TASTY TIDBITS Local track stars honored at annual awards dinner

Sad, senseless death of former Prep grid star Griffin

SCHOLARSHIP RECIPIENT – McNair Academic senior Haig Rickerby (center) is all smiles. Greeting the storied runner are Ed Grant (left), the long-time journalist who covers track for 70 years and McNair Academic head coach Matt Hogan, who helped his team win a sectional title last December.
SCHOLARSHIP RECIPIENT – McNair Academic senior Haig Rickerby (center) is all smiles. Greeting the storied runner are Ed Grant (left), the long-time journalist who covers track for 70 years and McNair Academic head coach Matt Hogan, who helped his team win a sectional title last December.

Elson Smajlaj knew that he had a solid and strong North Bergen girls’ outdoor track and field team this spring.

“I knew that this team was going to be good,” said Smajlaj (pronounced as SMILEY). “I knew that they were special when they came in here as freshmen. I moved them up to varsity right away. They lived up to expectations. In fact, they over achieved the expectations. I’m really proud of them for that.”

At the recent Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships, the top five teams were separated by only a handful of points.

“I was proud to see what Hudson County had become,” Smajlaj said. “It’s amazing what it has become.”

Smajlaj’s team was able to repeat as HCTCA champions, no small feat with how competitive the county is in track and field.

Smajlaj’s team was honored last Monday night at the annual HCTCA awards dinner – the only organization that has a post-season awards banquet to honor the athletes.

Smajlaj was also named the HCTCA Girls’ Outdoor Coach of the Year.

“The fact that we were able to repeat is amazing,” Smajlaj said. “It was the ultimate. They deserve all the praise.”

Smajlaj said that he knew that his Bruins had a chance to win the county title by figuring out times on the popular track website Milesplit, where you can plug in your athlete’s times to compare them with the competition to see where you stand.

“I live on Milesplit,” Smajlaj said. “I look at what we have and what the others have. I spend more time on Milesplit than I do on the track. I teach Algebra and Geometry and I love playing chess. That’s what going on Milesplit is a lot like. You see what the girls need to do and you’re not flying blind. It’s a real fun site.”

Smajlaj didn’t have a real top-notch performer this year, but the busiest was junior Shayla Morales who placed in four events at the HCTCA championships. Morales was fourth in the 400-meter dash, second in the 800-meter run, second in the 1,600-meter run and second in the 3,200-meter run. It was the first time ever that Morales ran the 3,200.

“She scored 28 points for us and didn’t even win an event,” Smajlaj said. “She was the most impressive performer we had.”

Another key Bruin was Idalis Maldonado, who finished third in the high jump and triple jump and fifth in the 100-meter dash. Maldonado is headed to Monmouth University to compete there.

Iria Paz was another to score in multiple events. She was third in the 200-meter dash, fourth in the long jump, fifth in the high jump and sixth by 100-meter dash.

Senior Evelyn Alvarez, a first-time track athlete this season, won the 3,200-meter run and finished fourth in the 1,600.

“She never came out before,” Smajlaj said.

Senior Lynn Djombo, who will graduate No. 4 in the North Bergen Class of 2017, was third in the 1,600-meter run, fourth in the 800-meter run and was part of the 4×400-meter relay that won. Djombo is headed to Montclair State and hopes to eventually become a doctor.

Kathy Villareal is a freshman but she scored in two events, placing third in the javelin and fifth in the discus.

Needless to say, it was a great year for the Bruins and Smajlaj.

At the awards dinner, former Bayonne shot put and discus king Glenn DiGiorgio was the lone inductee into the HCTCA Hall of Fame, joining older brother Kevin, who was inducted last year. Both DiGiorgio brothers were national champions, Kevin in the shot put and Glenn in the discus.

At the 2002 high school nationals held on the campus of North Carolina State, Glenn trailed his opponent by three feet. He needed to pass his opponent in his final throw ever. Glenn threw an incredible 213 feet, four inches – his personal best – to win the national title by five feet. Pretty impressive…

Other awards and scholarships were presented. St. Peter’s Prep coach Chris Caulfield was the Outdoor Boys’ Coach of the Year; Union City’s Scott Emmerling was presented with the Girls’ Cross Country Coach of the Year; Matt Hogan of McNair Academic was the Boys’ Indoor Coach of the Year; Bruce Sierra of Memorial was the Boys’ Cross Country Coach of the Year and Robert Arena of Snyder was the Girls’ Indoor Coach of the Year…

Scholarships were presented in the name of some great track athletes and journalists.

The Thornton Smith Scholarship was given to Nyoki Jones of Snyder. Smith was a great runner during his day. Jones just had a stellar senior year for the Tigers.

The Al Bundies Scholarship, in the name of the late track athlete and official, was given to Younass Barkouch of McNair Academic.

The Ed Grant Scholarship, presented by the famed track and field journalist who is still active after 70-plus years in the business, was given to Haig Rickerby of McNair Academic.

The Mike Rowan Scholarships, presented in the name of the late Jersey Journal sportswriter who adored track and field, was given to Celeste Aurora of St. Dominic Academy, Jasmine Lim of McNair Academic and Nautica Smith of Hudson Catholic.

All in all, it was a great evening of awards, the lone one of its kind in Hudson County…

Make sure to get next week’s editions of The Hudson Reporter Newspapers, where the All-Area Baseball and Softball Teams will be presented, along with Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year…

In closing, it was tremendously sad to hear of the passing of former St. Peter’s Prep standout running back Kee-Ayre Griffin, who was shot and killed in an altercation in East Orange last Friday. Griffin was just 29 years old.

Griffin was a standout from the minute he arrived at Prep, after the closing of Essex Catholic Boys’ High School. Several of the players at Essex Catholic transferred to Prep and Griffin was the best of the bunch, displaying a great combination of speed and strength. He was named Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player in 2005, leading the Marauders to their third state championship. Three times, Griffin was named to the All-Area team.

That year, 2005, Griffin rushed for 1,600-plus yards and scored 25 touchdowns and had another 12 touchdowns called back and nullified due to penalties.

Griffin went on to play at Temple University as a defensive back and had a brilliant career there. He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent, but didn’t make the team.

Last week, he was shot by people who then fled the scene. He died about a half hour later.

The Prep community all reacted in shock and dismay and rightly so, because a great member of the state champions are now bemoaning the loss of their comrade. But as they say, nothing good happens in the streets of the inner-city, especially late at night. Griffin was obviously up to no good and got caught in a hail of gunfire. It’s a tragedy of the utmost degree…