Diary of a Season—The Story of the 1987-88 South Plainfield Tigers—Part III

The Decline of Boys Basketball and the Rise of Wrestling in South Plainfield

One critical part that lurks in the background quite vividly during my high school years was how big wrestling was becoming at South Plainfield. Even during the four years that Joe Thompson played at South Plainfield, the grapplers, which began their dominance of then District 12 in 1982, managed to continue increasing in popularity in the community. Today, wrestling is king in Tigertown while boys basketball, which had an amazing run from the late 1950s to mid 1960s including the school’s only state championship in 1964 is a mere afterthought.

As a team SPHS wrestling has won 27 division titles, 23 conference championships, 34 district titles including a state record 32 in a row, 13 state sectional titles, and 9 state championships as well topping the state rankings as the number one program in New Jersey on three occasions. Individually, South Plainfield wrestling has accumulated 219 District Champions, 57 Region Champs, 65 State Placewinners, and 11 Individual State Champions. The wrestling program in South Plainfield has achieved its success because it is solid from the ground up, from elementary school through middle school, and into high school. The program has also enjoyed a great deal of support from within the community.

The rise of wrestling at South Plainfield has contributed to a decline in interest and a rise in disrespect toward boys basketball in the town. If you really truly want to get an idea of how much boys basketball is disrespected in South Plainfield. How much it is treated like the illegitimate step child of the winter sports season at SPHS? All you have to look at is NJ.com’s recent South Plainfield Mount Rushmore that came out last summer. Former boys hoops head coach, Jeff Lubreski, who whether you like him or not, coached 20 years at the school, which right now is approximately one third of SPHS’ entire existence, and brought the program not only to respectability, but eventually to heights unimaginable for guys like myself who were there when Lubreski took over in the Summer of 1986.

Lubreski won 4 GMC White Division titles, made 4 GMCT Final Four appearances, and won the first and only two conference/county championships in SPHS history. Despite all of that, Lubreski, who should be mentioned almost as much as Anthony Cotoia when it comes to South Plainfield boys hoops, was never listed on the ballot. Then, there is the case of sharpshooter Darren Smith, an 1,100 point scorer, who went on to play basketball at the University of Pennsylvania, and was an integral part of three straight GMC White Division crowns, three GMCT Final Fours, and back to back GMCT titles in 2004 and 2005. Smith was not on the ballot either.

Even during the five year period from 2002 to 2007 when South Plainfield reached the GMCT Final Four on four occasions, and won two GMCT Championships, SPHS Wrestling won state titles in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Even when the grapplers didn’t achieve those statewide heights, they still garnered as much or more attention than boys basketball. For example, the 2003-04 boys basketball team still had to share top billing in the South Plainfield Observer with a SPHS wrestling program that had only won District 12, which by that time, had become a regular occurrence, and was nothing in comparison to what the SPHS boys hoops teams had accomplished. Even articles that I wrote for the Observer during that period were significantly edited and reduced in size so that material on South Plainfield’s youth wrestling program could be published instead. What South Plainfield boys basketball did in the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons was not only monumental but also historic, and deserved way more respect from the community and the local press than it had received.

The sad thing is that you almost get the feeling players like Smith blame themselves for these kind of oversights. When I had shared the article about South Plainfield’s Mount Rushmore on Facebook, I had communicated with Smith a bit, and at one point he asked me if the gaffe was because “he had his toe on the line”. What Smith was referring to was the last second three point attempt that he had apparently made in the 2004 North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship against Raritan of Hazlet at Plainfield High School. The officials ruled it as a two point shot, and South Plainfield lost to Raritan by one, 53-52 to finish their magical season at 27-1.

Here’s a guy (Smith), who scored 1,100 points in his high school career, where he stayed at one school the whole time, which is unheard of today. A guy, who was, from my perspective, overlooked to some extent because of how great Marquis Jones was at SPHS, but he had memorable performances that I do remember, and will never forget. While Jones was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game, Smith’s 24 point performance led to an eye-raising upset over Elizabeth in the 2003 Hoop Group Tip-Off Classic at Caldwell College set the stage for the Tigers memorable run through the 2003-04 campaign.

