MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Columbia High School has always had a strong academic tradition, but the Maplewood institution has also produced its share of great athletes over the years.
Diehard Cougar sports fans still talk about the likes of Mark Bryant in basketball, Joetta Clark in girls’ track & field, Dave Masur in soccer, Dick Savitt in tennis, and Kristen Bowsher in girls’ soccer.
Another athlete who belongs in that elite group is Bob Bianchi in lacrosse. The gifted attackman, who graduated in 1979, is considered by many people to be the best lacrosse player in state history. In his senior campaign, Bianchi, who tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1987 while serving in the Navy, led CHS to a 17-0 mark and a state title. He racked up 42 goals and 62 assists for Coach Bob Curcio. In his career, he compiled 228 points.
This evening, May 9, at Mayfair Farms in West Orange, two of Bianchi’s brothers will be inducted into the Columbia Hall of Fame, following Bob, who was feted in the initial class in 2006. Older brother Jim also sparkled in lacrosse, while younger brother Kevin was a standout in wrestling. Tragically, like Bob, Kevin died in a helicopter crash in 2003 while also serving in the Navy.
“It’s a great honor for Kevin and myself to follow Bob in the Columbia Hall of Fame,” said Jim Bianchi, who is an assistant coach in lacrosse at a high school in Michigan. “Our family has had a lot of tragedy, but we’ve also had some great moments as well. I guess in life, you have to move along the best that you possibly can.
“Maybe some day another brother, Richard, will join us in the CHS Hall. He was a fine all-around athlete.”
Jim Bianchi, who is employed by Pfizer, had an early sports interest in baseball. After all, his dad, Al, grew up in New York City, a place where diamond fans could root for the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants.
“I wasn’t very good in baseball, so I decided to give lacrosse a try,” recalled the older Bianchi sibling. “Things worked out pretty good for me and my brothers who followed in the game.”
In Jim’s junior year in 1976, CHS fell to Boonton in the state semis. But in 1977, CHS beat the Morris County school and advanced to the title game against powerful Montclair.
“They dominated us in the first half, but we came back strong in the final half,” said Curcio, who served as the CHS Athletic Director for many years. “I think Montclair just beat us, 9-7. Our comeback was sparked by Jim and Bob.
“Bob was such a highly skilled player, and that’s what made him special on the field. But Jim was the guy we looked to for leadership. He had great determination and great character. I’m so happy that Jim and Kevin are following Bob into the school Hall of Fame. I wouldn’t miss this affair for anything.”
Jim, who sparkled in the midfield, enjoyed playing on the 1977 Cougar squad with Bob.
“He could just dominate in any game,” said Jim, whose sons, Tom and Bob, were also top players in the sport. “We all knew right away that Bob would be a special player in the sport.”
Jim, who notes that his dad became a great fan of the sport, enjoyed his time in the United States Navy. A special event each year was attending the famed Army/Navy football game.
“There’s nothing in sports like that,” said Jim. “Well, Michigan vs. Ohio State in football is also quite special, particularly when you’re surrounded by over 100,000 other people.”
Jim, who was pretty good in lacrosse in college, just like he was in high school, always enjoyed the challenges of the sport.
“Like in baseball, you have to do several things well if you want to succeed,” said Jim. “Obviously being able to handle the stick is of the utmost importance. I liked playing in the midfield because you could contribute on both offense and defense.”
Jim has always appreciated the support of his family, particularly his wife, Martha. And the former CHS star notes that his daughter, Katie, was a top performer in soccer.
“Soccer is a game that has come a long way in this country,” said Jim. “And that’s true in lacrosse as well. There is a pro lacrosse league, but few people pay much attention to it, unlike the pro soccer league.”
LACROSSE NOTEBOOK – These days, Curcio is an assistant coach in lacrosse at Montgomery, a school which is one of the better teams in the state this spring…
In high school, all the Bianchi brothers wanted the No. 7 in honor of the great Yankee slugger, Mickey Mantle…
Al Bianchi was a pretty good sandlot baseball player in New York City…
The old Maplewood Lacrosse Club paved the way for the great teams at CHS…
In 1978-79, CHS won a state soccer title, a state crown in girls’ hoops, and the Greater Newark Tournament diamond title in the spring to go along with a lacrosse title.