Soccer and basketball standout becomes second straight Kardinal to gather award
By Jim Hague
Stefanie Gomes’ amazing athletic career began when she was just seven years old. It started on a Kearny soccer field.
“It wasn’t the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I certainly had to work at it,” Gomes said. “I didn’t have a lot of success. I had to work to get better. I actually started out playing defense, then moved up to midfield and finally became a forward when I was like 12. I was more comfortable at forward.”
The second half of her involvement in sports came a year later, when she signed up to play basketball in the Kearny Recreation program. But there, Gomes found herself playing with and against boys.
“I got used to playing with the boys,” Gomes said. “Actually, it really helped me to get better.”
What also helped Gomes was having an older brother, Michael, who liked playing sports.
“He always encouraged me and wanted me to always go play with him and his friends,” Gomes said. “He was my brother, but he was always like my coach. He’s three years older and helped me a lot.”
By the time Gomes got to Kearny High School, she was established as a soccer player, but she still needed help with her basketball skills.
“I had a lot to work on in basketball,” Gomes said. “I didn’t have a left hand. Coach (Jody) Hill helped me a lot, but I knew I had to improve.”
But her soccer game was already in full bloom.
“She was fantastic,” Kearny head girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida said. “She was very consistent in scoring goals. Early on, she was very quiet, almost too quiet to a fault, but she eventually developed into more of a leader and did some really good things.”
Almeida tried to get a rise out of Gomes.
“She was like a lake, always so calm,” Almeida said. “We tried to get her intense. But it was pretty funny how she never really got upset or too excited.”
Gomes was instantly a success in soccer who gradually increased her goal production throughout her four years, scoring 21 goals as a junior and an astounding 37 times as a senior, ending her sensational career with 88 goals.
“Some of the games, she could have scored more, but she gave up the ball to allow her teammates to score,” Almeida said. “You never knew when she could do something special. She always had the potential to do so. Whenever there was a lull in the games, at any moment, something special could happen and more times than not, they did happen.”
Almeida thought that Gomes had a special ability to turn on the afterburners when needed.
“She was definitely deceptively quick,” Almeida said. “You’d be watching her and think that she couldn’t run any faster and then she would amazingly get there.” Hill had the opportunity to coach Gomes for four years in basketball.
“He’s naturally gifted,” Hill said. “She had quickness and great leaping ability. She definitely worked at it. There were times she was coming home from soccer practice and then would come to work a little extra on basketball.”
Gomes eventually became the latest member of the Kearny 1,000-point club, ending her career with 1,201 points, among the top 10 scorers in the history of the school.
For her prowess in both soccer and basketball, Gomes has been selected as The Observer Female Athlete of the Year for the 2011-2012 scholastic sports season.
Gomes received her award recently from Observer general manager Robert Pezzolla. She became the second straight Kearny female to receive the award, joining former soccer and basketball teammate Janitza Aquino and became the third Kearny girl to garnish the honor, joining Aquino and Allyson Dyl (2007-2008). Gomes is the eighth recipient of the year-end award.
“I think it’s a great honor and a great feeling,” Gomes said. “Looking back, I never would have thought I would end up doing all the things I did in high school. It’s amazing to think I was that successful. I have so many high school memories and everything was a good experience for me.”
Gomes was asked what sport she preferred playing.
“I guess I like playing soccer more, because I’ve played it longer,” Gomes said. “I love playing soccer. People think I’m better in basketball, but I think I’m better in soccer.”
Gomes said that when she was younger, she always wanted to be like Stefanee Pace, a three-sport standout who ended up playing soccer at Rutgers.
“I always used to watch her play all the time,” Gomes said. “She was so good in everything. She was the best athlete ever.”
Now, Gomes has earned her place in Kearny history, right along with Pace, Dyl and Aquino.
Hill marveled at Gomes’ abilities.
“She had incredible energy,” Hill said. “She could get a rebound on one end of the court, then bring the ball all the way down and score. When she turned it on, she would explode past people.”
Hill used the same term as Almeida.
“She’s definitely deceptively quick,” Hill said. “Sometimes, it may be easy to go through the motions, but Stefanie led by example. We had a little bit of a talk midway through the season, discussing that she needed to be more of a leader, be more vocal. I asked her how she wanted to end her career. I think that opened her eyes and she realized how good she was. She needed to be at a different level. She got inspired and had some mental toughness. She realized she had to lead the team and finished strong.”
Hill and Almeida both said it was a joy to coach Gomes.
“It was a pleasure to watch her develop and play at the level she did,” Hill said. “You knew that if Stefanie Gomes could get 20 points, we had a better chance of winning. It was a pleasure to coach her and see her phenomenal athleticism and spirit.”
“She really was a joy,” Almeida said. “She never complained and always worked hard. She was able to do some amazing things and it was great to have.”
Gomes credited her close-knit family for her success.
“My mom (Maria) would always tell me to work hard and good things would happen,” Gomes said. “She’s about 10 times more excited about this award than I am. My dad (Jose) doesn’t make every game, but he pushes me all the time and supports me. He’s a little quiet, but he’s always there for me. My brother was a huge help. They all mean a lot to me. I couldn’t have done anything without them.”
Gomes was happy to receive the same award that her friend and former teammate Aquino did a year ago.
“She’s a great friend and I’m glad we can continue the tradition,” Gomes said. “When she found out I was getting the award, she texted me and told me how proud she was.”
Gomes will now head to Montclair State in the fall – a school where Aquino already plays basketball. But Gomes will be a soccer player for the Red Hawks.
“I’ll see Janitza around school,” Gomes said. “I’ll be at her games and I’m sure she’ll be at mine. She’s great.”
“We’ve been blessed to have two phenomenal athletes back to back,” Hill said. “They’ve both represented our programs well.”
And who knows? Maybe there’s a third straight Kearny female athlete waiting to snare next year’s top athlete honor.