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The late Anthony LaRezza has discussion with umpire while coaching his Immaculate Heart Academy team. The late softball coach will have special event in his honor in 2019 with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association's 'Lead-Off Classic In Memory Of Anthony G. LaRezza,' April 5-7, at Essex County Branch Brook Park in Newark. (Photo by Angela Keller)
Anthony LaRezza has pensive look as he returns to the third base coaching box while coaching his IHA Blue Eagles at Ivy Hill Park. (njsportaction photo)
LaRezza put together a terrific coaching career in both high school and travel softball circles while promoting the growth of sport. (Photo by Angela Keller)
Anthony LaRezza is doused in celebratory fashion by his IHA players after his Blue Eagles captured one of their many championships. (njsportaction photo)
LaRezza's Dream Comes True
For Joelle Della Volpe, who learned the game of softball from her Project Pride coaches in Branch Brook Park, the trip to National Fastpitch Coaches Association headquarters in Louisville, Ky., plus the endless planning with people such as Joni Schmidt of the NFCA for a special event in honor of Anthony LaRezza has been all worth it.
After all, on the horizon is what would be a dream come true for the late, great Immaculate Heart and Pride coach, as there will now indeed be a 2019 NFCA sponsored ‘Lead-Off Classic In Memory Of Anthony G. LaRezza,’ April 5-7, at Branch Brook Park within near shouting distance of where LaRezza and Phil Alagia started Pride softball 33 years ago, and not far from the firehouse where LaRezza worked as a Newark fireman.
IHA, Donovan Catholic, Lodi-Immaculate and Mount St. Dominic have already committed to play in the 16-team field being put together for the Lead-Off Classic at Essex County Branch Brook Park.
“I can remember as a 12-year-old player with Project Pride, working with Anthony, Phil and Sammy Gonzalez to learn as much as I could about the game of softball,” said Della Volpe, who is East Region chairperson for the NFCA and a member of the group’s All-America committee. “Anthony always had a dream of an early-season tournament like this, something he had seen done in the colleges while always asking, ‘Why can’t high schools do this?
“Now, it’s going to happen and – best of all- along with the fact that all money raised from the Lead-Off Classic in Branch Brook Park will go to ‘Tackle Kids For Cancer’ – is that we’re honoring his legacy and it’s something he wanted to happen that’s now coming to fruition.”
And, for the NFCA folks in Louisville, the dream coming true for a Jersey boy who saw beyond any boundaries, the Lead-Off Classic In Memory Of Anthony G. LaRezza is the ultimate event for top-notch teams to get their seasons going full steam ahead vs. some of the best teams around.
“I’m super excited because this is a dream that Anthony always had and he talked about it for years,” said Schmidt, who is the membership services specialist and high school liaison for the NFCA. “Everyone loved Anthony so much; he was such a huge ambassador for women’s softball; and it’s tremendous to see it all come to fruition now with the Lead-Off Classic in Newark, a city that was such a big part of Anthony’s softball and professional lives.”
While it remains to be seen if the ‘Lead-Off Classic In Memory of Anthony G. LaRezza’ will include out-of-state teams in 2019, the hope is that national-level teams outside the Garden State will participate in the years to come.
“If we can get a team for next year from, say, Ohio, where the Mount coaches have contacts, or somewhere else, great,” said Della Volpe. “But, looking ahead, our goal is to get the best teams from California and other states to come to Branch Brook Park.
“We can ‘live-stream’ the games so that family members in California can watch the games from home as their daughters compete in the ‘Lead-Off Classic For Anthony.’”
Speaking of the legacy left by LaRezza, it is a softball coaching resume of success that is simply impeccable as his many friends and colleagues continue to miss him each and every day.
He did his job in precise and exemplary fashion, and when the IHA head job opened up for the 2005 season, he returned to Blue Eagle country after guiding Montclair Kimberley Academy to a state championship the year before, and he proceeded to fashion a brilliant career at the Bergen County school that included 338 career wins and memorable teams such as the 32-0 squad in 2012 and a 2015 Non-Public A state championship squad that came in somewhat surprising fashion since the team was so young.
It was a career that had so many more years and victories to go, but –tragically – the man left us way too soon, passing away at the age of 50 in February of 2016 after a long and courageous battle with cancer of the tongue.
What was so noticeable to anyone who observed him was how serene and calm LaRezza always seemed to be in what would normally be perceived as very stressful situations for anyone running a top-notch team. He continued to be a pleasure to converse with and was a big fan of high school sports in addition to always showing his absolute love of the game of softball and working with all the young ladies who were so fortunate to play for his outstanding teams, including his last 12 seasons at IHA.
LaRezza was also such a huge part of the absolute roots of softball in Essex County as a key figure behind the aforementioned Project Pride summer softball program that operated out of Newark, the city where he also served as a fireman for many years, working out of Engine 28 Firehouse on 6 th Street in the Brick City.
Way back when Anthony LaRezza joined longtime Brick City friend Phil Alagia in coaching the Ridge Street School sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade team to a pair of championships in the Newark Public School League, he knew right away that softball was going to remain something very special in his sporting life.
