For the longest time, West New York was about as competitive of a sports town as there was in New Jersey, never mind Hudson County. To be an athlete or a coach in West New York was simply a privilege, a matter of pride. In West New York, winning wasn’t everything. It was the only thing. Athletic success was expected.
Tony Ferrainolo grew up a block away from Miller Stadium. When the former standout Memorial athlete, who later became the head football and baseball coach at the school, was a child, he knew exactly what he was supposed to become.
“I knew I wanted to be an athlete,” Ferrainolo said. “Miller Stadium became like my second home. I used to climb up to the roof of my house and watch all the games, saying that I wanted to be just like those guys playing for Memorial. I think that someday, it was going to be my turn to play for Memorial. It was a great way to grow up.”
“It was a wonderful place to experience life,” said Bruce Sabatini, who went from being a member of the West New York team that played in the 1966 Little League World Series final to becoming a great athlete at St. Peter’s Prep and Holy Cross, finally becoming a coach at Memorial and St. Peter’s College. “West New York was a great training ground for lifetime skills. In West New York, to play on the basketball courts, you had to be good, because if you weren’t, you didn’t play. It was just a great place to grow up.”
Ferrainolo and Sabatini comprise half of the West New York natives who earned induction into the 12th Annual Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame last week.
The others include Memorial basketball legend Jackie Gilloon and long-time basketball coach Billy McKeever. The four West New York natives represented the best single town participation among the 16 inductees. Jersey City was next with three honorees.
Coaches and athletes
Ferrainolo, the long-time Memorial High School baseball coach, is one of only three coaches in New Jersey high school history to collect more than 500 victories. His list of accomplishments includes eight HCIAA championships, four Group IV state championships and the national championship in 1988.
But Ferrainolo was also a standout athlete, first at Memorial, where he earned All-County recognition in football as a wide receiver twice (1961 and 1962), in basketball (1962) and baseball as a shortstop (1962). In 1962, he was also named to the All-Group IV team for football and was selected as the Hudson County Athlete of the Year.
“You learned a strong motivation to want to be the best that stayed with you for your entire life,” Ferrainolo said. “When I got those Memorial colors on, I felt the tradition. When I left there, you believed that you were as good as anybody and that stayed with you.”
From Memorial, Ferrainolo went on to Villanova University, where he lettered in football (1964-66) and played baseball as a freshman (1964).
Upon graduation from Villanova, Ferrainolo went back to his high school alma mater, where he later became the head football coach for 20 years (1977-1996), winning two HCIAA championships and leading his team to the state playoffs five times.
“It was a great honor for me to receive this while I’m still coaching,” said Ferrainolo, who joined St. Anthony’s Bob Hurley (basketball), North Bergen’s Vince Ascolese (football) and Secaucus’ Maria Nolan (volleyball) as the only active high school coaches in the Hall of Fame. “It’s one of the most memorable moments of my life. It gave me a chance to reflect on my career and make me feel like I truly accomplished something great. I’m happy I was able to share it with my family, especially my parents.”
Jackie Gilloon was perhaps the greatest Hudson County basketball player of his era. The flashy Gilloon electrified gyms throughout the area as a standout for Memorial High School (1971-1974).
In 1972, Gilloon led Memorial to the HCIAA North Hudson Championship, but the Tigers lost in triple overtime to Dickinson in the county final. As a junior, Gilloon led the Tigers to the HCIAA championship, defeating Ferris. In Gilloon’s senior year, 1974, the Tigers won their third straight North Hudson title, but lost to Lincoln in the county title game. Gilloon scored 36 points in the final game.
Gilloon left Memorial with 1,340 points, which at the time was the school scoring record. He averaged 25 points per game as a senior, earning All-County honors for the third straight year and All-State honors for the second straight year. Gilloon was named to the Parade All-America team in 1974.
Upon graduation, Gilloon had a fine career at the University of South Carolina (1975-78), where he finished with 1,125 points and led the Gamecocks in assists all four years. Gilloon finished his career as the all-time assist leader at South Carolina.
