Wayne Hills falls to Ridge View, 12-0, in a good opening game, in South Carolina, as Abida, Odatalla, Roman and Brunetti excel; Patriots return home, will have bye week, before playing at Wayne Valley, on Sept. 14

The plane had barely touched down on the tarmac at Newark Airport, and for Wayne Demikoff, the wheels were already spinning.

“It was an awesome trip,” said Demikoff of Wayne HIlls’ season-opening football game at Ridge View High, in Columbia, South Carolina. “We played a good team, and that’s what we’re trying to do with these out of state trips to start the season. In the long run, it can really help us.”

Noah Abida played a solid game on defense, leading Wayne Hills with 15 tackles.

Hills lost a 12-0 decision to Ridge View in its season opener, on Aug. 30. This was the fifth straight year that the Patriots opened its season with an out-of-state game. After winning in North Carolina, in 2015, Hills lost to good teams in Pahokee (Fla), Canton-McKinley (Ohio), Timpview (Utah) and this year, in South Carolina.

“We’re playing teams with good size and speed, and for the most part, not using guys on both sides of the ball,” said Demikoff. “I thought Ridge View’s size on the line was impressive and their speed was outstanding. They had some very good athletes. Overall, our defense did a good job. On offense, we didn’t move the ball nearly as well as we would have liked, but that’s something we’ll work on.”

Wayne Hills will have a bye week before playing its next game, on Sept. 14, at arch rival Wayne Valley.

Former Wayne Hills great Greg Olsen, now a 13-year NFL veteran, brings his children to visit in the Wayne Hills rock, when Patriots played in Columbia, South Carolina. Olsen spent time with the Hills players on the sidelines, and was also on hand a day earlier, during a Carolina Panthers pre-season game, in Charlotte.

The trip to South Carolina included some practice time at the University of South Carolina. The team also went to the Carolina Panthers pre-season game the night before its game at Ridge View, and were met by Greg Olsen, Carolina’s star tight end, and, of course, a Wayne Hills alum, Class of 2003.

Olsen was also on hand, with his three children, at the varsity game, to lend his support.

Graduation took its toll on Wayne Hills, following an 11-2 season that included a 10th state sectional title, along with a Bowl Game win, last December.

Wayne Hills head coach Wayne Demikoff addresses his team after a practice at the University of South Carolina.

“We have five kids with varsity experience, over 22 positions,” said Demikoff. “I like the way our kids competed. But we also made some mistakes, turned the ball over and you can’t give away possessions, especially against a team like that. The mistakes are correctable and I really think our team is improving, and that’s encouraging.”

Noah Abida had a tremendous game on defense, leading the Patriots with 15 tackles. Dan Bernard and Joe Brunetti had 10 tackles each. On the defensive line, Sharif Odatalla and Angel Roman played very well.

On offense, Steve Masten and Dean Imparato had five catches each. Quarterback Mike Casasanta completed 14 passes and did a good on defense. Dan Daily was also a force on defense, applying pressure on the quarterback, including a sack.

Dan Daily (20), Noah Abida (15) and Mike Casasanta (7) all played well in the season opener in South Carolina.

The game itself was played in pleasant weather, with a big crowd on hand, in a nice complex at Ridge View High. Temperatures were in the low 80’s, with clear evening skies. Three years ago, the Patriots opened in the Florida Everglades, in extreme heat and humidity.

“We prepared for hot weather, but it turned out pretty good,” said Demikoff. “We came here to win, so in that regard, it’s disappointing. But I think we’re making progress.”

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By mike051893

Lonnie Bunch recalls that last Belleville High football game with East Orange, 50 years ago; Belleville High football has played a myriad of different teams in season openers since; A half-century later, is it time for Belleville and East Orange to play each other on the gridiron once again?

He is today the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, a man whose accomplishments speak volumes.

And for Lonnie Bunch, it did indeed all start in Belleville, NJ. Fifty years ago this fall, Lonnie was a senior at Belleville High, getting ready for the football season. The season opener would take the Bellboys to a familiar site, East Orange High, which was a traditional season-opening game for both schools.

Lonnie Bunch, a 1970 Belleville High graduate, here in his office, in Washington, DC, back in 2017.

However, on Sept. 27, 1969, not everything worked out the way it was planned.

Belleville always had a difficult opening game assignment with the Panthers. Even when the Bellboys were a state power, as they were in 1962, with an 8-1 record, the sole loss was on opening day, to East Orange.

Now, in 1969, the Bellboys would once again open against that familiar opponent, and play them on the road. East Orange’s program was outstanding. It had put together back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1967 and 1968, and won state titles.

But in the age of Woodstock, the first Moon landing and the Miracle Mets, 1969 would provide an upset, and sadly, the end of a high school football rivalry.

John Senesky (right) and George Zanfini, here in this 1971 photo, were the freshman football coaches at Belleville, from 1968-1973.

Belleville would win that day, 13-6, in a pretty big upset, but at the end of the game, violence broke out at the stadium. It wasn’t between the players, but more focused in the stands.

Read more about Lonnie Bunch’s career here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/05/28/belleville-new-jerseys-own-lonnie-bunch-iii-ascends-to-the-top-of-his-profession-as-the-new-secretary-of-the-smithsonian-bunch-is-the-first-african-american-in-the-173-year-history-of-the-smithso/

As the Belleville players, coaches, cheerleaders, band and fans headed to their respective buses and cars, fear would take the place of euphoria. The post-game altercation would carry over to where the buses were parked, and rocks were thrown.

