Thursday, June 26, 2014

Vara resigns as Hopatcong AD for job in Florida

It will be extremely hard to think of Hopatcong High School without Tom Vara.

But after 22 years, the longtime athletic director and former wrestling coach at the Sussex County school is leaving for a new opportunity in Sarasota, Fla.

"My resignation was accepted by the school board [Tuesday] night and this all came about in the last couple of weeks," Vara said on Wednesday. "The high school is Sarasota Military Academy, but I'm taking a [physical education] position at a brand new middle school facility. We'll be the first people in the building on Aug. 1."

It's the second big loss for Hopatcong in a month as baseball coach Chris Buglovsky stepped down after the season to take the AD job at Belvidere.

Vara, 49, who will continue as Hopatcong's AD until the end of July and has held that post for 15 years, is a lifer in the area having grown up in Morris County and graduating from Mount Olive High School where he was a standout wrestler, placing third in the state at 122 pounds his senior season in 1983. From there, Vara, who was a two-time runner-up when it was District 16 at Phillipsburg before winning a title in District 15 as a senior, continued his education and wrestling career at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University.

Vara said leaving Hopatcong and New Jersey was an extremely tough decision.

"Except for the four years in college, I've lived in this area my whole life," said Vara, who taught at Parsippany High School for three years before moving on to Hopatcong. "This had been in the works, but it was kind of a perfect storm. It happened that quick, within the last few weeks. Once you find a place [to live in Florida] and you start that process it kind of takes on a life of its own. New Jersey winters [are awful] and with Jersey education, I didn't like the road its going down on certain things.

"But [New Jersey] is all I know. You build many relationships. I probably know at least one person at every high school in the tri-county area."

During his tenure at Hopatcong, Vara oversaw a number of successful athletic programs, including the school's resurgence in football. The Chiefs were mired in a long losing streak before turning into a winner behind tremendous coaches such as Bill Roca, Todd Van Orden, Paul Reduzzi and now Jerry Venturino.

"I was a part of two football [sectional] championships. When I got here, football was really a doormat," Vara said. "I think they were 0-and-40-something at one point. I'm a wrestling guy, but football drives the bus. You have to have solid football coaches and I was blessed to have those guys. Also, we have a tremendous track program with Mike Juskus [former Hopatcong star and javelin competitor in the 1984 Olympic trials] who's been here since he went here."

As a coach, Vara enjoyed his own success in guiding the Chiefs' wrestling program to its only sectional title in 1997 -- beating Kittatinny in the North 1 Group 2 final. Vara's teams went 80-43 overall in seven seasons from 1992-99 and he coached some of the best wrestlers to come out of the school, including four-time district champion and region champ Anthony Bunnicant and region champions Justin Lijo and Jim Berringer, now an assistant coach at Hackettstown. Anthony Petrock, another former wrestler and district champ under Vara, is the head coach at Ramsey.

"Every year, we lost to Kittatinny or High Point [in the section], so to beat a real high-quality program for our only sectional title was special," Vara said. "We had great kids when I was there."

Sticking with his wrestling roots, Vara, along with fellow ADs Kurt Weaver of Newton and John Simonetti of North Warren, has helped oversee the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament since its inception in 2010. Vara isn't sure of the tournament's future at Hopatcong, which rotates as the host semiannually with Hunterdon Central, but he feels it's in good hands with Weaver and Simonetti.

"For this year, it will have to [stay at Hopatcong]," Vara said. "For the new guy it will be a trial by fire. He will just have to take care of the facility. The seeding and everything else will be done."

Vara is now set to pursue another challenge by getting back to his teaching roots.

"This may be a dream job," said Vara, who has a daughter and son -- ages 12 and 10, respectively -- with his wife, Vicki. "I've typically gotten along with kids and everybody at Hopatcong was good to me."

Personally, it will be sad to see Vara, who I have known since his coaching days, leave the area. I saw first hand as part of the seeding process how much he cared about wrestling and the HWS. Hopefully, the new AD has that same passion and attention to detail.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wrestling: 'Redneck' fair wrestling event cancelled

In the wake of concerns from the state's governing body for high school athletics, the Redneck Wrestling at the Fair event scheduled for Aug. 1 has been cancelled.

