By TOM WILLIAMS
Through the years, people have been recognized as Cape-Atlantic League Sportspersons of the Year for many reasons. The list is quite diversified and the selections have been both for accomplishments during just one year or over a longer period of time.
There have been many coaches, including Atlantic City basketball coach Gene Allen, Oakcrest basketball coach Dave Lewis, Hammonton football coach Pete Lancetta, Ocean City girls basketball coach Pat Dougherty, Pleasantville basketball coach Ken Leary, St. Joseph football coach Paul Sacco, Ocean City soccer coach Mike Pellegrino, Wildwood Catholic basketball coach Dave Deweese, Absegami wrestling coach Gene Barber, Holy Spirit football coach Bill Walsh, Ocean City basketball coach Dixie Howell, St. Augustine basketball coach Paul Rodio, Mainland football coach Bob Coffey, Ocean City girls basketball coach Paul Baruffi, Middle Township basketball coach Tom Feraco, Holy Spirit track coach Dave Pfeifer, Wildwood girls basketball coach Dave Troiano, Ocean City field hockey coach Trish LeFever, Sacred Heart basketball coach Jim Mogan, Ocean City tennis coach Phil Birnbaum, Millville field hockey coach Claudia McCarthy, Holy Spirit football coach Ed Byrnes, Atlantic City/Stockton basketball coach Joe Fussner, Ocean City football coach Gary Degenhardt and Bridgeton track coach Bob Cwik.
There have been administrators, like Frank Campo, Joe Clements, Paul LeFever, Nuncie Sacco, Tony Surace, Harry Ackerman, Mike Gatley and, last year, the current athletics directors, as a group, for their hard work engineering the sports programs through the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were people behind-the-scenes – for example, Yogi Hiltner, for his dedication to local sports on all levels; Boo Pergament and Father Ed Lyons, creators of the Seagull Classic; Bob and Rick Traa, for their sponsorship of the ground-breaking McDonald’s Game of the Week on cable television; John Pierantozzi, for his contributions as a coach and basketball official; Ernie Troiano, for his efforts creating and directing the Boardwalk Basketball Classic; both Jason Kaye of FantaSea Flagship Resort and Dave Talarico of Schoppy’s Inc. for the significant support they’ve given to CAL sports; Mike Gill, who took local sports radio to a higher level; Dave Catalana, for his efforts in creating the Shoot Down Cancer Classic; Matt Ulmer, for leading the way in live video streaming; and John Rodio for his progressive ideas about assigning basketball officials and for bringing back the Seagull Classic.
This year’s winner fits in none of those categories.
Frankie LaSasso is at least half a decade away from playing high school sports. In December 2020 he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia. He receives regular chemotherapy in Voorhees that is likely to continue into 2023.
But Frankie is a trooper.
Coming from a family that has produced generations of success in sports, primarily in Hammonton, and that never backs away from a challenge, he continues his life as a youth baseball and football player.
Along the way, his strength and positive attitude has impressed people not only in the Hammonton sports community but in Ocean City, where his father is a coach, Mainland and other CAL locales. He has been throwing out first pitches and holding championship trophies all year. High school athletes have worn his uniform number and found other ways to salute him.
In a time like this, when high school athletes, their coaches and their parents have had their lives drastically altered by a health pandemic beyond their control, they need a new focus – something to make them feel better about their own situation. Watching how Frankie handles his challenges has provided that.
Even though he is years away from being a CAL athlete, for the impact his courage, determination and perseverance has had on the athletes, coaches, fans and teams of the Cape-Atlantic League, Frankie LaSasso is the 2021 CAL Sportsperson of the Year.
With the calendar year over, it is always a good time to look back on the top CAL sports stories. But first, lets reflect on some of the sports people who died in 2021. Middle Township lost three former coaches – Fred Grosse, John Roberson and Phil Exley. There were other coaches like Hammonton’s Joe Cacia, Ocean City’s John Cervino and John Pierantozzi of Vineland, who contributed to CAL sports on so many levels.
Former Ocean City recreation director Don Pileggi died in 2021. So did Father Ed Lyons, creator of the Seagull Classic, and Kay Wright, the hostess of Prime Events’ basketball showcases. We also lost many former athletes, among them Andy Jernee; Dave Andrews and his son, Kyle; Dave Blizzard; and, right near the end of the year, Donta Pollock.
And do not forget the great recoveries from serious illness by Paul Rodio and Joe Blandino. Their great comebacks from very serious challenges were among the brightest moments of the year.
Now, here are the 10 stories that seemed to generate the most interest among Cape-Atlantic League fans in 2021:
1. The impact of COVID-19, including the cancellation of a great deal of the basketball season, including the entire NJSIAA and CAL Tournaments.
2. NJSIAA regional football championships by Cedar Creek and Millville.
3. State baseball championships by Holy Spirit and Ocean City.
4. The selection of Mainland senior Chase Petty – who was named Gatorade NJ Player of the Year – in the first round of the MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins.
5. Gannon Brady of Ocean City leading CAL basketball in scoring for the second straight year and also posting the top scoring average in South Jersey..
6. Ocean City’s Summer Reimet leading the state in scoring in girls soccer and helping the Raiders win the CAL Tournament and become the first Cape-Atlantic League girls soccer team to win the South Jersey Coaches Tournament..
7. Record-breaking performances during the football season by Ray Weed, JoJo Bermudez, Brendan McGonigle and J.C. Landicini.
8. New boys basketball head coaches at Absegami, Buena, Holy Spirit, Middle Township, Millville, Pleasantville and Wildwood Catholic..
9. The debut of the Battle at the Beach – three days of football at Ocean City’s Carey Stadium that brought some of the state’s best teams to the resort..
10. Millville getting a new (and impressive) gymnasium and St. Joseph getting to play football in Hammonton again.
Lets hope there will be less problems but more great memories coming up in 2022. The year is starting off with some obstacles but if you get vaccinated, wear a mask and take the other necessary precautions, we can all make this an even better year.