A half century later, Lonnie Bunch recalls the incident vividly.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” said Bunch, a man who today has been in the presence of six United States presidents and this past May, was elevated to Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “I was upset because I was hurt and I was disappointed that I could not face the team that defeated BHS every year.

Lonnie Bunch was the Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, before being promoted to Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in May, 2019.

“I remember that Doug Brown stunned East Orange with a halfback option pass for a touchdown to Vinny Constantino. After the game, we boarded the buses and started to leave, but then the street was blocked off. Suddenly rocks burst through the window and everyone ducked on the seats.”

Long-time Belleville head coach John Senesky was a freshman football coach at Belleville High in 1969, along with George Zanfini. On Saturdays, while the BHS varsity, whose head coach in ’69 was John Amabile, would play their games, Senesky and Zanfini would be scouting the following week’s opponent.

“George and I were watching Bloomfield play on that day,” recalled Senesky, from his Florida home. “Bloomfield, of course, is close to East Orange, so George and I were going to go to East Orange to see the end of the Belleville varsity game, but when we got there, we could tell the game was over, so we headed back to Belleville.”

John Senesky enjoyed a tremendous 20-year run as Belleville High’s head football coach, from 1977-1996.

Senesky and Zanfini would drive to Nolton Street, to wait for the buses to pull up behind Munisipal Stadium, which was the norm after a road game.

“Something was definitely off,” said Senesky. “You could just tell. We figured there would be a lot of excitement, because Belleville had beaten East Orange, and East Orange hadn’t lost in a few years.

“And then the buses come around, and you can see broken windows, and cheerleaders that had been cut, and we found out that rocks had been thrown. It was unfortunate.”

Meanwhile, on one of the buses, Bunch remembered the harrowing ride home, after the rock attack.

Lonnie Bunch has been in the presence of six United States presidents, including President Bush (43), President Obama and President Trump.

“Everyone was scared because it seemed an eternity (to get out of the area),” said Bunch. “I remember some of my teammates spewing racial epithets and saying ‘let me off the bus’, to go fight those throwing the rocks. I remember thinking, I will just wait out the barrage.

“We finally moved a few blocks and then stopped to assess the damage. I remember that some of the cheerleaders or the twirlers suffered minor cuts. It was disappointing that it took at least 20 minutes before we were able to move out of the ambush.”

Senesky noted that a lot was learned about that afternoon, in East Orange.

“I think all schools learned a better way to park the buses at events, so that if something did occur, it would be easier to get out after a game,” said Senesky. “Sight managers would learn better ways for teams to get in, and out, of events, so that not everyone was leaving in the same direction.

“The buses were pinned in that day, and that made it more difficult to get out of that situation.”

On the heels of the incident, Belleville township officials determined that the football rivalry with East Orange would cease, starting in 1970. However, since both schools were a part of the Big 10 Conference, Belleville and East Orange would continue to play each other in just about every other varsity sport.

Ironically, Senesky and Bunch would both be inducted onto the BHS Wall of Recogition in 2010.

“The football game with East Orange was a sad ening to a game, as well as what could have continued to be a  local Essex County rivalry,” said Senesky. “Lonnie Bunch has certainly done very well for himself in Washington, DC. He has made Belleville and BHS very proud.”

Bunch, also recalled the ramifications of the post-game incident.

“At some point, the mayor of East Orange apologized, but a decision was made not to play East Orange for the foreseeable future,” said Bunch. “I have no idea if that ban still exists.”

Belleville and East Orange have not played, on the gridirion, in 50 years. Chances are, officials from both towns today aren’t even aware of the incident anymore.

Since the end of what was a tremendous opening-week rivarly, Belleville has played 21 different schools, in a season opener, since 1970.

While a season opener is certainly a new beginning, at Belleville, there have been a host of opening opponents over the last five decades. Going back 50 seasons, Tenafly, who Belleville will play in this year’s opener, will mark the 21st different opening opponent for the Bellboys, and later, the Bucs. 

Since 1970, those opponents have been Bayonne (1970-1971, 2010), West Essex (1972-1975), Livingston (1976-1981), Passaic Valley (1982), Nutley (1983, 2012-2013), Don Bosco Prep (1984-1985, 1992-1993), Paramus (1986-1987, 2004-2005), Passaic (1988, 1999, 2009), Paramus Catholic (1989), Hackensack (1990-1991), Teaneck (1994-1995, 2000-2003), Scotch Plains (1996-1997), Barringer (1998), Bergen Tech (2006-2007), Newark East Side (2008), Bloomfield (2011), Snyder (2014), Indian Hills (2015), Newark West Side (2016-2017), Dickinson (2018) and Tenafly.

Belleville’s longest consecutive streak of opening day wins over that period came from 1981-1984, when the Bucs downed Livingston, Passaic Valley, Nutley and Don Bosco to open those respective seasons. Belleville went on to winning seasons, as well, from ’81-’84, and qualified for the NJSIAA playoffs twice.

While they don’t have to meet on opening day, it would be nice to see the towns play each other again. Belleville has played football against just about every Essex County school, including Glen Ridge, Orange and Caldwell, since 1969.

It’s time for Belleville and East Orange to play each other in football again.