The high school match, which was to pit teams from High Point and Newton against each other at the New Jersey State Fair in Sussex County, came under fire on Tuesday with a published report in a local newspaper. NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko raised concerns over the dual match that was scheduled to be contested may violate rules, citing "language in a press release from fair organizers."

The press release states:

"Two local high school teams that personify power and history in Sussex County wrestling will compete ... The NJ State Champion High Point Wildcats and coach John Gardner will go head-to-head against Coach Eric Bollette's Newton Braves ... Both teams are renowned in New Jersey wrestling."

When reached on Wednesday, Timko said his intent was not to stop the event from taking place.

"I was told by the reporter, and I can't even remember his name, that they were using school singlets and names for competition and that goes against our constitution and bylaws," Timko said. "This is nothing new, it's been in place for years."

Timko added that if town names rather than high school names -- meaning if High Point was called Wantage -- were being used, and as long as no school equipment or transportation was being supplied for the event, the match could have taken place.

Event organizer Joan Smith said it was never her intention to put the schools' wrestling seasons in jeopardy and never intended to offend anyone.

"I certainly regret that it happened. We wanted to celebrate wrestling," Smith said on Wednesday afternoon. "We were looking to have a nice event and we were all looking forward to it."

Bollette confirmed that it will not take place as agreed upon by the two coaches and athletic directors.

"It's unfortunate. The kids were looking forward to wrestling," said Bollette, who stated that school-issued singlets or transportation was never to be used for the match. "But better safe than sorry. I just seems that the [newspaper] writer was out to do something. Was he trying to get this cancelled?

Offseason dual events in New Jersey have been commonplace for years, including the Hunterdon County and Hopatcong Duals in the immediate area. Also, teams from Phillipsburg and Warren Hills annually compete against each other in a Pin Cancer event that rotates between the respective high schools.

None of those events violate any NJSIAA rules.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Field hockey: Plug pulled on Voorhees-WHills rivalry (UPDATE)

It's been the best matchup bar none in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area for nearly two decades.

But it appears, at least in the regular season, that the Voorhees-Warren Hills field hockey rivalry is over. For the first time since 1999, the two perennial state powers will not meet during the regular season.

The new Skyland Conference alignment for 2014-15 places Voorhees and Warren Hills in the different divisions after years together in the Raritan. As stupid and unbelievable as that is, it was almost a foregone conclusion that these programs would find a way to play once, and perhaps even twice, regardless of realignment.

So why is this annual grudge match not on the schedule? Well, it appears the gamesmanship on and perhaps off the field is one reason judging by the Voorhees camp's interesting and quite response. What is clear is that one side of the rivalry is apparently moving on.

"We are filling out our schedule with competitive teams that show the same level of sportsmanship that we expect from our players," Vikings coach Taylor Webb said on Tuesday without further elaboration.

Warren Hills coach Laurie Kerr, who is 9-17-3 all-time against Voorhees in 14 seasons, opted not to comment.

Read into Webb's comment what you will, but this is without a doubt a sad day for the sport in our area. We still could see these teams match up in the HWS Tournament, but to not have them competing during the regular season and in the same division is a crying shame. The programs shared last year's Raritan Division title after splitting the regular-season meetings.

Blue Streaks athletic director Peter Lubrecht said on Thursday that he too is disappointed that there will be no regular-season game.

"They just said they don't want to play us," said Lubrecht, who just completed his first school year as AD. "I was at all of our home games and the county game [against Voorhees] and to be honest, I didn't see any poor sportsmanship. We respect Voorhees and the field hockey program. But if they feel this is best for their program, I understand that."

Voorhees holds a 30-19-6 in the all-time series, but it has dropped four of the last six matchups, including a 4-1 loss in the second regular-season contest and a 2-1 defeat at home last year in the HWS semifinals. Warren Hills, which is 2-5 in county games vs. its Hunterdon rival, has won two meetings in the same year in back-to-back seasons, something the program has only done five times since the series began in 1975. The others were in 1975, '79 and '81.

Warren Hills (22-4-1, 9-1 division in 2013) remains in the Raritan Division, which also houses Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Phillipsburg and Watchung Hills. Voorhees shifts to the Valley Division, which includes Bernards, Delaware Valley, Franklin and Somerville.

