS BOTH THE VARSITY AND FRESHMAN COACH, COMPILING 26 YEARS.
THE MEASURE OF THIS MAN IS BEST TOLD BY A FEW OF HIS FORMER PLAYERS.
Angelo Santinelli captained Senesky’s second varsity team in 1978. That was the first Belleville Buccaneers squad and they finished 6-3. Thirty two years later, Santinelli’s message about his former coach is quite clear.
“John Senesky was more than just a football coach. He was a life coach. The lessons he taught on and off the field continue to inform my decisions. For most of us football is game that we play and replay today only in our dreams. But forever burned in my memory are three words taught to me by John Senesky – Desire, Discipline, Dedication.“
Jerry Ross was graduated from Belleville High in 1981 and today is a successful teacher at his alma mater. He recalls many great times growing up as a Buccaneer while playing football and baseball. He remembers an assistant coach, who could fire up the team as well as anybody and had a way about him that a Belleville kid would truly relate to. But he also remembered his head coach’s low key personality, and ultimately the tremendous respect felt for this man because everyone knew how decent he was.
And when Coach Senesky made sure everyone associated with the program knew he was the man in charge, and did so without raising his voice, Jerry Ross will tell you today that it was Senesky’s insistence that the program be run with class that resonates today in Ross’ own persona as both a teacher and father.
Perhaps this story will best tell you about John Senesky.
Paul Scheuplein graduated Belleville High School in 1981. He was a star athlete in two sports for the Bucs. Nearly 30 years after graduating BHS, he recalls a moment with his coach….
“It was one conversation, regarding a personal matter, that I will thank him for the most. It happened in the middle of the 1980 football season, and I was having off the field issues. Let face it, what 17 year old kid doesn’t have problems? Though we were in the midst of putting together a championship season, my head wasn’t on straight. Mr. Senesky called me aside after a practice and said he wanted to talk. I was wondering what I did wrong, my teammates thought I was in trouble too. But he just wanted to talk about how I was doing at home, in school and with friends. At the end, he finished by making me promise to go home that night and tell my mother that I love her. I remember looking at him like he was nuts, but I did it anyway. I’ll never forget that day and it made me realize what was really most important.
“Mentoring and coaching for John Senesky is in his blood and we should all be glad he was there for us at the right time in history. It wasn’t all X’s & O’s all the time but all the time it was good if it was coming from Coach Senesky.
“If you wanted me to justify his contribution to coaching I would have to recall what I said when I was interviewed by Bruce Beck after the Morris Knolls game in Giants Stadium. It was of course my biggest game as a player having rushed for over 100 yards and scoring the winning touchdown. When Bruce ask what I attributed our success to I told him it was the opportunity Coach Senesky gave us to go out and perform and what more can we ask for but opportunity.“
THE MEASURE OF A MAN FOR SO MANY PEOPLE IS WHAT JOHN SENESKY DOES ON A DAILY BASIS. HIS LOVE FOR HIS WIFE, CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN IS DEEP, PERSONAL, BUT YET VISIBLE.
HIS LOVE FOR THE GAME OF FOOTBALL CONTINUES TODAY, WHERE HE IS STILL A FOOTBALL COACH IN GREATER SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA.
HIS DEVOTION TO HIS FORMER PLAYERS AND THE INDELIBLE IMPRESSION HE’S LEFT ON MEN AGES APPORXIMATELY 31 TO 56 SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.
AND OF COURSE, HIS COMMITMENT TO HIS FAITH AND HIS ABILITY TO HELP OTHERS FIND THEIR PLACE IN GOD’S PLAN, GOES WELL BEYOND HIS CONTRIBUTIONS AS A HUSBAND, FATHER, COACH, TEACHER AND FRIEND.
OTHER THAN MY FATHER AND UNCLE, HE IS THE GREATEST MAN I’VE EVER HAD THE HONOR OF KNOWING. HE’S TAUGHT ME SO MUCH ABOUT LIFE, COMMITMENT AND DEVOTION TO NOT ONLY THE INTANGIBLES WE SEE AND FEEL EVERY DAY, BUT TO SO MUCH MORE THAT WE’LL ONLY UNDERSTAND WITH TIME.
THE MEASURE OF A MAN? IT’S RIGHT THERE, FOLKS. IT IS WITH GREAT RESPECT AND A TON OF HUMILITY THAT I PRESENT TO YOU COACH JOHN SENESKY ON THIS MEMORABLE EVENING.