By mike051893

Wayne Hills Football: 5th straight year beginning season with an out-of-state opponent; Here’s a photo look back at the first 4 trips, as well as team’s arrival in South Carolina for 2019

For the fifth straight year, the Wayne Hills High football team will open the season against an out-of-state opponent. This time, the Patriots will fly to Columbia, South Carolina and face Ridge Rive High, on Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Hills is 1-3 in its first four games. The team defeated Graham High, of North Carolina, in 2015, 53-13. The following year, the Patriots played well, in the Florida Everglades, but came up short against an eventual 14-0 team, Pahokee High, 34-23. Ironically, Hills would not lose for the rest of the ’16 season and at the conclusion of the year, the Patriots were awarded a forfeit win against Pahokee after it was discovered the Florida-based school had used an illegible player.

In 2017, the results were one-sided as Canton-McKinley High blanked Hills, 31-0, at the legendary Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium, in Canton, Ohio.

Last year, the Patriots faced perhaps the strongest opponent, to date, in Timpview High of Provo, Utah. Hills played well, but lost, 31-28. Similar to 2016, the game was actually a springboard to an excellent season, as the Patriots won a 10th state sectional championship, then added a first-ever North Group 4 Rothman Bowl game title, over Phillipsburg, to cap an 11-2 season.

And now, on Aug. 30, Wayne Hills takes on a strong Ridge View High team. According to head coach Wayne Demikoff, Ridge View has an outstanding defense and are very big and physical on the line.

There’s been plenty of good memories on these trips to different states, including practicing and visiting some legendary college fields, including the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Elon University, the University of Miami, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Youngstown State.

Here are some photos of previous years, along with this year’s successful departure. Hills will practice on Aug. 29, in South Carolina, then play a JV game, On Aug. 30, the team will have a walk-through, then play the varsity game. The Patriots fly home on Aug. 31.

The 2015 Wayne Hills cheerleading squad, before the bus ride to Graham High, in North Carolina.
The Patriots, in Ohio, with legendary former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, in 2017.
Wayne Hills coaching staff at BYU, 2018.
At the school, before another trip, 2017.
Beautiful night in Utah, for a college game, 2018.
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2017.
Leaving for Florida, 2016.
Getting ready for kickoff in the Everglades. (It was hot that night !)
Practicing at ‘The U’.
Coach Claudio getting intense at the University of Miami, during a 2016 practice.
Coach Dem boarding the bus for the 2019 trip to South Carolina.
The Wayne Hills band was wonderful again in 2019, in sending the team off in style.
Coach Zaccone and Coach Claudio having a chat while the U-Haul is packed for the trip to South Carolina.
By mike051893

2 days ’till South Carolina: Wayne Hills back to work after a so-so game scrimmage at Union City; regular season opener set for Aug. 30, at Ridge View High

Following a compelling 7 a.m. film session on Aug. 26, the Wayne Hills Patriots football team was back on the practice field, looking to make corrections off its final scrimmage at Union City two days earlier.

While the offense accounted for over 200 yards and three scores in its first three possessions, the defense struggled in an eventual 28-17 setback on the roof at Union City.

Wayne Hills offensive coordinator John Jacob addresses the team during a recent practice.

Head coach Wayne Demikoff wasn’t pleased after the scrimmage. With the regular season opener at Ridge View High, in Columbia, South Carolina scheduled for Aug. 30, the coach had hoped for a better all-around effort in the final tune up.

“On the plus side, the film work helped, in that we identified what needed to be corrected,” said Demikoff following Monday’s practice. “We had a good practice on Monday, as well.”

For the fifth straight season, Wayne Hills will open its regular season out of state. The past four games have seen Hills lose three times, albeit with some good overall results.

In 2015, the Patriots traveled to Graham High, in North Carolina, and won going away, 53-13. The following year, Hills traveled to the Florida Everglades and played a tremendous team in Pahokee High School.

Pahokee won a thriller, 34-23, but Hills used the game as a springboard to the rest of the season. The Patriots won its next 11 games and captured a state sectional title for the first time in five years. And to top it off, the game with Pahokee ended up as a victory, when the Florida school was forced to forfeit its entire season, and 14-0 record, because of an ineligible player on its roster.

Wayne Hills’ Noah Abida (seated) works on a helmet, as do his teammates, as the team put on its decals, in anticipation of the season opener on Aug. 30.

In 2017, Wayne Hills traveled to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio and ran into a buzzsaw named McKinley High School. Hills was shutout, 31-0, but did come back to finish 7-4 and win a round of the playoffs.

Last year, the Patriots traveled West to play Timpview High, an outstanding team, located in Provo, Utah. While Hills lost a close game, 31-28, similar to 2016, the Patriots would go on to a championship season, winning its 10th state sectional title and the first North Group 4 Rothman Bowl game, en route to an 11-2 season.

And now, a new season begins in South Carolina.

“Ridge View has a really good team,” said Demikoff. “They have good size up front and a lot of speed. We’re really excited about playing them, but know we’ll need a top effort to win. I think the Union City scrimmage showed our kids the work we need to do, and that’s why this week’s practices leading up to South Carolina are so important.”

Wayne Hills head coach Wayne Demikoff talks to team after practice. In addition to the work on the field, there’s plenty for the players to remember, as they get ready to travel to South Carolina.

Wayne Hills assistant coach Bill Weigel, himself a former high school head coach, delivered a strong message to the team after Monday’s practice.

“You have an opportunity that probably 99 percent of the teams in the state won’t have, and that’s to travel out of state and represent your school and our state,” said Weigel. “School hasn’t started yet, so your entire focus should be on mental and physical preparation for Friday night. What a great thing, to get on a plane, visit a different state, practice there, stay in a hotel, then get ready for what should be an exciting game in front of a big crowd.

“Football should be the only thing on your mind this week. This is a business trip, but something we want you to enjoy, too.”