With or without the other, both Voorhees and Warren Hills have rugged schedules set up for 2014.

Warren Hills, which has played in the last two Group 3 title games, will open its season at Madison, last year's North 2, Group 1 runner-up, on Saturday, Sept.6. The Blue Streaks will open their home schedule against Hackettstown on Monday, Sept. 8 in a rematch of last year's HWS final, won by the Streaks, 1-0.

By far the Warren County school's biggest regular-season challenge will be on Saturday, Sept. 27 when it travels to Eastern for a showdown against the perennial Group 4 champion and the Garden State's top program.

Kerr's squad will be loaded again this fall is it look's to snap the program's 0-8 mark in the Group 3 finals. Seniors Sydney Muntone (Temple) and Nikki Profita (Rutgers) will anchor a potent offensive attack, along with sophomore Dani Profita, who is recovering from an ACL injury sustained earlier this year. Muntone (team-high 17 assists) and Nikki Profita (team-high 20 goals) combined for 108 points last season. Muntone also scored 19 goals, while Profita added 13 assists. Dani Profita burst onto the scene with 15 goals -- the third-highest total on the team.

Defensively, outstanding senior back Amanda Crampton, also a Division I recruit, and junior goalie Taylor Austin, who was outstanding in her first-ever season of hockey, will lead the Streaks.

Voorhees (16-5, 9-1) will open its season on Friday, Sept. 5 at home against Bernards. The following day, the Vikes will host reigning Group 2 champion West Essex at 11 a.m., and will travel to 2013 Group 1 champion Shore Regional on Saturday, Sept. 27.

West Essex holds a 6-1-1 edge, including a 3-0 mark at home after last year's 3-0 win over Voorhees, in the all-time series dating to 1996, when the schools played to a 1-1 tie. The programs have split meetings in the Group 2 semifinals -- Voorhees winning 2-1 in 2000 and West Essex prevailing 2-1 in overtime in 2002, ending Voorhees' 23-game win streak as the Vikes finished 23-1 in the final game under former coach Ann Bonavita, now Webb's assistant.

Junior forward Kathryn Roncoroni will help anchor the Voorhees offense once again. Roncoroni scored both of the Vikings' goals in a 4-2 season-ending loss to Parsippany in the North 1, Group 2 semifinals to match the school's single-season record of 33 set by Colleen Boyce in 2010. Senior goalie Lauren Pianucci will head up an always strong Voorhees defense.

Voorhees goes clubbing

Hunterdon County now has a place for year-round training in its backyard with the advent of the TaylWind Field Hockey Club, created by Webb.

"I've always been involved with clubs either playing or coaching and I found a need for one nearby," said Webb, who runs the program along with Bonavita and Donna Whiston. "I wanted one with a balance between competitive and fun."

Webb said due to travel reasons, a lot of potential players were migrating to lacrosse or not playing field hockey at all since there wasn't a facility in the area. Despite a battle for field space, the coach hopes this will help the sport grow.

"The kids had been traveling so far and there really isn't one like this in our area," Webb said. "We're trying to make it a more popular sport by offering year-round training."

The club provides year-round training for grades 1-12 and offers league play and a summer camp that will run July 28-31 at Voorhees High School.

NJAC misalignment

Looking over this year's Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference realignment and one word immediately comes to mind -- stupidity. How else can you explain the expansion to seven divisions, five of which contain five or fewer teams.

How about the four-team Freedom Division for field hockey and wrestling? Win three games, or six, and win a division title. Sussex Tech does not offer either sport.

It's utterly ridiculous and the people responsible should be ashamed of the themselves. No wonder it was so hard trying to obtain a copy of this embarrassment.

Here is how the divisions (with the exception of football) will look starting this fall:

American Division (5) -- Morris Hills; Mount Olive; Pope John; Sparta; Vernon.

National Division (5) -- Morris Knolls; Parsippany Hills; Randolph; Roxbury; West Morris.

United Division (5) -- Chatham; Delbarton; Mendham; Montville; Morristown.

Freedom Division (5) -- Hackettstown; High Point; Jefferson; Lenape Valley; Sussex Tech.

Colonial Division (5) -- Hopatcong; Kittatinny; Newton; North Warren; Wallkill Valley.

