(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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.