Of course, winning the season opener would certainly make the trip to South Carolina that much more satisfying.

“There’s a lot of things to do when you travel as a team,” said Demikoff. “We try and keep things as organized as possible, but there’s stuff we have to do every day, so that when we’re ready to go on Wednesday, after practice, we’re getting on the bus, and next thing you know, we’re heading to South Carolina. Everything else is taken care of.”

The Patriots will practice on Wednesday morning, then board a series of buses for the ride to the airport. The team will fly to South Carolina, and spend three nights in Columbia. Hills will practice on Thursday, then get ready for a JV game, at Ridge View, late that afternoon.

On Friday, it’s the varsity’s turn to play, in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff, and the Wayne Hills cheerleaders will also be on hand to root their team on.

On Aug. 31, the team will fly home, then get a bye week before preparing to play at Wayne Valley, on the night of Sept. 14.

By mike051893

Nutley High’s Samantha Gabrielle and Kristina Lopomo are named team captains for the 2019 girls varsity soccer season

Beginning his eighth season as head coach of the Nutley High girls’ soccer team, Mike DiPiano can look back with pride on the success of the program.

DiPiano has guided Nutley to six winning seasons against a rigorous schedule in the Super Essex Conference. In addition, the program has sent a number of players onto the collegiate level.

As the 2019 campaign nears, Nutley has a strong core of younger players, and with that, two oustanding candidates as team captains.

DiPiano announced that the captains this fall will be seniors Samantha Gabrielle and Kristina Lopomo.

“I’ve had Sam and Kristina at my soccer camps since they were in third grade,” said DiPiano. “They were inseperable then and still are. As the years went on, I knew they were going to be special players for our program.”

Lopomo was thirlled to be named a captain.

“To me, what it means to be a captain is to show leadership, on and off the field,” said the senior. “This season, I believe Sam and I will do our best to lead the team to take one step further.”

Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano, along with team captains Samantha Gabrielle (left) and Kristina Lopomo.

Gabrielle is excited about leading a talented team.

“I have very high expectations for the upcoming season, considering the talent we have both coming in, and returning,” she said. “I believe, as captains, this year Kristina and I just need to keep the team focused and playing our game.”

The team’s youth, with a strong freshman and sophomore base, is encouraging.

“It’s different from previous years, in that we have a very young team,” said Gabrielle. “So it is important for us to step into the role as leaders, to keep us working hard and on the right track. Overall, I am very excited for one more ride.”

Both captains have plenty of varsity experience.

“Sam and Kristina have been on the varsity since their freshman year,” said DiPiano. “They have come full circle since the third grade, and I am ecstatic that they are our captains this year.

“They are deserving, have put their time in to make the program better and have accepted the youth of last year’s and this year’s team.

“I’m proud of them. They are going to do a great job.”

By mike051893

40 years later: Belleville High football team defeated in week #2 by Montclair, but team wouldn’t lose again in regular season; This week, a look back at wins over Nutley and Passaic as DiPasquale’s INT and LaBruzza’s 100+ rushing game led the way past the Indians

(Third in a series, looking back at the 40th anniversary of the Belleville High football team’s first-ever NJSIAA playoff berth).

The 1979 varsity football season had started well, with a resounding 35-8 win for the Belleville Bucs, over Livingston. Six days later, the team would go on to the road to play Montclair.

The roster, 1979

Part 2 of the series can be read here: https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/40-years-later-belleville-opened-the-1979-football-season-with-a-statement-type-victory-over-livingston/

Part 1 of the series can be read here:

https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/08/14/40-years-later-remembering-the-first-belleville-high-football-team-to-earn-a-njsiaa-playoff-berth/

Montclair had proven to be a tough nemesis for the Bucs, since the rivarly was renewed in 1977. The Mounties had blanked Belleville, 14-0, in ’77, then won a convincing 27-6 decision the following year, in Belleville.

Now, at Montclair, a close game was expected between two good teams.

“We always had tough games with Montclair,” recalled then-head coach John Senesky. “Their speed was a problem. They were well coached and a tough team, physically.

Robert LaBruzza (30) had a big game in a win over Passaic, in 1979.

Belleville went into Montclair on a Saturday afternoon and lost a 14-7 decision to the Mounties. Frank Swain scored the lone Belleville TD. Swain was a hard-as-nails running back and an outstanding athlete. He was a senior that fall and a generation later, his son would also play for Senesky, and the Bucs.

With a 1-1 record, the Bucs needed to get its offense back on track. Forty years ago, only four teams qualified, per section, for the NJSIAA playoffs, and rarely did a team with two losses qualify in North 2, Group 4. So, with a loss already, the Bucs’ chances for making the playoffs nearly two months later would be slim to none if the team lost another game.

In the third week of the ’79 season, Belleville would visit arch rival Nutley. While the Raiders had pretty much controlled the rivalry, the wheels had turned a year earlier when the Bucs won a resounding 31-0 game, at Municipal Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Ralph Borgess, here with Frank Swain, was a big part of Belleville’s success in 1979.

Belleville hadn’t won, at Nutley, since 1971, and while the Bucs were favored, it was clear the Raiders weren’t planning to rekindle the 1978 effort. This time, the game was a tough defensive battle, which was scoreless at halftime.

In the third quarter, the Bucs would score the game’s only touchdown, on a 41-yard pass from quarterback Ed Aulisi to Len Mendola. Belleville had taken a 7-0 lead and went on win by that score.

Senesky, himself a former Belleville football player, knew that any win over Nutley was a good one. He admitted that his team didn’t play well, offensively, but did say, “it’s a win against Nutley, and we’ll take it.”