Phil Cuzzi’s 21-year run as a Major League Baseball umpire has certainly been memorable.
He’s umpired in the MLB playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2005 and 2014, Cuzzi worked in the National League championship series and in 2013, was part of the umpiring crew which worked the American League wildcard game between Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
In 2017, Cuzzi received his first World Series assignment and was behind the plate for Game No. 1, in Los Angeles, between the Astros and Dodgers. He also worked Game 2, in the outfield, before moving to the instant replay review, in New York City, for the rest of the World Series.
Read more about Phil’s World Series assignment here.
He was good enough to umpire in the post-season for six straight years, between 2012 and 2017, and has been named to the post-season 10 times.
Cuzzi also worked the 2008 MLB All-Star game, at the original Yankee Stadium, in that venue’s swansong.
And now, in 2019, he’s been named to his second All-Star game, which will be played on July 9, in Cleveland. He will be the second base umpire.
Cuzzi’s career successes have been well documented. He has been inducted in the Belleville High School Hall of Fame, as well as the Belleville High Wall of Recognition and the BHS Baseball Fence of Fame. Cuzzi was graduated from BHS in 1973, where he played football and baseball.
In 2018, he also gained induction into the Nutley, NJ Hall of Fame.
He was hired as a full-time umpire in the summer of 1999, after many years of toiling as a minor league umpire, beginning in 1985, three years after his dear friend George Zanfini had lent him money to go to umpiring school.
Cuzzi spent eight years on the minor league level, getting an occasional call up to the majors, beginning in 1991. But at the end of the 1993 season, Cuzzi was told his services would no longer be needed, and his hopes of being an MLB umpire appeared to be over.
Cuzzi didn’t quit, and in 1996, was given a second chance to umpire again, but had to start at the lower minor league level. Three years later, National League president Leonard Coleman, the same person Cuzzi had reached out to for that second chance, would call Phil to say he had earned a full time position in the major leagues.
Cuzzi has never forgotten his roots. He still resides locally and has stayed very close to his high school buddies, whom he calls ‘The Fightin’ 73s.’
“I’m very excited about being selected to work in my second mid-season classic,” said Cuzzi. “And I’m very honored that 12 of my Belleville High classmates, the ‘Fightin’ 73s’, will join me in Cleveland to share the memory!”
Rich Giordano, who graduated high school with Phil and has remained a close friend, once said of Phil, “The true meaning of the ‘Fightin’ 73s’ is that a guy named Phil Cuzzi never gave up, and always fought his way back, and up. Great things happen to good people.”
Cuzzi’s commitment to his community has been widely reported. When his close friend and classmate, Robert Luongo, died in 2004 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’, Cuzzi began what is now a wildly popular benefit dinner, to raise money for research in finding a cure for ALS. The dinner recently celebrated its 15th renewal, and it’s always been held at Nanina’s In The Park, in Belleville.
Cuzzi also speaks to local groups about baseball and life, and tries to make himself available for his community, as much as possible.
George Zanfini, who had lent Phil the money to attend umpiring school some 37 years ago, once said, “It’s the best money I ever loaned someone. I’m very proud of Phil.”
Zanfini was one of Phil’s closest friends. He died in August, 2015.
It was Feb. 4, 2016, and Lindsay Gilchrist was in her mathematics class as a freshman at Immaculate Heart Academy.
Softball season was less than a month from beginning, and Lindsay, along with fellow freshmen Emily Gyongyosi and Mia Recenello were eager to get outside and start practicing. While the weather was incredibly cold in early February of that year, spring was coming. That was a lock.
But before practice would begin, Lindsay and her other teammates needed to grasp what happened on Feb. 4.
“I was in math class, when I found out (head coach) Anthony (LaRezza) had passed away,” recalled Gilchrist. “In fact, Emily and I were in the same class. We couldn’t believe it. I’ll never forget that day.”
Coach LaRezza had died suddenly on that terrible Thursday in February, after a battle with cancer. He was just 50 years old.
Gilchrist and Gyongyosi both grew up in Mahwah. They share the same birth date and spent four years playing softball at IHA.
Gilchrist, who originally had a love for competitive swimming, was sold on playing softball at IHA, having seen some great Eagles teams as a youngster, and couldn’t wait to play for LaRezza once she got to high school.