The following year, the 2004-05 campaign Smith turned in a heroic performance in triple overtime defeat at Woodbridge High School late in the regular season. Then, in the 2005 GMCT Championship, Smith scorched St. Joseph’s for 31 points including a MCT/GMCT Finals record 6 three pointers. Without all of Smith’s efforts in that title game, Jones never would have had the chance to pull-up for the game winning jumper over Kevin Joyce as time was running out that gave the Tigers their second straight GMCT title. For those and many other of his efforts, I gave my vote for 2005 GMC Hoops Player of the Year to Smith.

The 2018-19 season marks the 15th anniversary of South Plainfield’s 27-1 season in 2003-04 that included a Butch Kowal Holiday Tournament Title, a GMC White Division title, the school’s first ever GMCT Championship, and an appearance in a sectional final for the first time since winning CJ Group 2 in the Eddie Bolton-Craig Kearney era of 1990 and 1991. In the years since that memorable season, South Plainfield boys basketball has fallen back to mediocrity. Since Lubreski stepped down following the 2004-05 season, there have been 5 different head coaches at SPHS. The only school in the GMC with more turnover at the top of its boys basketball program is New Brunswick, which has had 6 different head coaches since the late and legendary Odie Page stepped down following the 2003-04 campaign.

On the other hand, the SPHS Wrestling program has only had five different coaches at the helm all time including Al Ranger, the school’s first wrestling coach (166-82-6), Tom Baker (7-7), Mike Buggey (114-22-1), Bill Pavlak (111-14-3), and Kevin McCann (302-41). The program has had 700 wins all time versus just 166 losses and 10 ties for an incredible .799 winning percentage, just a tad under 80 percent of the school’s matches over a period of 56 years! However, much of that success has come over the last 30 to 35 years, which dates back to the time that I was in school at SPHS.

For instance, the first ever state champion in wrestling from South Plainfield was Joe Lemmo at 106 pounds in 1965 according to the South Plainfield Wrestling web site. SPHS would not have another state champion in wrestling until a year after a graduated when Steve Giordano reached the pinnacle of his weight class of 145 pounds. McCann followed that with a state title of his own two years later in 1991 when South Plainfield boys basketball, led by the likes of Eddie Bolton, Craig Kearney, Karim Stokes, Bryan Joiner, and Malik Sheppard was in the midst of winning its second of back to back Central Jersey Group 2 titles as well as a GMC White Division championship, and made a GMCT Final Four appearance. SPHS wrestling would not have another state champ until 2000, but Matt Anderson’s crown at 103 pounds would be the first of 8 over the next 18 years.

What could be perceived as a lack of enthusiasm and respect for the program over the years, had become a somewhat acceptable behavior toward boys basketball in South Plainfield. How did it get this way? Where and when did it change because in the beginning, when South Plainfield High School was in its early years, that was not the case. When Anthony Cotoia first came to South Plainfield in the late 1950s, the legend goes that he surveyed the town to see if there were a lot of basketball nets. In other words, Cotoia was trying to get an idea of how popular basketball was in the town. Wrestling would not be established in South Plainfield until 1962 when the Tiger hoops teams were contending for sectional titles.

Within a few years though, Cotoia had teams contending for sectional championships, and by the 1963-64 season, he had a powerhouse team led by the legendary Wally Cirafesi that got all the way to Atlantic City, and defeated Stirling for the 1964 Group 3 State Championship. The following year, in the 1964-65 campaign, Cirafesi, who finished his career with 1,304 points, led the Tigers to the 1965 Central Jersey Group 3 Championship, and then a return to the Group 3 State Final, where it lost to Newark South Side, which eventually became Newark Shabazz. A year later, Cotoia stepped down as he eventually moved up the ranks in the South Plainfield district. By the time by older brothers were in high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cotoia was Principal at SPHS.