The 2-1 Bucs would return home to play Passaic, on a Saturday night, Oct. 13. The Indians were undefeated and had beaten Belleville decisively, 36-12 and 38-13, in the previous two meetings, both of which were at Belleville.

Passaic was really good and had one of the best quarterbacks I ever saw on the high school level in Mark Stevens, who could throw a 70-yard pass effortlessly and ran like the wind.

Ralph DiPasquale (40) made the key interception in a win oer Passaic. Bucs went on to defeat the previously unbeaten Indians, 26-14.

Stevens would go on to play at Purdue University and later, the University of Utah, playing professionally in the Canadian Football League and briefly in the NFL. He was a 6’4″, 200 pounder, with marvelous athletic ability. In 1978, Stevens had torched a young Belleville defense, running and passing the Indians to a dominant victory.

This time, the Belleville defense seemed more prepared for Stevens, but nevertheless, gave up 14 first half points. On offense, the Bucs were much stronger, led by Robert LaBruzza, who would rush for over 100 yards.

The turning point of the game came in the third quarter, when Ralph DiPasquale made a tremendous interception of a Stevens rainbow in the end zone. The pass was well thrown, but DiPasquale, known to his teammates as ‘The Bear‘, leaped and made a huge play to stop a Passaic rally.

DiPasquale had a penchant for making big plays. In 1978, his interception and subsequent touchdown return, sealed a big 16-7 win, at Arthur L. Johnson High, in Clark.

(And later in ’79, Ralph would be a part of one of the biggest wins in school history).

DiPasquale was met on his sideline by defensive coordinator Ralph Borgess, who hugged Ralph on his stalwart play. The interception clearly turned the tide of the game, and Belleville went on to win, 26-14.

Ed Aulisi (12) hands off to Mike Nicosia. Unfortunately, Nicosia’s 1979 season would be cut short in the fourth game of the season, with a knee injury.

Belleville was 3-1, and would be favored in its next two games over Irvington and Essex Catholic. However, not all the news was good.

Mike Nicosia, Belleville’s star tailback, injured his knee in the second half of the Passaic game. Nicosia would miss, in essence, the rest of the season, and now Senesky and his staff would have to compensate for the loss of perhaps its best offensive player.

Next week, a look back at the next three games, including a game for the ages against Seton Hall Prep.

By mike051893

Four years later, George Zanfini’s love of Belleville and zest for life are remembered by so many

Teacher.

Coach.

Friend.

Mentor.

Surrogate Father and Godfather.

Scoreboard Operator.

Kentucky Basketball Maniac.

You name it, and for 72 years, George Zanfini filled just about all those roles.

Most importantly, he may have been the first in the Belleville school system to receive the highest accolade a kid could provide a teacher. George was known by just one letter. He was ‘Z’. Or, to most of us kids, ‘Mr. Z’. 

George Zanfini, in 2008, after the varsity baseball field at Belleville High was named after him.

George was called home on Aug. 19, 2015, leaving so many people pondering his legacy, friendship, or just recalling a moment with George, and laughing, and crying at the same time. The outpouring of emotion and respect for this man from people ages 25-75 on social media has been staggering, both at the time of his death and for years since.

Z was 72 years old, and if anyone was the ultimate Bellevilleite, it was him. 

George, here with good friends Chipper Biafore, Frank Fazzini, Alan Frank, Phil Agosta and myself, in 2014.

Now, four years after his passing, George continues to mentor so many of us.

George was the man, plain and simple. A 1961 graduate of Belleville High, he never left the township he loved. In the ultimate irony, he passed away in his long-time Belleville home. 

“I can’t even tell you what this man meant to me,” said Alan Frank, a 1973 BHS graduate who later coached baseball at his alma mater, when discussing George’s passing four years ago. “When I came back to coach (in 1999), I really had to work on George to get him to be an assistant on my staff. I needed his help with all the work that goes into being a head coach. He stayed with me for two seasons. And George was always there. When I was a kid, our class of 1973 had such a bond with him.”

In 2011, George joined members of the 1981 GNT champion Belleville baseball team at Ken Constantino’s golf outing, at Hendricks Field.

George once told me a story about these small college pennants he’d hang up in his classroom way back when, and how the students really took to naming the school and team moniker, especially during the college football season. 

I first met Z some 48 years ago, when he was my Social Studies teacher in the eighth grade at the Belleville Junior High School, on Washington Avenue.

It was hard to believe that George was just 28 back then. I learned about the Civil War, Reconstruction and World Wars I and II during that class in the 1971-72 school year. I became a fan of History because of him. As the years went on, George would move to Belleville High as a teacher around the same time I started at the high school. I knew he was a heck of a freshman football coach and an even better baseball coach. 

In 2016, the Belleville High softball team wore the letter Z on their helmets to honor the late coach.

When I started writing for a newspaper, in 1975, George and I would often speak about a game that he coached, or reminisce about a season. He would kid how then head freshman football coach John Senesky would practice for hours. “I’d tell him, John it’s too dark out, we gotta send these kids home. But John was so dedicated.” 

Nearly nine years after graduating high school, a young man named Phil Cuzzi had a dream to attend professional umpiring school. Problem was, he didn’t have the money to go. A quick conversation with George changed all that. Seventeen years later, Phil Cuzzi was named a Major League Baseball Umpire and continues to thrive on the MLB circuit today. In 2017, Phil worked his first World Series and this year was named to work his second MLB All-Star Game.

