The comparisons were noticeable: Adonis May becomes first region wrestling champ, for West Orange, at 182 pounds, since Christopher Morgan, 5 years ago

There was something about Adonis May’s effort at the Region 3 wrestling championships which spurred some nostalgia.

May won a championship, in his home gymnasium, at West Orange High, in impressive fashion, pinning Nicholas Olivieri of Delbarton in the second period, at Region 3, on Feb. 29.

And it wasn’t just an impressive performance, but it was the way May conducted himself which made more than a few fans take notice of the stark comparison to he and the last West Orange wrestler to win gold at the regions, in the 182-pound weight class.

Christopher Morgan had a tremendous wrestling career at West Orange High, from 2012-2015.

Yes, it was five years ago that Christopher Morgan won his second championship, for West Orange, at then Region 4, with a solid performance at, you guessed it, 182 pounds, also in his home gymnasium.

And when May completed his performance this year, he ran off the mat with that familiar level of confidence, along with a level of respect for his opponent, which defined the great Morgan five years earlier.

We all know that Christopher Morgan’s life was cut short during a training exercise on June 6, 2019, while a cadet at West Point. And while no one wishes to compare different athletes, it was somewhat noticeable to two people who knew Christopher Morgan quite well.

Adonis May (third from right) won a Region 4 title on Feb. 29, in his home gymnasium. (Courtesy of West Orange BOE)

“You never want to compare, but they are somewhat alike,” said West Orange wrestling coach Stephan Zichella of Morgan and May. “Adonis is a very good kid. He works hard and treats the sport the way it should be treated.

“Look, I’ve always said that no one, in my mind, will be Chris Morgan, but I was proud of what I saw from Adonis during this entire tournament.”

Chris Morgan, Sr., also concurred.

“I had the chance to work with Adonis, during some practices,” said Mr. Morgan, who, as usual, was front and center for the tournament at West Orange, as he and his family continue to honor their son’s legacy. “Adonis is a very nice young man, who puts a lot of effort into what he does. To see him win the same weight class as my son did, five years ago, was special. I won’t deny that.”

The Morgan family was honored at Region 3, before the 14 championship bouts commenced, on Feb. 29, with a plaque. There was a long standing ovation for the family, as well, by the large crowd at West Orange High.

Christopher Morgan won back-to-back Region 4 titles at 182 pounds, in 2014 and 2015. He would also add a state medal to his impressive resume in 2015. In addition, Morgan also won gold at the Essex County Tournament and at District 13.

May became the first regional champ at West Orange since Victor Lopez won a second title, at 113 pounds, in 2017, at Region 3. Lopez was also a Region 4 champion, along with Morgan, in 2015. (The districts and regions were re-aligned in 2017 and while West Orange remained a region host site it switched to Region 3, from Region 4).

May will compete at the NJSIAA championships, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, to compete the 2019-2020 season, from March 5-7.

By mike051893

Passaic Valley’s Taylor Hill is setting records, but being a good teammate and part of a close-knit family is what truly drives her

Taylor Hill couldn’t help but take a glimpse at the banner in her home gymnasium at Passaic Valley High.

That banner has been there for the better part of four decades, well before Taylor’s mother attended PV, and represents a record that has stood the test of time.

A long-standing record could be eclipsed in 2021. (Courtesy of Joe Benvenuti)

Hill, 16, looks again at the banner and smiles. It’s a perpetual smile of a youngster who likes being 16, is looking forward to 17, but isn’t rushing her youth.

The eldest of three born to Kathy and George Hill, Taylor is a junior at Passaic Valley High School. She’s excelling in the classroom, and is a dynamo on the athletic fields, where she plays varsity soccer, basketball and softball. And while she admits softball is her number one sport, let’s go back to that banner for a second.

You see, Taylor just eclipsed the 1,000 point mark for PV’s girls basketball team. And having accomplished that feat as a junior, which is rare, she certainly can take an interest in the banner, which displays the name Val Duerr, and the 1,650 points Duerr scored at PV from 1974-1978. Hill has a chance to eclipse Duerr’s mark in her senior year, as she concluded the 2019-2020 season with over 1,100 points. 

An old-school player, Taylor was overwhelmed when she scored her 1,000th career point, on Feb. 13, 2020. The black and white photo gives it an extra allure. (Courtesy Kathy Hill)

“It would be nice to see if I could do it,” said the affable Hill during a recent interview. “But I know it won’t be easy.”

Taylor’s roots at Passaic Valley High are firm. She has grown up in the community. Her mother, the former Kathy May, was a star athlete and cheerleader at PV, and later an All-American college softball player at William Paterson.

