Sports Year in Review: 2020

Coronavirus pandemic shutters world; Hansen retires; tops year-end list

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Long-time St. Peter’s Prep head football coach Rich Hansen retired after 33 seasons leading the Marauders to historic heights
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Hudson Catholic basketball standout Antonio Sellers, who is battling brain cancer, was treated to the trip of a lifetime to Duke University with his dad Keith (left) and mother Felicia, courtesy of the “Make-A-Wish” Foundation
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Minkah Fitzpatrick, shown here during his high school days at St. Peter’s Prep, was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl this season as a safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers
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Long-time St. Peter’s Prep head football coach Rich Hansen retired after 33 seasons leading the Marauders to historic heights
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Hudson Catholic basketball standout Antonio Sellers, who is battling brain cancer, was treated to the trip of a lifetime to Duke University with his dad Keith (left) and mother Felicia, courtesy of the “Make-A-Wish” Foundation
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Minkah Fitzpatrick, shown here during his high school days at St. Peter’s Prep, was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl this season as a safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers

So what were the top sports stories for 2020?

The entire world, much less the Hudson County sports scene, was practically shut down by the massive coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. That was clearly the top news story and sports story of the year.

But we bid farewell to a coaching legend who retired, and bid farewell to a host of sports legends who left us all too soon.

All in all, it will remain as a year to remember, as we look back at The Hudson Reporter’s Top 10 Sports Stories for 2020.

1-Coronavirus pandemic brings local sports scene to halt 

In March, the world as we knew it changed forever, when the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic forced everything to shut down, including local sports. COVID became a term used in general vernacular. The entire spring sports season was canceled, with all games, events and championships totally wiped away. There were no baseball and softball games played at all, no track and field meets to be held. Seniors in high school who were anxiously anticipating a final high school campaign were left disappointed.

The pandemic’s hold on sports continued through the summer months and into the beginning of the fall.

Even then, COVID-19 still controlled the sports scene, with all of the fall sports schedules being altered and diminished. Football did not hold NJSIAA playoffs for the first time since the playoff system was adopted in 1976. Soccer held state playoffs, but at a much different level than before. Girls’ volleyball’s season was moved entirely into a brand new schedule in February.

Of course, the general safety of the population was always kept primarily in mind, but it still doesn’t replace the sting that the pandemic caused on scholastic sports throughout the country, which included Hudson County.

The pandemic earns the unfortunate distinction of being the top sports story of 2020.

2-Hansen retires

In September, we learned that the 2020 football season was going to be the last campaign in the historic coaching career of St. Peter’s Prep grid coach Rich Hansen.

Hansen had been the head coach of the Marauders since 1987. Since that time, the Marauders won an astounding five NJSIAA state championships, won 21 Hudson County championships, captured 24 league titles and won 273 games and lost 74, just one game shy of winning 200 more than he lost.

In those 33 seasons, Hansen won more games than any other coach in Hudson County history, other than the legendary Vince Ascolese did during his 41 years at Hoboken and North Bergen.

In that time, Hansen took the St. Peter’s Prep program from being a successful squad in Hudson County to one that earned respect statewide and across the country, having three times placed a team among the Top 20 in the entire nation, according to USA Today.

It was a career that we will never again see the likes of in Hudson County sports, a career to truly marvel at and admire.

Hansen left the coaching ranks to his son, Richie. He will remain as the St. Peter’s Prep athletic director.

3-Taglieri dies

The calendar year of 2020 saw Hudson County lose its share of sports legends, but there was no passing that hit home harder than the passing of former Hoboken High School athlete and head football coach Lou Taglieri.

The news of Taglieri’s unfortunate and untimely passing in August sent shockwaves through the local sports scene. Taglieri died while on vacation with his family in Virginia Beach. He was only 59 years old.

Taglieri was a standout athlete during his heyday at Hoboken in the late 1970s and would later return after a stint in the United States Air Force to become an assistant coach under coaching legend Ed Stinson.

When Stinson stepped down from the head coaching spot in 2005, Taglieri took over and maintained the level of excellence that the program reached under Stinson. Taglieri won the first 21 games of his head coaching career, including the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship.

Taglieri would remain the head coach for 12 seasons, winning 95 games during that tenure, including four NJSIAA state titles.

Taglieri stepped down four years ago but agreed to return to work under current coach Keeon Walker as an assistant.

