BELLEVILLE, NJ--The Bucs were now 8-1, having won the program’s first-ever NJSIAA playoff game, on Nov. 22, 1980, at Giants Stadium, against Morris Knolls.
(It should be noted that Belleville’s two playoff games in 1980 were contested on two of the most infamous dates in our country’s history, Nov. 22 and the state final, on Dec. 7).
With West Essex upsetting the top seed in the section, Barringer, in the other semifinal,10-7, the stage was set for a Belleville vs. West Essex final, on Dec. 7, at Giants Stadium. Both the Bucs and Knights were 8-1 after their playoff wins and would improve to 9-1 with Thanksgiving Day victories just five days after the semifinals.
Belleville would play at Kearny, on Thanksgiving, and were a heavy favorite. Head coach John Senesky had hoped to play his starters for a half, then get some of the younger players extended varsity time, in the second half.
Frank Fazzini, en route to a legendary season, and for that matter, an astounding athletic year, would surpass 1,000 yards rushing against Kearny.
The Bucs won, handily, 53-15, and improved to 4-0-1 against the Kardinals since 1976. West Essex defeated Livingston, on Thanksgiving, making both teams 9-1 heading into the title game 10 days later.
In 1979, Livingston had opened its season with a loss to Belleville, then won nine straight before losing in the state final.
A year later, Belleville was having a similar season. It was defeated in the season opener, by Livingston, then won nine straight, leading into a state final. Livingston, which had started the 1980 season ranked number one in the state, finished 6-3 on the season.
Practice was going well for the Bucs. In addition, the annual Varsity Club dinner, which was usually held at the end of the football season, was celebrated before the championship game, so there was an aura of excitement from everyone that night at the Wayne Manor, wishing the team luck in the title game.
Belleville had moved up to number two in the state, with Madison Central ranked first. And in very ironic moment, Madison Central’s state final, at Giants Stadium, was played just before Belleville took the field.
Many of the BHS players were actually on the field, watching the end of the Madison Central-Hillsborough game, which went into overtime. There, Hillsborough kicked a field goal and won, 10-7.
It was now all in Belleville’s hands, as a win over West Essex would assure not only a state sectional title but the state’s number one ranking.
Belleville and West Essex had opened the season against each other from 1972-1975, with each school winning twice.
This year’s game looked about even, but I remember before the game, Union High’s great coach, Lou Rettino, who was doing color commentary on TV-3, came over to me on the field, and made an excellent point. Lou noted that West Essex had a big advantage, size-wise on the line, ane he felt that could be a difference in the game.
He was right.
West Essex, a marvelous team, would dominate the first hald and took a 13-0 lead into the locker room.
At the start of the third quarter, a fired-up Beleville squad came out looking totally different. The Bucs drove 80 years for its first, and only touchdown, with the scoring play a long pass from quarterback John Melillo to Kenny Constantino.
Melillo and Constantino had formed quite the passing tandom in 1980. When Robbie Cancelliere kicked the point-after, the Bucs trailed, 13-7, and the momentum seemed to be Belleville’s side. One Buc player ran by me and said ‘They (West Essex) didn’t see the real Belleville team in the first half’.
West Essex turned the game back in their favor, on a field goal to extend to a 16-7 lead, and the play of the Knights’ front line would do the job in the fourth quarter. West Essex scored once more and won, 22-7.
The disappointment was clearly evident in the post-game for the Bucs.
“A 9-2 season, and I’m sure people will criticize,” said assistant coach Gennaro Russo to me, as the team left Giants Stadium on that Sunday night, which was also John and Carmela Senesky’s 12th wedding anniversary.
Russo was correct, in that Senesky, a wonderful coach and better man, had his share of critics, win, or lose. But if you talk to the players who had the chance to play for John, starting in 1968, as a freshman coach, through the 1996 season, almost all will say they learned much more than just football, under Senesky’s tutelage.
In Senesky’s 20 years as head football coach (1977-1996) he won nine games against Nutley, the most of any coach, in the series, for either team. He also led the Bucs to four playoff appearances, nine winning seasons, and a .500 campaign, as a head coach.
Forty years later, you have to wonder. Was this the best Bellevile High team, ever?
Many will say the 1962 Bellboys were just as good, with Rich Luzzi leading the way. Ironically, Senesky was a junior running back, at BHS in ’62, and a big part of that team, which finished 8-1. That ’62 squad also lost its opener, then won the rest of its games, in the era before playoff games.
Eighteen years later, Seneky was the head coach, and was also a part of coaching great teams from 1979-1982.
West Essex would earn the state’s number one ranking, in NJ, for 1980, and that was well deserved.
It was, indeed, a classic season for Belleville High football. As someone who was there and is lucky enough to recall it 40 years later, I’m grateful to have been a part of that season.