Kathy is in her second tenure as head softball coach at her alma mater. She had guided the program to a sectional crown and a berth in the Group 3 final in 1998, but left after the ’99 season to pursue other coaching options, including a head coaching job at (then) Felician College.

When she returned to PV in 2016, Kathy May was now Kathy Hill, and a wife and mother of three. But that intensity which had defined her as an athlete and coach, was stronger than ever.

Playing for her mom on the softball team is certainly special for Taylor.

“She’s great,” said Taylor of her softball coach. “She works us hard. There’s no one else I’d rather play for.”

A close-knit family, Taylor’s 1,000th career point was enjoyed by (left to right) Shea, Kathy, George and TJ. (Courtesy Kathy Hill)

Taylor can play just about any position on the basketball court. A lanky, but hard-nosed athlete, she has deceptively good speed, a smooth jump shot and can dribble through pressure effectively. 

When basketball season ends, she’ll quickly transition to the softball diamond, where Taylor’s soft hands and quick glove make her a natural at shortstop.

At the plate, she bats lefty, as a leadoff hitter, and has a John Olerud-type swing which helps her hit well to the opposite field. She’s also hit some majestic homers in her first two years of varsity softball, both to the opposite field and as a pull hitter, where opposing rightfielders have watched some long homers scream over the fence.

Taylor wears number 9 on the softball and soccer fields, but since that number isn’t eligible on the basketball court, she wears number 33. Whether that’s in deference to Larry Bird’s greatness or that 3 x 3 =9 is something she’s not sure of, but she likes the jersey number.

Getting back to hoops, Hill’s priorities are helping her team, first and foremost.

“I want to reach my goals, in whatever sport I’m competing in,” she said. “But helping my team win is the most important thing. We started playing better toward the end of the season (in basketball). Hopefully, that can carry over into next season. One thing about our team this season, we play hard. We play until the end.” 

When she scored her 1,000th point, in a rare night home game against conference rival West Milford, on Feb. 13, Taylor had no idea the milestone was within reach.

“It was early in the game,” she said. “I hit a basket and it was a complete surprise when my teammates ran onto the court to congratulate me. My mom had snuck in some family members when we had completed warmups for the game, so seeing them after I scored the point was special.”

The game with West Milford was scheduled for a 4 p.m. tip off, but when it was obvious Taylor would score her 1,000th point, the contest was moved to an evening start, so that more people could attend.

Love of family drives Taylor.

“No question, we’re a close-knit family,” she says of her parents, along with siblings TJ, and the ever-precocious Shea, who Taylor says will one day pass her by as a high school athlete. (The Hills are indeed a sports family. Shea, born when Citi Field was already in play, was named after the New York Mets former home, Shea Stadium. Shea’s mom is a huge Mets fan).

“I love spending time with my family, when I’m not playing a sport, or in school. My dad and I enjoy working out after school and on the weekends.

“I like watching sports, too. My brother and sister are already well into playing, as well. My brother is into basketball and baseball and my sister is playing soccer, basketball and softball. Someone is always doing something (on an athletic field). My parents stay very busy.”

Taylor is beginning to think about colleges, but wasn’t ready to say which schools she’s interested in. Playing collegiate softball is something she yearns to do, and she also loves playing basketball. 

She aspires to be a Physical Therapist one day, earn a Doctorate and work with athletes. Taylor enjoys mathematics and science and credits Dr. Susanne Iobst, her sophomore-year chemistry teacher, as one of her favorite instructors. Her favorite professional teams are the NFL’s New York Giants and the N.Y. Mets, (of course) in baseball. Taylor also enjoys watching college basketball.

Taylor is also an avid piano player, a love she shares with her mother.

“I’ve been playing piano for a long time,” said Kathy Hill. “Taylor has been playing since she was little, and enjoys it.”

Taylor also credits her summer club softball coach, Sergio Rodriguez, for helping to improve her game while playing in the summer and fall for Rodriguez’s team, the ‘Heist’.

Most importantly, when Hill scored her 1,000th career point, she received multiple accolades from opposing coaches, crediting not only her athletic skills, but charismatic and respectful personality, on social media posts.

“It’s nice to her that,” said Taylor, who avoids social media, but was honored when hearing of the compliments. “To get respect from coaches is special, and I know how important that is, in life.”

Taylor Hill will celebrate her 17th birthday this coming April. Most likely, she’ll have a game, or practice that day, as well.

“That’s okay,” she said with that smile once again. “As long as I’m with my family and friends, things are good.”

Taylor calls softball teammates and classmates Devyn DiPasquale and Brianna DeLuccia two of her closest friends, and says there are many others, in school, who she enjoys sharing time with, as well.

