Two years later, remembering Anthony LaRezza’s laugh, passion for coaching and legacy

It was always about that laugh.

It could be live, or one of his famous ‘Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha’ texts. Whatever it was, Anthony LaRezza lit up a room. Or, in Anthony’s world, light up a softball field, day, or night, with that smile, or some kind of joke.

So, there was a certain irony when news of Anthony’s untimely passing came in the form of a text, to me, from Jim Stoeckel, III.

And this Feb. 4 will mark two years since Coach LaRezza left us, just weeks after celebrating his 50th birthday.

Anthony had celebrated his 50th birthday in January, 2016, with his beloved brothers. (Click on photos for larger image)

His last phone call to me came right before Christmas, 2015. Anthony asked me how he sounded, since he had recently undergone oral surgery. I told him the truth, he sounded good.

“I can’t wait for the start of softball,” he said. “It’s just a few months away. Merry Christmas, I’ll see you soon at Rutt’s Hut.”

The IHA players always believed Anthony was looking over them. (Click on photos for larger image)

Physically, Anthony wouldn’t be here to celebrate his beloved Immaculate Heart Academy’s second straight Non-Public A championship in 2016, or that first Tournament of Champions crown last spring, that, of course, included a third straight Non-Public A crown.

Anthony always knew Diana Fasano would be a good head coach. (Click on photos for larger image)

But his players will say that he was there. The heart strings tugged hard, and Anthony’s spirit would remain alive and well, in the form of his brothers, Allen and Joe, who have been regulars at IHA games the past two years, as well as his extended family, players and friends.

In 2016, the Bergen County Tournament honored Anthony. (Click on photos for larger image)

We’ll never forget him. I’ll always remember the trips to Rutt’s Hutt, the Dick Ruthven, Jerry Reuss, Pigs-and-Chickens, the legend of Upset, the Horse, beating Man ‘O War, Nestor Chylak, the 2010 Memorial Day meltdown, Doug Buffone and many a talk about politics.

Reese Guevarra (partially hidden) and Taylor Kenerson (16) doused LaRezza after IHA won the 2015 Non-Public A title. (Click on photos for larger image)

I often wonder what Anthony would say about the current state of political affairs. It would be interesting, for sure.

Anthony (back row, center), and his 2015 team, which would eventually win a state championship. (Click on photo for larger image)

But most of all, it was about those softball players at IHA and the dynasty he had built in Westwood.

Anthony would have enjoyed this cake.

We miss you Anthony.

Joe LaRezza was a regular at IHA games in 2016 and 2017.

IHA players remembered Anthony with this patch, beginning in 2016.

Miss those trips to Rutt’s.

Anthony took a lot of pride when Steph Thomas won her state record 113th career game in 2014. (Click on photos for larger image)

Anthony influenced a number of coaches, including Sergio Rodriguez (above, with ball, while Anthony attempts to work through a pick, from many years ago) and Phil Delgado, below (blue shirt).

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By mike051893

Trani (Named Outstanding Wrestler), Davis and Murphy capture county championships for Wayne Valley, which continues to roll as post-season nears

With the state sectional championships quickly approaching, the Wayne Valley wrestling team has put together its best run of the 2017-2018 season, so far.

Head coach Todd Schroeder’s team took a 13-5 record into a match with West Milford, at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31, which will also be Wayne Valley’s ‘Senior Day.’ On Feb. 2, the Indians are home to face Clifton, also at 7 p.m. in the regular season finale. Entering this week’s action, Wayne Valley had won 10 of its last 11 matches.

The Indians will begin a quest for a state sectional championship in North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4, on Feb. 5. Schroeder was to receive the official seedings sometime this week, but was hoping his team would have a home match in the first round. The semifinals are set for Feb. 7 and the sectional finals are on Feb. 9, at the gym of the higher seed. The state sectional winners will advance to the Group championships, at Pine Belt Arena, in Toms River, on Feb. 11.

Following the sectionals and group matches, the district championships will be held on Feb. 16 and 17, followed by the regions (Feb. 21, 23 and 24) and ultimately, the NJSIAA championships on the weekend of March 2-4, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City.

The Indians finished second in the Passaic County Tournament, on Jan. 27, and were led by Nick Trani, who won the 195-pound championship and garnered the prestigious Outstanding Wrestler Award. The team also won some big matches against Passaic Valley, on Jan. 23, 39-16, and Passaic Tech, a day later, 46-18. Wayne Valley also excelled in a quad match on Jan. 20, defeating Old Bridge, Middletown North and Lenape Valley.

Left to right, assistant coach Gavin Bannat, county champions Nick Trani, Dan Murphy and Hunter Davis, along with head coach Todd Schroeder.

Schroeder has obviously been pleased with his team’s performance of late.

