By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Rob Lado took over the North Arlington girls’ basketball program at the beginning of June, he knew he had to make some changes.
But first and foremost, Lado needed to find a point guard, as last year’s starter, Bri Cunanan, had graduated.
Lado did see some possibility in junior Denaijah Gainza, who was the team’s starter at the off-guard slot a year ago, averaging close to seven points per game.
“I did see some promise,” Lado said. “I knew that she could score and I knew she had the chance to do a lot more, so we were moving her from shooting guard to point guard.”
It was a move that Gainza welcomed.
“When Coach Rob came in and picked me out to be the point guard, it made me feel more confident,” Gainza said. “He made a big difference in me. I put my heart into basketball. I worked on my game all summer. I worked on my ball handling, my shot, my defense, pretty much everything. It was a huge change for me.”
When the season began with practices in late November, Lado saw that Gainza was definitely ready for her new role.
“She was comfortable with the transition,” Lado said. “She had the ball in her own hands now and could score on her own. I needed her to distribute the ball, but she understood that. She handled the transition very well.”
But no one could have ever dreamed just how well Gainza would handle becoming an instant point guard.
“Since I was a shooting guard, I thought that I was going to have to grow into being a point guard,” Gainza said. “But as I grew with it, I grew to like it. I’m getting used to controlling the tempo and the pace of the game. The ball is in my hands.”
And as was proven in the recent William Ferguson Holiday Tournament at North Arlington High School, the ball was in the basket, courtesy of Gainza’s new-found confidence at her new position.
“I just saw the lane open up for me and I kept going,” Gainza said.
Gainza scored 24 points in the Vikings’ 49-45 win over next-door neighbor Queen of Peace in the opening round of the Ferguson tourney, then added 30 points a day later in a 58-49 win over Lyndhurst a day later in the championship game, giving the Vikings the tourney title, earning the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award in the process.
Incredibly, Gainza scored 54 points in consecutive days, after scoring just 46 points for the entire season last year.
For her efforts, Gainza has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Gainza is the first honoree in the weekly feature for the scholastic winter season as well as the new year of 2015.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect all of this,” Gainza said. “I didn’t think I could improve this much. I think I am doing my best to get the whole team involved, but I am getting more chances to score. I just felt like I had to put my whole heart into basketball. I wanted to win the tournament and wanted to win the trophy for our team.”
Not to mention the individual MVP award.
“But it’s more about the team for me,” Gainza said. “It was our house and we needed to beat those two teams. It was honestly an overwhelming experience for me. I never expected to get that many points. It’s really hard to explain.”
Gainza was rewarded for her aggressive playing style and taking the ball to the basket. In the two games, she made a remarkable 18 free throws, including 10 against Queen of Peace with a close game on the line.
“She knows her importance now,” Lado said. “She understands that she has the ball in her hands and the offense has to go through her. She has to get the offense going. Those are very big numbers that she produced, but we can’t expect that every night. But I’ll take it.”
Marissa Piscal has also played a big role for the Vikings, who hold an impressive 4-2 record in the early going. Piscal had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Lyndhurst and is averaging 12 points and nearly nine rebounds per game.
But Gainza is the one who has made the biggest gains.
“She’s playing well all around,” Lado said. “I really wasn’t expecting this much of her this soon. But I felt if we could help her understand her role, she could be much improved. She is definitely running with it right now. With her and Piscal, we have a good 1-2 combination. They feed off each other. Denaijah has definitely gotten everyone else involved. She’s running and everyone seems to be following her. She’s been like our engine.”
Gainza likes the way the season has unfolded for her. “This is definitely building my confidence up big time,” Gainza said. “It has been a great experience thus far, but we have to keep it going. I’m going to continue to work hard with Coach Rob and the whole team. That’s what comes with being the point guard and being a leader. It’s a huge change for me.”
And it’s a huge change for the NA girls’ basketball team, which has half as many wins now as the Vikings had all of last season, courtesy of the confidence of the new point guard.