Left to right, Taylor Hill, Devyn DiPasquale and Brianna DeLuccia, in 2018. The trio will be juniors this spring on the softball diamond.

Before she concludes her high school career, she could be Passaic Valley’s most proficient scorer in girls basketball and the softball program’s all-time hit leader, but she quickly noted that being a good teammate is her highest priority.

“I never really thought of that,” she said reflectively of an all-time legacy. “I just want to be the best player I can be, and help us win.”

Taylor’s parents get the final word, for this piece.

“Taylor is a great daughter and a wonderful big sister to her two siblings,” said George and Kathy Hill. “She is very determined and works hard at every endeavor she encounters.   We are very proud of her work ethic and the young lady she is.”

By mike051893

Nutley High wrestling team advances 8 to Region 3 tournament; Raiders finish third at District 9, as Searle, Mainiero and Gonzalez reach finals

Competing in a district with the state’s top-ranked team, Nutley put together a solid performance at the District 9 wrestling championships, on Feb. 22, in Livingston, as the Raiders advanced eight to the Region 3 tourney.

Head coach Mike DiPiano was pleased with his team’s overall effort. While no Raiders won a district crown, the team was 5-0 in the all-important third place bouts, or the ‘blood round’, which the wrestlers often refer to.

The top three in each of the 14 weight classes at the 32 districts throughout the state earned a berth in the regions. The regions are being held at eight different locations, beginning on Feb. 26, continuing on Feb. 28 and concluding a day later.

Eight Nutley Raiders are moving onto the Region 3 championships, beginning on Feb. 26. (Photo courtesy of Ingrid DiPasquale)

Wrestlers competing on Feb. 26 finished either second or third in their district and needed to win to continue their season at the regional quarterfinals on Feb. 28. Those who won championships at the districts earned a bye until the quarterfinals and are assured of wrestling into the weekend.

The top four wrestlers in each weight class at the eight regions will head to Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, for the state championships, from March 5-7.

Three Raiders advanced to the finals of their respective weight class. Billy Searle, the top seed at 285 pounds, lost a close bout in the championship match, 3-2, in overtime.

At 145 pounds, Jacob Gonzalez, the second seed, advanced to the finals before being defeated by the top seed and at 160 pounds, Sal Mainiero, also the second seed, made it to the championship match before losing to the top-ranked wrestler.

Delbarton dominated the action at District 9, with 12 champions while advancing 13 of a possible 14 to the regions.

“We knew it would be tough with Delbarton there, but that’s what competition is all about,” said DiPiano. “We were happy with the way our kids performed. We got eight through to the regions. Wednesday (Feb. 26) will be a big day. Our kids need to win on Wednesday to advance, and I think they all have a good chance to move on.

“It was good to see Billy, Jacob and Sal all make it to the finals.”

DiPiano was especially proud that five of his wrestlers finished third, meaning they had won their final mach at the districts to qualify for regions.

“We were 5-for-5 in those matches, and that was great to see,” the coach said. “It’s not just physical, it’s also a strong mental approach needed to win those kind of bouts.”

Finishing third for Nutley at District 9 were Franco Graffeo (106), Pete Haverick (152), Anthony Haines (170), Daniel Jennings (195) and Nicolas Polewka, at 220 pounds.

By mike051893

Passaic Valley wrestling will host District 8 championships on Feb. 22, as Hasbani gains top seed at 220 pounds; Hornets finished regular season with an impressive 17-5 record

The grind begins, but the end is also in sight.

The ‘second season’ of high school wrestling in New Jersey officially begins on Feb. 22, with the district championships that will be held at 32 different locations.

Passaic Valley High, which put together an outstanding 17-5 record that included a solid finish at the Passaic County championships and qualifying for the state sectionals, will host the District 8 championships, led by head coach Joe Wassel, who was named the county’s Coach of the Year this winter.

Passaic Valley coach Joe Wassel (center) will lead his Hornets into the post-season at a familiar location, the team’s home gym, on Feb. 22.

District 8 will be made up of teams from Hopatcong, Jefferson, Lenape Valley, Morris Hills, Mountain Lakes, Paramus Catholic, Parsippany, Parsippany Hills and Saddle Brook, along with, of course, the host school.

Very few gyms have the size and comfort that Passaic Valley does for post-season wrestling tournaments. For many decades, PV hosted the regional championships.

The top three wrestlers in each of the 14 weight classes at District 8 will move on to the Region 2 championships, which begin on Wednesday, Feb. 26, continue on Feb. 28 and conclude a day later, at Mount Olive High School, in Flanders.