From the time that Cotoia had stepped down in 1966 to the time that he was principal at SPHS the year my oldest brother graduated in 1980, the boys basketball program had gone into a period of decline. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, South Plainfield, which was first coached by Ben Crowers and then succeeded by Willie Leonardi, could only muster single digit winning seasons for the most part. Leonardi, who had come over from Hunterdon Central, where he had led the Red Devils to several 20 win seasons during the course of the 1970s, was about to turn the fortunes of SPHS boys basketball around.

Leonardi, who also served as Athletic Director at South Plainfield, had coached in the college ranks at Moravian, and was also a standout player at Frenchtown High School in 1959. He is legendary in Hunterdon County. Leonardi’s son played at North Hunterdon High School when he was coach at South Plainfield. Leonardi also coached baseball at Voorhees later on in his career.

He recently had returned to the coaching ranks to coach at Delaware Valley in his native Frenchtown, but stepped down after one season due to health reasons. His practices were intense, but to me he was a fatherly figure. In a way he was like Vince Lombardi in that he would break you down, and build you back up again, and even more importantly, he cared for you as a person.

Leonardi, who was joined by the late Bill Mosca on the staff after Mosca coached hoops at South Plainfield Middle School, inherited veterans like Bob Cherasaro and Chris Walker, who was a great football standout as well, and eventually would be an assistant coach to Leonardi at Scotch Plains after serving on Wayne Fiorino’s staff at St. Peter’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Joe Thompson had come up from a successful stint in middle school.

Thompson along with the likes of Cherasaro, Jeff Missimer, Shawn Cisson, Chris Smith, Malcolm Hammond, Eric “Eli” Meyers, John Thievon, John Kudrick, Jeff Cantamessa, Lance Brown, Jim Kohl, Billy Cochrane, Ryan Jones, Joe Ranno, and some others that I can’t think of off at the moment, compiled roughly a record of 40-33 during the last three years of Thompson’s tenure at South Plainfield.

Basketball seemed on the rise at that time in South Plainfield. The Class of 1986, which was led by Thompson, dominated in Middle School, defeating teams like Hubbard from Plainfield, which had the legendary Gregory twins that went on to play at Piscataway Tech. The 1981-82 South Plainfield Middle School Tigers won the March of Dimes Tournament in Dunellen by defeating Readington in the title game. Big things were expected in the years to come.

Two years later, with the group that I would graduate with in the Class of 1988, the SPMS Tigers were 17-4, and only lost to two teams: Highland Park (twice), and Somerville (twice). South Plainfield did avenge the two losses to Somerville with a 25 point win at home early in the season, and then a victory in the semifinals of the 1984 Dunellen March of Dimes Tournament en route to another title over Readington.

During the same 1983-84 campaign, the South Plainfield High School Tigers had a breakthrough season under head coach, Willie Leonardi. The team went 14-11 including an opening round win over Hamilton West in the Central Jersey Group 3 State Tournament before being routed by a very talented team in Long Branch. The following year, 1984-85 campaign, my freshman year, the Tigers came out strong with wins over Somerville, Piscataway, Hillsborough, and Watchung Hills.

Then came the memorable Jake Bornheimer Tournament at St. Peter’s, where the Tigers would drop two games. The first round, South Plainfield was roundly defeated by Perth Amboy, and then, the Tigers lost to then nemesis Franklin in the consolation round, which was marred by a brawl between the two schools. It set the tone for the two regular season games between the two schools. The first one, held at Franklin in January 1985 was closed to the public. At that time, the Warriors were led by Darren Roberts, who went on to play football at Penn State for a brief time before transferring to Trenton State, or eventually, The College of New Jersey.

Perhaps the seeds of this brawl were planted prior to the tourney. Earlier in the school year, Roberts and the Warriors rolled past the South Plainfield football team, 56-0. The score was immortalized in the SPHS weight room in the upstairs gym to try and give the football team motivation. It did not quite work though because the next year, my sophomore year, South Plainfield lost at Franklin, 40-0 despite the fact that Roberts had graduated in June 1985. The Tiger hoopsters never defeated Franklin during the regular season during Thompson’s time in school including two more defeats during the 1984-85 campaign.

