By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It’s not an easy task when your girls’ high school basketball team loses two of its top scorers from last year’s team, including one player who averaged close to 20 points per game down the stretch last season.
Harrison lost Rayven Lucas (now playing at Montclair State) and Ulyissa Pereyra from last year’s Blue Tide squad that went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs. Those losses might be hard for some teams to overcome.
But the Blue Tide is showing no signs of letting up, exploding out to a 4-1 mark in the early going of the new season.
“The girls have done well picking up the slack,” said Harrison head coach Al Ruiz. “Sure, Rayven did most of the scoring last year. There have been times where it has been tough without her. But the girls knew that they had to pick up the slack somehow and they’ve definitely done it defensively. That’s the key. If we play well defensively, we have a chance to win. If our captains shoot the ball well, it could be a decent night.”
Ruiz said that he is not surprised by the Blue Tide’s solid start.
“With the type of defense we have, I thought we had a chance to get off to a good start,” Ruiz said.
Leading the way so far has been senior captain Stephanie Flatley. The 5-foot-6 forward is averaging 16 points per game.
“She’s doing a little bit of everything for us,” Ruiz said. “She’s like having another coach on the floor. She’s already had a couple of big games for us. She’s stepped up tremendously. She worked hard over the summer to get ready and she’s been a big plus for us.”
Another key contributor is senior forward Sarai Rivera. The 5-foot-6 Rivera is a two-year captain.
“She also has had some big games for us,” Ruiz said. “She hit three 3-pointers against Lyndhurst to help us get a win. She does a nice job of boxing out and rebounding.”
Rivera is averaging 13 points per game thus far.
Junior Amber O’Donnell is the starting point guard. The 5-foot-4 O’Donnell, a standout softball player in the spring, is a defensive whirlwind.
“She puts so much pressure on the opposing guards,” Ruiz said. “She also does a good job of controlling the tempo of the game.”
O’Donnell is averaging five points and five assists per game.
Senior Emmalee Lucas is the team’s starting off-guard. The 5-foot-4 Lucas (cousin to graduated standout Rayven) is another defensive stalwart.
“She takes good care of the ball,” Ruiz said. “She does a good job shooting and scoring.”
Ruiz said that there is no substitute for experience.
“It helps so much,” Ruiz said. “It helps us do a lot of different things. The girls all know what we’re trying to do, so that helps tremendously.”
Junior Kayla Montilla is a 5-foot-3 guard who is another standout on the defensive end of the floor.
“She is our defensive harasser,” Ruiz said. “She puts so much pressure on the opponent just being out there on the ball. Our defense has been unreal. They make stops all the time.”
Freshman Cynthia Ferreira has fit in nicely with the team. Ferreira is a 5-foot-7 forward.
“She works hard down low and has a nice post-up game,” Ruiz said. “She can also score pretty well with a nice midrange shot.”
Heather Harris is a 6-foot junior center.
“She’s a good rebounder who works hard down low,” Ruiz said.
Senior Ximena Lopez is a 5-foot-7 forward who comes off the bench.
“She has nice hands and catches the ball well,” Ruiz said. “She makes good decisions with the ball. She’s pretty smart.”
Senior guard Stephanie Lopez (no relation to Ximena) is a 5-foot-5 guard.
“She outhustles everyone on the floor,” Ruiz said of Stephanie Lopez. “She gets to a lot of loose balls. She does the dirty work.”
Ruiz was happy to welcome Ray Lucas back as an assistant coach. While his daughter Rayven is now at Montclair State, the former New York Jets quarterback and famed television and radio football analyst has remained as a volunteer assistant coach.
“The girls love him,” Ruiz said. “He’s so much more of a father figure to the girls than he is a basketball coach. They look to him for advice about anything. They don’t look at him as a football analyst on television. They think he’s just Ray and that’s why I like having him around and the girls like having him around.”
Ruiz is pleased by his team’s hot start.
“I’m very encouraged,” Ruiz said. “I just hope it keeps rolling, that we can keep riding that wave.”
Meaning, the wave of the Blue Tide.
“One of the main reasons why we’re doing so well is that they’ve all bought into the fact that we have to play defense to be successful,” Ruiz said. “They’re constantly diving on the floor for loose balls for the betterment of the team. They have the will to win and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the team. It gives you a nice feeling when you come to practice and they’re willing to work as hard as they are.”