If a wrestler wins gold at the districts, he won’t have to wrestle in the first round, on Feb. 26, and automatically is in the quarterfinals, on Feb. 28. 

The top four wrestlers in each weight class at Region 2 will punch their ticket to the NJSIAA championships, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, from March 5-7.

Passaic Valley hopes to bring some wrestlers to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, from March 5-7.

There are eight regions throughout the state, meaning that each of the 14 weight classes will be represented by 32 wrestlers, in Atlantic City. From the top 32, the competition will ultimately decide an individual champion for each weight class, with the top eight wrestlers in the respective weight, earning a prestigious state medal on the final day of the tournament.

For most of the season, wrestlers have honed their skills while helping their team find success in dual, tri and quad matches. While the districts crown a team champion, the focus also goes to individual wrestlers who can advance to the next round, and ultimately compete in Atlantic City and earn a state medal at the mammoth venue.

Wassel has been very pleased, all season, with his team’s work ethic and resiliency.

“It’s been great coaching this team all year long,” said Wassel, himself a former PV wrestler. “I’m hoping we can end the season with the same momentum.”

Guy Fontana (right) gained the second seed at 285 pounds in District 8.

Passaic Valley’s Danny Hasbani, a Passaic County champion at 220 pounds this season, earned the top seed in the district. He’ll take a 28-2 record into the post-season.

Matt Ciarlo, also a county champion for PV this season at 195, is seeded second and is 26-4.

Guy Fontana, a talented heavyweight, is also seeded second and put together a 25-5 record in the regular season.

At 106 pounds, Connor Kerwin (21-9 record) was seeded fourth in the district.

“We have a few others who are close to 20 wins for the season, going into the districts,” said Wassel.

By mike051893

Nutley wrestling gears for district championships, on Feb. 22, as Searle gains top seed at heavyweight; Koster heads to girls regions on Feb. 23

The grind begins, but the end is also in sight.

The ‘second season’ of high school wrestling in New Jersey officially begins on Feb. 22, with the district championships that will be held at 32 different locations. Nutley High, which put together a solid season, finishing 16-12 and qualifying for the state sectionals, will compete at District 9, which this year is contested at Livingston High School.

The top three wrestlers in each of the 14 weight classes at District 9 will move on to the Region 3 championships, which begin on Wednesday, Feb. 26, continue on Feb. 28 and conclude a day later, at West Orange High School.

If a wrestler wins gold at the districts, he won’t have to wrestle in the first round, on Feb. 26, and automatically is in the quarterfinals, on Feb. 28. 

The top four wrestlers in each weight class at Region 3 will punch their ticket to the NJSIAA championships, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, from March 5-7.

There are eight regions throughout the state, meaning that each of the 14 weight classes will be represented by 32 wrestlers, in Atlantic City. From the top 32, the competition will ultimately decide an individual champion for each weight class, with the top eight wrestlers in the respective weight, earning a prestigious state medal on the final day of the tournament.

For most of the season, wrestlers have honed their skills while helping their team find success in dual, tri and quad matches. While the districts crown a team champion, the focus also goes to individual wrestlers who can advance to the next round, and ultimately compete in Atlantic City and earn a state medal at the mammoth venue.

Pete Haverick (left) is the second seed at District 9, in the 152-pound weight class. (Courtesy Ingrid DiPasquale)

Nutley head coach Mike DiPiano feels good about his team’s chances at the districts.

“Our district includes a great team in Delbarton, so we’ll have to battle, for sure,” the coach said. “But we have kids who are ready to go and get a chance to compete in the regions next week, and hopefully get to Atlantic City after that. There are some solid teams in our district, so nothing will come easy.”

Billy Searle (top) will begin his quest for a trip to Atlantic City with the top seed at heavyweight, in District 9, on Feb. 22. (Courtesy Ingrid DiPasquale)

Delbarton had a marvelous season this winter, winning the Non-Public A state championship and being crowned the state’s number one team, dethroning long-time powerhouse Bergen Catholic. 

At the district seeding meeting, Nutley junior Billy Searle earned the top seed at 285 pounds. Nick Polewka (220 pounds), Sal Mainiero (160), Pete Haverick (152) and Jacob Gonzalez (145) were all seeded second. Daniel Jennings (195) and Franco Graffeo (106) gained third seeds and Anthony Haines (170) and Dean Polewka (132) were seeded fourth.

Dan Jennings (center) with his family on Senior Day, hopes to make a good run in the post-season wrestling tournament, at 195 pounds. (Courtesy Ingrid DiPasquale)

“After looking over the seeds, I felt pretty good where are kids were at,” said DiPiano. “Now we have to go out and finish the job.”