In 2013, George was given a surprise party, celebrating his 70th birthday, at the Chandelier.

Phil and George were as close as two friends could possibly be. George once called the loan he gave to Phil the best loan he ever gave to someone.

My last conversation with George was in July, 2015, after his favorite all-time BHS baseball player, Frank Fazzini, found out he was being inducted into the Florida State University Hall of Fame later in 2015. Frank was hoping George would be able to attend those ceremonies.

“Frank was a great kid then and a wonderful man now,” said Zanfini. “He was just a tremendous all-around player. We always kidded then that he was the guy without a position. And look what he accomplished at Florida State and getting a chance to play professional baseball.” 

George and John Senesky were freshman football coaches at Belleville, from 1968-1973. This photo was taken in the Fall of ’73.

Danny Constantino, another BHS grad who loved Z, made a very telling statement when he heard of George’s passing. 

“Think about how many thousands of Belleville kids’ lives Z has had an impact on,” Danny said, “He was one of a kind.” 

In 2014, the Belleville Little League was going to honor Fazzini, along with Chipper Biafore, Mike Mundy and Frank Petite for their accomplishments as professional baseball players who had grown up and played baseball in Belleville. George wanted to have dinner with some of us, so Chipper, Phil Agosta, Alan Frank and I joined George for what was a marvelous night at LaSicilia’s. We laughed, told stories and had a wonderful time. 

I said to George, “everyone at this table either had you as a teacher, or coach, a lifetime ago, and here we all are tonight. Do you realize the impact you’ve had on us?” 

And, typical Z, just smiled, and said, “I guess.” 

In 2014, George was on hand at the Belleville Little League field and was acknowledged by the crowd.

I’ve always said guys like George, Senesky and so many other teachers never realized, or at least admitted, how influential they were to us growing up in Belleville. They’re the reasons why the memories were so good. George worked the scoreboard for just about every Belleville High basketball game and wrestling match that was at the high school for five decades. He was the man on the scoreboard at high school football games, too. 

“You kids were something special,” George would say to me in the later years, recalling my high school days. “I mean, you guys were respectful and fun to be around. Your parents taught you that. I must have made $9,000 a year back then teaching, and I wouldn’t have left for anything.” 

His legacy as the Belleville High baseball coach included eight marvelous seasons between 1975-1982 and again in 1987, as well as those two years as Frank’s assistant in 1999 and 2000. George often yelled at me when I would remind him of that epic 1975 game between Belleville and Irvington, because the Bellboys lost, in 14 innings.

George and John Senesky were close friends for many years.

There was the 1981 team that won the GNT in classic style and there was George, taking it all in after the Bucs beat Glen Ridge in the final, 10-4. 

In 2007, the Belleville Township Council voted to name the baseball complex at BHS, the George ‘Z’ Zanfini Municipal Baseball Field. A year later, we finally had the ceremony to make it official, and I was lucky enough to Emcee the event. There was George, with tears in his eyes, taking in the entire night. 

George was feisty, too. If he didn’t agree with something, especially the way the school system was run, or for that matter, the Township, he’d let you know his feelings, loud and clear. It was that voice which resonated well with his friends. 

Four months after George’s passing, some close friends gathered at Belleville High, as a commemorative locker was dedicated to Zanfini’s memory.

George was a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan. When he wasn’t working the scoreboard, he’d be home watching his beloved Wildcats play hoops. He loved all sports, but he’d often get crazy about the quality of officiating. “They all (stink),” he’d say about umps, or referees. “They’re awful.” 

When Wayne Demikoff was an up and coming History teacher in George’s department at Belleville High, he was also an assistant football coach at Wayne Hills High School. Every Friday, during the football season, there was George, bringing Wayne a cup of his favorite Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, to wish Demikoff luck. 

“He was a great guy to me,” said Demikoff, now a History teacher and head football coach at Wayne Hills. “When George retired (in 2007), there was a huge void in that building. I remember how he’d come to my class and talk to my students, about history. He was something else.”

George’s sister-in-law, Trudi Posey, had told me that after George passed, that the funeral procession will stop by the baseball field to bid adieu to the ballpark George loved. 

“We’d like to give it a nice sendoff,” Trudi said, her voice cracking. 

In my faith, I believe that we will all see each other again one day. I can only imagine the Belleville party in Eternity, featuring George, Tommy Apicella, Mike Marotti, Sam Giuffrida, Ed Berlinski, Jim Silvestri, Doug Cantarella, Canio Constantino, Mike Pollard, Pete Spera, Bill Bakka, Joe D’Ambola, Chicky Puleo, ‘Doc’ Ellis, Milt Goldfarb, Ray Kimble, Red Clenighan, Bob Leffelbine, Bob Wis, Elias Lamberti and the countless others that helped shaped our lives as kids. 

There’s a great line in the song ‘The Way We Were’.

“Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time re-written every line? And if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we? Could we?”

I love you, George. Thank you for everything.

By mike051893

40 years later: Belleville opened the 1979 football season with a statement-type victory over Livingston

(Second in a series, looking back at the 40th anniversary of the Belleville High football team’s first-ever NJSIAA playoff berth).

The Belleville High football team had entered the 1979 season feeling good about a big season. The ’78 Bucs had finished 6-3, and a lot of players who helped that team turn the corner were back a year later.

Head coach John Senesky and his coaching staff would welcome the team back for the start of official practice on Labor Day weekend. That, of course, is a big change from today, where most teams begin playing regular season games on Labor Day weekend, with practices starting as early as mid June.