“The team has stepped up its effort, for sure,” said Schroeder. “I thought we did an excellent job in the quad match (on Jan. 20) and came through with two big wins against solid teams in Passaic Valley and PCT. (Passaic Valley head coach) Joe (Benvenuti) does an excellent job every year with that program and we were looking forward to competing against them. That was a back and forth match and I was happy with the way our kids responded. And then to come back against another good team and defending sectional champ in Passaic Tech was a good sign for us.”

Benvenuti, for his part, praised Wayne Valley’s performance.

“No question, they’re tremendous,” said Benvenuti of the Indians. “In every weight class, they have a kid who is ready to compete and goes hard in every match. They’re going to be real tough to beat in the sectionals.”

At the county championships on Jan. 27, at West Milford High, Wayne Valley had three champions in Hunter Davis (106 pounds), Dan Murphy (170) and Trani. The Indians finished second to six-time champion DePaul in the team score, as the Spartans won 197-166. Passaic Valley was third, with 152 points.

“Nick Trani was tremendous,” said Schroeder. “He dropped down to 195 pounds and worked hard against some really good wrestlers. Hunter and Dan were also outstanding. As a coaching staff, we were very pleased.”

In addition to the three county champs, Wayne Valley also got good efforts from Elijah Lugo (third place, 126 pounds), Daniel Betamor (second place, 132), Reid Colella (second place, 152), Mo Baghal (second place, 160), Gabriel Ortiz (third place, 182) and Jordan Botero (fourth place, 285).

“Reid, Daniel and Mo all made the finals, and did a really good job,” said Schroeder. “And Elijah, Gabe and Jordan also came through and provided a lot of valuable points,”

Schroeder also noted that Murphy has won every tournament he’s competed in this year.

As for the remainder of the regular season, Schroeder hopes his team will get some good matches in this week, and then prepare for the states.

“West Milford and Clifton will be good tests for us,” the coach said. “And then, it’s time to get ready for the post season. I’m glad we don’t have a match this Saturday. It will be good to get some practice and rest in, before the sectionals begin.”

 

 

By mike051893

Duty. Honor. Country. Grace Perrotta’s dedication leads the Bloomfield High senior to an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy

Duty. Honor. Country.

For Grace Perrotta, those attributes were a part of her upbringing. And that love of country, along with a brilliant mind. commitment as a leader and dedication to the classroom have allowed the Bloomfield High senior to be one of the few to receive an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md.

Ranked fourth in a class of 444 seniors, with a GPA of 4.43, Grace began the process of applying to the Naval Academy last June. Her interest in becoming a Midshipman was driven by her late grandfather, Edward Sheehy, a 1945 graduate of the Naval Academy.

“I’ve wanted to go to the Naval Academy for a long time,” said the effervescent, yet reflective Perrotta. “My grandfather was a graduate. He died in 2008, but was still a big influence in my life.” (Edward Sheehy is interred at the Naval Academy)

The second of four children born to Kathleen Sheehy and Stephen Perrotta, Grace began the application process in June of 2017.

“I wanted to get a start on the preliminary application as soon as possible,” recalled Perrotta.

The next step was to obtain a Congressional appointment, and Grace had the opportunity to meet with a pair of United States Senators, along with United States Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District.

Members of Congress are authorized, by law, to nominate candidates for appointment to the four U.S. service academies (The U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.)

After a series of interviews, Grace received an appointment from Rep. Frelinghuysen. And this past November, she received the news of a lifetime, that she would be part of the freshman class of 2018.

Grace Perrotta, here with Bloomfield athletic director Steve Jenkins and BHS athletic administrator Karen Centinaro. (Click on photo for larger image)

“I first found out from Rep. Frelinghuysen that I was going to be accepted,” she recalled, during a conversation in the office of Bloomfield high athletic director, Steve Jenkins. “But until I got the notification from the Naval Academy, I didn’t want tell anyone. It was about a week before I heard from the Academy, and it was the longest week of my life. I was so excited, and couldn’t wait until I could tell my family.”

Once the electronic notification was received, the first person Grace told was her grandmother, Rosemary Sheehy, the widow of Edward Sheehy.

“I told her, and I don’t think she understood me at first,” said Grace with a laugh. “She kept saying, ‘don’t worry Grace, if you don’t get accepted, it’s okay.’ And i finally got her to understand that I was accepted.”

Of course, the word got around quickly, beginning with her family, including older sister Anna, a freshman at the University of Delaware and BHS grad, younger sister Gina, a sophomore at Bloomfield High and her brother, Sean, age 9.

Acceptance to the United State Naval Academy is highly selective, Only 9% of those who apply are chosen.