Mariah Koster, a freshman 100 pounder, will compete in the girls north region championships, which will be on Feb. 23, at Union High. The top three wrestlers in each weight class there will earn a trip to Boardwalk Hall for the championships on the same weekend as the boys state finals.

“We’re excited to see how Mariah does this weekend,” said DiPiano. “She’s worked hard. For a freshman to get this chance is good. She’s competed well and has done everything we’ve asked of her.”

Koster is the first female to wrestle at Nutley, on the high school level.

Mariah Koster, here with head coach Mike DiPiano, hopes to qualify for the state championships in Atlantic City, as a freshman, when she competes at the regions, on Feb. 23, at Union High School. (Courtesy Koster family)

Female wrestling became an official high school athletic event in New Jersey last year and the sport is really gaining popularity with the girls.

Locally, Belleville and Bloomfield will also be taking wrestlers to the regions on Feb. 23, in what should be an exciting day of competition. The south region finals will also be on Feb. 23, at Red Bank High School.

By mike051893

From a Patriot to a Raven: Wayne Hills’ Michael Joyce to play collegiate football at Franklin Pierce University

Michael Joyce would never be deterred.

Despite a knee injury which pretty much wiped out his senior year of playing football at Wayne Hills High School, Joyce has forged ahead and is now ready to play on the collegiate level.

Joyce announced he will attend Franklin Pierce University, in Rindge, New Hampshire, starting this fall.

Michael Joyce made it official. He’ll play at Franklin Pierce University, starting in the fall of 2020.

A talented running back and defensive player in high school, Joyce endured a frustrating 2019 season after a standout year in 2018, which included helping Wayne Hills win a state sectional and North Group 4 Bowl game title, as part of an 11-2 season.

Joyce (31) along with, left to right, seniors JoJo Mongelli, Tom Sharkey and Jaaron Hayek after a 2018 game at Fair Lawn. Mongelli, Sharkey and Hayek were all a part of teams on the collegiate level in 2019.

“Although my senior year was lost due to injury, the Franklin Pierce coaching staff continued to recruit me and believe in me,” said Joyce. “They were the first school to offer me a scholarship back in October, even before I had my surgery.”

An NCAA Division II school, Franklin Pierce plays in the highly competitive Northeast 10 Conference. The Ravens played its inaugural season of D-II football in 2019.

Despite an injury in 2019, Joyce (left) took his captain’s role seriously, including being a part of the pre-game coin toss with his fellow captains.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to compete in the Northeast 10 Conference,” said Joyce. “And I’ll be a part of a new program, as well as a program on the rise. I really connected with the entire coaching staff from the first time I met all of them.

“Throughout the recruiting process, I communicated primarily with head coach, Russell Gaskamp, defensive coordinator, Taylor Ewen and offensive coordinator Bob Davies. They are great coaches and leaders, and it didn’t hurt that Coach Davies is from New Jersey.”

Joyce also noted that the team’s head coach, Gaskamp, played center at University of Texas and blocked for Ricky Williams in 1998, the year Williams won the Heisman Trophy.

The 2019 Hills team captains, left to right, Christian Puntolillo, Michael Joyce, Nick Lucarello, Jack Woodard and Gabe Kuhn, along with head coach Wayne Demikoff, As has been tradition, the captains were named at East Stroudsburg University, during summer camp.

“Coach knows big running backs and I fit the mold he was looking for,” said Joyce.

Wayne Hills football coach Wayne Demikoff was very happy with Joyce’s selection.

“Franklin Pierce is getting a great kid and a great player,” said Demikoff “Mike will have an impact there sooner, rather than later. I couldn’t be happier for him. Mike is a bigger back with the rare ability to be both powerful and elusive when he carries the ball. I’m excited to follow his career at the next level.”

While he was a stalwart on both sides of the ball in high school, Joyce wanted to focus on the offensive side of the game in college.

“A lot of schools recruited me at various positions on both offense and defense,” said Joyce. “Franklin Pierce primarily recruited me at running back, which is what I really want to do at the next level.

“I fell in love with the campus, and it is not too far from home. That was important to me that all home and away games were easy for my family to get to.”

The son of Lori and Ed Joyce, Michael looks back with fondness at his playing days for Wayne Hills. In his four-year career, Wayne Hills won two state titles.

“The coaches and the culture of the Hills program, along with the expectation to win championships every year have prepared me for college football,” said Joyce. “The amount of hours we put in during the year and the big games I was fortunate enough to play in, whether it was an out-of-state game, sectional championship or bowl game at Met Life, have also helped prepare me.

