It had been 15 long years since Alex Stencel had visited his hometown of Bayonne.
However, Stencel came back to his old stomping grounds last week to receive his induction into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, returning from where he now makes his home in California.
“Honestly, when I watch ‘The Sopranos’ on television, I start to get homesick,” Stencel told an audience of better than 500 people at the 19th Annual Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame ceremony last week at the Casino-in-the-Park in Jersey City. “I really don’t get a chance to come back home often, so this really was a treat.”
Stencel, a legendary two-sport athlete at Bayonne High School who went on to play football at Arizona State University, was one of three sports greats with Bayonne ties who gained induction, the largest single night of honorees ever for Bayonne.
Also gaining induction were long-time Bayonne residents Paul Conway and Connie Gallagher.
Stencel enjoyed incredible success in a multitude of sports, especially football and track and field, in both high school and college, carving out one of the most versatile careers in Hudson County athletic history.
Stencel was a standout two-sport athlete at Bayonne High School (1967-71), participating in football and track for the Bees. He was a defensive end, tight end, and punter and earned All-Hudson County and All-Group IV honors his senior year.
After graduating from Bayonne, Stencel went to Arizona State.
After graduating from Bayonne, Stencel went to Arizona State (1971-76), where he concentrated on football and played for the legendary coach Frank Kush. Stencel played varsity football for three years at Arizona State as a strong safety and was part of the 1975 Sun Devil team that went undefeated (12-0) and earned the mythical No. 1 ranking in the nation from The Sporting News. During his tenure at ASU, Stencel was part of three Sun Devil teams that won Fiesta Bowl titles.
“But playing for Frank Kush wasn’t easy,” Stencel said. “He took the fun out of football.”
Stencel had a tryout with the Denver Broncos after graduation from Arizona State, but left the tryout after suffering an injury and never returned.
After graduating from Arizona State, Stencel worked in the insurance industry for a while, but then moved to California and got a job working in the film industry as a wet maintenance technician, working for studios like MGM and Disney.
Married to his wife, Karen, the Stencels have two sons and reside in southern California. Alex and Karen Stencel used to compete in marathons together, with Alex completing 11 different marathons, including Las Vegas, San Diego and Washington, D.C.
“I figured that anyone could run a marathon,” Stencel said. “If Karen could do it, then I could. After I finished the first one, I said, ‘What am I, nuts?’ It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Stencel recalled a story that his former shot put coach and fellow Hudson County Hall of Famer, the late Wes Joyner, once told him.
“Wes never got paid for what he did, but he was there working with me every day,” Stencel recalled. “After a good workout, Wes would then treat me to about a dozen White Castles. He would always tell me that his hero was Al Blozis. When I asked him who Al Blozis was, he told me to look it up.”
Stencel went to the library and found out that Blozis, a Jersey City native, was a standout state champion in the shot put at Dickinson High School and later Georgetown University, earning All-America status at Georgetown. Blozis also went to serve the United States in World War II and went into battle in Anzio and never returned. His body was never recovered.
“Wes always told me that I had to thank Al Blozis for what he did for our country some 70 years ago,” Stencel said. “Wes said always thank ‘Big Al.’ Well, this one is for Big Al. I thank him for this moment.”
Stencel was then shocked to realize that Blozis was a charter member of the same Hall of Fame that he now gained entrance into. Stencel also didn’t know that Blozis was a pro football standout with the New York Giants, who retired his number after he died.
“I didn’t know that,” Stencel said. “That’s a great honor to be associated with him.”
Conway was a fine coach, first in basketball and later in life, as the tennis coach at Holy Family Academy.
In 1962, Conway became the head coach and at age 25, he guided St. Michael’s of Union City to the 1965 NJSIAA Parochial B state championship, the lone state basketball championship in the school’s rich and storied tradition.
When Conway’s daughter, Megan, was attending Holy Family Academy and playing tennis there, the former coach resigned and there was talk that the sport could have been disbanded. So Conway stepped forward to coach the team. He remained at HFA for 18 memorable seasons.
As tennis coach at HFA, Conway guided the Falcons to an amazing 261 wins against just 46 losses in those 18 years. During one stretch, the Falcons won an amazing 74 consecutive matches against HCIAA foes (1991 through 1995). During that time, HFA won seven HCIAA titles and five county tournament crowns.
Conway retired from coaching in 1995. He has remained in Bayonne with his wife of 45 years, Elaine, two children, Michael and Megan and four grandchildren.
“I share this award with all the players I’ve ever coached,” Conway said.
Gallagher was a fine athlete at Bayonne High School (1969-73), where he played varsity soccer and baseball. As a soccer goalkeeper for the Bees, Gallagher was an All-Hudson County selection and was Third Team All-State, leading Bayonne to the HCIAA championship in 1973, earning the team’s Most Valuable Player honor. He set the school record for career shutouts with 19.
Gallagher also played baseball at Bayonne for fellow Hudson Hall of Famer Tom Bujnowski. He helped the Bees win the HCIAA and Group IV state championships on the same team with fellow Hudson Hall of Famer Tom Baxter. Gallagher earned All-Hudson County honors in 1973.
Gallagher was also a basketball player for the Bayonne Jewish Community Center’s national championship team, coached by another Hudson Hall of Famer Bill Broderick.
After graduating from Bayonne High, Gallagher went on to play both soccer and baseball at St. Peter’s College (1973-77). At SPC, Gallagher was the captain of the soccer team coached by fellow Hudson Hall of Famer Mike Granelli for two years. He set a school record for shutouts with 24 and was the Peacocks’ MVP in 1977.
“I’m extremely grateful to the great coaches I had who gave me guidance over the years,” Gallagher said. “I tried to pattern myself after these great leaders.”
After graduating from college, Gallagher turned his attention to coaching soccer. He started his coaching career at St. Peter’s Prep (1978-1982) and guided the Marauders to the HCIAA championship in 1978. From there, Gallagher went to coach at his alma mater for two stints (1983 through 1988 and then 1993 through 2000). During that time, Gallagher’s teams won 144 games and captured four HCIAA championships. All totaled, Gallagher won 198 games in 19 years as a head coach.
A member of both the Bayonne High School and St. Peter’s College Halls of Fame, Gallagher has been a teacher in the Bayonne school system for more than 30 years. Gallagher and his wife, Karyn, maintain their home in Bayonne.
“My true Hall of Famer is my wife, Karyn,” Gallagher said. “I have to thank her for her participation over the years. She’s been my unsung hero throughout my career.”
It was truly a night to remember for Bayonne sports.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.