She also played for Academa Elite softball, which LaRezza was a part of, and participated in the summer softball camps, which LaRezza hosted at the IHA campus.
“As a kid, I loved watching IHA play, and wanted to be a part of that one day,” she said.
Gilchrist did indeed make her mark at IHA. She was recently graduated and will attend the University of South Carolina this fall, where she’ll pursue a career in medicine, quite possibly as a pediatric surgeon. Last summer, Lindsay got the opportunity to spend time with a surgeon at a local hospital and witnessed a number of actual surgeries.
“I was really proud of what we accomplished over four years on the softball field,” said Gilchrist, an outfielder and pitcher for the Eagles. “Coach (Diana Fasano) had said at our year-end dinner (on June 17) that over the past four years, we had a 106-14 record. We won two state titles and a Tournament of Champions. That’s pretty good.”
Off the field, Gilchrist and her teammates also kept LaRezza’s legacy alive and well. The team raised $10,000, through various fundraising efforts, and on June 18, presented a check to the Hackensack University Medical Center, earmarked for the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital, benefiting Tackle Kids Cancer.
“We were really excited to see that we had raised that much money,” said Gilchrist, who was the team’s top fundraiser in 2019. “Last year, we presented a check (for $6,892) and this year, we made it to our goal of $10,000.”
Lindsay’s dad, Geoffrey Gilchrist, who was on hand for the check presentation, was very proud.
“That was some job by the kids to raise $10,000,” said Geoffrey. “These past four years have been really special. I know it greatly benefited Lindsay. She was a part of four great softball teams, and academically, it really challenged her.”
Geoffrey Gilchrist also praised the memorable times with the IHA parents.
“We had a lot of fun, going to the games and cheering for our kids,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
Fasano, who completed her fourth season as the head coach at IHA this spring, was very pleased with the presentation. She also noted that approximately $25,000 has been donated to the hospital since 2016.
“It’s been about the kids and their parents,” said Fasano. “They’ve been great. All the money we raised goes directly to the kids in the hospital. It was mentioned at today’s presentation how the children enjoy their’play time and how they love legos and play-doh, but because of infections, once they play with it, it’s theirs because of the high risk of infection.
“So next year, we might look to not only monetary donations, but getting our players involved in seeing if people would donate items that the kids in the hospital would like to play with.”
Emily Gyongyosi’s mom, Sue, was also proud of what was accomplished, and noted that Emily, like all her teammates, are and will continue to be committed to remembering Anthony, through charity work.
Emily, who played second base for IHA, will be attending Boston University this fall.
Carl Corino had said numerous times that the greatest overall era of Belleville High sports (to date) began in the early 1980’s.
And Corino, who coached the softball program to unparalleled success from 1980-2005, would know. He coached some marvelous athletes while leading the Bucs to multiple Essex County Tournament championships, conference titles and a pair of state sectional crowns.
Corino’s time at BHS was so good that the softball complex at Clearman Field was named for him, in 2016.
The beginning of that great era coincided with the arrival of Dina DeAquino to Belleville High, in the fall of 1980. ‘Dina De’, as I often called her, would go on to lead the Bucs to its first two county championships, as well as four incredible seasons.
With that said, it’s hard to believe that a year has gone by since Dina passed away, on June 17, 2018. She was 52 years old and had battled, ferociously, against an illness for many years.
The daughter of the late Marie DeAquino and ‘The Duke’, Tony DeAquino, Dina was a 1984 graduate of Belleville High, where she played and excelled on the varsity tennis, basketball and softball teams.
While I first met Dina in late 1980, I had known about her long before that, since her dad, Tony, was my gym teacher ‘back in the day’ at the Belleville Junior High.
“Dina was the cornerstone of our program,” said Corino, after hearing of Dina’s passing last June. “I had taken over the head coaching job in (the spring of) 1980, and we had a good team that year. But I knew we needed a really good pitcher to make us a legitimate program. Dina came to us as a freshman in the spring of 1981. She had never pitched before, but she had shown potential as a freshman, and I remember her dad getting her pitching lessons. By the spring of 1982, she had become a pretty good pitcher and I knew, then, with such a talented team, that we’d be really good that season.”
Belleville would finish 24-2-2 in 1982 and won the Essex County Tournament championship. If not for a bad call in the state sectional semifinals, the Bucs probably would have won a Group 4 championship that spring.
