By Andy Loigu
Memories and cultural anthropology from 100 years of Hackettstown sports were celebrated at Panther Valley Country Club on Saturday evening Oct. 28, as the inaugural class of 2017 was inducted into the Hackettstown High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
One hundred guests were treated to a fascinating collection of anecdotes and went home with a splendidly researched and illustrated program book as a souvenir keeper. It was a celebration which went beyond just the games and clichés.
“This night is about honoring athletes from an era when there was no internet or cell phones,” said Dr. Michael Rossi, a distinguished former Tigers’ basketball player who now is the Superintendent of Schools at nearby Sparta. “They were our heroes and they brought unity and pride to the community that lasted for decades.”
Appropriately, since football was the sport that brought fame and glory to Hackettstown when the Tigers won 15 state championships from 1930 to 1961, the inaugural class consisted of 11 former athletes, teachers, and coaches.
Inductees Bill Smith, Jay Hart, Joe Stanowicz, Bob Candler, Alfred “Sass” Applegate, Frank “The Friendly Bear” Mincevich, Dave Palmer, and Doug Blake all earned All-State recognition in football. Blake, class of 1968, earned statewide honors in three sports and is considered the top all-around athlete Hackettstown has ever produced.
Blake won two straight state championships in wrestling and was such a good left-handed pitcher in baseball that the Los Angeles Dodgers (who were looking for the next Sandy Koufax) drafted him out of high school. Blake chose to play football and baseball at Princeton University and led the nation in triples. “The one-on-one competition in wrestling was the toughest challenge for me,” said Blake.
Smith, in a photo, bears an amazing resemblance to Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren, who was the leading ball carrier on the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles of 1948 and 49. Look them up on Google and compare for yourself.
Smith was an All American football player for the storied Notre Dame program in 1934. Also earning such collegiate honors were Applegate at Scranton, Mincevich at South Carolina, and Stanowicz, who blocked for two legendary backs for national champion Army who were Heisman Trophy winners, Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, known as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside.
Charles “Chot” Morrison (the patriarch of them all), Art Dimiceli, and Gary Thomas all were honored for coaching careers which were worthy of having the school’s playing fields named in their honor.
In addition to football, Morrison also coached basketball and baseball at HHS and won a combined total of 619 games, with a 231-48-13 football record that earned him statewide Hall of Fame honors. “In his final years his record was 69-4-2,” noted former player Gerald DiMaio in a heartfelt tribute. “He had winning streaks of 29, 28, and 29 games and his .828 winning percentage was the finest in the state for the years he coached. He played no favorites, did not care who your parents were when he decided who to put on the field.”
Dimiceli lettered in three sports and also coached three sports at HHS and his .513 batting average was the school record in baseball for over 50 years and he earned All-State honors on the diamond in 1949. His baseball teams won 12 conference and two sectional championships between 1967 and 1987. He was inducted into the state’s coaching Hall of Fame in 1979. His 310 baseball wins are the second most in school history behind Gary Thomas, who won 354 soccer games.
Thomas was inducted into the New Jersey coaching Hall of Fame in 1999. He won state soccer championships in 2001 and 2014, the only two in school history. He’s the only man, in his five decade coaching career, to win championships in the Delaware River, Skyland, and Northwest Jersey Athletic conferences. He also won the Hunterdon/Warren Tournament five times, for a total of 19 championship seasons.
“He is an old school coach, but he continued to be successful because he adjusted and adapted to each new generation of students,” said Athletic Director Robert Grauso. “He listens and learns.”
Palmer earned 11 varsity letters in three sports and was team captain of the wrestling squad at Navy in 1967. The following year he was a Navy fighter pilot, including two tours to Vietnam leading 286 combat missions.
Hart also served our country, in the US Marine Corps in the South Pacific, during World War II.
“This group of sports achievers and leaders set a very high bar for the future,” Dr. Rossi said in his closing remarks.