He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, but didn’t make the team. He played professional basketball in Argentina for four years.
Gilloon has been a teacher at P.S. No. 2 in West New York for the last six years.
Sabatini, a West New York native, has enjoyed a stellar career as an athlete and a coach, dating back to when he was still a youngster in 1966. In that year, when Sabatini was 11 years old, he was a key player, the starting shortstop on the West New York American Little League All-Star team that played in the championship game of the Little League World Series. A year later, Sabatini took the West New York Americans to the Eastern Regional finals.
Sabatini then went to St. Peter’s Prep and had a good career there as a basketball and baseball player. He played varsity baseball for three years at the Prep, earning All-County honors in 1972. He was also a member of the Prep team that played for the HCIAA championship in 1971 and won the NJSIAA Parochial A North title in 1972. In that year, Sabatini earned All-County and All-State Parochial honors.
Sabatini then went on to play baseball for four years at Holy Cross and was the Crusaders’ team captain in 1976. Sabatini returned to Hudson County to become a teacher and guidance counselor at Memorial High School, as well as first becoming the head basketball coach at St. Joseph of the Palisades for three years (1980-82), then moving on to Memorial, where he spent 14 seasons, winning more than 200 games, including 12 straight winning seasons and 12 consecutive Group IV state tournament appearances.
Sabatini was also the long-time head baseball coach at St. Peter’s College (1981-1998), where he compiled 229 victories, including the school’s only Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in 1994. He was twice named the MAAC Coach of the Year and twice named as the New Jersey Collegiate Coach of the Year. He also helped to organize the New Jersey Collegiate All-Star game for several years.
Sabatini was the athletic director at Wayne Hills High School for one year, before becoming the principal of Dumont High School, where he has been the last two years.
“I think a night like this is the one time that you’re permitted to live in the past,” Sabatini said. “Being among these people brings back so many great memories, to see so many people I played with or coached with. I consider myself fortunate to have been with so many people who volunteered their time to coach us when were kids. It was an endless list.”
Billy McKeever has enjoyed an illustrious and prestigious career, coaching basketball on the high school and collegiate level for the last 45 years.
McKeever, a graduate of St. Joseph of the Palisades, was a three-year varsity football player for the Blue Jays, helping them to win the Parochial B state championship in 1950. McKeever was the team’s captain his senior year and earned All-State Parochial as a center.
He started off attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., but then enrolled in the U.S. Army and served in Korea. He was wounded in Korea and is a member of the Disabled American Veterans. When he returned home from his tour of duty, he got involved in the coaching game with Hudson County Hall of Famer Jerry Halligan at St. Peter’s Prep. He was the JV coach and assistant varsity coach for five years (1956-1961) at St. Peter’s.
McKeever then went to North Bergen HS to serve as the assistant for another Hall of Famer, Matty Sabello, before becoming the head coach at Union Hill High School, where he remained for 13 years (1966-1979). During his tenure with the Hillers, McKeever won four NJSIAA Group III sectional championships. He was assisted by Sam DePiano, who also earned induction into the Hall of Fame this year.
McKeever then moved on to the collegiate game, where he served as an assistant coach at St. Peter’s College under Bob Kelly for one season (1978-79), then went to coach at Kean College under Hall of Famer Joe Palermo (1980-85). He went back to coach at Union Hill for one season (1985-86), then took a three year hiatus from coaching, before returning to assist Hall of Famer Mike Granelli with the women at St. Peter’s College, where he has remained for the last 13 seasons.
During his time with SPC, the Peahens have won five MAAC championships and have made five trips to the NCAA Tournament.
McKeever has the distinction of working under four Hudson County Hall of Fame coaches, namely the late Halligan, the late Sabello, Palermo and Granelli.
“I learned a lot from every one of those coaches along the way,” McKeever said. “So many people in Hudson County are willing to help you. They might want to beat you when you’re playing, but they respect you when the games are over.”
Even in a competitive world like West New York.