Dina led Belleville softball to a 23-4 record a year later, along with a second straight ECT crown. She would finish her athletic career in 1984 with another tremendous softball season. The Bucs won close to 90 games during that tenure.
And don’t forget, Dina was a member of four BHS basketball teams that put together a 74-27 record. Those basketball teams were also led by Jennifer Apicella, Loreli Wells and Tracy Buono.
Dina would go on to have a phenomenal career as a pitcher at Montclair State College, and, after graduation, would become an educator, as well as a pitching coach at Princeton University and later, William Paterson University. Dina would also earn a Masters Degree in Administration from Montclair, and rose to the rank of principal in the Belleville school system.
One of Dina’s best friends was Donna Campana, a BHS teammate. Donna was an incredible centerfielder. I’ll never forget the catch she made in the 1982 ECT semifinals, an over-the-head, Willie Mays-type catch, of a long drive against Verona, at Pulaski Park. And there was Dina, who was pitching that night, jumping up and down in the circle with joy, and pointing out to centerfield.
Dina and Donna had always remained close.
“Dina, Jackie Vitiello and I were the three musketeers,” said Campana last year. “We had a friendship that very few people get to experience in life. My son and Dina’s son (Jake) are six months apart. They call each other brothers, as I considered Dina my sister. This is life changing, for Jackie and I. We were both by Dina’s side, 100 percent.”
Kim Valenti, the former Kim Piscatowski, was a standout pitcher for Belleville’s softball team about a decade after Dina played at BHS.
“Dina was an awesome pitcher,” said Valenti. “She was my inspiration.”
Many others registered their love and respect for Dina, and her family, with most calling Dina one of the nicest people they had ever met.
“It’s hard to find words,’ said Mark Foley, a classmate of Dina’s and the softball team’s statistician. “Dina De was one of the sweetest human beings and toughest competitors I have ever known.”
While the softball program went on to a quarter century’s success, including over 500 wins by Corino, the now-retired coach said it all began with Dina.
“There’s no question,” said Corino. “Dina was the key. We had really good players, great kids, for sure. But without that pitcher, we’re not the team we ended up being, and Dina started that. She made this program legitimate.”
My friendship with Dina included many a trip to a local Chinese restaurant, the Jade Fountain, for chicken chow mein, before going to high school basketball games in the early evening. We had such a good time. Dina loved watching sports and that’s why she became such an excellent coach herself, later on.
After graduation, Dina and I remained good friends, and often reminisced about those days at the Jade Foundation, and talked of getting together again, for another round of Chinese food. I last spoke to her in the spring of 2017, when she was coaching softball at William Paterson.
In April, 2019, the Belleville High softball team hosted ‘A Day for Dina’, honoring DeAquino’s legacy, during a tournament at the Corino Softball Complex. It was great seeing Tony DeAquino and his family, there.
One of the top high school softball conferences in the state turned in a pheneomenal all-around year.
The Super Essex Conference’s (SEC) American Division crowned a Group 1 champion, which eventually made it to the Tournament of Champions final, as well as three state sectional champions after sending five (6, if you include Columbia from the SEC Liberty) to their respective title games, and also an Essex County Tournament champion.
Two teams, Mount St. Dominic and Cedar Grove, were ranked among the top four teams in the final state rankings, with Cedar Grove slated as the top public school in the state.
Yes, it was a good year.
Mount St. Dominc had a marvelous season, winning an SEC American Division title and later adding the Essex County Tournament championship for the eighth time since 1996. The Lions then captured a second straight North Non-Public A championship before its season ended with a loss to the eventual top-ranked team in the state, Donovan Catholic, in the Non-Public A final.
MSDA was paced by first-team All-SEC players Dani Dabroski, Alexa Raphael, Allison Winters, Kasey Sekula and Sophia Kiseloski.
Cedar Grove also won the SEC American Division championship, then went on an incredible run in the NJSIAA Tournament. The Panthers captured a third straight state sectional crown and a second Group 1 title, to qualify for the Tournament of Champions (TOC) for the second time in three years. Cedar Grove is the only team, from Essex County, to qualify for the TOC since its inception in 2017.
In the TOC, the Panthers won its semifinal contest before losing to Donovan Catholic in the title game.
Post-season All-SEC accolades included first team honors to Mia Faieta, Jules Cicala, Gianna Kubu and Gianna Bocchino of Cedar Grove.
