2001: Triumph and tragedy WTC disaster, Friars’ T of C win top sports stories of year

Clearly, the calendar year of 2001 will be forever engrained in our minds and memories, not just for the sports events of the past year, but for the events of Sept. 11, which have changed everyone’s lives forever.

Although this is a list of the Top 10 Sports Stories of the Year, it has to begin with the biggest news story of the year as well, because of the incredible effect that the tragedy also had on the local sports scene.

1. World Trade Center disaster puts halt to everything

The early morning hours of Sept. 11, when two hijacked planes were directed by terrorists into the World Trade Center, killing more than 3,000 innocent people, changed the face of local sports in many ways.

First, it forced the postponement of all major sporting events nationwide, from Major League Baseball, the National Football League to the PGA Tour and NASCAR, but it also forced local school officials to postpone high school and collegiate contests. The Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic Association did the right thing and postponed all games and events until after the first weekend. However, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association did not order games to be postponed throughout the state, citing that “some areas of the state were not directly affected.”

The tragedy also claimed the lives of many sports figures, including some former local standouts like former Hudson Catholic basketball standout Bernie Pietronico, former North Bergen football player Chris Amoroso, former Hudson Catholic coach and trainer and former Hudson Catholic soccer player Tom Swift. The events of Sept. 11 also changed the way everyone attends sporting events, with a feeling of patriotism and togetherness taking precedence over the sense of antagonism that was usually found in local sports.

2. St. Anthony captures the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title

Before the 2000-2001 high school basketball season began, legendary St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley was cautiously optimistic that his band of Friars could actually contend once again for NJSIAA Parochial B state glory.

“I just knew that we had to get better as the season went on,” Hurley said.

There were some bumps along the way, like some losses to New York teams and Christian Brothers Academy. But by the time the state playoffs came around in February, the Friars were ready. They proved that they were prepared by knocking off Camden, the state’s No. 1 ranked team with superstar guard Dajuan Wagner, then rolled through the Parochial B state playoffs, knocking off St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth, another team that began the season ranked ahead of the Friars.

After winning the Parochial B state title, the 23rd in school’s history, the Friars moved on to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, where they were able to hold off Shabazz in the title game, 48-47. The Friars won the game on a clutch jump shot by Donald Copeland and some incredible defense in the final three minutes of the finale, played at the Continental Airlines Arena in March.

It marked the seventh time that St. Anthony has captured the T of C in the 12-year history of the tournament. No other school has won more than once.

Guard Elijah Ingram was named the Most Valuable Player of the T of C. With many key players returning, it’s a safe bet that the Friars will not sneak up on anyone this season.

3. St. Peter’s Prep completes Triple Crown of championships

No local high school had ever captured the HCIAA championships of the three major sports – namely football, basketball and baseball – in the same scholastic season until last year. But the “Triple Crown” pursuit became a rallying point for the athletes at St. Peter’s Prep, when it became apparent that the school had the talent level to win in all three sports.

Sure enough, the football team won the National Conference title in November of 2000, followed by the basketball team winning the HCIAA championship in February – the first time that St. Peter’s won the county championship since 1965 – and the baseball team won their second straight HCIAA crown in June.

Just for good measure, the football team repeated as National Conference champs in 2001, which meant that the Marauders actually completed the Triple Crown as well in the calendar year of 2001, but for all intents and purposes, the real Triple Crown occurred during the scholastic year of 2000-2001.

Nevertheless, the entire year gave everyone a reason to be proud at the school located at Grand and Warren.

4. Marist girls win NJSIAA Parochial B championship

In the 30-plus years of high school basketball in New Jersey, only one team from Hudson County, namely St. Anthony in 1984, had ever captured an NJSIAA state championship. That team had been coached by Bill DeFazio. No other Hudson County team captured another state crown until last March, when Marist won the NJSIAA Parochial B state crown. Marist was coached by none other than the same Bill DeFazio. The Lady Knights defeated Sacred Heart of Vineland, 66-53, to capture the state crown.

