WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Orange-West Orange chapter of UNICO National held its 44th annual Sports Awards Breakfast in the West Orange High School Cafeteria on Feb. 25, honoring athletes from WOHS, Orange High School, Seton Hall Prep, Golda Och Academy and the West Orange Police Athletic League football team and cheerleaders, who were undefeated in their 2017 season. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a former football player at the University of Notre Dame and the inspiration for the 1993 film “Rudy,” was the event’s keynote speaker.
The UNICO award is given to high school athletes with an unselfish attitude and good sportsmanship who value the team above themselves; recipients are chosen by their coaches. The first athlete to receive the award was OHS senior football player Nasir Givens, presented by coach Randy Daniel.
“This is one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever seen,” Daniel, who has been coaching in Orange for almost 25 years, said at the event. “I saw him get frustrated not knowing where he was going to play next year and he worked harder.”
Givens will play football at Pace University in the fall.
OHS girls’ volleyball coach Christopher Cosmillo began his speech honoring Ann Marie Thomas by saying that, when she tried out for the team as a freshman, she wanted to play the position of outside hitter.
“The problem is, she’s only 5 foot 3,” Cosmillo joked. “She can’t reach over the net. So I had her play center and she was reluctant, but she embraced her role. She is the only player I’ve ever seen run into the scoreboard to get a ball at the cost of her knees.”
Cosmillo also highlighted Thomas’ leadership on and off the court before handing her the award.
WOHS girls’ soccer coach Sean DeVore praised senior Jillian McCauley for understanding that, while athletes are encouraged to work hard and strive to win, playing a sport is supposed to be fun.
“You play with your friends, and you teach the younger people the ropes,” DeVore said. “It’s supposed to be fun, and she got that. She will be missed.”
McCauley displayed the qualities that her coach described at the breakfast, thanking her teammates for her time wearing a West Orange jersey.
“I had so much fun playing soccer here, so thank you,” she said.
Jim Matsakis, the WOHS football coach, led the crowd in a lively rendition of a Mountaineers cheer before awarding Thomas Hughes with the UNICO award. Hughes is a wrestler as well as a football player, and Matsakis made sure to highlight how well-rounded he is.
“In high school we teach more than winning and losing,” Matsakis said. “It’s not about winning a football game. A lot of people … forget that high school is an experience. He leaves me and goes to wrestling practice, and this young man and the way he participates in sports is excellent.”
Hughes also briefly thanked his fellow football players. “To my teammates who are here, I wouldn’t want to play football without you,” he said. “You guys are the best.”
Bobby Burke, a senior at Seton Hall Prep, was honored by football coach Vito Campanile at the breakfast. Burke will be moving on to play football at Muhlenberg College this fall, and Campanile described when Burke almost didn’t continue playing for the Pirates.
“I can’t think of a better guy for this award,” Campanile, who recently completed his final season coaching at SHP, said. “It’s about selflessness and teammates. You want to think back on this time and smile, and Bobby is the best example of that. His parents wanted to pull him off the team a few years ago to keep up with his grades and I was able to convince them to let him keep playing. He showed tremendous courage and was like a coach in the huddle with the younger guys. He’s a player I’ll remember for a long time.”
Rocco Capozza, an SHP soccer player, was honored by coach Marty Berman. Capozza will be playing at Fordham University next year.
“Rocco is the perfect recipient in so many ways, Berman said at the event. “He was a defender and he was tough as nails. A few years ago, when many of the elite soccer players in New Jersey decided to play for clubs instead of their school, Rocco made the decision to play for us. He was a leader.”
Golda Och Academy also awarded a soccer player with the UNICO award, which coach Juan Pintado presented to Josh Kalet.
“He shows the will to work hard in practice and in games,” Pintado said. Kalet thanked his coach for making him a better soccer player and a better person.
GOA girls’ tennis coach Sandy Glatt presented the second of the school’s awards to Emme Young, saying she was the first player she thought of for the honor.
“Without hesitation, Emme came to mind,” Glatt said. “She is everything a coach can ask for in a player. She leads by example and helps the younger, less experienced players.”
To close out the awards at the breakfast, Sal Anderton presented WOPAL football coach Joe DePasquale with an award honoring the 2017 undefeated team. Members of the team and the Mustangs cheerleaders, who are between the ages of 8 and 10, were acknowledged.
“Every year we get a group of kids who come to play,” DePasquale said. “Coach Matsakis, you’re going to get a good group at the high school in a few years.”
Ruettiger gave his speech to close out the event, speaking for over an hour. Telling the story about how he worked to be placed on the Notre Dame football team and then how he worked to make the movie about his story, he stressed that character is more important than athletic talent.
“Don’t let anyone steal your joy. And when someone does, you fight back in a positive way,” he said. “Good leaders bring positivity. It’s about the collaboration and working together.”
Ruettiger also described his time in the Navy and at Holy Cross College before he was accepted into Notre Dame, saying that teamwork and help were the most important influences in his life.
“In order to get to where you need to go, you need help to get there,” he said. “It’s not about football, it’s about learning. It’s not about wearing a gold helmet, it’s about contributing.”
Photos Courtesy of Cynthia Cumming