Faieta, Cedar Grove’s senior pitcher, who will attend St. John’s University this fall, was marvelous all season long, recording over 400 strikeouts this season alone and well over 1,000 K’s for her career. Faieta was the American Division’s, and most assuredly, the overall SEC and North Jersey’s Pitcher of the Year, based on her outstanding performance in the state tournament.
She was, literally, unhittable, in most of her league games, with countless no-hitters, as well as pitching against one of the toughest schedules in the state.
Mount St. Dominic’s Sophia Kiseloski and Fallyn Stoeckel of Nutley were outstanding freshman pitchers, and the Rookies of the Year. Kiseloski pitched a gem in the county championship game, when MSDA dethroned Cedar Grove.
Stoeckel guided Nutley to 18 wins and an appearance in the North 2, Group 3 championship game. She was also a force at the plate.
Dani Dabroski of MSDA had a tremendous season and is the SEC’s Player of the Year. Dabroski will be attending Villanova University this fall. She helped the Lions win a pair of Essex County Tournament championships, as well as back-to-back state sectional titles, and multiple SEC crowns. MSDA was 105-23 in Dani’s 4-year career.
Verona’s tough regular season schedule prepared it for a great run in the NJSIAA Tournament. The Hillbillies won the program’s first state sectional championship since 2005, when that team advanced to the Group 1 final, in Toms River.
This time, Verona, led by senior pitcher Christina Colon, won the North 2, Group 2 championship, dethroning defending champion Hanover Park in the title game. Colon was a force in the sectional tournament, pitching three shutouts and striking out 51 in 26 innings.
Verona played well in the Group 2 semifinal, before losing a close game to Ramsey, which won the Group 2 championship and advanced to the TOC.
Melanie Naeris of Verona was named to the All-SEC first team while second team accolades went to Colon and Kate Ryan.
There are some long-time coaches in the division. Mike Teshkoyan and his brother Mark celebrated their 33rd season at Caldwell, Lorenzo Sozio just completed his 24th season at Mount St. Dominic, Andrea Mondadori-Llauget wrapped up her 15th season at West Essex and Luann Zullo finished her 21st year at Nutley, after four years previously at West Essex.
Point is, there are some really good coaches, not to mention some veteran coaches in the SEC Liberty, including Bob Mayer (over 30 years at Bloomfield) and Jason Daily (19 seasons at Livingston).
This year’s choice for SEC American Coach of the Year is Zullo. She had a very young team that ended up with 18 victories and an appearance in the sectional final against the eventual Group 3 finalist, Chatham.
Read more about Nutley’s big win over Belleville here.
Zullo’s senior class also included shortstop Melanie Conca, who had an excellent season, and Courtney Wilde, a 4-year starter whose season came to an early end when she broke her leg in an April home game against Columbia.
Conca will play ice hockey at Connecticut College, while Wilde will attend Rutgers and play softball there.
Julia Vardiman of West Essex concluded a 4-year career by leading West Essex to the sectional final. Vardiman, who will play shortstop at The College of New Jersey this fall, was a standout pitcher for the Knights, as well as one of the team’s best hitters.
Vardiman also collected her 100th career hit early in the season, when the Knights defeated Nutley.
Here is the All-SEC American softball team, for 2019, as voted by the respective coaches.
FIRST TEAM: Alexa Raphael, Mount St. Dominic. Dani Dabroski, Mount St. Dominic. Allison Winters, Mount St. Dominic. Kasey Sekula, Mount St. Dominic. Sophia Kiseloski, Mount St. Dominic. Mia Faieta, Cedar Grove. Jules Cicala, Cedar Grove. Gianna Kubu, Cedar Grove. Gianna Bocchino, Cedar Grove. Fallyn Stoeckel, Nutley. Jamell Quiles, Nutley. Julia Vardiman, West Essex. Melanie Naeris, Verona 14. Nicolette Luzzi-Salerno, Caldwell.
SECOND TEAM: Katie Peterson, Cedar Grove. Alyssa Coletta, Cedar Grove. Chloe Weinstein, Cedar Grove. Krisyn Smith, Mount St. Dominic. Diana Ytrube, Mount St. Dominic. Johanna Rivera, Mount St. Dominic. Jess Coia, West Essex. Caitlin Cetrulo, Caldwell. Kate Ryan, Verona. Christina Colon, Verona. Lorianne O’Connor, Nutley. Melanie Conca, Nutley.
