By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
A year ago, the North Arlington girls’ basketball team suffered through a trying season, winning just two games all year.
But in the eyes of third-year head coach Karen Smith, the Vikings got some valuable experience going through all those setbacks.
“I think we’re very much battle tested now,” Smith said. “We have a number of girls with varsity experience. That’s a big key for us. They’re motivated and determined to continue their improvement.”
So with that in mind, Smith is confident that the Vikings will be vastly improved this season.
“We have a good group of seniors who have worked hard,” Smith said. “We have some juniors who are doing well. We’re very motivated coming into this season.”
There’s one aspect to the Vikings this season that stands out. They are definitely more athletic than in prior years, featuring a host of players who participate in other sports at the school.
Many of the Vikings play three varsity sports. Others play for two squads.
“I think that helps them become better basketball players,” Smith said. “They came to practice in shape and ready to play. I think it helps a great deal. I’m going to rely on our athleticism, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”
Senior forwards Katie Rouski and Mackenzie Petruzzula are two that participate in three sports. Rouski plays volleyball, basketball and softball. Petruzzula plays soccer, basketball and runs track.
“In terms of numbers, we need to have our girls play more than one sport,” Smith said.
Soccer players Cristina Nardini and Cara Dlugo are also on the hardwood this winter. Nardini plays guard, while Dlugo is a small forward.
The key to the Vikings’ success is junior point guard Bri Cunanan. The 5-foot-5 Cunanan established herself as one of the finer players in the NJIC last season.
“I’m very excited for Bri,” Smith said, “She became more of a leader last year and that carried over to our play in the Kearny summer league. We’re going to rely on her to score in double digits every game. We need her to score and distribute. I know that is asking a lot, but I have faith in her. We’re going to try to help her with the scoring, because we can’t rely on Bri alone.”
Senior Christina Manago is a 5-foot-10 power forward who has improved her play close to the basket.
“We’re going to count on her to get a lot of rebounds,” Smith said.
Senior Kassandra Rodriguez is a solid shooting guard.
“She has to contribute offensively,” Smith said.
Sophomore Taylor Barth had some explosive moments last year.
“She’s another who plays three sports,” Smith said. “She plays soccer and softball. Taylor had some great games for us last year.”
The Vikings were preparing for scrimmages this week, facing Elmwood Park and West Orange. The West Orange scrimmage will be a fun one for the Vikings and for Smith, because former Viking standout Kim Wilson is now the head coach at West Orange. After the scrimmage, there will be an alumni game.
“I love when the former players come back,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Former Viking standout and 2010 Observer Female Athlete of the Year recipient Tara Fisher will be among the North Arlington alumnae returning for the contest.
The Vikings have been moved to a new division of the NJIC, heading to the NJIC Meadowlands Division with Becton, Wallington, Hasbrouck Heights, Saddle Brook, Weehawken, Wood-Ridge, St. Mary’s of Rutherford and Immaculate Conception of Lodi.
“I’m very optimistic,” Smith said. “Even with the new schedule, I think we’re going to be better.”
The Vikings will also play in the annual Bill Ferguson Christmas Tournament, with Bergen Charter, Glen Ridge and neighboring rival Queen of Peace.
The Vikings open their season Dec. 14 against McNair Academic of Jersey City.
“There’s definitely a better feel,” Smith said. “We have a lot of experience returning and good leadership. We can do different things with this team, both offensively and defensively. We’re moving on.