BELLEVILLE, NJ—Fresh off a convincing 34-8 win over Seton Hall Prep, the 1980 Belleville High football team would continue its recent road show, at Arthur L. Johnson High School, in Clark, on the afternoon of Nov. 15.
The Belleville-AL Johnson rivalry had begun two years earlier and would be concluded after the 1980 campaign. The Bucs had won the first two meetings, 16-7, at Clark, in ’78 and 26-17 a year later, in a downpour at Municipal Stadium.
“Clark had a really good team,” recalled Belleville High coach John Senesky. “We had to work hard in all three of those games.”
In 1979, the Bucs, with a 6-1 record, had to rally past a 2-5 Clark squad, in the fourth quarter, on a very slick field, to win, 26-17 and clinch the program’s first-ever playoff berth.
A year later, in 1980, Belleville came into the game with Clark at 6-1, once again, but Clark was also 6-1 and battling for a playoff berth. Clark had a tremendous quarterback in Glenn Bodnar, who stood about 6’7″. He would go onto a tremendous collegiate career, at William & Mary, as a tight end, and later played a few games for the Washington Redskins.
For both teams, a win was imperative if a playoff berth was to be accomplished. The cut off for qualifying was after eight games and back then, two losses made it almost impossible for a team to qualify in Belleville’s section, which was North 2, Group 4.
The Bucs had lost its season opener, and were now riding a six-game winning streak, heading into the game at Clark. The team seemed to be getting better, with each game, and the dominance over Seton Hall Prep showed the Bucs to be one of the best teams in North Jersey.
This game was also Belleville’s fourth road contest in the last five games, with a game at Kearny, on Thanksgiving, also on the slate.
Clark was fired up, and with a huge crowd on hand, it was indeed a spirited game.
Belleville would win, 20-12, as Frank Fazzini scored twice and rushed for 251 yards, and Paul Scheuplein also had a touchdown. Robbie Cancelliere converted two point-after kicks.
The game came down to the wire. And in a nice irony, it would be Ricky Racioppi, a senior in 1980, who recovered a fumble that sealed the Buccaneers’ win. Two years earlier, at Clark, Racioppi suffered a badly broken leg. Now, as a senior, and healthy, Racioppi would be headed back to the playoffs.
Belleville’s ground game was the difference, as the team picked up 265 yards on the ground.
Having clinched a playoff berth with a seventh straight win, the Bucs would play Morris Knolls, at Giants Stadium, on Nov. 22, 1980, which was a Saturday night.
Morris Knolls, West Essex, Barringer and Belleville would all come into the North 2, Group 4 playoffs that year at 7-1. West Essex and Barringer played a hard-nosed game at Giants Stadium, just before the Belleville-Morris Knolls contest. West Essex, the fourth seed, would win its game, 10-7, over top-seeded Barringer.
The fans were ultra-excited for the game with Morris Knolls. Kickoff would be around 6 p.m. The Bucs were seeded third in the section while Morris Knolls was second.
A year earlier, the Bucs also played at Giants Stadium, in a morning contest against Union and lost in the final seconds, 15-12, in the first round of the playoffs.
Morris Knolls had a tremendous team and was coached by Bill Regan Jr., who is still the team’s head coach some 40 years later. The Golden Eagles ran (and continue to run) the veer offense, which is a hybrid form of the option, or ‘wishbone’, which was a popular high school and college scheme in the 1970’s amd 1980’s.
Fazzini, a junior, was having a tremendous season in 1980 and was closing in on 1,000 yards rushing, from his halfback and later fullback position. Morris Knolls, obviously, knew about Fazzini, too, and would key on him throughout the game.
Belleville’s rushing attack was also paced by Scheuplein, a senior that fall, and on this night, Paul was marvelous. He would rush for 154 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, Scheuplein, as low-keyed a guy as you’ll meet, gave the credit for his success to Fazzini.
The defense, which had to quickly learn Morris Knolls’ veer, was led by Lugie Chimento, one of the Bucs’ fiercest linemen, and junior linebacker Phil Cerza, who had a key interception late in the game.
Belleville led, 7-0, at halftime, on a short scoring run by Fazzini, then extended the margin to 14-0 in the third quarter, on a run by Scheuplein.
Morris Knolls cut the lead in half, in the fourth quarter, but the game was wrapped up on Cerza’s interception.
The Bucs had adopted the hit song by ‘Queen’, entitled ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, a top Billboard classic in 1980, and in a nice moment for Belleville fans, the song was played on the big speakers at Giants Stadium, as Belleville ran off the field in victory. Belleville’s team logo also adorned the scoreboard.
The Bucs were now 8-1. There were two games left, one on Thanksgiving, at Kearny, then the state final, once again at Giants Stadium, on Dec. 7, versus West Essex, a school Belleville had played on opening day, from 1972-1975.
Next week, this series concludes with a look back at those two games.