I drove down Kennedy Boulevard the other day, took a right on Oak Street near Joe Albert’s pharmacy, and after a couple of blocks pulled over and parked. In 1975.
All because of Nina Cencetti, who doesn’t even know me.
Throughout the spring and early summer, I followed the Pittston Area High School girls softball team on the sports pages. They won the District 2 championship, had two players, Alexa McHugh and Lexi Felinski, both juniors, make All State, and nine players make the Coaches All Star Team. Alexa McHugh was league MVP.
But the name that kept jumping out at me, and led me to that little trip to Oak Street, was Nina Cencetti. Close to 45 years ago, in the mid-70s, her dad, and even more so, her grandfather, both impressed and inspired a bunch of 20-somethings who played tennis every day of the week on the public courts across the street from their home.
I hesitate to name those guys for fear of leaving someone out, but the names that readily come to mind are my usual partners Mike Caputo and “Flash” Flanagan, my occasional doubles partner Joe Guarnieri, Joe Hines, Tony Palermo, Jimmy Tribbett, Tony Rostock, Chip Pierantoni, who always brought along his dog “Ike”, a gentle hundred-pound Weimaraner with this striking light gray coat; Don Cassetori, who later became a tennis pro, and of course, Danny Brogna and Buddy Maiorana.
Most of us were single, but Buddy was married with children and I always told him he had my vote for Dad of the Year. No matter how tired he might be after a full day of work followed by a couple of hours of tennis, he always had time to hit a ball around with his little boy after we called it quits in the fading light.
Danny Brogna and Buddy were teammates in the backfield of the very last, and a very good, 1965 Pittston High football team. And they played tennis like football players. Meaning aggressively. Their goal was to pulverize the ball, prompting Danny to coin the term “Oak Street Tennis.” It’s definition, Danny would say, is, “If the ball goes over the net twice, kill it.” And they would.
One might think all that tennis activity, every night until dark and all day long on Saturdays and Sundays, would be an annoyance to the people who lived in the neighborhood, but it was just the opposite. Mostly because of Nina’s grandpa.
Mr. Cencetti, which is all we ever called him, did not merely tolerate us, he supported us. He’d come over with his lawnmower and trim the grass around the outside of the courts, and he encouraged us to help ourselves to drinks of water out of his hose. You’d think we would have had enough sense to bring along our own water or Gatorade, but we never did. Why should we, with Mr. Cencetti’s hose right there?
“Oh my God, you didn’t drink out of a hose?” my wife, a retired operating room nurse and card-carrying germaphobe, exclaimed the first time I told her this.
“Not all the time,” I said. “Sometimes we’d fill our empty tennis ball cans from the hose and drink out of those.”
Like Buddy, Mr. Cencetti knew how to be a dad.
Late in the afternoon, we’d glance over from the tennis courts and see young Joe Cencetti, today Nina’s dad, waiting for his father to come home from work. On one hand was his baseball glove. In the other, a ball. Mr. Cencetti would pull into the driveway, go into the house, and be back outside in a matter of minutes, all set for a game of catch. He must have been tired, but his son came first.
Seeing Nina’s name in the paper also brought memories of her mom, the former Melissa Adonizio.
The aforementioned Mike Caputo coached the Pittston Area girls tennis team in the mid-80s, and Melissa was team captain. She played in the number one position with her younger sister, Maria, at number two. In her senior year, Melissa led the team to an undefeated record and a league championship, which might be one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of Pittston Area sports. The top team in the area in those days was Wyoming Seminary, whose players took lessons from the time they could walk, bought their racquets in pro shops at tennis clubs and played indoors all winter. The PA girls often had racquets from K-Mart, never set foot on a court until they got to high school, and didn’t know there was such a thing as indoor courts.
My children were little then, Michael still in diapers, but we were regulars at “Uncle” Mike’s tennis matches. The girls on the team made a big fuss over them.
And just like that, I’m now reading the name Nina Cencetti in the sports section.
In the time, it seems, it took Danny Brogna to decide to smack a ball as hard as he could, my daughter became 35 and my son 31. And Joe and Melissa Cencetti are watching their own kids play sports.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com