In addition to excelling in the classroom, Grace is also a multi-talented athlete. She was captain of the girls soccer team this past fall, currently captains the basketball team and will once again run for the BHS track team this spring, where she competes in the 800, 1600 and 3200 meters.

“Grace is everything you want in a leader,” said Jenkins. “I have two young daughters, and I’ll tell you right now if they end up being anything like Grace, my wife and I will be thrilled. Grace comes from a wonderful family. They’re first class, all the way. She’s just an amazing young lady.”

Bloomfield girls basketball coach Dana Morton raved about Perrotta’s leadership skills.

“There’s nothing Grace can’t do, when she puts her mind to it,” said Morton, herself a one-time Bengals standout athlete. “I just love her. I’m so proud of what she’s accomplished.”

When asked who she’d most like to have dinner with, the reflective Bengal smiled, thought for a few moments, and replied, her grandfather, Edward Sheehy, The Dalai Lama and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Three former Bloomfield graduates have received appointments to military academies. Kier Elmonairy, a 2007 graduate, attended the United States Military Academy, in West Point while 2004 grads Jason Cammarata and James Villanueva attended the Naval Academy and West Point, respectively.

“Our principal, Chris Jennings and I have always felt that the quality of education a student can get at Bloomfield High is top quality, and this is another example why,” said Jenkins. “Chris has said that Grace is a great representation of the quality young people we have at BHS.”

Grace is looking forward to the remainder of her high school career, but knows that things will change quickly in June. She’ll leave for what is called Plebe Summer, on June 28, in Annapolis. She’ll be there all summer, then begin classes.

“The next time I’ll be home would be around Thanksgiving,” she said.

The purpose of Plebe Summer is to lay the foundation of the Academy’s four-year professional development curriculum, which also includes preparing the student for the rigors of the upcoming academic year.

Grace hopes to play soccer at the Academy and one day, as a commissioned officer, aspires to work on aircraft carriers.

For now, the anticipation is evident.

“I’m so excited about the next phase of my life,” she said. “I’ve grown up around the Navy culture. I love my country, and want to contribute to making it better, for everyone else. I can’t expect anyone to do that for me, but I want to be able to do it for others.”

By mike051893

Delgado shows his players the ‘FIGHT’ needed to succeed, honors outgoing seniors on a great career and sees an expanded ‘Island’

Phil Delgado has often kidded about his being on an island, when it comes to his work as a softball coach and mentor.

But truth be told, Delgado’s vision for a coach, when it comes to his players, is to help them reach their potential, both on the diamond, and, more importantly, in life.

For a few years, Phil had coached Montclair High, and injected a lot of excitement in his second season when he guided the Mounties to the Essex County Tournament’s championship game. That accomplishment was even more incredible, considering the team had gotten off to a very slow start in 2016, before winning a bunch of games, against quality opponents, to move into contention for a county title.

Delgado’s coaching carousel moved to the collegiate ranks in 2017, as he became an assistant at William Paterson University, where he will once again coach in the ultra competitive NJAC this spring.

What also drives him is the work he does with his softball travel team, the NJ FIGHT, where he, along with some dedicated assistants, coach the youth of today, as well as up-and-coming stars.

And once a year, Delgado and his staff get together to say thanks to those players who have, in essence, aged out of the process, as those ‘kids’ begin college. And while they will no longer play for FIGHT, many return to help the next generation of kids learn the game.

Delgado likes to come off as that gruff guy, who takes no-nonsense in practice. And if you’ve seen those practices, you’ll see him running from field to field, yelling one minute, encouraging another minute and, somehow, never missing a play in practice.

But when it comes to saying goodbye, Phil isn’t good at that.

Delgado was influenced, and continues to receive that spiritual encouragement from the late Anthony LaRezza, right, with Delgado a few years back. (Click on photo for larger image)

He doesn’t want them to leave, but knows it’s part of the process.

Phil gathers all the players in the program, along with parents and friends, at a field house in Nutley, and asks the departing players to sit up front, while he, without any props (index cards, notes, etc) talks glowingly of each player. He’ll talk about obstacles the young lady may have faced, and how she not only endured, but prospered.

One minute, he’s laughing. Another, he’s trying not to cry. And in the end, you know that just because a player may be leaving FIGHT, the FIGHT will never leave a player.

Delgado, here in 2016, saying goodbye to his outgoing seniors. (Click on photo for larger image)

He’s helped players become coaches. Just recently, Delgado recommended former Livingston star Jess Peslak to Caldwell University softball coach Dean Johnson, as a potential assistant coach, after Johnson had an opening on his staff. Today, Peslak is on that staff and Johnson noted, without hesitation, how Delgado’s referral was helpful in the process.

