Freeholders celebrate exceptional youth from Essex County

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NEWARK, NJ — The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders held its annual “Essex County Celebrates Youth” program on Wednesday, April 24, at the Hall of Records in Newark. This annual event acknowledges outstanding young people throughout the county for their notable achievements.

This year’s honorees were: Benjamin Levitt of Livingston High School, Jaala Williams of Montclair High School, Kai Strothers of Tuscan Elementary School in Maplewood, the University High School girls’ basketball team of Newark and the East Side High School boys’ basketball team of Newark.

Levitt, a senior at Livingston High School, is the captain of the LHS fencing team, where he led his team, the Lancers, to the District 3 Championship. They also won State Squads in Sabre and the prestigious Cetrulo Invitational Fencing Tournament. He finished the regular season with only one loss in 72 bouts, and was named “Boys’ Fencer of the Year” for 2019 by During his high school fencing career, he was selected twice by the U.S. Fencing Association to the All American High School’s first fencing team.

Outside of high school fencing, he participated in many international and national competitions, where he earned top-16 finishes in the Cadet World Cup in Poland, a silver medal in the 2018 Pan American Cadet Championship, and a top-8 finish in the Junior North American Cup — leading his club team to the Junior Team gold title at the 2019 Junior Olympics. After graduating this year, Levitt plans to attend Ohio State University and continue his fencing at the next level.

Williams, a senior at Montclair High School, made history by participating in NJSIAA’s Inaugural Girls Wrestling Championships at Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk Hall, where she defeated several opponents to claim a victory as the state’s silver-place winner in the 136-lb. weight class. As a sophomore, she broke the gender barrier when she joined her high school wrestling team and still receives recognition as Montclair’s only female wrestler.

Williams has competed in dozens of wrestling matches against both girls and boys. In 2019, she was one of the first girls ever to compete at the Essex County Tournament at Codey Arena in West Orange as part of the historic first season for girls’ wrestling in New Jersey. In addition, she qualified and placed at the NJSIAA District 11 individual championships in Red Bank, where she was one of only two Montclair wrestlers to qualify for Regionals. She went on to defeat several opponents at Regionals, and was Montclair’s sole wrestler to advance to the state finals in Atlantic City.

When she is not competing on the wrestling mat, Williams has a passion for architecture and an interest in science and technology. She is enrolled in programs such as Black Girls Code, the Weston Science Academy at Montclair State University, the Army’s ARDEC Gems, and the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute at Princeton University. She has received a scholarship by Udacity for computer programming, is a member of the National Society of High School Scholars, and dedicates her time to mentor and encourage other young athletes to pursue and participate in wrestling regardless of their gender.

Kai, a fifth-grader at Tuscan Elementary School in Maplewood, made history in New Jersey on Jan. 19 by becoming the youngest person to bowl a sanctioned 300-point perfect game at the age of 10! Kai has been bowling with the Junior League since he was 4-years-old, is a member of the Metropolitan Bowling Senate and has traveled extensively while bowling in tournaments. He was part of the winning team for The National Bowling Association’s Eastern Regional Junior Tournament that traveled to Detroit, Michigan, for the National Roll Off in 2018. He also recently won first place in the TNBA Eastern Regional Junior Tournament in Durham, N.C. In July, he will travel back to Detroit to compete in the Youth Open and Junior Gold Championships.

On Feb. 10, Kai was invited by the Professional Bowlers Association to be a special guest to the Tournament of Champions in Akron, Ohio, and threw out the first ball. He is passionate and knowledgeable about the sport and bears the nickname “Popcorn” because while bowling he was snacking on popcorn and it was said his secret was in the popcorn. Kai attends Tabernacle Baptist Church in Newark, where he is a member of the youth choir, the youth ministry and is also a youth usher.

The University High School girls’ basketball team was honored by the board for its tremendous 2018-2019 season. The team captured the 2018-2019 NJSIAA Group 1 Girls Basketball State Championship, the 2018-2019 Divisional Championship and the 2018-2019 Newark Christmas Tournament Championship. The University High Lady Phoenix has won four straight Christmas Tournament Championships, four straight sectional titles and three state championships.

The team comprises: seniors Aida Diane, Nyshaya Holmes and Joscelyn Williams; juniors Reni’a Kennedy and Zyhemia Swint; sophomores Kamrin Babbs, Ra’Myah DeGioia, Tara Johnson, Taneshia Tucker and Sidney Williams; and freshmen Semya Bryant, Wadiah Findley and Alana Nickels. Coaches Amiri Baraka Jr. and Cornelius Hunt were also in attendance and honored with the team.

Individually, several players were recognized for their outstanding play during the season. Tucker was named First Team All Group 1; Johnson and Holms earned 2nd Team All Group 1; and Sidney Williams, Swint and Joscelyn Williams all received Group 1 Honorable Mention.

The East Side High School boys’ basketball team was honored for winning the 2019 NJSIAA Group 4 Boys Basketball Championship and the 2019 Essex County Championship. The team finished its phenomenal 2018-2019 season ranked as the No. 6 team in the state of New Jersey, and the state’s No. 1 Group 4 team with an overall record of 29-5.

The team comprises: seniors: Anas Amos, Jeter DeLeon, Al-Tawan Hawkins, James Paul, Denzel Small, Andrew Speight, Jared White, Nasir Johnson and Nyheim Carter; juniors Mikah Johnson, Gabriel Olaniyi and Isiah King-Lucas; sophomore Haziz Adeshima; and freshman Jahzeer Gaskins.

Individually, several players were recognized for their distinguished play during the season. Amos was named the Essex County Player of the Year, as well as the Sideline Chatter All-Essex County Player of the Year. He was also named Second Team All State by and earned SEC American Division first team. Mikah Johnson was named All Group 4 first team, SEC American Division second team and All-Essex County third team. Nasir Johnson was named SEC American Division first team and All-Essex County second team. Paul and Small were named SEC American Division Honorable Mention.

In addition, co-head coaches Anthony Tavares and Bryant Garvin were chosen as the state “Coaches of the Year,” and the Essex County Coaches of the Year by and Sideline Chatter.

Photos Courtesy of Glen Frieson