By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After spending the last six years as an assistant coach with the men’s basketball team at Rutgers- Newark, Kurt Villani was looking for a little bit of a change. There was no better place to begin to look than at his alma mater.
“When I heard about the opening at Belleville, I was interested,” said the 27-yearold Villani, who graduated from Belleville in 2003. “It was going to take a lot for me to leave Rutgers-Newark. I was happy there, working with Joe Loughran, who is a great coach. But no question, it’s always important to remember where you came from. I’m a Belleville guy and will always be a Belleville guy.”
The Buccaneers had a fantastic season a year ago, posting a 15-8 record under another Belleville alumnus Ted Sochaski.
But when Sochaski stepped down for personal reasons after the school’s best basketball season since 1988, it was important for the school to get one of its own.
“I played here,” Villani said. “I’m from here. I was looking for the right opportunity, but after meeting with (athletic director) Tom D’Elia, I knew that this was the right situation for me. It was a tough choice to leave Rutgers-Newark, but this was a no-brainer, because it was home.”
And there was no doubt that Villani still bleeds yellow and blue.
“I have a tremendous sense of pride, being from Belleville,” Villani said. “It’s always been a family more than anything and it’s something that I’m proud of. Belleville has always been special to me.”
Villani has already tried to integrate some of Belleville’s past with its future, getting some of the players he played with, like former Belleville great Lucius Millinder, to come and speak with the current players. Millinder went on to have a sensational career at American International College after graduating from Belleville in 2003.
“I think it’s important for our kids to know about the others who played at Belleville,” Villani said. “It’s important to have some kind of connection with the past.”
Villani knows that it won’t be easy, duplicating the success that the Buccaneers had last season.
“We lost a lot of seniors from that team and we have guys who are new to varsity basketball,” Villani said. “I think it’s going to be a new challenge for all of us. We’re in a new division, with a new team and a new coach.”
The Buccaneers will play this year in the Colonial Division of the Super Essex Conference, with four Newark schools – Newark Central, North 13th Street Tech, Science Park and Weequahic – as well as Bloomfield Tech and Verona.
“It’s a new challenge for all of us,” Villani said.
Leading the way for the Bucs will be senior guard Dominique Isaac. The 6-foot-2 Isaac is the Bucs’ main weapon as a shooting guard.
“Dominique leads by example,” Villani said. “He’s a quiet kid, but he’s a tough kid. He’s also a very good scorer.”
Villani has been helped by players who were football standouts.
Aaquil Ingram, who recently was named Observer Athlete of the Week for his football prowess, is playing power forward for the Bucs on the hardwood.
“He’s a strong kid and he’s strong around the basket,” Villani said of the 6-foot-2 senior Ingram.
Another former football standout is senior Shaq Richards. The 6-foot Richards is a wing player for the Bucs.
“He’s a great kid,” Villani said. “He’s like our glue guy, the guy who keeps the team together. His athleticism helps him a lot in basketball. He’s a do-it-all kind of player.”
Jaquan Stokes is the Bucs’ point guard. The 6-foot-1 Stokes is the team’s inspirational leader.
“As he goes, we go,” Villani said. “He’s a tough kid who is very vocal and gets everyone going. He’s the main leader this team has.”
Junior Jacob Dabon is an excellent perimeter player. The 6-foot-2 Dabon plays both small forward and guard.
“He’s a dead-on good shooter,” Villani said of Dabon. “He’s also a good student and a very good kid.”
Junior Shakhi Tanner is the Bucs’ tallest player. At 6-foot- 4, Tanner will be asked to spell Ingram a lot at power forward.
“He’s good close to the basket, but he can step out and hit the nice short-range jumper,” Villani said. “He’s been improving and he’s getting pretty skilled. It’s up to him how good he can be. He has to want to become a better player. But he can be pretty good.”
Senior Andrew Roberts is a 5-foot-8 sharpshooter off the bench. Roberts could be the team’s best version of instant offense.
Villani believes that his team can compete right away.
“When I first game here and saw what we had, I was pleasantly surprised with the talent level,” Villani said. “People were telling me that they had a great team last year and that was it. But I think this team has a chance to win some games. I had no idea what kind of talent the program had, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I like the players we have.”
So the Belleville boys’ basketball program is in the hands of a homegrown coach, one who played for Belleville, served as an assistant at the school while still attending Montclair State as a student and has now come home.
“If you would have told me 15 years ago when I was a student here that I’d be the head coach, I would have figured there was no way,” Villani said. “I didn’t know what to think when I first took the job, but now I’m excited being the head coach and excited about the prospects of this team.”
The Buccaneers open the 2012-2013 season at Newark Central on Dec. 14.