The only time that a Joe Thompson led South Plainfield team ever beat Franklin was one year in the Westfield Summer League. Thompson was a tremendous competitor, one of the best I ever saw in action. He never backed down to anyone. The first time I ever watched him play was in the 1982 South Plainfield Middle School student faculty games when he went toe to toe with one of the gym teachers, Mr. Baker. One of my big regrets of my youth is that I never saw him play much when I was in 6th grade and he was in 8th in Middle, and my freshman year. Things changed when I played JV ball my sophomore year, and I got to see him play a lot. I saw him scrimmage against Piscataway Tech and the Gregory twins my sophomore year, he went right after them, and did not cower.

After that game, I can remember asking him on the bus ride home if playing that scrimmage against the Gregory twins was anything like playing against Franklin. Thompson essentially stated that there was no comparison at all. Instead, the then soon to be all-time leading scorer at SPHS compared playing Franklin to war. However, while much of the focus was on Franklin, which played in the Delaware Division of the Mid-State Conference, the precursor to today’s Skyland Conference, another team was emerging on the scene within the Raritan Division, Bridgewater Raritan West. Led by Eric Murdock, who would eventually lead the Golden Falcons to a Group 3 State Championship in 1987, BR-West was beginning to show up in the rear view mirror.

Then came the next to last game of the regular season at home against Bridgewater-Raritan East. The Minutemen were at the bottom of the standings, and South Plainfield was expected to get a win. A victory would clinch the Mid-State Raritan Division title for the Tigers. I was already pretty jubilant that day since I had nailed a jumper late in the freshman game to score my final points of my freshman season, and our team won easily. I can remember talking to Coach Leonardi before the varsity game, and mentioning that if South Plainfield won, it would clinch the division title, but Leonardi was cautious, and rightfully so since fate would intervene.

I didn’t know exactly what happened until the next day when I got ready to go to school. I remember opening up the Star-Ledger that morning, getting to the sports section, and glancing through the high school basketball game capsules from action the night before, and I was stunned by what I saw. Bridgewater-Raritan East had knocked off South Plainfield, 58-53. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that would be an easy win, but when I got to school, and got to one of my classes, I had realized why we lost. Entering the room I was in was Thompson with his girl friend, and he was on crutches with a brace around one of his legs. He had gone down with a season ending knee injury.

So, not only was Thompson done for the season, the Tigers now were tied with Bridgewater-Raritan West for the Raritan Division lead with one more regular season game to play, and it would be at BR-West. The Golden Falcons would win to come away with the division title, and South Plainfield would then lose to Princeton in the opening round of the 1985 Central Jersey Group 3 playoffs to finish at 14-11 again. A short time later, Leonardi stepped down as both boys basketball coach and athletic director. Norm Mopsick replaced Leonardi as head coach, and Al Czech became the new athletic director.

The 1985-86 season, Thompson’s senior year, and my sophomore year at SPHS would be the inaugural season of the Greater Middlesex Conference. South Plainfield was the only team from Middlesex County in the Mid-State Conference to join. The other such member, Piscataway would not join the conference until 1988. Thompson was a marked man, but with the likes of Missimer, Thievon, and Kudrick, the Tigers were still good enough to be in the Pre-Season Top 10 in Middlesex County. The the high expectations at the season’s onset would only result in disappointment.

It started with a tough opening night loss to new crosstown rival, Bishop Ahr led by the likes of Plainfield native, Mike Doctor, a sophomore and younger brother of Yolanda Doctor, who had won a Middlesex County Tournament Girls title the year before with Czech, our new AD. For a good chunk of the game, South Plainfield had led the contest, but Ahr rallied and went ahead 59-58 on a jumper by Martinez with under 10 seconds to play. Doctor then made two free throws to seal the 61-58 upset. The Trojans would not win many more games that season though, but South Plainfield would end up losing 10 of its first 15 games to fail to qualify for the state playoffs that year.