(Read the article on Peslak here: https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/get-your-popcorn-ready-again-jess-peslak-is-back-in-new-jersey-as-an-assistant-softball-coach-at-caldwell-university/)

Phil has worked tirelessly on helping players get the chance to compete in college. He was so proud to announce that Ayana Zygmunt, a player on his roster, would be going to Barry University.

Mia Faieta (left), here with coach Nicole Velardi, has committed to play softball at St. John’s University, starting in the fall of 2019. (Click on photo for larger image)

He’ll speak, with pride, of others who have committed to college, but still have a few high school years ahead, such as Cedar Grove’s junior pitcher Mia Faieta, who has chosen to attend St. John’s University and IHA’s Ryleigh White, who is just a sophomore, but already committed to the University of Tennessee.

(Read more on Faieta’s college choice here: (https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/cedar-groves-dynamic-pitcher-mia-faieta-gives-verbal-commitment-to-attend-st-johns-university/)

And he’s helped others with the opportunity to just become better, in general, in playing softball.

IHA’s Kylie Carr, here with her dad, has played for NJ FIGHT for a number of years. She’ll be attending Manhattan College, in the fall of 2018. (Click on photo for larger image)

If you’re an Essex County softball fan, many of the FIGHT players’ names are familiar. There’s Amber Matthews and Francesca Testa of Montclair, Columbia’s Catherine John, Bloomfield’s Jamell Quiles and Ayana Zygmunt, Faieta, Livingston’s Emma Cooney, Verona’s Renata Primmer, AnnaMarie Campanile of Mount St. Dominic, Belleville’s Cheryl Ann Nicosia and Millburn’s Helen Casey.

Livingston’s Emma Cooney (right), with good friend Bridget Betley of West Essex last spring, will attend William Paterson University, starting in the fall of 2018.

Other players, outside of Essex, include White, Kylie Carr, Jillian Ward, Ashley Gardner, Alliyah Rivera, Nicolette McDonald, Katie Wright, Jacqueline Rever, Natalie Decena, Kayla Campbell, Isabella Simon, Melissa Konopinski, Cara McMahon, Madison Amdur and Emily Gyongyosi.

Ryleigh White, here with her mom, Melissa, is a sophomore at IHA and will be one of the players to watch in the state this spring. (Click on photo for larger image)

There were plenty of young faces there, with their parents, taking it all in. And Delgado told those kids, mostly in grades 5-8, that one day, they’ll be providing the same leadership that the current seniors provided.

But Phil also loves to talk about the adults who have helped him make FIGHT a successful program today. He says those coaches, like two-time state champion Diana Fasano, the outstanding coach at Immaculate Heart Academy, and Jim Stoeckel, III, an umpire, coach and devoted parent to two young daughters, keep him balanced.

IHA’s Diana Fasano is a key coach on NJ FIGHT. (Click on photo for larger image)

Fasano, as low-keyed as they come, is sometimes so deadpanned you can’t tell if she’s serious, or not. But she relates well to Delgado’s craziness. Stoeckel will sometimes let Phil go on and on, and then suddenly says, in essence,’ okay, that’s enough’, and the two of them figure out how to handle a situation.

He speaks, with reverence, of the late Anthony LaRezza, who helped mold a number of young coaches.

It’s a good ‘team’, for sure, and as a new season nears, the man who runs ‘PDG Island’ can’t wait to get back on the field.

PDG Island will be hopping again in 2018

 

 

 

By mike051893

Get your popcorn ready (again)….Jess Peslak is back in New Jersey as an assistant softball coach at Caldwell University

The thought of attaching the name of a ‘stud’ race horse to the prowess of a talented New Jersey High School softball player began with this blog upon watching a certain freshman from Livingston High throw that first fast ball in April of 2010.

Jessica Peslak quickly became ‘Secretariat’ some eight years ago, as it was evident rather quickly that this kid was, indeed, a stud. And for the next four years, she did nothing to disappoint her teammates and fans, as Peslak led Livingston to back-to-back Super Essex Conference American Division titles, as well as Essex County and North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 championships.

Jess Peslak, here in 2012, after pitching a shutout in the Essex County Tournament semifinals, at Ivy Hill  Park. (Click on photos for larger image)

Any time she’d pitch, I’d let people know to ‘get their popcorn ready’, because Secretariat would be in the circle.

In my opinion, there was no one better in 2012, when Jess led the Jason Daily-coached Livingston Lancers to a 29-1 record with some mind-boggling pitching numbers. She finished 26-1 with a 0.32 ERA while leading Livingston to arguably its best season in the program’s history. Peslak fanned 307 in 175 2/3 innings of work while walking 37. She recorded 19 shutouts, five no-hitters and nine one-hitters. Peslak would also have a stretch of 82 1/3 innings of not allowing a run that season.

