(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.”
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.
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.
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.