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St. Peter’s Prep junior guard Mark Armstrong announced last week that he will sign a national letter of intent to play basketball at Villanova University in 2022

It’s a shame, but the nation’s top basketball recruits were really shortchanged dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. There weren’t a host of paid visits to respective schools. The top college coaches didn’t come knocking at the front door, anticipating and expecting a home visit. There wasn’t the natural courtship that comes with being an All-American recruit.

It was basically relegated to a host of telephone calls and appearances on Zoom on the computer.

So that’s what St. Peter’s Prep’s extremely talented junior Mark Armstrong had to endure in his recruiting process. Ever since he was a freshman, it was destiny that Armstrong would eventually become a top-flight college prospect. He was a Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team honoree as a freshman and the Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player last year as a sophomore. He was going to sign his name on a major college scholarship when his time came up.

Well, Armstrong’s moment in the sun was clouded by the pandemic. There were no recruiting visits, no opportunities for schools to roll out the proverbial red carpets and make Armstrong truly feel like the superstar he is. He had to make his college decision based on the best school that showed him the most amount of love, courtesy of Verizon and AT&T.

Armstrong made his decision official last week and the winner was Villanova.

The brilliant Armstrong, who has already scored more than 1,100 points in his career at Grand and Warren, called seven other schools to give them the bad news, then reached out to Jay Wright and the Villanova coaching staff that he was indeed headed to Philly after his Prep career is over in 2022.

It was Wright and assistant coach Mike Nardi, a native of New Jersey who played high school basketball at St. Patrick’s before heading off to Villanova, who did the leg work on Armstrong’s recruiting.

“Coach Wright and Coach Nardi kept in constant contact with me,” Armstrong said. “That was definitely impressive to me. Here’s a championship-caliber school who won the NCAA tourney twice in three years. I had a conversation with either one of the two almost every day. I really felt like I was already part of the team.”

That constant contact approach really impressed St. Peter’s Prep head coach Alex Mirabel.

“To be honest, Villanova did a great job in recruiting Mark,” Mirabel said. “They really got a head start and a little bit of a jump on the pandemic. It was tough for the other teams to get the chance to see him play. He did have a handful of visits, but once everything got shut down, he was home most of the time.”

Mirabel likes the idea of his prized pupil staying close to home, playing in the Big East Conference.

“I think it’s a good fit,” Mirabel said. “He was really comfortable there. Mark and his family are really low maintenance people. I think they all understood it was a process.”

Armstrong averaged 14.1 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals per game this season for the Marauders, who made the most of the truncated schedule, winning 10 of 11 games. It was only learned after the season that Armstrong returned to action to play in the final four games of the season after contracting COVID-19, putting a major scare in the hearts of everyone down at Grand and Warren.

“I had COVID, but when I came back, I was more focused,” Armstrong said. “I really wasn’t sick. I just tested positive. I was in quarantine for a while and then I felt fine.”

Armstrong, whose father, also named Mark, was a great player in his heyday at Grand and Warren in the mid-1980s, was hopeful to become Prep’s first player to ever reach the 2,000-point plateau, but the shortened seasons last year and this pretty much put a wet rag over that goal.

Armstrong still hopes to surpass the 1,693 point total that former Monmouth University star Jack Gordon scored for the Marauders during his playing days (1988 through 1992).

“It would be a nice thing, but it’s not my main concern,” Armstrong said. “I just want to come back stronger next year. I finally reached my goal concerning college, but I’m not satisfied. I have to get better.”

“We’re going to try to help him become the No. 1 scorer in Prep history,” Mirabel said. “He still has a lot to accomplish. We’re going to let him do what he wants to do.”

It’s going to be a lot of fun watching Armstrong play fast and loose, not worrying about who is watching him. Well, that is, except the man with the nicely tailored Zoot-suits in Philly…

The NJSIAA wrestling regional tournaments will be held this weekend at sites throughout the state, but one of the most interesting stories to come out of this year’s truncated and shifted season will take place at Union High School.

That’s because Weehawken High School had two wrestlers qualify for the region tourney, a tremendous accomplishment for head coach Tom Montalbano and his staff.

Tristan Fitzgerald will compete in the 152-pound weight class and J.J. Santos will be among the 16 wrestlers in the 195-pound bracket. Both wrestlers head to the regions with identical 10-0  records and earned enough criteria points to get the invitation from the NJSIAA’s crack staff of wrestling experts.