Secretariat, at the 1973 Belmont. Jess was that kind of pitcher, as well.

Jess went on to be a two-time, first team, All-State and All-Essex County player.

Peslak would have a stellar collegiate career at Hofstra University. And while she’s been a marvelous pitcher, she’s an even better student, graduating with incredible grades in college and now is attending Law School.

Peslak, here with Livingston head coach Jason Daily and teammate Kylie McLaughlin, after Jess and Kylie were named first team, All-State players. (Click on photos for larger image)

The daughter of Jean and Ed Peslak, Jess has had a clear vision of what her future could hold for many years. And now, she’s added a new plateau, that of a coach.

Caldwell University head softball coach Dean Johnson has announced the hiring of Peslak to his staff.

Get your popcorn ready !

“(C.U. assistant coach) Brittany Pulido (a former Caldwell standout pitcher) had to resign because of a promotion at her full-time job,” said Johnson. “I reached out to high school, and travel ball coaches, asking for names of anyone who would be interested, and that may have a pitching background.  Phil Delgado, got back to me and said the Jessica is very interested.  I have known Jessica for a long time, I recruited her while she was at Livingston High. We met and I offered her the job.

On Senior Day, 2013, Peslak’s Livingston teammates honored her contributions to the softball program.

“I am extremely lucky to have her and Jackie Velardi to be part of the staff.  Jessica has hit the ground running and is working with the pitchers and hitters.  She is doing a great job and the student-athletes really have taken to her.  I could not be more pleased.”

There’s a bit of irony in that Peslak will be coaching home games on the Caldwell campus. As a high school player, some of the greatest games she ever competed in came against arch rival Mount St. Dominic, which shares the campus with C.U.

The articulate Peslak shared Johnson’s enthusiasm about her new position.

In 2013, Peslak, here with parents Jean and Ed, received the prestigious Men of Essex Award. (Click on photos for larger image)

“I’m definitely very excited this year to be able to keep the game I love so much in my life,” said Peslak. “It is weird standing on the other side of the field, looking out and watching others play, as a coach instead of a player. But I’m glad I am able to pass on my knowledge and help others grow in their talents as softball players.

A freshman in 2010, Peslak’s fast ball and dark glasses were intimidating.

“I love that I am still able to be involved with this sport, even after college. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue fulfilling my passion for it with law school, but currently I’m able to find a good balance between the two and I couldn’t be happier. I look forward to this spring season, and working with such a great head coach, in Dean Johnson. He is absolutely amazing, and such a great mentor not only for his players, but also for myself. Game day may not have the same meaning it did when I was a player, but I’m truly excited to start this new chapter from the other side of the field.”

Jess celebrated a state sectional title with teammates in 2012 and 2013. (Click on photos for larger image)

Caldwell University’s softball team has enjoyed phenomenal success. An NCAA, Division II school, it has won multiple CACC championships and in 2004, appeared in the NCAA, D-2 World Series, in Florida. The Caldwell Cougars will open its season on March 9, at the National Training Center, in Clermont, Fla., against Bentley University. Caldwell’s first home game is on March 18, with a doubleheader against Merrimack College.

Last year’s Cougars finished 45-15, including a 25-1 record in conference play. In 23 seasons as coach, Johnson has won 761 games and could reach an elite coaching milestone with 800 career wins sometime in 2018.

Johnson, who generally downplays his record, was more interested in talking about Peslak’s potential and how proud he is of the coaching staff.

“It is very difficult to get good coaches, and I am very lucky to have two, in Jackie, who is beginning her 10th year, and now, Jessica.  Hopefully it will translate to the field. ”

Caldwell U. head coach Dean Johnson is excited about the addition of Peslak to the staff, and Peslak expressed her respect of Johnson’s long-time successes.

And always enjoying some Essex County softball banter, Johnson couldn’t help but speculate.

“Half my team is from California and Florida,” said Johnson, with a chuckle. “But at least I have two All-Essex County players on my staff. I think I would have won the SEC and Essex County title with Jess on the mound, and Jackie catching.”

Speculation aside, Peslak’s addition to an already tremendous program should be a big plus, as the Cougars get ready for a new season.

By mike051893

Soprano, a standout wrestler at Belleville High, returns to coach the town’s recreation program

Sixteen years ago, he was a rising star in the Belleville recreation wrestling program. James Soprano would go on to a tremendous high school career for the Bucs, winning 140 matches, as well as a Region 4 championship in 2007.

Now, after a successful collegiate career at Johnson and Wales, the 2008 BHS grad is back where it all started, and he’s running the recreation team, in the hopes of getting that program back to the success it once enjoyed regularly.

