By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team won 15 games last year, featuring a team that had no returning starters. Basically, the Kardinals had to learn on the fly – and they did, but it might have taken a little longer than veteran head coach Jody Hill might have liked.
However, as the Kardinals begin practice for the start of the upcoming season later this month, Hill feels a little better this time than she did at the start of last season.
“For the last two years, we were pretty much in a unique situation,” Hill said. “We had two years in a row where we graduated all five starters from the year before. It just happened that all five starters were seniors. But that’s not the case this year.”
Hill is fortunate to have three returning starters from last year’s team, plus others who have returned to playing basketball after a hiatus from the sport.
“It’s beneficial to know we have some returning experience,” Hill said. “It should help us get off to a better start. To have that leadership on the court is going to make a big difference. It’s definitely going to help us down the road.”
The Kardinals also have strength in numbers. There’s a new interest in basketball in the town, as the number for tryouts increased into the 50s, thanks to a new program instilled in the new Kearny middle school.
“I really think we’re seeing this program explode,” Hill said. “It’s definitely going to help get more girls involved. I think the new program is going to kick start our numbers even more. It’s going to benefit us in the long run. It only can help us being successful.
” For the time being, Hill will count on senior returnees like talented forward Emilia Fernandes, a 6-foot presence who is getting some attention from colleges.
Fernandes averaged 10 points per game last year, but those numbers should improve, thanks to Fernandes’ dedication to the sport in the offseason.
“I’m very excited for her,” Hill said. “It’s a true pleasure to watch Emilia develop. Her commitment to basketball has been excellent. She played AAU basketball in the summer and went to FASST in Lyndhurst for strength and conditioning. Her hard work is definitely showing.”
Hill said that Fernandes has been working on her game.
“She’s become well rounded with her moves,” Hill said. “She has a soft shooting touch and can make shots. She’s a great passer and becomes dangerous if teams try to double her. She’s in better shape and she knew that was an issue in the past. She got herself in the mindset that she needed to get in better shape to be a better player. She wants to play college basketball. That’s the goal. She’s definitely going to get looked at. I think she’s going to be right up there with the best post players in the county.”
Daniella Echevestre is a 5-foot-6 guard who has also worked hard improving her game.
“I couldn’t get her to shoot the ball last year,” Hill said. “But she partnered with Emilia to become a better player. She dedicated herself to improving her game. She has the potential to have great speed and take that speed to another level. She’s also an excellent passer.”
Soccer standout Barbara Paiva has returned to playing basketball after concentrating on soccer for the last two years. But now that Paiva has secured a scholarship to play soccer at St. Peter’s University next fall, Paiva has decided to come back to the hardwood.
“Barbara coming back was a huge surprise,” Hill said. “We missed her and we’re happy to get her back. She might be a little rusty basketball- wise at start, but she’s going to catch on, because she’s such a great athlete. She’s progressing with her basketball. She’s getting better and has so much speed to deal with. She does things you just can’t teach.”
Sophomore Sydney Pace has returned to basketball, after missing the soccer season due to a knee injury. But the 5-foot-7 Pace has rehabilitated the knee and is ready to go.
“She’s back to full action,” Hill said of Pace, whose two older sisters, Stefanee and Samantha, are now coaching soccer at Secaucus High School. “We’re working on getting her speed and strength back, but she’s going to help us.”
Pace averaged seven points per game last year as a freshman.
“She’s absolutely going to be a better player this year,” Hill said. “She’s so ready for the varsity level. She has a good outside shot. She can handle the ball well. She’s just a great athlete. She’s going to be very special this year.”
Senior Nicole Sanchez is another solid all-around performer. Sanchez, a 5-foot- 4 guard, thrives on playing defense.
“She knows she can play defense,” Hill said of Sanchez. “She wants to play the best player on the other team and that’s great to have. We just have to make her a little more of a threat offensively.”
Sophomore Isabel Fernandez is a 5-foot-6 guard who Hill calls “a huge asset to the team.”
“She’s another soccer player,” Hill said. “She got hurt at the end of the soccer season (wrist injury), but she’s coming around. She’s a phenomenal athlete who could be the fastest player on our team. She has the defensive instinct to get steals. It’s fun watching her play. Her speed and instinct are going to help us.”
Junior Nawal Farih is another returning player. The 5-foot-8 junior forward has the ability to leap and get rebounds.
“She’s a great team player and a good vocal leader,” Hill said of Farih, whose brother, Mohamed, plays basketball at St. Peter’s University. “She’s very consistent and has a positive attitude.”
Junior Isabella Staszewski is a 5-foot-10 forward who gets her share of rebounds. “She’s a nice inside player with nice size,” Hill said. “She fills the lane well.”
Senior Amanda DeSousa is another addition from the Kearny soccer team. “She’s been a nice surprise and it’s nice that she came back,” Hill said. “She is very quick and a good athlete.” Senior Ashley Matos suffered a dislocated knee last season, but has returned to the team this season.
“She’s bouncing back nicely from the knee,” Hill said. “She’s trying hard.”
Senior Patty Sheldrick is a pure shooter and a 3-point field goal threat.
Freshman Megan McClelland is a great ball handler with a bright future.
“She has a good chance to help us right away,” Hill said.
The Kardinals open their season Dec. 19 against Union City. The Kardinals will host their own holiday tournament, with St. Anthony of Jersey City, Roselle Park and Becton Regional also participating.
Needless to say, things look good for the Kardinals on the hardwood.
“I think we will have a tougher schedule,” said Hill, whose team will be with the A Division of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League. “Everyone has to step up. But I like the team. I really do.”