After a 10-year hiatus, the Belleville High School Athletic Hall of Fame returned last fall and quickly regalvanized backers of Buccaneer sports. To celebrate its second year back, nearly 300 people filled The Chandelier on Wednesday night as family and friends cheered on the Class of 2011 – a group of eight inductees spanning five decades.
One of the largest crowds ever for BHS Athletic Hall of Fame banquet – athletic director Tom D'Elia said one group purchased 70 tickets in advance – was greeted by Mistress of Ceremonies, BHS 2000 graduate and Fox 5 Good Day New York traffic reporter Ines Rosales before, one by one, each former Belleville athletic great was formally inducted.
Over cocktails beforehand, old friends reminisced about old times. In one corner of the room Joe Latore ('63), the star quarterback of the 1962 team that won eight straight games, talked about playing with “some wonderful guys, a lot of characters.”
Above all else, he recalled the biggest victory of his career over neighboring rival Nutley, a team the Buccaneers always struggled against.
“We beat them on a weekend when no one else was playing, so there were like 12,000 people in the stands. … It was a phenomenal, phenomenal feeling to beat them,” said Latore, who played collegiately at Rutgers.
In another part of The Chandelier, James Harvey ('63) smiled as he recalled having dinner Tuesday with Latore, with whom he graduated from BHS 48 years ago. Still the school's record holder in the 880-yard and one-mile runs, Harvey earned a bronze medal in the 1963 Group 4 championship meet.
“That was the peak of my high school,” Harvey said. “The two guys ahead of me broke the state record and I finished third … I was thrilled to do that.”
A few feet from Harvey, Wayne Bubet ('81) beamed about sharing his induction – which he called “a fantastic honor” – with his two sons and his future wife. Although he scored 1,365 points and averaged 26.5 tallies per game his senior year, his fondest memory of playing for the Buccaneers was poignant.
“Probably the night I scored my 1,000th point. They gave me the ball and I was able to go into the stands to present it to my mom,” Bubet said. “She died of cancer a year later, so just to be able to do that was probably the best memory I had at Belleville.”
Just eight years removed from a brilliant career in the pitcher's circle, Gianna Immersi ('03) was the youngest of the eight honorees. As a sophomore in 2001, she pitched the Bucs to the Group 4 softball state title game.
Wednesday night, she was more impressed with the history surrounding her.
“When I first heard that I was nominated, I couldn't believe it. It's really such an honor just to be here,” Immersi said. “Especially after (the Hall of Fame) was dormant for a while. … I'm just really happy to be inducted with this class. It's really cool.”
Immersi's enthusiasm was shared by her elders, including a pair of former Bucs who served in the Marine Reserves during the mid-1960s in football standout Roger Caruso ('60) and star baseball pitcher Raymond D'Atrio ('64).
D'Atrio recalled helping Belleville finally make the state tournament, where they beat Nutley and East Orange before bowing to Montclair. He also recalled entering a game against Lodi with no outs and the bases loaded – only to induce a pop-up before striking out the next eight batters he faces en route to earning the win.
“We had a lot of great teams back in the early 1960s,” D'Atrio said.
Inches away from his former fellow Marine was Caruso, who rushed for 1,800 yards his senior year before earning a full athletic scholarship to Youngstown State College. However, he did not have one particular memory from one of the storied careers in Buccaneer football history.
“There were many plays, there were many games,” Caruso said. “But the whole ambiance and camaraderie and friendships that were (built) with my guys on the team and even our opponents ... they became friends for life.”
John Perna ('95) was the evening's second-youngest honoree, but he may have produced the most indelible memory of all for Belleville sports fans his senior year. Trailing 11-0 in the 119-pound New Jersey Interscholastic State Athletic Association wrestling final, he did an aboutface and pinned his opponent in one of the most memorable state-championship bouts ever.
So it was no mystery what Perna remembered most from a career that saw him win three district and regional crowns.
“Winning the state championship, 100 percent,” he said. “It was a goal of mine since I was a little kid.”
Boys basketball standout Thomas Smith ('78) offered one final walk down memory lane before the program began, recalling being benched three seconds before halftime one game. However, the ball went out of bounds a second before halftime – prompting coach Dan Grasso to reinsert Smith.
“We run a play, I throw up a shot – of course it doesn't go in – and I say, 'why'd you put me back in with one second left?'” said Smith, who averaged 20 points per game as a senior in 1977-78. “He said, I knew you'd get a shot off.”