HONORABLE MENTION: Alex Cruz, Mount St. Dominic. Kaylee D’Argenio, Mount St. Dominic. Brittney Taylor, Cedar Grove. Ryan Cannataro, Cedar Grove. Gianna Waack, West Essex. Jenna Sperduto West Essex. Jessie Loudon, Verona. Allison Naeris, Verona 9. Jaci Murphy, Caldwell. Bridget Nichols, Caldwell. Abigail Policarpio, Millburn. Karoline Policarpio, Millburn. Brianna Cruz, Nutley 14. Courtney Wilde, Nutley.
It was around this time, in 1980. And keep in mind, things were way different back then.
Jimmy Carter was president, Belleville High School football was just beginning to be a powerhouse in North Jersey, the Pittsburgh Pirates were World Series champions, the New York Islanders were beginning a dynasty and the Miracle on Ice, at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, had riveted the nation just three months earlier. In the NBA, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were rookies and would turn the once downtrodden league into a cash cow.
Speaking of Belleville High, that success on the gridiron carried over into baseball, where the new-look Bucs were also an outstanding team. The same could be said of the wrestling, crew, girls basketball and softball teams, too.
It was the beginning of one of the greatest eras of Belleville High sports and Mike Nicosia, a 1980 Belleville High grad, would be a huge part of that success.
Mike was an outstanding football player, from 1977-1979 and excelled on the baseball diamond from 1978-1980. In the spring of ’80, Mike was named the Belleville High Athlete of the Year.
“When I think back on that time, that was quite an honor,” said Nicosia recently. “There were some great athletes at the school back then. There really were. To be named the best that year was something I always took pride in.”
Fast forward some 39 years and, at the Varsity Club breakfast at Belleville High, on Father’s Day weekend, 2019, another Nicosia garnered the Athlete of the Year award.
This time, it was Michael’s daughter, Cherylann, a senior, who starred on the volleyball and softball teams for the Blue and Gold, for four years.
“I think I cried most of the day,” said Michael, after learning of his daugther’s lastest athletic success. “And to think we were both Bellevilel High athletes of the year, is pretty cool.
“Most importantly, it speaks of Cherylann’s hard work to get to where she is. She put a lot of time into being a tremendous athlete.”
Mike would say, at least three more times during a brief conversation how ‘cool’ this moment was, for he and his family, including his wife. the former Doreen Aballo, herself a BHS grad, and elder son, Michael.
Cherylann Nicosia was a marvelous volleyball player and tremendous catcher for the softball team. The legacy of outstanding catchers who have played softball at Belleville High over the last 40 years is impressive. Denise Zarra, Tracy Buono, Laura Caruso, Jackie Velardi, Anavil Siroy and Tiffany Muschio are just a few examples of those who dominated behind the plate for the Bucs.
Cherylann would start for four seasons at BHS. She’ll be graduating soon and will attend Springfield College, beginning this fall. Ironcially, she learned a lot about hitting a softball from one of her father’s closest friends, Frank Fazzini.
“I got to a point where I felt I couldn’t teach Cherylann as much as I could about playing softball,” said Michael. “So, I picked up the phone and called Frankie, who everyone knows was an incredible baseball player at Belleville, and later Florida State. Frank is a great teacher, and worked well with Cherylann. It’s tougher when you’re a parent of a kid. She needed to work with someone else.”
Mike Nicosia played three years of varsity baseball and football, for the Bucs. On the gridiron, he was a stalwart tailback who helped the ’78 Bucs to a 6-3 record, which, at the time, was the best mark for a Belleville High football team in a decade.
A year later, Nicosia was off to a tremendous start for a Buccaneers team that would make the state playoffs for the first time, before a knee injury kept him on the sideline for the last six games of that season. He underwent surgery on his knee late in the season, was at Giants Stadium for the playoff game against Union, on crutches, for the coin toss as a team captain, and then returned to actually play a few downs, in the season finale, against Kearny, on Thanksgiving, just five days later.
On the baseball diamond, Nicosia had a marvelous high school career, then elevated that status to All-American, when he played at Montclair State.
“What it all comes down to is, if you want to be good at a sport, you have to love it,” said Mike. “There’s no other way to put it. That’s all I ever told my own kids, when it came to athletics.”