“I’m very demanding of myself, and I’m very appreciative the coaches were so demanding of me, on and off the field. They have definitely prepared me to be a college student-athlete.”

Joyce plans on majoring in Communications and is considering a career in sales after college.

“I am confident Franklin Pierce will be the perfect balance between school and football,” he said. “I’m also confident of earning a degree, and playing for this coaching staff will help prepare me for life beyond college and football.”

By mike051893

Road Trip No. 6: Wayne Hills football team to open the 2020 season at Lewisburg High, in Mississippi, on Aug. 28

For the sixth straight season, the Wayne Hills High football team will open its season with an out-of-state contest.

This time, the Patriots are headed to Olive Branch, Mississippi, where it will play Lewisburg High School, on Friday night, Aug. 28, at 7 p.m.

Hills head coach Wayne Demikoff is excited about the trip.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” said Demikoff, who will enter his eighth season as head coach and 22nd overall with the program this coming season. “We could be one of the first programs, ever, from New Jersey to play a football game in Mississippi.”

In 2015, Wayne Hills began what is now a tradition of playing its season opener out of state. That year, the team played Graham High, in North Carolina, and prevailed.

In 2019, former Patriots star Greg Olsen (right, with hat on) was on hand to watch Hills open its season in South Carolina.

The following year, it was off to the Florida Everglades, where the Patriots lost a close game to an eventual 14-0 team, Pahokee. At the end of the 2016 season, Hills was awarded a win in that game when it was discovered Pahokee had an ineligible player on its roster.

Wayne Hills would finish 12-0 in 2016, and win a ninth state title and first under Demikoff, as head coach.

In 2017, Hills opened its season at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio.

In 2017, the team had a rugged opener, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, losing to a very good McKinley team. In 2018, the Patriots headed west and played a solid team in Timpview, from Utah. Hills lost a close contest there, but went on to win a state sectional and regional championship, finishing 11-2.

Last season, it was off to South Carolina, where Hills was defeated by Ridge View High.

Wayne Hills battled the heat in the Florida Everglades in 2016 and did well against a tremendous opponent in Pahokee.

“The out of state games have helped us a great deal,” said Demikoff. “It’s a different kind of preparation, with the travel involved, hotels and things like that.

The beautiful backdrop in Utah was the setting for Hills, in 2018.

‘It’s given our kids the chance to practice and prepare in some pretty nice settings, like the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina, Elon University, the University of Utah, Penn State and the University of South Carolina, as well as playing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s newly renovated facility a few years back. And while we lost a few close games on the road, I think it really helped us be a better team, including our championship seasons in 2016 an 2018.

In 2017, Hills visited Youngstown State for a practice before playing McKinley High, in Ohio.

“We had to prepare for a high altitude setting Utah and some intense heat in Florida. In the long haul, it helped us. Plus, the bonding experience of traveling was beneficial.”

The chance to play in Mississippi should be a nice experience. The Patriots will actually fly into neighboring Memphis, Tennessee before heading to nearby Olive Branch, which is in northwest Mississippi.

In 2016, the team practiced at the University of Miami.

“There’s a lot to do before then,”said Demikoff. “Last season was not the kind of year we were used to, and we’re going to work hard to get back to the championship level this program is accustomed to.”

Hills finished 6-4 in 2019 and was defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion, Wayne Valley. The Patriots did win a third conference championship in the last four years.

In 2017, the team had the chance to visit Penn State, en route to Ohio.

This year’s schedule might be the toughest in the program’s storied history. After returning from Mississippi, the Patriots play Teaneck, then have some powerhouses on the slate, including Old Tappan, Ramapo, Passaic Tech, Wayne Valley, Northern Highlands, Ridgewood and Irvington.

“It’s a tough one,” said Demikoff of the schedule. “A lot of state champions from last year and teams that were within a game of a title, as well. But that’s fine. It’s what we play for at Wayne Hills.”

Two years ago, an exciting trip to Utah included practice at BYU’s facility.

By mike051893

It was one for the ages: 44 years later, the gym at Belleville High still resonates following the Valentine’s Day wrestling win over Pascack Hills

Was it the greatest sporting event in Belleville High history?

Quite possibly.

On Valentine’s Day, 1976, Belleville would host Pascack Hills, in a Saturday afternoon match that, to this day, still resonates with so much emotion.

Belleville head coach Jim Silvestri’s wrestling team had reached a new pinnacle in the 1975-1976 season, when the Bellboys finished 13-1.

The 1975-76 Bellboys were led by a strong senior class.