Taglieri left such an impact in Hoboken that the Board of Education decided soon after Taglieri’s passing to renamed JFK Stadium as the Louis M. Taglieri, Jr. Stadium. It should not be undersold that Taglieri’s personal idol in life was indeed John F. Kennedy.

An official dedication ceremony will take place honoring Taglieri once the pandemic situation becomes safer.

4-Sellers honored at Duke University

In late March, a cancer-stricken Hudson Catholic basketball star was treated to the event of his life, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

In April of 2019, it was learned that Antonio Sellers, who had just completed his brilliant freshman campaign at Hudson Catholic, was diagnosed with a serious brain tumor, a form of cancer that would require numerous surgeries and disabled young Antonio.

When New Jersey Make-A-Wish Chapter President and CEO Tom Weatherall, a Jersey City resident, learned of Antonio’s plight, he decided to grant Antonio’s wish, which was to see his beloved Duke Blue Devils play at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.

Well, Make-A-Wish more than came through for Antonio and his family, namely mother, the former Felicia Harris, the former girls’ basketball coach at Hudson Catholic and a standout at St. Peter’s College, and father Keith Sellers, who was also a standout basketball player at St. Peter’s College, and provided tickets, transportation and lodging for the family.

But the “Wish” went further. Legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski invited the family to participate in a pre-game pep rally before the Blue Devils faced archrival North Carolina.

“Coach K” more than simply embraced Antonio and his family. He took them all in. Krzyzewski addressed the 5,000 or so attending the pep rally, telling them all about what is called “the Duke Brotherhood.”

“Anyone who plays for Duke is welcomed into the Duke Brotherhood,” Coach K said. “Well, the players all agreed that Antonio could be adopted into the Duke Brotherhood tonight.”

“That wasn’t part of the plan,” Felicia Sellers said. “It was really nice and showed they cared for Antonio. They all went out of their way. It wasn’t all about basketball.”

Krzyzewski told the “Cameron Crazies” that he had worn a special pin on his lapel on his suit jacket for every game since 2002 in honor of a 7-year-old boy named Rory Deutsch who was battling brain cancer and eventually passed away from the hideous disease. Since that time, the Rory Deutsch Foundation has raised more than $8 million to be used for brain cancer research

Well, Krzyzewski took the pin off his lapel and gave it to Antonio.

The crowd then chanted “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio,” as Keith Sellers wheeled his smiling 15-year-old son off the floor in his wheelchair to the rhythmic clapping and dance gestures to the upbeat tune “Everytime We Touch,” by Cascada.

“It was just great for me,” Antonio Sellers said. “I was just happy, because I had never been there before. It was better than I imagined.”

A day later, it got even better for Antonio, who sat in the third row behind the basket with his father.

After the Blue Devils won the game, 89-76, Antonio was on the floor with his victorious Brotherhood. There were pictures taken with Antonio and the players. The players, Antonio’s new Brotherhood, presented Antonio with the game ball. As it turned out, because of the growing concern involving the coronavirus COVID-19, it was the final game of the season for Antonio’s Blue Devils.

“It was so great,” Antonio Sellers said. “I only cried once. The team and Coach K, they were so great to me. They took care of me and my Dad. And Duke won.”

And it created a memory to last a lifetime.

5-Former Prep grid star Fitzpatrick makes NFL Pro Bowl

In 2014, when he was selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week while a senior at St. Peter’s Prep, after a five-touchdown performance against Union City, Minkah Fitzpatrick was asked if he dreamed of playing someday in the National Football League.

“That’s definitely the ultimate goal,” Fitzpatrick said then. “It’s a big dream of mine. When people say that, it puts a smile on my face when I hear that. Someday that would be nice.”

Well, that someday took place two years ago, when Fitzpatrick was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and later traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he has become a star.

And recently, Fitzpatrick became a big-time star in the NFL, when he was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl squad as a safety.

There will be no Pro Bowl game this season because of the pandemic, but just the idea that a former local high school standout is now a star in the NFL is enough to make this year-end list.

6-Marist High School closes

It was a sad time in June, when Marist High School closed its doors forever, ending a long-standing history and tradition of excellence when it came to sports.

Both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams won their share of championships over the years, with the boys winning six straight county titles at one stretch in the 1980s and 1990s and winning the 1992 NJSIAA Parochial B North state title and the girls winning four county titles and three NJSIAA Parochial B North crowns.