Among those losses was a 72-68 loss at St. Joseph’s where Thompson scored 39 points, the most I had ever seen him score in a game, and one of the top scoring performances ever by a SPHS boys basketball player. Thompson’s nephew, Mike Thompson, would score 35 in a game against St. Peter’s in the 1996-97 season, and more recently, Lamont Williams scored 55 points in a late season game against Koinonia Academy to finish his career with 1,000 points in 2016. In the loss to the Falcons, Thompson was hitting from all angles as the Tigers jumped out to a 17-2 lead at the old Bird Cage in Metuchen. However, St. Joe’s would finish the contest by outscoring SPHS by a margin of 70-51 to win the game by four.

Several days later, the final game of the first half of the season had South Plainfield hosting Perth Amboy, another Red Division school. The strategy that Coach Mopsick had designed for the game was to slow the tempo, and control the clock, and he predicted in the practice the day before that South Plainfield would win, 53-48. Well, Mopsick’s prediction was almost prophetic. The Tigers executed the game plan to near perfection, and rallied from a fourth quarter deficit to have a shot to win on the game’s final shot. However, John Thievon’s jumper in the closing seconds was off the mark, Thompson and Amboy’s Andre Heard got locked up in a scrum, and Perth Amboy escaped with a 48-47 win.

Those two losses to St. Joseph’s and Perth Amboy would be the closest the South Plainfield would ever come to beating those to schools since the inception of the GMC until the era of Marquis Jones, Darren Smith and company. In the 2003 GMCT Quarterfinals, the Tigers would knock off Perth Amboy for the first time ever to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1991. Then, in 2004, South Plainfield defeated St. Joseph’s in the GMCT Semifinals en route to its first ever county/conference title. The Tigers followed that up with a thriller over the Falcons for the GMCT title in 2005. During this time, South Plainfield also beat Piscataway for the first time since Joe Thompson’s junior year with an overtime win over the Chiefs in the 2004 GMCT Quarterfinals.

The straw the broke the camel’s back on the 1985-86 South Plainfield Tigers was a loss at home to then 4-12 Metuchen that eliminated SPHS from state playoff contention. Mired in a losing season, the Bulldogs went to its youth movement led by then freshman, Larry Spigner, who scored 25 points to lead Metuchen to a stunning win, and heartbreak for the Tigers. South Plainfield then hit rock bottom a night or two later at Colonia when Gary Battle and Fred Herzog blew the Tigers out by the score of 69-42. SPHS then finished the season on a strong note by winning 7 of its last 8 games with its only loss coming at the hands of Keith Hughes and 3rd seeded and eventual champion, Carteret in the opening round of the 1986 GMCT.

The final victory in that stretch came on the last day of the season at St. Mary’s of South Amboy on February 22, 1986. In that contest, Thompson would become the new all time leading scorer at SPHS by surpassing the mark set by Cirafesi, and finished with 1,314 career points. The mark would stand for another 19 years until Jones shattered it in 2005 by finishing with 1,436 points. South Plainfield would finish the season at 12-11. While all of this was going on with basketball, South Plainfield wrestling began to rise with its first District 12 title in 1982.

Mike Buggey, who was the athletic director at SPHS when Tiger boys basketball had its magical run from 2003 to 2007 (Buggey’s son Jonathan played on the 2003 and 2004 SPHS boys hoops teams), took over the wrestling program in 1986 with Pavlak and Gene Clapsis, who was my health and sex education teacher during my last two years in high school. The three helped guide SPHS to new heights on the mat. With wrestlers like Mark Sacco, Billy Taylor, Joe Sacco, Steve Barrios, Rob McCauley, and Vinny Rodrigo the SP grapplers began their ascent up the ranks of the Greater Middlesex Conference. By February 1987, during my junior year, SPHS wrestling ended up on top of the world in the GMC by winning that year’s wrestling tournament and was contending for a Group 2 Championship.