Independence Division (7) -- Butler; Boonton; Kinnelon; Morris Catholic; Pequannock; St. Elizabeth; Whippany Park.

Liberty Division (7) -- Dover; Hanover Park; Madison; Morristown-Beard; Mountain Lakes; Parsippany; Villa Walsh.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Wrestling: Parzero, Sbriscia out at North Warren

Coaching more than one sport -- much less in back-to-back seasons -- can be a taxing proposition.

After four seasons, North Warren's Matt Parzero has had enough and recently resigned from his wrestling post. Parzero will retain his position as the school's head football coach.

Scott Stoll, a former Vernon wrestler who served as an assistant on the Patriots' staff, is the new head wrestling coach -- the Blairstown school's fourth since 2009.

"It was time, but I will definitely miss it," said Parzero, who was the only head coach for both sports in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area until Wallkill Valley wrestling coach Adam Vazquez was recently hired to take over the Rangers' football program.

"As a head coach, you have to be there, with all of the summer stuff going on. I was asking a lot of my assistants. Scott took a lot of the brunt, running our [wrestling] practices the first week or so. I think it was two weeks when our football team reached the sectional semifinals two years ago."

Former North Warren middle school coach Dave Sbriscia, who also was a candidate for the head varsity position, will be moving on as well. The former Warren Hills standout is heading back to his alma mater to be an assistant on Jarrett Hosbach's staff. Sbriscia's hiring won't be made official until the fall when the coaching positions will be posted.

Sbriscia, a physical education teacher at North Warren, is also undergoing the interview process for a teaching position at the Warren County school.

North Warren athletic director John Simonetti said he was sorry to see both Parzero and Sbriscia leave their positions.

"Matt did a good job. He's a professional, whether it's football or wrestling," Simonetti said. "The kids give 100 percent for him and he's an all-around good guy. Dave is a huge loss for us."

Sbriscia has quickly gained a reputation as one of the top young coaches in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area. His biggest asset at North Warren was working with its group of upper weights, who showed great improvement under his tutelage. Dan Hauck (District 1 champion in 2012) and rising senior Will O'Connell are two of Sbriscia's successful projects. O'Connell went from being 8-11 as a freshman to a 19-match winner as a sophomore before going 25-8 this past season.

"He's going to be a great head coach some day," said Parzero, who employed Sbriscia on his football staff as special teams coordinator the past three seasons. "Our loss is definitely [Warren Hills'] gain. I'm hoping to keep him as a football coach. He came into our [practice] room and got the kids' attention, just being able to wrestle with them."

A 2006 Warren Hills graduate, Sbriscia became one of the area's best 215-pounders despite never having wrestled until his sophomore season. He logged a three-year mark of 78-22 -- ranking 21st on the school's all-time wins list -- and twice qualified for the state tournament. Sbriscia finished third in District 1 as a sophomore before winning titles in 2005 and '06, and placed third in Region 1 as a junior and second as a senior.

In '05, Sbriscia met High Point's David Zabriskie in the Region 1 semifinals and dropped a 3-2 decision to the eventual state champ and future NCAA champ at Iowa State. In the '06 Region 1 finals, Sbriscia lost 5-0 to Lenape Valley's D.J. Russo, who went on to place second in the state at 215.

Parzero said he feels good about leaving the North Warren program in good hands and in better shape than when he took over for the 2010-11 season. In four seasons, Parzero's teams compiled an overall mark of 43-42, going 8-14 overall and 1-5 in the NJAC Freedom Division this past season.

"We didn't get to the level that [former coach Chris Jones] had it at, winning two sectional titles [in 2006 and '07], but I think it's better than it was when I inherited it," Parzero said. "Scott is an exciting guy and the kids like being around him."

Boresch Duals field set

The search is over for an eighth team to compete in the 10th annual Henry Boresch Duals next January at Newton High School.

Braves coach Eric Bollette confirmed that South Jersey's Middle Township is slated to replace Raritan, which dropped out after competing in the last four events and winning the championship in 2011.

South Plainfield, which won in 2012 and '13, is returning along with 2014 champion Hanover Park. Rounding out the field are Caldwell, Howell, Morris Knolls, Northern Burlington and host Newton.

