By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School boys’ basketball team won eight games last year in Bob McDonnell’s first year as head coach.
So what does McDonnell, the retired Kearny police officer, expect in Year Two?
“I’m quite honestly looking at 15 wins at least,” McDonnell said.
That’s setting the bar pretty high for a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season in quite some time.
But McDonnell is confident about the Kardinals’ chances, as the new season begins later this month, for a few reasons.
One, the Kardinals will play in a more competitive division of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League this fall. Instead of getting thrown to the wolves of the county like St. Peter’s Prep and Bayonne, the Kardinals will face teams that they can actually compete against.
“Without a doubt, that has to help,” Mc- Donnell said.
Plus, the Kardinals have a lot of players back from the team that ended up being competitive a year ago.
“We have four of our top six players returning, including three starters,” McDonnell said. “We have also played about 80 games since the end of last season.”
McDonnell had the Kardinals play in the Bloomfield and Cliffside Park summer leagues, as well as their own.
“That helps the camaraderie,” McDonnell said. “The kids have played so many times together and spent so much time together. They learn to lean on each other, both on and off the court. The kids all know where they’re supposed to be. They’ve spent a full year with me, so they know what to expect from me and the coaching staff and we know what’s expected of them.”
McDonnell also liked the commitment he received from the players in the offseason.
“They spent a lot of time with conditioning and weight lifting,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had 27 kids going to those sessions: 95% of our players went to the conditioning and weight lifting every day.”
McDonnell also thinks the mental attitude of the Kardinals has helped.
“The kids have all matured,” McDonnell said. “We have our top seven guys with varsity experience and that helps. They are more mature and they’re working hard. They wanted to be part of the group that turned things around. They definitely believe that they can do that. I just hope that their closeness translates into wins. Hopefully, we’ve learned from past mistakes.”
Leading the returnees is senior forward Zach Latka, who averaged more than 14 points per game last year. The 6-foot-4 Latka saw some action as a sophomore two years ago, then blossomed under McDonnell.
“His whole approach to the game has changed,” McDonnell said of Latka. “He’s more mature. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, not just athletically, but academically as well. He’s become a great leader for us.”
Senior Gus Chemin is a 6-foot-3 solid rebounder and scorer. He’s also a standout volleyball player.
“He’s a versatile player who is extremely quick and a solid leaper,” McDonnell said. “He also has a good shot. He gives us strength under the boards. He’s also a good athlete and shows that during volleyball season.”
Junior George Smyth is a 6-foot-4 power forward who has also improved.
“He led the team in rebounding (193 rebounds) last year,” McDonnell said. “He played AAU basketball over the summer, He’s going to have a solid year.”
Junior Joe Baez saw considerable action a year ago at either guard slot.
“It depends on the other team’s offense,” McDonnell said of where Baez will end up. “He’s more of a two (shooting) guard, but can play both.”
Junior Joseph Esteves is another key member of the Kardinals’ backcourt.
“He’s another good athlete,” McDonnell said of Estevez. “He plays spirited and intense. He’s also a good 3-point shooter.”
Sophomore Gralen Vereen is a 5-10 point guard supreme. McDonnell liked what Vereen brought to the Kardinals last year that he played seven games as a freshman, but it’s Vereen’s show this time around.
“He sees the court very well and makes plays,” McDonnell said.
Junior Sammy Sanchez, who had a good football season, gets into the mix at guard. Kenny Rankin, another football player, is also a junior who plays swing.
Sophomore Ryan Tully, the promising baseball player, is another member of the Kearny roster.
Devon DaSilva, Exavier Horne, V.J. Shala and Eric Morales, are all striving to get on the field for the Kardinals.
“Our tryouts were spirited and intense,” McDonnell said. “The kids have really worked hard and are looking forward to the season.”