The Lady Knights were spearheaded by All-State performer Tara Walker, who finished her career as the all-time leading scorer in the school’s history and no. 3 all-time in Hudson County girls’ basketball history, and fellow senior Makeda Gleaton.

It’s not certain when another Hudson County team will win another state basketball title. Hopefully, it will not take another 17 years. However, it’s safe to say that there will never be another tandem of talented superstars like Walker and Gleaton.

5. Former Marist hoop star Harris murdered

While Walker was making her way toward becoming the all-time leading scorer at Marist (of both males and females), the player who had held the record before Walker, Roscoe Harris, was tragically stabbed to death during an altercation outside his Jersey City home in July. Harris had a great career at Marist, becoming the ninth all-time leading scorer in Hudson County history, then went on to play college basketball at Villanova and later helped Rowan win a Division III national championship. Only 28 years old, he was apparently defending the honor of his girlfriend at the time of his fatal stabbing. It was a tragedy that shocked the local sports scene, as another senseless star athlete was cut down way too young.

6. Secaucus volleyball wins seventh state crown in a row

It is almost beginning to be an annual event, placing the Secaucus volleyball queens among the Top 10 stories of the year. The amazing Patriots captured their unprecedented seventh consecutive NJSIAA Group I state championship in November, defeating Cresskill in straight games in the finale. The Patriots finished the season undefeated at 24-0, winning 23 of the 24 in straight games, and have now won an amazing 169 matches and lost only twice over the last seven seasons. Earlier in the season, legendary head coach Maria Nolan became the first New Jersey coach to collect 500 career coaching victories.

7. Lukasiewicz makes major league debut

At the end of the 2000 baseball season, Secaucus native Mark Lukasiewicz had reached the crossroads of his professional baseball career. He had reached the end of the rope with the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, where he spent the prior eight years, and signed a contract with the Anaheim Angels. The 6-foot-7 left-handed relief pitcher started off the 2001 season at Class AAA Salt Lake City, but managed to get his call to the major leagues on May 11, and included a memorable visit in August to Yankee Stadium, where he faced Yankee slugger Paul O’Neill and retired him on a lazy fly ball to right. Lukasiewicz managed to spend most of the 2001 season with the Angels, pitching in 24 games, posting an 0-2 record with a 6.04 earned run average. He now has a future in the major leagues as a situational reliever.

8. North Bergen baseball wins state sectional, goes to Group IV finale

The biggest fairy tale story of the high school baseball season was the incredible run of the North Bergen Bruins. Led by coach Brian Boyce, the Bruins went from being the 10th seed in the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV bracket to somehow managing to defeat two state-ranked teams en route to the sectional crown, including HCIAA rivals Bayonne and Memorial. This marked the first time North Bergen ever won a state sectional title.

In three of the Bruins’ remarkable state playoff victories, they had to fight from behind to win the games. In one game, the Bruins trailed Bayonne, 5-1, in the fourth inning, only to have the game washed out by rain. The Bruins came back a day later and beat Bayonne.

From there, the Bruins then defeated Roxbury, 10-3, to win the overall North Group IV crown, also falling behind in that game, to move on to the overall state championship game against the No. 1 team in the state, Toms River East, and their 7-foot-1 pitcher Ryan Doherty.

Unfortunately, the Bruins fell short in the title game, losing 4-3, but the state sectional championship and remarkable playoff run will always go down as a memorable one.

9. Mocco wins National Wrestler of Year honors

North Bergen native Steve Mocco completed a brilliant high school wrestling career at Blair Academy by finishing his senior season undefeated, including winning the national championship for a second straight year. He ended his career with an astonishing 216-1 record as a heavyweight, with 187 of those victories via pin. Mocco also earned the honor of being named the National High School Wrestler of the Year from USA Today, The Amateur Wrestling News and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Mocco has now moved on to the University of Iowa to continue his career, which will more than likely culminate in a trip to the Olympic Games in 2004.