Last year's duals created quite a buzz around the state as Hanover Park rolled to the title -- knocking off Howell, 35-31, in the semifinals and Raritan, 35-29, in the final. Earlier in the semis, Raritan snapped South Plainfield's 50-match win streak (57 in a row vs. New Jersey teams) with a 29-28 victory on criteria (most bouts won, 8-6).

Sussex Fair to host Redneck wrestling

Wrestling will return to The New Jersey State Fair this summer with a high school match between host High Point and Newton set for Friday, Aug. 1. The event is being billed as "Redneck Wrestling at the Fair."

The fair was once the host site for the very popular Henry Boresch summer tournament. High Point coach John Gardner was seeking an opponent for a summer match and Bollette accepted to give his up-and-coming team an opportunity to face one of New Jersey's top programs. High Point defeated Newton, 58-10, in an NJAC crossover match on Jan. 10, 2014.

High Point captured its second Group 2 championship in three years this past season and returns several state qualifiers, including Dom Gallo, Mike Derin and Jason Gaccione. Derin (33-9) and Gaccione (37-7) were placewinners in 2013.

Newton, which finished strong in the second half of last season, returns state qualifier and Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex champion Gus Protogeropoulos (35-8) in the upper weights, along with Region 1 qualifiers Trevor Morales (31-7), Eddie Medina (28-12) and Jake DeLuca (8-9).

Wrestling runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Bollette said there will be no announcement of lineups, as the teams will match up on the day of the event, with the understanding that wrestlers will be paired up according to talent level.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Baseball: Final Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex standings

Skyland Conference
Delaware Division
xy-Hunterdon Central
North Hunterdon
Watchung Hills
Raritan Division
Warren Hills
Delaware Valley
Valley Division
Gill St. Bernard's
North Plainfield
South Hunterdon
Bound Brook
Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference
Freedom Division
x-Lenape Valley
Wallkill Valley
North Warren
American Division
z-Mount Olive
Pope John
High Point
Morris Knolls
Morris Hills
Independence Division
x-Morris Catholic
Mountain Lakes
Sussex Tech
x-division champion
y-county champion
z-sectional champion

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Baseball: Final Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex rankings

Well, another high school baseball season in the Open Mike area is in the books. It goes by too fast.

Unfortunately, no teams from Hunterdon, Warren or Sussex counties brought home sectional titles, but Lenape Valley wrapped up a tremendous season with a loss in the North 1, Group 2 final -- the lone area team to appear in a championship game.

Lenape Valley and Sparta won division titles in the NJAC Freedom and American, respectively, while Hunterdon Central claimed the Skyland Conference Delaware Division title.

As we wrap up this season, thoughts turn to next year where just about all of the top teams in the area will sustain heavy graduation losses. Should make for an interesting spring in 2015. Thanks to all of the coaches for their cooperation and I hope to see all of you again next season.

Here are the final area rankings:

1. Hunterdon Central (21-4) -- Red Devils, the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey, Group 4 playoffs, were upended by No. 16 Sayreville, 5-4, in the season finale on May 19. It was a disappointing ending for coach Mike Raymond's club, which it had its five-game win streak snapped with the loss. Junior second baseman Brett McManus (.421 avg., 5 homers, 19 RBIs) and senior third baseman Mike Pfenninger (.400, 22 RBIs) were among the offensive leaders this season, while junior ace Pat Clare (7-1, 2.61 ERA) picked up victories in all four tri-county games as Central avenged a pair of losses to North Hunterdon with a 6-3 win to claim its third Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex title and second in a row. Central also captured the Skyland Conference Delaware Division title. Raymond will enter 2015 with 289 career wins. McManus, sophomore first baseman Matt Toke (.442) and junior outfielder Henry Hawkins (17 RBIs) will be returning starters.

2. North Hunterdon (20-10) -- Lions dropped three of their last five games, including a 3-1 loss to Bridgewater-Raritan in the North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals after a 7-1 win over Edison in the opening round. A 5-4 loss to Montgomery on May 20 cost coach Mike Kane's club a piece of the Skyland Conference Delaware Division title despite beating champion Hunterdon Central two out of three times. Shayne Fontana belted a homer in the loss to Bridgewater, while ace John Wilson took the loss. Fontana is part of a good junior class, along with third baseman Tom Schumacher and catcher Andrew Meiners. Wilson, a lefty is a sophomore.