For Cherylann, attending Belleville High and playing multiple sports was something very special.
“I feel like catching was meant to be for me,” she once said. “And I really enjoyed volleyball, too.” (Cherylann was a team captain in 2018).
And for her dad, he hoped that his daughter enjoyed the game, and the experience of being a Buccaneer, as much as he did a generation ago.
“There was nothing like it,” said Mike of growing up in Belleville. “I’m proud she wore the Blue and Gold, as did my son. There was always something very special about Belleville.”
The Bucs were also well-represented in the SEC’s post-season accolades as eight players earned honors, including four on the first team, in Charlotte Colon, Cherylann Nicosia, Annemarie Smith and Jaylyanna Bratcher.
Earning second team were Nathalie Marin, Jennifer Garrido and Janelle McCann while Krystal Medina was named Honorable Mention.
Nicosia, who will play at Springfield College this fall, was a marvelous catcher for the Bucs. She was also a big part of the team’s offense, as Belleville went on to its best season, record-wise, in 16 years. She’s the choice here for the Colonial Division’s Player of the Year.
Belleville’s strong season earned it a promotion for 2020, as the Bucs will play in the SEC’s Liberty Division.
Belleville head coach Chris Cantarella was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. In his 14th season at the helm, after a good run as the team’s assistant coach, Cantarella, himself a Belleville High grad, has led the Bucs to three 18 win seasons, as well as this year’s 21-3 record.
Glen Ridge also had a number of players earn post-season honors. Lizzy Komorowski and Taylor Townson were named first team, Elettra Giantomenico, Ava Rollo and Ella Strong earned second team and Hannah O’Connor garnered Honorable Mention.
Payne Tech, a new school which combined the former Bloomfield Tech and North 13th Street Tech High Schools, finished 14-11. Tatyanna Rodas and Krystyna Budhu were named first team, All-SEC players in 2019.
Here is the All-SEC Colonial softball team, for 2019, as voted by the respective coaches.
FIRST TEAM: Charlotte Colon, Belleville. Cherylann Nicosia, Belleville. Khadijah Jones, East Orange. Annemarie Smith, Belleville. Sol Berrios, Irvington. Lizzy Komorowski, Glen Ridge. Tatyanna Rodas, Payne Tech. Taylor Townson, Glen Ridge. Destiny Thomas, Barringer. Stephany Leyba, Newark East Side. Krystyna Budhu, Payne Tech. Jaylyanna Bratcher, Belleville.
SECOND TEAM: Rosalia Rivera, Barringer. Elettra Giantomenico, Glen Ridge. Ava Rollo, Glen Ridge. Aurie Mercado, Payne Tech. Nathalie Marin, Belleville. Janelle McCann, Belleville. Ty Rodas, Payne Tech. Jennifer Garrido, Belleville. Amirah Abdul- Mageed, East Orange. Ella Strong, Glen Ridge. Carly Albano, Newark East Side. Zanayah Glimore, Barringer.
HONORABLE MENTION: Alonie Dowden, East Orange Campus. Jada Martinez, Payne Tech. Krystal Medina, Belleville. Anaira Vega, Barringer. Zekiah Enos, Irvington. Barbara Roman, Newark East Side. Hannah O’Connor, Glen Ridge.
It was quite a year for the teams in the Super Essex Conference’s (SEC) Liberty Division.
Livingston won the league championship, winning 11 of its 12 conference games. Columbia handed Livingston its only league loss, but finished a game behind the Lancers for Liberty honors. The Cougars then went on a tremendous post-season run and advanced to the North 2, Group 4 championship game.
Bloomfield’s Lexi Corio was voted her team’s MVP and earned first team, All-SEC honors, along with Destiny Lopez. Montclair Kimberley’s Emily Talkow was also named to the first team.
Sam Burggraf of Newark Academy turned in another stellar season at third base for the Minutemen and will continue playing on the collegiate level, at Babson College. She, too was a first team, All-SEC player.
Livingston’s championship team was led by first-team All-SEC players in Chloe Saperstein, Jess Bullion, Deja Robinson and Hailey Reuter. Coached by Jason Daily, the Lancers are very young and will be a force next season, and beyond.
Columbia’s Hudson Hassler, a junior, is the choice for SEC Player of the Year, in the Liberty Division. Hassler hit .467, with 17 RBI, 42 hits and 40 runs scored.