10. Butler wins state bowling championship

After St. Peter’s Prep, bowler Jeff Butler had finished a disappointing 10th in the state championships as a junior, he made a promise to his coach, Bob Zawistowski, and to local sportswriter Steve Rosenberg that he would return to the same spot, Carolier Lanes in New Brunswick, a year later as a senior and win the overall state championship.

That was some prediction to make, considering that no Hudson County bowler had ever won an individual state championship. However, Butler made good on his promise last February, rolling a 279 high game and a 719 series, some 20 pins better than the rest of the 250 bowlers competing, to capture the overall state championship.

Butler became the first Hudson County bowler in the 50-year history of NJSIAA bowling to accomplish the feat.

Just missed list

There were some other major local sports events that were of note, but just couldn’t crack being listed among the Top 10 stories of the year. So here are the other events that earned consideration: Led by the heroics of heavyweight Anthony Mercun, St. Peter’s Prep’s wrestling team won its second straight Parochial A North state sectional championship.

First, in the NJSIAA Parochial A North semifinals against Seton Hall Prep, Mercun gained an 8-6 decision in overtime against Mike D’Amico, giving the Marauders a 32-31 victory. Then, just two days later, facing Bergen Catholic for the Parochial A North championship, it was more of the same. With his team trailing once again and his team needing his victory to win, Mercun Rick Bencieventi in 3:21, giving the Marauders a 36-31 comeback win and securing the state title for the second straight year. It was an amazing run for Mercun, who had a 9-11 career record before the two wins.

The St. Peter’s College women’s softball team had never captured the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship before the 2001 season, but the Peahens managed to sneak their way into the MAAC Tournament with a come-from-behind win over Niagara on the last day of the regular season, then defeated four teams, including Marist, 2-0, to win the school’s first-ever MAAC title. The shutout victory was pitcher Sandy Attansio’s school-record 12th of the season.

With the victory in the MAAC Tourney, the Peahens then moved on to the NCAA Tournament for the first time, traveling to Tempe, Arizona to face the No. 1 team in the nation, the University of Arizona. Although the Peahens were defeated by Arizona 2-1 in the first round of the NCAAs, coach Ron DeRogatis’ team earned a ton of respect along the way and will be looked upon as a team to beat in the 2002 season.

The St. Peter’s College football team, forever entrenched as a doormat, enjoyed the best season in the school’s history, going 10-1 and finishing second in the MAACFL. Senior defensive end Jeron Crawford earned NCAA Division 1-AA All-America honors, spearheading a defensive unit that was No. 1 in the nation. Another local football team enjoyed the best record in its school’s history. Led by the exploits of Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player Miguel Merrick, who made everyone’s All-State teams, Emerson won a school record nine games and made it to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV finals for the very first time. The Bulldogs also captured the HCIAA American Conference title for the first time since 1987, unseating perennial conference champ Hoboken. Emerson defeated Hoboken 20-14 in the regular season, also for the first time since 1987. Although Emerson lost to Passaic County Tech in the state finale, the Bulldogs’ run to the state championship game, especially after losing the first two games of the year, will never be forgotten.

Three local products worked their way into the professional baseball scene, although one will wait a while before signing a pro contract. First, Jhosandy Morel of Emerson was drafted and signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then Weehawken’s Fernando Fuentes was drafted by the Yankees, but decided not to sign a contract. Finally, Jersey City native Mike Wassong, a product of St. Peter’s Prep and Fairleigh Dickinson, was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent. It’s not often that Hudson County gets three kids to taste pro baseball in the same year.

Speaking of Weehawken, Fuentes, who was named The Hudson Reporter Player of the Year, led his team to its first-ever Bergen County Scholastic League National Division championship. Finally, after a three-year absence, Jersey City native Willie Banks made a triumphant return to the major leagues, pitching strongly in eight games with the Boston Red Sox down the stretch. Banks was so impressive that he earned a contract with the Sox for the 2002 season.

All in all, 2001 was a year to remember in the local high school sports – as well as the year where the nation endured another day of infamy that will live forever in American history.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group