The legend of Pascack Hills was well known. The team, coached by the legendary Bucky Rehain, hadn’t lost a dual match in close to five years. A season earlier, when Belleville traveled to Hills for the first-ever meeting between the schools, Pascack Hills had won handily.

The crowd had arrived quite early for that 1976 match. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, 1 p.m. start, a lot of the fans were there by 11 a.m. In fact, Pascack Hills’ legendary coach, Bucky Rehain, a gracious man who returned to Belleville a few years back to honor Silvestri’s memory, recalled when his team had arrived for that match, two hours early, the gym was just about packed.

Belleville coach Jim Silvestri gives encouragement to Bobby Racioppi.

Despite all the hype, Pascack Hills was indeed the consensus favorite, with four future state champions in the lineup.

After Belleville’s Carl Arlt had won the first match at 101 pounds, the Cowboys won the next two matches, but one of those wins, a forfeit at 115 pounds, would turn the match around. Silvestri made a tactical move, bumping Vin Mustacchio to 122 pounds and forfeiting at 115, where Pascack’s best wrestler, Tom Husted, was waiting. Husted, a two-time state champion, was indeed the motivating force behind Pascack Hills, and although the Cowboys got six points for the forfeit, some of the steam was taken out of its attack.

Mustacchio would win a major decision at 122 pounds, moving Belleville to within 9-8. Pascack then won convincingly at 129, 135 and 141 pounds to extend its lead to 23-8.

While Belleville lost in those three weight classes, the team managed to avoid bigger bonus points, keeping the Bellboys in the match.

George D’Alessandro with the legendary Bucky Rehain, some 40 years after the match.

The 148 pound bout would be critical for the Bellboys, as Robert Villano had to wrestle a future state medalist, in Bob Waldron. Had Villano lost, Pascack would have all but clinched the bout, making the last four matches nearly inconsequential.

But Villano worked hard and earned a 2-2 tie, which kept the Pascack Hills lead at 15 points, 25-10. (Back then, there was no overtime to decide a bout).

Chris Tremel, who was undefeated at the time, would begin Belleville’s comeback, with a pin at 158 pounds and Keith ‘Wildman’ Waddell followed with a major decision at 170. By the time Waddell had gotten on the mat, the fans, which had been loud all match long, were in euphoria, sensing the comeback. They were yelling ‘Wildman’ during Keith’s bout.

Waddell’s win cut Pascack’s lead to 25-20, and when Ken Milano followed with a decision, in a must-win performance at 188 pounds to make it 25-23, the dejv vu was clearly evident, as George D’Alessandro took the mat at heavyweight for the Bellboys.

Left to right, William Villano, Jim Silvestri, Joe Zarra and Robert Villano, 1976.

A year earlier, D’Alessandro stepped on the mat in the final match against Essex Catholic, with his team trailing 24-19. Big George would get the pin to provide Silvestri his biggest win, to date, 25-24.

Now a year later, D’Alessandro only needed a decision to give Belleville the improbable win, but George, with a flair for the dramatic, would get the pin early in the second period. Belleville won, 29-25, and the reverberation of the gym walls was telling. It would be Silvestri’s last dual match as head coach.

Now 44 years later, those who were there on Feb. 14, 1976, still say it was the best high school sporting event they ever witnessed.

Some may say the Belleville-Passaic football game, in 1982, was the best, ever, and you could be right.

But that match in 1976? Wow.

By mike051893

Day by Day: The story of a rising star in Nutley’s Ava Minichini, a talented singer who performs the National Anthem at NHS girls’ basketball games

She’s named after a famous star.

She loves to sing. 

And she loves life, in general.

Welcome to Ava Minichini’s world. The soon-to-be 15-year-old daughter of Kathy and Michael Minichini is a freshman at Nutley High School, where she excels in the classroom, as well as on the stage. 

Ava performs the National Anthem prior to a Nutley High girls’ basketball game.

Named after the legendary Ava Gardner, Minichini and her twin sister, Liana, share a special bond, as they tackle the new challenges of high school. LIana is a standout basketball player for the Raiders. Both are Honor Roll students. 

And before just about each varsity home girls basketball game, Ava sings the National Anthem to her sister’s delight. (Liana is one minute older than Ava, a source of good-natured kidding between the two). 

Ava, during a production of ‘Shrek’

“My sister is my soul mate,” said Ava, during a recent conversation at the family home. “I am so proud of what she is doing with the basketball team. Those girls are amazing. They have a great chemistry and that’s why they’re doing so well.”

The bond between Ava and Liana doesn’t surprise their mother.

“There’s something about twins, and the closeness they share,” said Kathy Minichini. “It’s really something to see. I had heard about the chemistry that twins share, but until you actually witness it, it’s hard to describe.”