Santos, an undefeated senior (10-0), will head to the United States Marine Corps in the fall. He’s off to Parris Island off the coast of South Carolina for his basic Marine Corps training in September.

“My goal this year was to make the states,” Santos said. “I’m a little nervous and a little excited to go. I feel like I am in pretty good shape.”

Santos dropped 35 pounds to get into prime wrestling form. He also plays baseball, football and lacrosse (a new sport for Weehawken), becoming a four-sport athlete to get a varsity letter in four sports in the same year. Quite impressive indeed.

While teammate Santos was rapidly dropping weight, Fitzgerald was going in the opposite direction. He went from the 132-pound weight bracket where he competed last year to the much tougher 160-pound classification this time around. Not an easy road to travel in at all.

“I was definitely a little nervous and a little excited,” Fitzgerald said. “The plan was for me to put on a little strength, but I definitely felt like the underdog.”

The two enter this weekend’s action as heavy duty underdogs. Santos is the 14th seed out of 16 wrestlers in the 195-pound weight class. Fitzgerald is the 16th and final seed in the 152-pound bracket.

It’s not going to be easy, but Fitzgerald and Santos are there. It’s an uphill climb, but Montalbano is certain to get solid performances from both determined wrestlers.

“J.J. is a very physical and tough wrestler,” Montalbano said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid, a type of kid who brings high energy into the wrestling room. I could talk all day and night about him. He’s the best captain of a team that I ever worked with. He didn’t start off his career as the best wrestler in the room, but he’ll end his career as the best. I’m super proud of the kid. What he’s contributed to this team cannot be measured. His leadership, his attitude, his work ethic…he’s just tremendous.”

Fitzgerald plans on majoring in actuarial science at Purdue after carrying a 3.7.grade point average during his four years days at Weehawken High.

Fitzgerald is more than determined this year than ever before

That’s because he missed the end of last season because of a freak concussion he suffered right before the districts. The head injury closed out Fitzgerald’s season.

“I don’t remember how it happened,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve tried to get it out of my head.  I’ll just want to go out there and do my best. We’ll see what happens.”

Whatever happens, there will be a guardian angel looking down on the Weehawken pair this weekend. Howard Wolf, a member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, was the grandfather of Weehawken wrestling. He brought the sport to Weehawken High during his teaching days and “The Big Laddie” was the inspiration to many during his days as a teacher, coach and athletic director at the school and later as the principal at Woodrow Wilson School in Weehawken. Wolf had a storied four decade tenure in the Weehawken school system.

Whenever Weehawken and wrestling are mentioned, “The Big Laddie” is fondly remembered. The reason why Wolf is remembered as “The Big Laddie” is because he referred to everyone as either a “Laddie” for the men and “Lassie” for the women. And not the famous TV dog either.

So here’s to hoping that “The Big Laddie,” who left us in 2011 at the age of 90, can smile down on the two Indian wrestlers and give them a little luck from the great beyond…

The Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame lost a member last week when Paul Conway passed away. Conway earned his spot in the Hudson Hall as the famed baseball coach at St. Michael’s of Union City back in the early 1960s, leading that team to a state championship. And Conway also coached the tennis team at Holy Family Academy in Bayonne for two decades. Conway was a soft-spoken gentleman who had such a vast knowledge of all sports…

And the local sports scene, especially Hoboken, lost a true piece of work when Bill Culhane passed away last week. Culhane was an assistant coach with the famed Hoboken Ambassadors baseball team that traveled to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to play a series of games against a Soviet team.

Some of the standouts on that Ambassadors team became great athletes in their high school days and would become coaches and administrators like Chipper Benway, the Union City High baseball coach; Jason Cassesa, the first-ever Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year from Hoboken High; Marc Taglieri, who was a standout two-sport athlete at Hoboken High who went on to become the school’s athletic director before moving to Florida and Danny Ortiz, who was a two-time All-State pitcher at Hoboken and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s. It was a great array of talented kids who represented their hometown, their county and even the entire United States well, with Culhane providing a lot of the leadership for that team, along with his incredible wife Debbie.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Conway and Culhane families for their losses last week. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com

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