3. Sparta (18-7) -- Spartans saw their four-game win streak snapped with a tough 6-0 loss to Mount Olive in the North 1, Group 3 semifinals on May 27. Coach Sam Slobodzian's team was bidding for the program's first finals appearance since winning its lone sectional title in 2000. Sparta captured its first NJAC American Division title, splitting with Mount Olive during the regular season. Leadoff batter and Yale recruit Thomas Ruddy finished up a stellar four-year career as the school's all-time hits (130) and stolen bases (86). Ruddy batted .448 this season with 39 hits and had an RBI in the 4-0 win over Montville in the sectional semifinals. Ace pitcher Kevin Foulds (7-2, 0.59 ERA) earned wins in two state playoff games with 10 K's against River Dell and nine against Montville. Slobodzian, who will enter 2015 with 286 career wins, will look to reload with the loss of 11 seniors. Juniors Dillon Mendel (4-1, 1.14 ERA) and Nick Makowitz (.346, 15 RBIs), third base and first base, respectively, will be the leaders next spring.

4. Lenape Valley (18-5) -- Patriots capped one of the finest seasons in program history with a 7-1 loss to Ramsey in the North 1, Group 2 final. Junior ace Jim Fluke (10-1, 1.40 ERA, 88 K's, 60 IP) was a big reason for the team's success and earned wins in three of the team's four playoff games. He also drove in the lone run against Ramsey. Senior third baseman Ryan Lindner (.361 avg., 25 RBIs) and junior first baseman Pat Togno (.342, 19 RBIs) were part of a potent lineup and helped the Pats post a 12-2 record -- splitting with Jefferson and Newton -- in winning the program's first NJAC Freedom Division championship. Coach Bob Klinck's team, which won eight of its final 10 games, loses five senior starters, but Fluke and No. 3 pitcher Cole Swanson return, along with Togno, who was on fire at the plate in the second half, and junior catcher Rob Sparacino.

5. Pope John (16-11) -- Lions saw their four-game win streak snapped with a 3-2 loss in 10 innings to Paramus Catholic in the opening round of the Non-Public North A playoffs on May 23. Coach Vin Bello's team got off to a fast start this season at 7-1 before dropping two of its next nine. Pope recovered from that dismal stretch to go 7-3 down the stretch, including a pair of nice independent wins over Malvern Prep (Pa.) -- 4-3 in 11 innings on May 17 -- and Don Bosco Prep -- 3-1 on May 21. Leadoff hitter Michael Young had a strong senior campaign -- batting .380 with 30 hits. Senior second baseman Axel D'Addario (.345, 30 hits, 22 RBIs) and junior shortstop Jay Sanford (.289, 22 hits) also led the offense. On the mound, junior Ethan Collins (4-3, 2.63 ERA) and senior Dan Cunico (4-4, 3.40) were a nice 1-2 punch. Collins will be the staff ace next season and the Lions will rebuild around junior catcher Zach Leach and junior pitcher Jack Nelson, along with sophomore Kyle Malejko.

6. Newton (14-9) -- Braves enjoyed a second-half turnaround after a 5-5 start. Junior ace Nick Grant led the charge both on the mound and at the plate. The lefty went 4-1 with a 1.12 ERA and 41 K's in 45 innings, including a four-hit shutout in Newton's 1-0 win over North Warren in the opening round of the North 1, Group 2 playoffs. Grant also drove in the run with a single in the third inning. The Braves' four-game win streak ended with a 4-1 loss to Lodi in the quarterfinals. Sophomore Cole Van Luvender (5-2), who really stepped up in the No. 2 spot in the rotation, took the loss in the finale. Coach John Selitto will bid farewell to seven senior starters, including outfielders Ben Cramer and Justin Smith, along with third baseman Joe Maker and catcher Charlie Grotyohann. Cramer was the team's best offensive player the last two seasons, batting .373 with 15 RBIs and 17 stolen bases this spring. Grant, Van Luvender and junior shortstop Jon Bernotas will be the nucleus of a rebuilding effort in 2015.