“We weren’t even allowed to start practice until the last weekend in August, or early September,” recalled Senesky. “Our first (regular season) game wasn’t until the last weekend in September.”

While the team would officially practice with coaches around Labor Day, the kids were working out all summer long. With practice about to begin, the school year was also closing in.

Senesky would begin practice with the power index testing, as well as a decathlon.

“The power index would measure a player’s strength based on his size,” said Senesky. “There would be a series of four weight lifting events, followed by six other conditioning (running) events, which would test endurance and speed.”

Read Part 1 of this series, here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/08/14/40-years-later-remembering-the-first-belleville-high-football-team-to-earn-a-njsiaa-playoff-berth/

Once the decathlon and power index was completed, the coaching staff would hand out pads and helmets, and practice would begin.

Belleville had a good core of players, with the senior class beginning its third year under Senesky’s tutelage. As sophomores, there were plenty of lumps to take, including the infamous 63-0 loss to Seton Hall Prep, in Nov. 1977.

Jerry DiGori and head coach John Senesky.

The ’77 Bellboys had finished 2-6-1 in Senesky’s first season at the helm. The team was shutout in its first three games by Livingston, Montclair and Nutley. In the fourth week of the season, Belleville lost to Passaic, 36-12, but was actually celebrating in the fourth quarter after finally scoring a pair of touchdowns. A week later, the team would win its first game, edging Irvington, 17-14, at Municipal Stadium.

A week later, Belleville rallied from a 12-0 and 18-6 deficit to defeat Essex Catholic, 26-18, at home. Frank Pizzi, a senior, led the running attack and a sophomore, Ed Aulisi, began to establish himself as a standout quarterback. The 2-4 Bellboys thought they had some momentum heading into that early November game with Seton Hall Prep, at home, but the Pony Pirates ran wild, 63-0, in the Joe Aulisi ‘hip pad’ fiasco game.

Mike Nicosia runs upfield in the season-opening win against Livingston on Sept. 24, 1979. The game was at Belleville, but the Bucs wore the white jerseys because it was Livingston’s home game.

Before the National Anthem, Belleville assistant coach Joe D’Ambola informed the referee that Joe Aulisi of Seton Hall Prep wasn’t wearing the required hip pad. The referee agreed and hit Seton Hall with a penalty before the game began.

“We remember that well,” said Chet Parlavecchio, Seton Hall’s marvelous linebacker and today, a successful high school football coach in NJ. “We all went crazy after that. We’re yelling across at Joe. It was crazy. We laughed about it years later.”

Seton Hall won big, and while Belleville was a beaten team that day, those returning players wouldn’t forget that game.

The Bellboys finished the ’77 season by tying Kearny and losing to Hillside.

Two years later, the ’79 Bucs were looking forward to not only a winning season, but qualifying for the post-season.

After a good three weeks of practice, Belleville was scheduled to open, at Livingston, on Sept. 22, but rainy weather forced a postponement and actually a change of venue, to Belleville, for a rare Monday night game, at Municipal Stadium, on Sept. 24.

Livingston was technically the home team, and wore the dark jerseys, but the Bucs were clearly comfortable playing on its home field.

Belleville had lost to Livingston in the ’76 and ’77 season openers by 20-0 and 40-0 scores. In 1978, Belleville turned the tide, winning, 28-14, at home. And now, in ’79, a confident group of Bucs felt good about winning a big game in the opener.

From the outset, there was little question Belleville was better. The Bucs scored quickly, and while Livingston did score early to take an 8-7 lead, in the first quarter, by halftime, Belleville had a comfortable margin and the Bucs went on to win, 35-8.

Aulisi ran the offense well, Mike Nicosia was tough to stop at running back, and a pair of sophomores, Frank Fazzini and Phil Cerza, would pace the defense.

That 1979 Livingston team would not lose for the rest of the regular season. Led by juniors Stan Yagiello and George Alpert, the Lancers would win its next nine games, including an upset of Westfield in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 playoffs, at Giants Stadium, before losing the state final to Union.

“We had a lot of respect for Livingston,” said Senesky. “Their coach, Al Jacobson, ran a tremendous program. We knew how good they were, and I wasn’t surprised that they wouldn’t lose another game that year in the regular season. They were really good. It’s just that night, we were clicking and they were a little younger than us that year.”

Ironically, a year later, Belleville would lose its season opener, by a one-sided score to Livingston, but the 1980 Bucs wouldn’t lose until the state final, similar to the ’79 Lancers. But that’s for another time.

The Bucs were 1-0, and a big game at Montclair was on tap, for Sept. 29. Belleville and Montclair had met in ’77 and ’78, with the Mounties winning both games, 14-0 and 27-6.

I’ll look back at the next three games in the next blog, as Belleville played Montclair, Nutley and Passaic.

By mike051893

Johnson thrilled with addition of Vinny LoVerde, a former Wayne Hills and MSU player, to Belleville High football coaching staff

As Jermain Johnson enters his second season as head football coach at Belleville High, he does with a lot of enthusiasm about the 2019 season.

Johnson, a young 46, loves the coaching staff he’s working with. He enjoys the youth and energy the staff interjects into its daily work with the team.

Among the newest coaches on the staff is Vin LoVerde, a 21-year-old rising college senior at Montclair State. LoVerde played for Johnson at Wayne Hills High, when Johnson was that program’s defensive coordinator.

Vin LoVerde during his high school days at Wayne Hills.

“I’m so glad Vin wanted to coach,” said Johnson. “He’s a good man, and he’ll be a big plus for our players. Vin was a tremendous wide-out at Hills and he played college ball at Montclair State. He’s relating well to our players.”

