By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Noel Colon thought that he had the world on a string last year, when he took over the Harrison High School boys’ basketball program and led the Blue Tide to seven wins among their first nine games.
It was a great start for a rookie head coach, considering that Harrison hadn’t won seven games over the previous three seasons.
But then, the bottom fell out for some reason. The Blue Tide lost their last 16 games of the season to finish 7-18.
“The goal was to get better and honestly, we didn’t get better,” said Colon, who began his second season as head coach last Friday night in a 52-41 loss to Queen of Peace. “There were games where we weren’t making winning plays. We shot 47 percent from the free throw line as a team. It’s very tough to win games doing that. I would wake up every day, thinking that it would be the day that we would turn it around and it never happened. We weren’t able to take the other team’s punches and bounce back.”
Colon believes that there were major changes made with the Harrison program a year ago, but he was still disappointed overall.
“We were able to change the culture a little, but I think the kids were satisfied with their early success,” Colon said. “Even in our wins, there were warning signs that we were stuck in neutral.”
So Colon began this season, trying to put the up and down of a year ago behind him and his players.
“We’re starting from scratch,” Colon said. “It feels like I’m back to where I was last year when I started.”
Colon welcomed back only three seniors from last year’s team, two of which are current starters. The majority of the current varsity roster has never played varsity basketball before. Needless to say, it’s a challenge right from the opening tip.
“Our biggest problem is that we need to be consistent,” Colon said. “We have to bring the same focus to practice as we have in games. Once we can do that, then that’s the next phase in our development.”
Senior Alexander Cajiga is a 6-foot forward who earned All NJIC Meadowlands honors last season, averaging nine points and three rebounds per game.
“He has been doing really well in the preseason,” Colon said, “He was having a nice summer for us, but he suffered a fractured bone in his back and it took him a while to get back.”
Incredibly, Cajiga just received medical clearance to return on Frriday, the day of the season opener.
“So he hasn’t been able to do much in the preseason,” Colon said. “You can tell that he just doesn’t have his legs.”
Senior William Azabache is a 6-foot-2 forward.
“I’m really proud of him,” Colon said. “He’s had a different approach. He’s matured a lot. He works really hard in practice. He’s become a leader for others to follow.”
Senior Jordan Villalta is a 5-foot-7 point guard.
“He will play more this year than last year,” Colon said. “He’s a good defender who has worked hard to earn his position. He’s a good defender. He’s improved with his decision making.”
Junior Chris Downs is a 6-foot-2 forward/guard who is getting quality minutes this season.
“He shoots the ball pretty well,” Colon said. “He has a chance to be a pretty good player.”
Colon thinks that Downs can be a double digits scorer in most games.
“He has that kind of ability,” Colon said.
Junior Felix Calderon is a 5-foot-8 guard with good defensive skills. Junior Craig Ruff is a 5-foot-11 guard who is a good shooter, defender and rebounder. Both will play considerable minutes this season.
Junior Marquis Valentin is a 6-foot-1 center who provides physicality down low.
“He’s probably our best rebounder,” Colon said. “He loves to bang down low and get after the ball.”
Sophomore Quincy Rutherford is a 6-foot-3 is a versatile performer.
“He can put the ball on the floor and go to the basket,” Colon said. “He can also shoot the ball very well.” Rutherford paced the Blue Tide with 16 points Friday night.
Freshman Jonathan Leiras is a point guard who is getting playing time right away.
“He’s a very talented kid,” Colon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on him as a freshman to play varsity, playing the most important position on the floor. But he’s the type of kid who can handle it. He’s a mentally tough kid and has the desire to get better. He loves the game. He has a very bright future.”
Sophomore Genaro Falcon is a 5-foot-9 guard who is also in the rotation.
“He’s working hard and trying to get more playing time,” Colon said.
The Blue Tide Yule Tide tournament will take place Friday, with the Blue Tide playing Paterson Charter and Cliffside Park facing Lincoln in the other game.
“We were fortunate to get commitments from those schools,” said Colon, as Paterson Charter’s head coach is Tommie Patterson, the former head coach at Paterson Catholic. “I think we’re the type of team that will get better as the season goes on. They just have to mature on the court, do a lot of the little things. If they do a better job paying attention to details, then they will be a better team. They just have to take pride in coming to practice and that will be the first step.”
Give Colon credit for taking over the Harrison program and giving it all he has. Here’s to hoping that Harrison never grows tired of Colon and that the eager young coach doesn’t become tired of Harrison.