7. Vernon (9-14) -- Vikings had a much better season than their record indicates -- going 2-11 in a tough NJAC American Division. Coach Scott Berge's club, which went 3-6 down the stretch, advanced to the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex semifinals for the second straight year -- becoming the first No. 10 seed to win a tri-county game in the process. The Vikes also knocked off NJAC Freedom champion Lenape Valley -- 5-1 in the HWS opening round -- and Newton -- 7-2 on April 14. Second baseman/pitcher Mike Harboy and ace Anthony Germinario were major reasons for the club's success. Harboy batted .351 with 27 hits and 25 RBIs, while Germinario, an offspeed throwing right-hander, fashioned a 6-2 record with 2.23 ERA and 49 K's in 53 1/3 innings. He posted wins in three HWS games and gave this team a chance to win each time out. Center fielder Chris Pontus was among the best defensive players in the area. This was another senior-laden team with seven in the starting lineup. Senior first baseman Dave Baxter will also be missed next spring.

8. High Point (7-12-1) -- Wildcats were a tough team to figure out this spring. After a tough 2-5-1 start, coach Mickey Thomas' team knocked off Pope John (12-8 on April 24) and Vernon (8-6 on May 7) and gave sectional finalist Lenape Valley all it could handle in a 3-1 loss in the opening round of the North 1, Group 2 playoffs on May 19 in the season finale. Senior shortstop/pitcher Kyle Adams was one of the top players in the area and NJAC American Division. Adams batted .415 with 20 stolen bases, while crafting a 4-2 record on the mound. Junior catcher Riley Keenan batted .400 and featured one of the best arms in the area, while senior outfielder Matt Musilli batted .426 with 26 hits. Keep an eye on sophomore third baseman Billy Kerwien -- .355 batting average -- next season.

9. Hackettstown (9-11) -- Tigers picked up steam down the stretch by winning four of their last seven, including a 10-1 win over Science Park in the opening round of the North 2, Group 2 playoffs. Senior Justin Nicholls had a double and an RBI, while junior Matt Engels drove in two runs and picked up the win on the mound with 10 K's. Coach Gary Poyer's club ended the season with a 2-1 loss to Lyndhurst in the quarterfinals. Nicholls batted .279 and led the team with 15 RBIs, while also going 1-2 on the hill. Junior catcher Jonathan Pezzato led the team in batting with a .421, while Engels went 4-4 with a 3.22 ERA. The Tigers also finished 7-7 in the NJAC Freedom Division standings, knocking off North Warren (10-5 on May 12) and Wallkill Valley (10-5 on May 6) the second times around.

10. North Warren (11-9) -- Patriots went one-and-done in the North 1, Group 2 playoffs with a 1-0 loss to Newton at Memory Park. In a classic pitchers' duel, senior Alex Hladik took the hard-luck loss -- going six innings and striking out eight. Hladik went 7-1 with a 0.33 ERA and 93 K's in 55 2/3 innings. The hard-throwing right-hander, who had six complete games, allowed just 16 walks. Outfielder Cam Esposito was a bright spot on offense -- batting .415 with 27 hits and 13 RBIs. Coach Jim Haupt's team won five of its last seven and finished 6-7 in the NJAC Freedom Division. The team loses six senior starters, but will return junior third baseman and leadoff hitter Matt Nicholoff (.288, 19 hits, 8 steals) along with junior outfielder John Vuz (.324). Sophomore Sean Thornton (2-2, 3.09 ERA) and junior Vince Lubertazzo will be atop the rotation.

Honorable mention -- Belvidere (11-11); Delaware Valley (9-11); Wallkill Valley (9-12); Warren Hills (12-12).

Monday, June 2, 2014

Field hockey: Franceschino link to Seaters' glory days

Beth Franceschino never really stepped away from Belvidere's field hockey program.

She resigned following the 2004 season, but has coached in some capacity since then, guiding the youth and seventh-eighth grade programs. Now, after a 10-year hiatus on the high school level, Franceschino is back as the County Seaters' head coach.

"I never really kind of stopped," said Franceschino, who replaces Kristin Gaitan after being approved during Thursday's board of education meeting to become Belvidere's fifth head coach since the legendary Sally Ueberroth retired in 1998. "I started a camp and started the feeder program with Kristin and Vicki Call [wife of Warren Hills athletic trainer and former Belvidere athlete Kevin Call]. I also coached my [daughters'] team."