He had his auspicious start 33 years ago at a true feeder system level, well before he had grown into one of the state’s top high school and club level softball coaches, having guided IHA to six state titles and seven Bergen County Tournament championships, along with jet-starting the Pride softball organization along with Alagia, who is the chief of staff for Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
“Pride is a great organization and it was a tremendous experience to be at the ground floor with Phil when we were Project Pride for the Newark kids back in 1988,” LaRezza said during an interview in the summer of 2014 when he was named as president of Akadema Elite, a fast-growing softball organization based in Bergen County. “And, then to see the program expand to be a statewide organization with tremendous travel teams doing so well year after year has been just terrific to watch.”
Like many of the top softball coaches, LaRezza began as a baseball player, emerging as a solid shortstop and first baseman for Bloomfield Tech where he forged a solid working relationship with former Spartans coach Bill Bromberg.
“Coach Bromberg is the reason I became interested in coaching,” said LaRezza, who grew up on 11th Street and First Avenue in Newark. “To this day he continues to have a tremendous impact on the way I go about coaching the game of softball, from studying the history of the game to teaching the fundamentals.
“I always enjoyed the history classes he taught at Bloomfield Tech, and he made it both fun and educational. I believe you have to make sure that your players truly enjoy the game they strive to be the best they can be in, and that’s an approach I’ve taken from coach Bromberg in baseball and translated to softball.”
LaRezza also played in one of New Jersey’s most highly-respected independent adult baseball leagues that played on Saturdays and Sundays at Branch Brook Park in Newark. He was friends in that loop with former Barringer pitching star Albert Maldonado, who eventually advanced to the Triple A level in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, and also Alex Figueroa, who had a stint in the Phillies’ system. LaRezza himself once had a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds.
It was a pleasure to hear after helping to reconnect LaRezza and Bromberg that the two men got together for lunch a few summers back and had a chance to rekindle a relationship between player and coach that had experienced a rather long gap between Bloomfield Tech and IHA.
While baseball was a game he played and loved, it was softball where LaRezza’s own passion and yearning to coach continued to grow and he developed into one of New Jersey’s premier coaches. At IHA after returning for his second tour of duty at the Washington Township school in 2005, he directed the Blue Eagles to 11 state sectional titles in Non-Public, North A, one of the toughest sections in the state, along with the six overall ‘A’ crowns and the seven county titles.
He has also coached eight All-Americans, was an NFCA coach of the year in 2009 and the MSG Varsity TV coach of the year in 2013.
LaRezza was originally hired as Jeff Horohonich’s assistant at IHA in 1998 and soon was named associate head coach. He left the Bergen County powerhouse for the one season in 2004 when he coached MKA to its fourth Non-Public B state crown in six years, and a berth in the finals of the Essex County Tournament opposite Caldwell, which won the memorable come-from-behind 3-2 contest against the Cougars before a large crowd at Pulaski Park, which was the longtime, traditional site for the county semis and final.
“I still think back at how tough that loss to Caldwell was because we had the lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, but you bounce back, and we did that year to beat Sacred Heart and finish No. 2 in the state behind a 33-0 St. John Vianney team,” he said during the 2014 interview.
LaRezza coached eight All-American players. Juliette D’Ambrosio, one of his top players with the Blue Eagles and then with St. Joseph University, was also one of his coaches with Akadema along with Meghan Asselta, who had prior experience with the Project Pride program and also is an experienced college coach with stints at both Manhattan and Lafayette.
Diego Ibarra, his jayvee coach at IHA, also coached with him at Akadema.
The lineage of long-lasting friendships and professional connections with coaches and former players is something LaRezza had a natural ability to develop and he fostered many a career, including Asselta, who coached with him as a lead assistant for the one season at MKA.
When LaRezza left MKA after the 2004 season, Asselta, the former IHA and Rutgers star, was already in place and ready to take over the reins at age 24.
The Cougar faithful had nothing to fret about as the impact coach in ’04 went back to his former high school softball stomping grounds in Bergen County.
Asselta had star players back from LaRezza’s 28-3 squad including a healthy pitcher in Jamie Piela, who had recovered from 2003 shoulder surgery and was brilliant in 2004 and followed that up in ’05 as well. Shortstop Jackie Araneo, center fielder Lhenee Riddick, third baseman Meghan Livesey and a promising, young catcher at the time, Alisha, “Poca” Pristowsky, led the team to a 24-5 record capped by a 7-0 Non-Public B state championship win over Holy Spirit to close a 24-5 campaign.
“I learned so much in the one season I was an assistant under Anthony, and I just tried to continue to be the calming influence with the girls he had been,” Asselta said at the time, now 13 years ago.
Now, as so many miss a top-notch coach and even better human being, at least all of those close to him in the softball world - whether they be all of his fellow coaches and former players, or the sportswriters who covered so many of his games – can still relish the memories on and off the softball diamond of a very decent man who has left this world way too soon.
Plus, his many friends can continue to promote a new event in his honor with the unveiling of the NFCA’s first-ever ‘Lead-Off Classic In Memory Of Anthony G. LaRezza” from April 5-7, 2019, in Branch Brook Park.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Anthony LaRezza raises his arms as winning run scores and IHA wins the Non-Public A state championship in 2015. (Photo by Sean Reilly)
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