Soprano is excited about working with the younger kids, who generally range from grades 4-8, but also includes kids from grades 1-3.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Soprano last weekend. “The kids are great. Right now, our numbers aren’t where I’d like to see them, as far as overall turnout, but that’s something I hope improves for next year.”

Right now, there’s about 15 to 16 wrestlers competing in the program. When varsity head coach Joe Pizzi reached out to Soprano to run the recreation program, ‘J.J.’ never hesitated.

Members of the 2017-2018 BHS recreation program, along with coaches Soprano and Anello. (Click on photo for larger image)

“Joe is working hard to get that old time Belleville pride back in wrestling,” said Soprano. “It’s what I remember growing up here, when Ron Dileo was my coach, along with Jimmy Palo. Those were good times.”

Soprano’s high school career was outstanding. He and Filiberto Colon were drill partners for four years and the duo did a tremendous job at the lower weight classes. Colon won 156 matches, which was a Belleville High and Essex County record until Filiberto’s younger brother, Justin, eclipsed that record in 2012, winning 163 career matches, the most in the county and fourth, all time, in state history. (Filiberto Colon is still in the state’s top 10 for most victories, as well).

Soprano’s 140 career wins rank him third, all time, in BHS history. He won the 112 pound championship at Region 4, as a junior, and captured an Essex County Tournament crown the following year, at 125 pounds. He was a Region 4 finalist at 125 pounds in 2008 and also competed at the NJSIAA championships at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, on multiple occasions.

This year’s recreation team had put together a 3-1 record through matches of Jan. 13.

“We’re coming around,” said Soprano. “We don’t have enough kids to field a full lineup, but the weight classes we are competing in, we’re doing really well. I’m trying to teach the kids the style of wrestling I grew up with. It worked pretty well for me.”

Joe Anello, himself a standout wrestler at Belleville High, is also on the staff and works well with Soprano.

Belleville’s schedule through the rest of January included road matches at Millburn, on Jan. 20, at 2 p.m., Maplewood, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m., West Caldwell, Jan. 27, at 1 p.m. and Nutley on Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. The next home match is slated for Jan. 31, opposite Bloomfield, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Belleville High gym.

Belleville’s wins, so far this season, have come against Livingston, Glen Ridge and Montclair, with its one loss coming to Cedar Grove.

The wrestlers this season, are Rocco Negron (100 pounds), Jakob Ferrer (65), Huey Tiankee (60), Leo Tiankee (70), Ayden Fox (105), Fernando Collado (112), Elias Collado (105), Luis Petrozzino (105), Jimmy Cicchetti (126), Richard Castro (135), Jayden Goolcharan (80), Michael Zula (90), Colin Soto (75), Jojo Guancione (105 and 112) and Yadiel Flores (60).

By mike051893

Honoring the late coach Lewis Benfatti, Wayne Valley responds with big win as Orion Cua leads Indians recent surge

Wayne Valley wrestling coach Todd Schroeder is about as reserved as a coach can be, when it comes to his team’s performance.

So when Schroeder pointed out so many positive attributes from his team’s effort at the Ramsey Duals last Saturday, as well as a nice win in a sold out gym a few days earlier opposite Wayne Hills, there was that feeling the Indians season is indeed progressing nicely.

Wayne Valley improved to 8-4 on the season with three wins at Ramsey, defeating the host school, as well as Northern Highlands and Manchester Regional. Valley also stopped Hills, on Alumni Night.

The Indians have what Schroeder is calling the biggest week of the regular season coming up. On Jan. 17, the team hosts Passaic Valley, starting at 7 p.m. and on Jan. 19, there’s a short trip to DePaul, for what should also be a huge matchup. Then, on Jan. 20, Valley will host a quad which includes Lenape Valley, Middletown North and Old Bridge, starting at 9 a.m. And if that isn’t busy enough, the Indians visit Passaic Tech, on Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. and the Passaic County Tournament will be held on Jan. 27, at West Milford High.

“This is the time of year you want to see improvement in the team,” said Schroeder. “It’s not so much the conditioning factor, as it is the kids being set at their weight class. The two-pound allotment will be in place starting on Jan. 15, so that’s a big step, as well. I like what I’m seeing from our kids. We wrestled three pretty good teams at Ramsey and the match against Wayne Hills was a nice, charged environment. It was a packed house, honoring (the late) Coach (Lewis) Benfatti, (the one-time head wrestling coach at Valley, who died on Nov. 3, 2017).

“It was an incredible night. I never saw the place so packed for a wrestling match. Both sides of the stands were full and seeing Coach Benfatti’s family there was wonderful.”

Valley won the match, 61-6, but Schroeder noted the score didn’t tell the story.

“Wayne Hills has a young team, and (Hills first-year head coach) Dan (DiColo) is doing a good job there,” said Schroeder. “There were a lot of tough, hard-fought matches. Our team did a good job.”

