By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Emilia Fernandes was in eighth grade, still in the fledgling stages of learning about the game of basketball, she made a bold prediction.
“She said that she would love to play college basketball some day,” said Kearny High School head girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill.
It was that year that Janitza Aquino was a senior at Kearny and she was selected to play in the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Basketball Association’s North-South All-Star game, so a busload of people – Fernandes included – made the journey south to Toms River to cheer Aquino on before she headed off to a fine career at Montclair State.
“I watched Janitza play and that really inspired me,” Fernandes said. “Seeing her play at a higher level really intrigued me and motivated me. I got a chance to see her shine.”
But Fernandes was admittedly not a good basketball player.
“I only started playing in eighth grade, but I wasn’t very good,” Fernandes said.
“I was always impressed with her size,” Hill said. “She’s a great kid, but she was just a little raw.”
When the time came for the 6-foot-1 Fernandes to join the varsity at Kearny as a sophomore, she was prepared to become a full-fledged basketball standout.
“I knew then that I had to work hard to become a good player,” Fernandes said. “That’s when I started taking it seriously.”
So Fernandes went to camps and clinics to learn more about the game. She enrolled in a training facility in Lyndhurst to work on her speed and agility. She signed up to play for an AAU program, also based out of Lyndhurst called the North Jersey Celtics, to play more basketball at a higher competitive level.
“As long as you’re playing more against better athletes, it’s definitely going to help,” Hill said. “She did everything you would want her to do to get better. She worked on her mobility and agility. She played with us in the summer league and came to open gyms. She really wanted to get better. She was a work in progress as a sophomore.”
But toward the end of her junior year, Fernandes started to see some rewards for her hard work and diligence.
“I think a lot of it had to do with her confidence,” Hill said. “I think she realized that she could perform at a high level.”
Fernandes also did some summer workouts with Aquino, the former Observer Female Athlete of the Year who is enjoying a sensational senior year as the point guard for nationally ranked Montclair State.
“She helped me out tremendously,” Fernandes said. “She’s become a friend.” Between Hill and Aquino, the pair convinced Fernandes to become more of an inside presence.
“I am taller than most, so I had to use my size to my advantage,” Fernandes said. “I had to become more dominant inside, in the paint. The most successful place for me is in the paint. I’m most comfortable there and I definitely feel more confident.”
Fernandes credited her time with the North Jersey Celtics as a source for her confidence.
“When you play against the better competition all the time, it helped me tremendously,” Fernandes said. “I knew that was going to make me more confident come time for the high school season.”
Fernandes’ confidence has been quite evident of late, especially the last week, leading the Kardinals to three straight victories.
Fernandes started the week off with a dominating performance against St. Dominic Academy, scoring 28 points and hauling down 17 rebounds. In that game, Fernandes had 22 of her points in the second half, leading the Kards to victory.
“Something just clicked in her,” Hill said. “She just took over. She had that look in her eyes.”
In the next outing, Fernandes scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a win over Lyndhurst. She completed her three-game run with another solid outing, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a win over Snyder of Jersey City, a game where Fernandes only played in the first half.
The three wins enabled the Kards to improve to 8-4 on the season.
For her efforts, Fernandes has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“She’s playing her best basketball right now,” Hill said. “I’m excited about the way she’s been playing. She just had to believe in herself. In the past she used to think too much if she missed a shot or make a mistake and worry about it for a while. She’s now mentally stronger. She now realizes she’s just as good as anyone else and she’s playing with that confidence. She’s really become dominant.”
Fernandes has noticed the change in her play, which has seen her collect double figures in all but one game this season, seen her grab 10 or more rebounds in seven games and earn a double-double in points and rebounds seven times. She’s averaging 15.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest this year.
“I really am impressed,” Fernandes said. “I’m also surprised. I don’t pay attention to the numbers, but when the coaches say something, it surprises me. I’m just glad I can make my coaches and my teammates happy.”
Fernandes has yet to declare her intentions for college. Montclair State and Felician are two schools that have shown interest. Fernandes hopes to major in physical education or athletic training in college.
“Someday, I want to be a high school basketball coach,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes’ first goal of wanting to become a college basketball player like Aquino is about to become reality, so there really should be no denying her ultimate goal of being a coach. For now, Fernandes is playing like one of the best players in Hudson County – and that’s truly a blessing for Kearny.