By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Harrison High School girls’ basketball team won 18 games a year ago and lost a solid group of players to graduation.
But that doesn’t mean that Blue Tide head coach Al Ruiz expects his team to struggle this season.
“We lost a good amount of talent to graduation, but we’ve had other years where the others picked up the slack in the following year,” Ruiz said. “That’s what we’re hoping happens to us. We have some good players back that have to help us this year.”
The Blue Tide also won first round games in both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs last year, so it was a successful season all around.
“We definitely need our seniors to help us out,” Ruiz said. “They have to lead by example and lead on the floor.”
One aspect to the game that Ruiz likes about the Blue Tide is their defensive intensity.
“I feel we have the best defensive backcourt in the league (the NJIC Meadowlands),” Ruiz said. “We feel they are among the quickest and can get after the ball very well.”
Senior Amber O’Donnell is the top returning backcourt player for the Blue Tide. The 5-foot-6 O’Donnell averaged 10 points and six assists last year.
“It makes it a lot easier, knowing she’s back,” Ruiz said of O’Donnell. “It’s a little bit of a relief and takes a lot of the pressure off, because I know she’s there to lead us. She’s been in almost every situation possible and understands how to handle things. She’s just gradually improved since her freshman year.”
The other returning guard is 5-foot-6 senior Kayla Montilla, who is another speed demon ball hawk on defense.
“She’s almost too fast for herself,” Ruiz said. “Between her and Amber, I don’t know who goes faster. But they enable us to do a lot of different things.”
Montilla averaged close to eight points per game last year.
“She can sprint the floor 50 times when others can go about 35 times,” Ruiz said of the speedy Montilla.
Ruiz said that Montilla averaged nearly seven steals per game last year.
“She’s a point guard’s worst nightmare,” Ruiz said. “No one wants to see her when they walk into the gym.”
Sophomore Cynthia Ferreira is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13 points per game last year.
“She can score the ball, no question,” Ruiz said. “She can play down low or she can shoot the ball from the outside. She has a nice shot. She plays bigger than what she is.” Ferreira is roughly a 5-foot-8 forward, but she can play any position.
Junior Tabatha Ferreira (no relation to Cynthia) is the team’s shooting guard. Tabatha is a 5-foot-6 guard.
“She’s also pretty quick defensively,” Ruiz said. “She’s also an athletic player. That’s the way we have to go to ex get after the ball.”
Junior Shaneida Falcon is another guard. Falcon is about 5-foot-4.
“We may play four guards at the same time,” Ruiz said. “We hope to get up early by getting up and down the floor.”
Senior Kayla Ortiz is a 6-foot post presence.
“She has been working on her shooting,” Ruiz said. “We need to have that post presence if we play so many guards.”
Junior Alona Ortiz, Kayla’s sister, is another who plays close to the basket. The younger Ortiz is 5-foot-8.
Senior Renee Clifford is a 5-foot-7 versatile player.
“She is a very good outside threat,” Ruiz said of Clifford. “She can shoot it well.”
Freshman Jailyn Montilla, the sister of Kayla, is a welcome addition.
“She can play well down low,” Ruiz said of the 5-foot-7 rookie. “She will allow us to keep building for the future.”
The Blue Tide got ready for the coming season by being very busy during the summer months, playing in the Kearny summer league and the Paterson Kennedy Great Falls summer league.
Ruiz said that the early start to practice, getting three tryout sessions prior to Thanksgiving vacation, enabled the Blue Tide to hit the ground running.
“We were able to build on what we did over the summer,” Ruiz said. “It was very helpful going into the first practices (Monday). We can start rolling right away.”
And start running, pressing, trapping, doing what Harrison girls’ basketball teams do best.
“We haven’t skipped a beat,” said Ruiz, whose team will tip off the new season Dec. 19 against neighboring rival Queen of Peace. “I think we’re going to be alright. I think we will at least be .500 and make the state playoffs. That’s the first goal. We have to see what happens.”