Franceschino, a former star player at Belvidere when she was Beth Pursell, is now tasked with trying to help the Warren County program become a major player once again on the Group 1 level. The Seaters were a Group 1 and statewide powerhouse under Ueberroth, whose teams went 130-41-12 over 10 seasons and made six Group 1 finals appearances -- winning championships in 1989 and '90.

Franceschino, a standout defensive player, was a senior on the '92 squad that claimed the Hunterdon-Warren Tournament championship -- the first Warren County program to win the title.

Can Belvidere return to those glory days?

"I'm hoping we can," said Franceschino, who gave birth to twin daughters, Gianna and Olivia, in 2005. "I feel like it's kind of getting back there. The numbers [of players in the program] were low, but they are starting to come back up. We have big sixth- and seventh-grade classes."

Gaitan had things moving in the right direction. In her five seasons, Belvidere racked up 55 victories -- 15 in 2011 when the Seaters advanced to the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament semifinals for the only time in program history. The 2010 team won 14 games, but the program took a step back in '13 by finishing 6-10-3, the only losing season under Gaitan.

But the postseason is where Belvidere hasn't made noise in almost two decades. Since winning their seventh and last sectional title in '96, the Seaters are 0-8 in state games, including a 4-0 loss to Boonton in last year's North 1, Group 1 playoffs.

Franceschino's 2003 team snapped the school's six-year drought without a state playoff appearance. Back then, teams needed to be at least .500 in order to qualify. Now, sub-.500 teams can get in to fill out a 16-man bracket.

But before Belvidere starts making postseason plans, Franceschino will need to get familiar with her players and a new conference alignment. The Skyland Conference, which once had just two divisions when she last coached, is expanding to four starting with the 2014-15 school year.

The Seaters will be in the new four-team Mountain Division, joining Mount St. Mary, North Plainfield and South Hunterdon. Being away from this level for a decade will also provided a challenge as far as coaching style. The plus side is now having a feeder program.

"I know a couple of the players and I know there are some good girls and freshmen coming in," Franceschino said. "It was harder for me [taking over for Ueberroth in 1999] because I was right out of college and close in age to the players. This time will be a little easier of a transition, some do know me. It will be nice having kids that have started [playing] earlier. I won't have to teach them how to hold a stick. They'll  be coming in at a higher level."

Belvidere will have a challenging schedule to deal with as well. In addition to Bernards (17-5) and South Hunterdon (16-5), last year's co-champions of the Valley Division, the Seaters will face state power Voorhees (16-5) along with NJAC heavyweights High Point (16-2-3) and Lenape Valley (15-6-1), as well as Hackettstown (12-8), last year's HWS runner-up.

"I would like to travel less and play more local teams," said Franceschino, who is hoping to get Warren Hills back on the schedule.

The Seaters and Blue Streaks played annually from 1965-89 as members of the old Delaware River Conference. But the schools have met just 16 times since 1990 and have not played each other since 2005. Warren Hills holds a 32-21-10 edge in the series (including five meetings in the county tournament) and won 11 in a row from 1997 to '05.

Franceschino's teams went 0-6 against Warren Hills and were outscored 38-3 in those meetings. Belvidere's last win in the series was 1-0 in 1996 when it went to the Group 1 final, while Warren Hills reached its first Group 3 title game that season.

Belvidere schedule for 2014

Friday, Sept 5 -- at North Plainfield, 3:45 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 9 -- at Somerville, 4 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 11 -- South Hunterdon, 3:45 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 16 -- Franklin, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 18 -- at Mount St. Mary, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 20 -- at North Warren, noon
Tuesday, Sept. 23 -- at Bernards, 4 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 25 -- at Phillipsburg, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 27 -- at Lenape Valley, 10 a.m.
Monday, Sept. 29 -- Notre Dame-East Stroudsburg (Pa.), 4 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 30 -- North Plainfield, 4 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 2 -- Delaware Valley, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 4 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round, TBA
Thursday, Oct. 9 -- at Voorhees, 3:45 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 10 -- at High Point, 4 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 14 -- Mount St. Mary, 3:45 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 15 -- Blair Academy, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 18 -- North Hunterdon, 10 a.m.
Thursday, Oct. 23 -- Hackettstown, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 25 -- at South Hunterdon, 1 p.m.