At Ramsey, the Indians had a number of wrestlers finish 3-0 on the day, including Elijah Lugo (125 pounds), Hunter Davis (106), Reid Colella (152), Mo Baghal (160), Nick Duncan (145) and Orion Cua (120).

“Orion has been doing a tremendous job for us,” said Schroeder. “Here’s a senior who has worked hard to get into the lineup and has taken advantage of his opportunity. His commitment and dedication to the sport is outstanding.”

Valley defeated Manchester, 63-15, Ramsey, 63-9 and Northern Highlands, 57-15. Also noteworthy was Nick Trani, who moved up to heavyweight and won impressively. Trani has been rotating this year at 195 and 220 pounds.

This week will go a long way in determining the team’s overall success. Of course, individual wrestlers have the chance to compete into early March, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City.

“We’ll have the chance to get some good power points this week (toward the state sectional tournament),” said Schroeder. “Like I said, this is when you want to start seeing improvement, and I think we’re getting there.”

By mike051893

When you think of Jim Silvestri, there’s no denying that the 1976 match with Pascack Hills defined his legacy

As the seventh Jim Silvestri Memorial Wrestling Match nears at Belleville High, on Jan. 26, those who were influenced by Silvestri’s leadership, compassion and good humor remember the advent of a great wrestling program for the Blue and Gold.

Silvestri’s wrestling teams at BHS had reached a new pinnacle in 1976, when the Bellboys finished 13-1 in the regular season. And, of course, when it comes to great matches, it’s hard to top the one held on Valentine’s Day, 1976. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Belleville was scheduled to host Pascack Hills, a powerful team out of Bergen County.

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 two schools, Pascack had won handily.

Jim Silvestri (front row, checkered jacket) and Gene D’Alessandro share a happy moment in 1977. D’Alessandro succeeded Silvestri as wrestling coach at BHS when the later was named athletic director in the fall of 1976. (Click on photo for larger image)

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, 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.

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.

Left to right, William Villano, Jim Silvestri, Joe Zarra and Robert Villano, circa 1976. (Click on photo for larger image).

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. The 148 pound match 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 inconsequential. But Villano worked hard and earned a 2-2 tie, which kept the Pascack lead at 15 points, 25-10.

Chris Tremel 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. Waddell’s win cut Pascack’s lead to 25-20, and when Ken Milano followed with a decision 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. 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, since he would be promoted to Belleville’s athletic director the following fall.

Over 40 years later, those who were there on Feb. 14, 1976, still say it was the best high school sporting event they ever witnessed.

And that’s why, when the Silvestri Memorial Match is held this coming Jan. 26, at home against Millburn, starting at 6:30 p.m., it will be a time to remember a great man, who put BHS wrestling, literally, on the mat.

By mike051893

Nick Di Domenico recalls his dear friend, as 7th Annual Jim Silvestri wrestling match is set for Jan. 26

Jim Silvestri’s influence on so many Belleville High School wresters, as well as students, covered nearly four decades.

One of the grapplers who learned early of Silvestri’s extraordinary coaching skills and dedication was Nick Di Domenico. A 1967 graduate of Belleville High, Di Domenico wrestled the last two years of his high school career for Silvestri.

Di Domenico and many other former BHS wrestlers and coaches will be on hand on Jan. 26, when Belleville hosts Millburn, in the seventh Jim Silvestri Memorial Wrestling Match. Proceeds from the match will benefit a scholarship set up in Silvestri’s memory, for a BHS wrestler who excels on the mat, and in the classroom. The match will begin at 7 p.m., with ceremonies honoring the coach probably starting around 20 minutes earlier.

Jim Silvestri and one of his prize student-athletes, Nick Di Domenico, circa 1967. (Click on photo for larger image)

“Jimmy did so much to help me,” said Di Domenico, today a successful businessman after a career in education and coaching. “When I was in high school, the thought of even going to college was never in my plans. Like so many people in Belleville back then, we grew up with hard-working parents, most of whom didn’t go to college. You were raised to do good in school, then go out, learn a trade and get a good job. But Jimmy had other ideas.”

While attending college was barely a reality, wrestling at the next level was a pipe dream, Di Domenico admitted.

“When I was in high school, Jim came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to college,” Di Domenico recalled. “And I pretty much laughed and said, ‘Sure, Coach’. I never thought I’d go to college. My grades weren’t the best at Belleville and the thought of college wasn’t high on my list.”

Silvestri had other ideas. He had received a recruiting letter from the University of Massachusetts, and worked hard to get Di Domenico an interview with the school.