Ava was encouraged to sing the Anthem and took an immediate liking to it. 

“I sang it at a Nutley 5K, and have really enjoyed doing it at the girls basketball games,” she said. “It’s not an easy song to sing, but I think I’m getting better at it.” 

Ava played basketball with her sister for a number of years, but decided that the theater was her passion. Ava saw her first Broadway play, “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box Theater, in Midtown, Manhattan, last year. 

While Ava sang the National Anthem, twin sister Liana (fourth from left, in white uniform) admired her sister’s talents.

“I just loved that show,” said Ava with a big smile. “It’s about a 16-year-old with some social anxiety, trying to find his place in high school. It was a wonderful show.”

Ava has found the stage to be a place of creativity, as she pursues her dream. She gave a stirring rendition of the classic song ‘Day By Day’ as a seventh grader, at Good Sheppard Academy, in Nutley, during the show ‘Godspell’.

“I was so excited when I finished that song, and the audience was great,” said Ava, who in addition to singing, also performed concurrent sign language to the song. 

The Good Sheppard Academy has put together some beautiful productions. Ava performed in a production of the Addams Family, playing the lead role of Morticia, last year. 

“That was one of my favorite roles,” she said. “I could really relate to Morticia.”

During the play ‘Shrek’, Ava played ‘Dragon’ and sang the song ‘Forever’, where she was lowered onto the stage while breathing fire.

“It’s amazing the work that Good Sheppard puts into those shows,” said Kathy Minichini. “Ava really grew up performing in those shows.”

Liana (right) has joined her sister on stage.

Ava has singing lessons once a week, and praises her vocal coach, Chris, for teaching her so much. She’s an Alto singer, who also enjoys opera. She’ll appear in the Nutley High school play, ‘Rock of Ages’, from Feb. 28-March 1.

“It meant a lot to get a part in the play,” said Ava. “It’s different in high school, with new challenges. If I didn’t get a part, I would have liked to do anything just to be around the play. I love the theater.”

An avoid basketball fan, Ava was influenced by the late Kobe Bryant’s energy and love for the game.

“Like so many, I was upset when Kobe died,” she said. “He inspired me, not only as a basketball player, but as a dad.”

She also loves to sing the National Anthem, at her sister’s basketball games. 

“I really liked the way Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga sang the Anthem,” she said of past Super Bowl performances. “When I sing the Anthem, I try to do a better job than at a previous game. I’m always very critical of my own work. Singing in front of my sister, however, is very special to me. I know she’s watching me, and that means a lot.”

As Ava sings, Liana admires her sister’s voice, while holding her hand over her heart. 

“Knowing Liana is watching inspires me,” she said. 

When the Nutley High school play concludes, Ava’s work in the theater will continue.

“I’ll stay as busy as I can, going into the summer,” she said. “This is what I really want to do.” 

Ava’s faith is very important to her, and she credits her family for that inspiration.

“No question, my faith guides me,” she said. “My parents raised us that way and it’s an important part of my life.”

By mike051893

County Coach of the Year honors, in wrestling, awarded to Joe Wassel of Passaic Valley High

Following a solid performance at the Passaic County Tournament (PCT), Passaic Valley High wrestling coach Joe Wassel was named the county’s Coach of the Year for the 2019-2020 season.

In his second season as head coach at his alma mater, Wassel, a Mathematics and Computer Science educator at PV, has guided the Hornets to a 12-4 record so far this season. The Hornets also took third at the PCT, on Jan. 25.

Joe Wassel (right) and PV athletic director Joe Benvenuti.

The selection, by the Passaic County coaches, was well received by PV athletic director Joe Benvenuti.

“I’m very happy for Joe,” said Benvenuti of the man who succeeded him as head wrestling coach when Benvenuti was promoted to AD two years ago. “It’s a great honor for a young coach.  Joe absolutely deserves it, in my mind, because he has turned an inexperienced and unproven team into winners and contenders in only one year. 

Wassel (center) with PV wrestlers after Hornets finished third at Passaic County Tournament, on Jan. 25.

“The team didn’t have a 20 match winner returning to the line-up this year and somehow the team has 12 wins, and finished third in the counties.  His passion for success and his understanding of the PV wrestling legacy helps fuel his fire to be the best coach he can be.  I am extremely happy for Joe, and proud of him.  He truly deserves this great honor!”

A solid regular season has qualified the Hornets for the North 2, Group 3 sectional tournament. PV will visit Mendham, on Feb. 10, at 6 p.m.

Passaic Valley will also host the District 8 championships, on Feb. 22.

By mike051893