By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team enjoyed a brilliant season a year ago, winning 19 games, finishing among the semifinalists in the Hudson County Tournament and winning a round in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.
But most of that 19-8 team has graduated, including Stefanie Gomes, the 2011-2012 Observer Female Athlete of the Year who left the Kardinals after scoring more than 1,200 points in her career.
“We had a phenomenal group,” said veteran Kearny girls’ head coach Jody Hill. “We had a ton of talent, a ton of leadership and basically, the most important part we had a cohesive defensive unit.”
The Kardinals also lost point guard Vanessa DaSilva and defensive wizard Michelle Goncalves.
“Vanessa led the entire state in assists at one point,” Hill said. “It was a lot to lose from one team.”
DaSilva and teammate Angel Conde are now playing basketball at Essex County College. Gomes is concentrating on soccer at Montclair State.
“I definitely got a little spoiled as a coach, because I had kids who knew the system,” Hill said. “I never had to worry about anything with them.”
But since the entire starting five from last year’s team have all graduated, Hill has wiped the slate clean.
“I’m basically starting from scratch,” Hill said. “Not many of them had varsity court time last year. We have a nice group of seniors, but they haven’t had a lot of court time with the varsity. But these girls were hungry to get on the varsity and now this is their chance.”
When the Kardinals tip off the new season Dec. 14 against Hudson County rival Bayonne, they will feature a new lineup, but it’s one that has coach Hill excited about.
“I’m pleasantly surprised and pleased with their excitement as well,” Hill said. “This is their chance to finally play. They didn’t give up and stuck it through. Now, they’re getting the chance. Their work ethic is solid and their attitude is great. They keep improving as they make solid, steady strides. I’ve already seen a lot of improvement and we just started practices. They’re willing to listen and to learn.”
Hill said that there’s no opportunity for the Kardinals to have a letdown.
“We have to be able to compete right away,” Hill said. “If any Kearny team steps on the court, that team has to be ready to compete. One of the things we’ve been consistent with over the years has been playing with passion. We have to have a passionate team.”
The starter at point guard will be 5-foot-4 senior Abigail Yanchapanta.
“Abigail is giving 100% of herself every day,” Hill said. “She’s spent a lot of time on her own, working on her dribbling, making her weak hand stronger. She’s there after practice about 15 minutes every day just working on her ball handling.”
The shooting guard is 5-foot-6 Mandy Jiang.
“She is a talented, pure shooter,” Hill said. “We’re definitely going to rely on her outside shot. She can hit the three. In the past, Mandy used to be only a shooter, but she’s now turned into a pretty good all-around player. She plays composed and has a good basketball IQ.”
Senior Noura Farih is the Kardinals’ power forward. The 5-foot-9 Farih, also a standout on the soccer field, has been a blessing to Hill in this transitional season. “Noura brings the most amount of leadership we have on the team,” Hill said. “Her maturity and leadership have been tremendous. She’s also a very tough and physical player. She also has a great heart and plays with a lot of heart.” Jaime Carlen is a 5-foot-5 swing player. The senior Carlen is still working her way back into shape after suffering an ankle injury. “She’s going to be our defensive stopper this season,” Hill said.
“She has great quickness and has a nose for the ball. She is also working on her outside shot and it’s a good shot.”
Senior Sylwia Kolodziej is a 5-foot-11 center who has the tenaciousness to be a solid inside player. “She’s a big, strong inside presence who will definitely do a good job for us on the boards,” Hill said. “She’s also been working hard on her post moves.”
While a host of Kardinal players left after graduation, Hill is very excited about the fabulous freshman entering the program.
Amber Crispin, who also enjoyed a breakthrough season for the Kearny soccer team, will eventually move her way into the regular rotation. The 5-foot-7 Crispin, who plays guard, has impressed Hill with her contributions already.
“She just finds a way to get to the ball,” Hill said. “Not everyone has that knack. Amber is going to be a lot of fun to watch develop over the next four years. She’s definitely going to score her share of points.”
Junior Ashley Matos and junior Karina Santos are two players of similar style.
“They both can hit the outside shot and penetrate to the basket,” Hill said. “It’s funny how much they are similar.”
Sophomore Amelia Fernandez has a lot of promise. The 6-foot Fernandez has nice hands and she’s fundamentally sound around the basket.
“She’s very athletic,” Hill said of Fernandez. “I think she’s going to be a good player.”
The Kardinals open with Bayonne. They will also host their own Christmas Tournament once again (Dec. 27 and 29) with Wood-Ridge, Warren Hills and Belleville the other three schools participating.
“I think it’s going to be a fun season,” Hill said. “I’m looking forward to our scrimmages and see how we look. I think we have to be patient and look for growth every day. But I’m really pleased with the way things are going right now, with their work ethic and attitude. I think that will keep us going.”
And hopefully, it will keep the winning tradition that the Kearny girls’ basketball program has enjoyed over the past decade.