The football team won two NJSIAA state titles and the baseball team won three state titles, one in each decade.

A lifetime of memories was made by the Royal Knights over the years. It was a shame to see another Hudson County Parochial school go by the wayside.

7-Great track year for St. Dominic indoor and cross country squad 

The St. Dominic Academy track and field program has traditionally been one of the best in Hudson County and lately, the Blue Devils have been adding NJSIAA accolades to their already impressive resume.

In February, the Blue Devils captured the NJSIAA Non-Public B state relay title in indoor track.

But the best was yet to come, as the Blue Devils enjoyed an undefeated cross country campaign, winning all five of the events they competed in, including the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships, the Jersey City championships and the NJSIAA Non-Public B North championship.

The Blue Devils were led by Kayla Sullivan, who won all three of the championship cross country meets, becoming one of the first Hudson County girls to ever win the county and state sectional titles in the same season.

8-Other local legends pass away 

Other than the loss of Lou Taglieri, the calendar year 2020 was a year that we said goodbye to a litany of other local sports legends.

From the world of professional basketball, we bid farewell to Union City native Tommy Heinsohn, one of the few people to be selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Heinsohn, who died in November at the age of 86, played for the now-defunct St. Michael’s of Union City, then the College of Holy Cross and finally a long career with the Boston Celtics. Heinsohn then went on to coach the Celtics and led Boston to the 1974 NBA Championship.

Locally, we lost refereeing legend Gibby Lewis from Jersey City, who had a long career as a basketball official and worked for the Jersey City Department of Recreation for more than 30 years. Lewis, who died in July, was 70.

We also lost track coaching legend Sal Cassaro, track and field Hall of Famer Kevin Hennessey, former St. Anthony basketball star Danny Rochford, former St. Peter’s Prep football and baseball standout Phil Martorelli, former Jersey City State College football coach Jack Stephans, Hoboken athletic director and coach Jimmy Ronga and former Memorial High School basketball and softball great Alexis Demby, one of the first local people to perish due to COVID-19 complications.

9-Bayonne’s girls, Prep boys win Hudson County Tournament hoop titles 

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world, there was still a basketball season to play and the Hudson County Tournament champions were Bayonne in girls’ basketball and St. Peter’s Prep in the boys’ ranks.

The Bayonne girls defeated top-seeded Hudson Catholic in the championship game, with guard Eniya Scott leading the way. Teammate Makoye Diawara was also an All-County performer for the Bees, which won the county title for an unprecedented 14th time.

St. Peter’s Prep, led by the sensation guard tandem of Ray Ford and Mark Armstrong, defeated Marist in the county title game. Ford has already signed a letter of intent to play for Fairleigh Dickinson and North Bergen native Greg Herenda next season. Armstrong is among the top recruited players in the country.

10-Last Dance World Series a hit

In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, a high school baseball tournament was held in July, with several of the Hudson County schools taking part.

The tournament was held at several different sites throughout the state, with Caven Point Cochrane Stadium and Lincoln Park’s facility hosting several of the games. The tourney was aimed to give high school baseball players one last chance to play with their teammates, after COVID-19 wiped the season clean.

The tournament was held with the strictest of safety regulations, including temperature checks, sanitation of all equipment used and social distancing.

Of the local teams, St. Peter’s Prep’s team, called Maroon and Silver, won its sectional title, defeating Union City, Dickinson and Bayonne, and won a round in the Field of 16, defeating Ridge, before losing to Delbarton in the state quarterfinals.

All in all, it was an excellent tournament that was brilliantly organized by baseball coaches Mike Murray of St. Joseph’s (Metuchen), Brian Chapman of Millburn and local scout and baseball guru John Kroeger. In a disheveled year, the Last Dance World Series proved that sports could be organized well even under duress. 

Just missed list

There were other newsworthy items that just missed our Top 10 list. La-Quiem Walker, the former Lincoln High basketball standout, signed a national letter of intent with Tennessee-Martin, becoming the school’s first NCAA Division I product since Tommy Best in 1979. Speaking of Best, he led the Lincoln girls’ basketball team to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship and advanced to the overall Group II title game. Hoboken’s Nyjon Freeman and Snyder’s Alicia Campbell were named as the top male and female athletes of the year in Hudson County. And the St. Peter’s Prep football team was ranked No. 1 in the entire state for most of the 2020 season before falling from the perch in the final week of the campaign. All in all, it was a year to remember in Hudson County.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.