Weeks after winning the GMCT wrestling team title, the South Plainfield grapplers were going for more when it went up against Delaware Valley for the 1987 Central Jersey Group 2 Championship. The match was met with much anticipation since it was being held at SPHS. The gym was packed. You couldn’t find a place to park in the parking lot. I can remember coming back to school on the bus after being at an away game, which we lost. As I and the rest of the team, came off the bus, our team had learned that the wrestling team had fallen short to Delaware Valley in the Central Jersey Group 2 Championship. Meanwhile, the boys basketball team’s loss that night was a microcosm of that first season under Lubreski. The first year of the Lubreski era was ushered in with 14 straight losses including one early in the season to a Montgomery team that was only 3-19. The SPHS varsity boys basketball team finished at 4-18 while the JV ended up 6-17.

While boys basketball struggled in the first three seasons under Lubreski with a 22-48 record that included an 11-13 mark my senior year in 1987-88, and a 7-17 finish in 1988-89, South Plainfield wrestling continued to dominate the GMC with two more conference championships, and again contended for the Central Jersey Group 2 title. Each time though, the Tiger grapplers would be denied by the Terriers of Del Val. As a matter of fact, South Plainfield wrestling would not win its first sectional title until 1997. During that 1996-97 campaign, SPHS boys basketball, led by 1,100 point scorer, Mike Thompson, went 17-9 including a victory over eventual GMCT boys hoops champion, North Brunswick during the regular season.

The 1996-97 campaign would be the first double digit win season for boys basketball at SPHS since the 1992-93 season. Those 17 wins would be the most since the 1990-91 team of Bolton, Kearney, and Co. In those years in between, South Plainfield boys basketball was 9-10 in 1993-94, 9-12 in 1994-95, and 4-14 in 1995-96. Then, after the likes of Thompson, Nick Prybella, Mike Powell, Jeff Puterbaugh, and Juan Arias graduated, South Plainfield won the fewest games ever in the Lubreski era with a 2-18 mark in 1997-98. A year later, SPHS boys basketball moved down to the GMC Blue Division, where the team went 8-11 in 1998-99, and then contended for the Blue Division title in 1999-2000 led by the likes of Dominique Pender and Clint Robinson.

The Tigers basketball program, which finished 17-8 in 1999-00, began its rise to the top of Middlesex County boys basketball at this point. South Plainfield opened the season by knocking off eventual 2000 GMCT finalist, Carteret, then coached by Dave Turco. It would be the last loss the Ramblers would have in Blue Division play until losing its starting five including Omar Alston, Drew Hill, Rob Carter, Wilfredo Fuerte and Turco stepped down after Carteret won its last GMCT title in 2002. South Plainfield also defeated another dominant Group 2 power in Holmdel in the opening round of the 2000 Central Jersey Group 2 playoffs before losing to Montgomery in the quarterfinals.

In that same 1999-2000 season, South Plainfield wrestling finally reached the holy grail of its sport with the school’s first state title. The Group 2 state crown, would be the first of 9 over the next 18 years for the SPHS grapplers, which breaks down to a state title about once every two years. South Plainfield wrestling is now spoken in the same breath with many of the elite programs in the state. Claiming Star-Ledger’s and NJ.com’s number one spot in the publications final statewide Top 20 in 2010, 2012, and 2013, Tiger wrestling more than holds its own with historic programs such as Phillipsburg, Paulsboro, Brick Memorial, Southern Regional, Bergen Catholic, Hunterdon Central, and High Point.

To this day, I’ve never been to a South Plainfield High School wrestling match. I was never really interested in it. I always was more into basketball. I guess that is what makes me a rare species in South Plainfield. I wasn’t really thrilled watching two people essentially roll around on the ground. The only wrestling that I really cared for was WWF/WWE. Characters such as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage were more interesting to me at that time of my life. Also, I didn’t really care too much for a number of the wrestlers I went to school with personally. While they were disciplined, hard working, and good at what they did, they weren’t the type of people I would want to root for. The reason for that was that a number of them tended to be arrogant and push people around in school.