The late, great Immaculate Heart softball coach Anthony LaRezza enjoyed his heyday at Immaculate Heart; however, early in his head coaching career he also had one memorable season at MKA while continuing what became Non-Public B state championship dynasty at Essex County school. (Photos by Angela Keller)
The Legendary Late IHA Coach
Also Had Quite A Season At MKA
By Steve Tober
Then Montclair Kimberley Academy Headmaster Peter Greer was a fanatic about doing everything in his power to make sure his school’s softball program was in the proper hands after he had helped put the sport on the map starting in 1999 when he brought former Mount St. Dominic coach Bob Gervasi onto the scene to direct the proceedings and build a small-school juggernaut.
The Cougars would proceed to win eight overall Non-Public B state championships in an 11-year period from 1999-2009 and for one of those seasons a man with solid Essex County roots on the summer softball circuit, would re-steady the base of the MKA program following a rocky period when Gervasi had exited the scene just prior to the 2003 campaign and the program slipped to 13-8 that spring while being eliminated in the North B semifinals by Eastern Christian.
Greer was adamant about hiring a coach with a strong softball background who could reenergize a program that had made some major waves on the statewide scene under Gervasi, but needed a new shot in the arm.
The headmaster and MKA were determined to get right back in the statewide picture in 2004.
The man to do the trick would be Anthony LaRezza, who had been Jeff Horohonich’s associate head coach at Immaculate Heart Academy, and was all-of-a-sudden thrust into the Essex County high school softball spotlight.
The results were like a redux of what had occurred from 1999-2002 when the Cougars won three state titles and lost in the final in ‘01.
And, while the 2004 season had heartbreak with a devastating 3-2 loss to Caldwell in the Essex County Tournament final at Pulaski Park when coach Mike Teshkoyan’s Lady Chiefs scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to pull the game out in dramatic fashion, the MKA softball campaign ended with much success, including a return to the Non-Public B state championship winner’s circle, a final 28-3 record and a No. 2 ranking in the state behind St. John Vianney.
LaRezza had done 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 and fashioned a brilliant career there that included 338 career wins and memorable teams such as the 32-0 squad in 2012 and last spring’s 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 who so calmly handled the potential mine fields at MKA so many years prior - and righted the ship again to spark a string of what would be four more state titles in a 5-year stretch - left us way too soon as he passed away in February of 2016 at the age of 50 after a long and courageous battle with cancer of the tongue.
What was so noticeable to someone who has seen so many different personalities in coaching through the last 45 years 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. Although the most direct contact with him for this reporter came during that 2004 season at MKA, 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 the 12 seasons at IHA before his untimely passing.
He was also a faithful supporter of Sideline Chatter as an advertiser for his Blue Eagle summer camps at IHA.
LaRezza was also such a huge part of the absolute roots of softball in Essex County as a key figure behind the 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 6th 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 30 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 Immaculate Heart Academy to six state titles and seven Bergen County Tournament championships, along with jet-starting the Pride softball organization along with Phil 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 year before his passing, and they 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 aforementioned, 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,” LaRezza noted during a 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, as we continue to try and take solace in simply remembering the rich spirit and dedication of 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 unfortunately left this world way too soon.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Anthony LaRezza always had a great competitive spirit and would never be shy about voicing his opinions on any possible controversial call made by an umpire.
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