LoVerde is pursuing a degree in Psychology. He decided to end his football playing career after an injury in 2018.

“I thought it was time to give up playing,” said LoVerde. “But I love the game and when Coach JJ gave me this opportunity, I thought it would be great.”

LoVerde was a fearless player at Wayne Hills. He helped the 2015 Patriots advance to the state sectional final, at MetLife Stadium, where it lost to Old Tappan.

“They were great times at Hills,” said LoVerde, who was a team captain in 2015. “I loved playing in that program. It has such a winning tradition, and I’d like to think our team, my senior year, helped get that program back on track. (Hills has subsequently won state sectional titles in 2016 and 2018).

LoVerde (far right) was one of five team captains at Wayne Hills in 2015, joining (left to right), Sal Abbracciamento, Frank Petracco, Joe Kenny and Tom Skiba, along with head coach Wayne Demikoff (center).

“Even though we lost in the final in 2015, I have no regrets. I loved every minute of playing there.”

That passion for winning football should be a good lesson for Belleville, which is trying to turn the tables after a tough run of seasons, dating back to 2011.

LoVerde and coach Wayne Demikoff, in 2016, after Vin’s decision to attend Montclair State.

LoVerde isn’t the only former Wayne Hills player on the Belleville staff. Eric Magrini was also a star wide receiver for the Patriots from 1995-1997, before going on to a Hall of Fame playing career at Montclair State. Magrini and Johnson later coached on the Wayne Hills staff, under head coach Wayne Demikoff, who ironically, began his teaching and coaching career, at Belleville High.

When Johnson was named Belleville’s head coach in 2018, Magrini would come on board as the Bucs’ offensive coordinator.

Left to right, head coach Jermain Johnson, LoVerde and Eric Magrini.

The Montclair State connection also includes Johnson, who had a tremendous playing career there, after starring at Bloomfield High, from 1987-1990.

“It feels good to have a guy like Vinny, who I coached at Hills, and have him on the staff here,” said Johnson. “He knows what it takes to succeed on the high school level. I’m glad he’s with us.”

By mike051893

40 years later, remembering the first Belleville High football team to earn a NJSIAA playoff berth

(First in a series, remembering the 1979 BHS football team)

It was the end of the Disco era, the year of Pina Coladas, Donna Summer, the Devil going down to Georgia, My Sharona, a ‘Rocky’ sequel and the ‘Main Event.’

The Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Steelers were dynasties, Larry and Magic were about to turn the NBA upside down, Thurman Munson’s tragic death stunned the sports world, the Cosmos were selling out Giants Stadium and the Pittsburgh Pirates were teaching everyone the song ‘We are Family’.

It was 1979, and at Belleville High, the upcoming football season had the entire program fired up to finish what it had started a year earlier.

The ’78 Bucs (that was the first year of that moniker) had finished 6-3, the program’s best record in nine years. John Senesky, himself a BHS grad and one-time star player for the Bellboys, was the team’s head coach, having taken over a year earlier and enduring a 2-6-1 season in 1977.

But 1978 had changed the attitude, big time, for the new-look Bucs. There was a season-opening 28-14 win against Livingston, which was sweet vindication after losing 40-0 to the Lancers a year earlier, in Senesky’s varsity debut. Two weeks later, the biggest win in a generation occurred when the Bucs defeated Nutley, 31-0.

After a loss to powerful Passaic, wins over Irvington and Essex Catholic followed, and suddenly, the 4-2 Bucs had playoff aspirations, heading into a game at Seton Hall Prep.

The Belleville High coaching staff, circa 1979. Back row left to right, Bill Bakka, Carl Corino, Mike Welsh, head coach John Senesky, Joe D’Ambola and trainer William ‘Doc’ Ellis. Front row, left to right, Carl Papaianni, Ralph Borgess and Joe Vitiello.

Just a year earlier, Seton Hall had poured it on in a game at Municipal Stadium, winning 63-0. Trust me, the game wasn’t even that close.

This time, the Bucs would travel to Seton Hall and while they played much better, it wasn’t good enough, and the Pony Pirates won, 28-6.

At 4-3, the playoffs were no longer viable, but a winning season was. Belleville would finish the year with wins over Clark, 16-7, and Kearny, 21-0, to finish 6-3.

“The ’78 team had set the tone,” recalled Senesky. “We had a lot of returning players in 1979, and the kids were excited about the season.”

Senesky and Passaic head coach Tom Elsasser were among the first in Northern New Jersey to advocate weight lifting as a key to a successful football program. Elsasser had taken a downtrodden Indians team in the early 1970’s to one of the better teams in Northern NJ, by the late ’70’s. Passaic was 2-25 from 1974-1976 before finishing 6-2-1 in 1977. A year later, the Indians were a playoff team, with an overall 8-2 record, followed by a 7-2 season in ’79.

Senesky had also taken over a struggling program in 1977 and two years later, had the Bucs thinking beyond a winning season.

“To be honest, the playoffs weren’t something we talked about,” recalled the coach. “Only four teams qualified back then, and what we really wanted to was to get better. The kids spent a lot of time in the weight room during the off-season. The weight room, then, was at Municipal Stadium, where the Belleville Barbell Club also worked out.

“I remember how diligent those kids were. They enjoyed being around each other and were pretty mature. They did well in the classroom, too.”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of blogs, looking back at that 1979 season, when the Bucs finished 8-2 and earned the program’s first NJSIAA playoff berth, at Giants Stadium.

By mike051893