Jim Silvestri shares a light moment with his team, prior to a 1975 match at Belleville High. (Click on photo for larger image)

“I never thought I’d get it, but everything worked out well,” he recalled. “But I remember early in my freshman year at UMass, before the wrestling season even began, I was planning to quit college and come home. It wasn’t for me. Jim got wind of this and called me at school. He suggested I wait on that decision until wrestling season started (in early October), then see how I felt.

“Four years later, I graduated with a degree. Today, I have two Masters degrees. None of that would have happened without Jimmy.”

Silvestri had taken the job as head wrestling coach at Belleville in the 1965-66 school year. He was the coach without really any background in the sport.

“Jimmy was the first to say he had to learn on the job,” said Di Domenico. “He had no ego. He was always looking to learn more and would seek the help of other coaches. Eventually, when I got to college, he always asked me for ideas and encouraged me to work with his wrestlers.”

Di Domenico would eventually coach at Lodi High School, helping the Rams become a solid wrestling program.

Like many youngsters, the true influence a coach has on one’s life doesn’t resonate until later on.

“We all say it, you never realize until later in life what someone like Jimmy really did,” said Di Domenico. “I was glad to say we had stayed in touch long after he stepped down as the wrestling coach and became the athletic director at Belleville. And I know, for sure, that not only did Jim help wrestlers get better, but he was also influential as a mathematics teacher, too.”

Silvestri always knew the limitations of his coaching abilities.

“When Jimmy was named the A.D., he probably could have continued on as the head wrestling coach,” said Di Domenico. “He had turned Belleville into a tremendous wrestling school, for the 11 years he coached. But he once said to me that the fact Belleville didn’t have a state champion during that run convinced him that the program needed a stronger coach. And as A.D., he brought in a tremendous guy in Gene D’Alessandro.”

D’Alessandro had a marvelous coaching run at Essex Catholic, before taking over at Belleville for the 1976-77 season. Three years later, the Bucs had its first NJSIAA champion in Chris Musmanno.

“That’s what made Jimmy the man he was,” said Di Domenico. “He only wanted what was best for the program, and the school.”

And with that, Di Domenico had a simple request for this article.

“I appreciate you writing about me,” he said. “But make sure it’s about Jimmy. This is a guy who came to watch me wrestle, in college, on last minute notice. He and his wife, Alice, drove four hours to watch me that day. This tournament is in Jimmy’s honor and memory. I’ll never forget him.”

By mike051893

As state finals near, Piro pleased with NJSFC’s progress over its first 2 years, with as many as 9 champions to be crowned this weekend

The North Jersey Super Football Conference (NJSFC) is closing in on its second full season, as the NJSIAA state championships will be contested this weekend.

And the NJSFC’s president, Joe Piro, couldn’t be happier with the conference’s performance, as 16 member schools have a chance to win a state crown.

Joe Piro, here in his office at Nutley High School, has been very pleased with the progress of the new NJSFC. (Click on photos for larger images).

A total of nine sectional championships are possible for the country’s largest high school football conference, with at least seven member schools assured titles, based on the matchups. Among those games are a battle for possibly the state’s No.1 team, when Bergen Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep meet at MetLife Stadium, on Dec. 1 (for the Non-Public Group 4 championship), at 8 p.m.

“I’m really happy with the way the conference has progressed,” said Piro, who has been Nutley High’s athletic director since 2004. “I believe we’re farther ahead than what I had anticipated we’d be at this point three years ago.”

The conference noted that Friday night’s games at MetLife, which also includes a 5 p.m. game where Union City takes on Montclair for the North 1, Group 5 title, could be one of the best nights in NJ high school football history.

In addition, there are huge games for member schools on Dec. 2, at MetLife, including River Dell vs. Ramapo (North 1 Group 3) and Mount Olive taking on Old Tappan (North 1, Group 4), as well as what looks like two tremendous games at Kean University, on Dec. 2, with rivals Shabazz and Weequahic facing off at 10 a.m., followed by a Non-Public Group 3 matchup between St. Joseph (Montvale) and DePaul.

Piro also noted that West Essex and Hackettstown will carry the NJSFC flag in its respective championship games against Voorhees and Rutherford.

The NJSFC has 113 members, including the newest school, Sussex Tech, which will begin play in the 2018-2019 school year.

“The credit to the league’s success goes to the great athletic directors and coaches, who have believed in what the conference stands for,” said Piro. “We’re completing our second year of playing, but really this is the third year, considering all the work that went into it, to prep (for 2016).”

Piro has long discussed the competitive balance of the league, which continues to evolve, through the work of the member school’s athletic directors.

“This is the best time of the year,” said Piro, as the state finals near. “I’m really happy where we are, as a conference, and I can’t wait to see some of the games this weekend. It speaks to the level of competitiveness, with 16 (member) teams in the finals.”

 

 

 

By mike051893