By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Kearny High School girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill was faced with a major dilemma before the 2012-13 season began.
Hill had to replace all five starters from last year’s team that posted a 19-8 record, including 2011-12 Observer Female Athlete of the Year Stefanie Gomes, who moved on to play soccer at Montclair State.
Teams don’t just lose five starters and recover the next year. It’s usually a time for panic.
“Looking back, I thought it was going to be a very challenging season,” Hill said. “It was definitely going to be a rebuilding season. We were going to look for improvement every day.”
But deep inside, Hill didn’t have great expectations.
“I wasn’t sure how they would develop,” Hill said. “We were going to be tested, that’s for sure. I thought we might win eight or nine games and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get that.”
However, the unproven Kardinals were able to surprise many, including their coach.
The Kardinals finished the season with a highly competitive 14-11 record, registering some impressive wins during the course of the campaign, including Union City and West Essex, and then Hudson Catholic in the opening round of the Hudson County Tournament.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the way they developed,” Hill said. “I’m very proud of them. We had nice senior leadership and that was a key. The one thing I could count on was that they were going to be feisty and play hard. I thought that would be a constant. But they were very coachable. They listened and learned and good things happened.”
The one aspect that was different about the Kards was that there wasn’t a true go-to scorer. It was a true team effort.
“We had a more balanced team than we’ve had,” Hill said. “That was a really nice surprise.”
While Hill was pleased with the development of freshman Amber Crispin, who became a very capable high school scorer and player right away, Hill credited the team’s success to a group of seniors who came a long way.
Noura Farih was one of the most pleasant surprises. “Noura has such a strong personality and had such character that she was a pleasure to have,” Hill said. “She never let the other girls get down and she gave them motivation. You never had to question if Noura was going to show up.”
Farih averaged close to eight points per game.
Mandy Jiang also showed remarkable improvement during her senior year.
“She stepped up and became one of our best pure shooters,” Hill said. “She had a lot on her plate, because I asked her to be the point guard. That might have taken away from her scoring just a little bit, she handled it well.”
Jiang averaged around nine points per contest.
Jaime Carlen was one of the Kards’ best outside shooters. In one close loss to North Bergen, Carlen nailed five 3-pointers.
“Jaime was also our top defender and that was a big key,” Hill said. “She kept on defending the ball. When she was on with her shot, we had to keep finding ways to get her the ball.”
Abigail Yanchapanta also stepped up and became a top player.
“She had a good sense of the ball and would do all the little things to help us win,” Hill said. “She also developed into a nice shooter.”
Another senior was forward Slywia Kolodziej, who was developing into a fine post player until an injury ended her season a few games early.
“When she couldn’t play, it was a huge loss,” Hill said. “She was doing a good job guarding the post players, but she could also get up and down the floor. She did a lot of the little things that carried us. She’s a great kid with a great personality.”
Future Vereen is the sixth senior and Vereen gave the team a boost off the bench.
“Finishing with 14 wins, I’m very proud,” Hill said. “You can’t ask for more. They made the most of a very tough situation. I couldn’t be more pleased with what they did.”
Hill knows that talented players like Crispin will have to carry the torch in the years to come.
“We have some good young kids coming up,” Hill said. “There is a lot of promise.”
As long as the future teams worked as hard as the 2012-13 Kardinals, then Hill has no worries about the coming years. This team proved that anything is possible.