By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Greg Herenda remembers when he was an aspiring basketball player, growing up in nearby North Bergen, hearing the words of college basketball coaches like Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and George Blaney of Holy Cross.
“I remember being at banquets and hearing guys like that speak,” said Herenda, now in his second year as the head men’s basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. “I’m an old-school guy. I know that when a kid hears something from his parents or a coach, it doesn’t always register. But when someone else says it, like a college coach, then he might listen a little bit more.”
Herenda was the guest speaker last Wednesday night at the Kearny High School basketball awards banquet at the American Legion on Belgrove Drive.
And Herenda definitely had a message to the 150 youngsters, from seventh grade through the high school, that had to resonate with all of them.
“I remember going on a recruiting trip when I was an assistant coach at Seton Hall,” Herenda said. “And I went to this kid’s house and his entire family was there, watching a basketball game on television together. And I said to him, ‘The heroes in your life aren’t the guys you watch on TV, but rather the ones that you watch TV with.’”
Herenda told the kids that no one thought his Knights would accomplish anything, but in one week last season, his team went to the Rutgers Athletic Center and beat Rutgers, then came up to the Prudential Center and beat Seton Hall. All in a span of one week. Pretty impressive to say the least.
“I say dream and dream big,” Herenda told the Kearny youngsters. “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything. It’s all about working hard, paying attention to your teachers, your parents and your coaches and doing your best. It’s that simple.”
Herenda said that he likes going to talk to high school kids and younger, going to awards banquets and making himself available.
“FDU reaches out and want to be the program in New Jersey that is accessible to the people,” Herenda said. “I want to reach out to the coaching community in New Jersey. I want to be able to have the local community recognize us. You have to be able to tell kids that there are opportunities out there, not just the teams you see on TV, but the local schools, the (NCAA) Division II and Division IIIs. There are all different levels for all different kids.”
Herenda was a standout basketball player at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, then went via scholarship to Merrimack College and started to map his journey as a basketball coach, traveling the nation before getting the chance to come home and head the program at FDU.
Kearny head coach Bob Mc- Donnell applauded the efforts of Herenda, who volunteered his time to come and speak to the players.
“He was fantastic,” McDonnell said. “When the kids found out that a Division I coach was coming to speak, they were all excited. He gave them good insight and advice. He’s a great speaker. He had them listening and they were interacting with him. He spoke directly to a few of them. The kids all talked about him after he left.”
The night was for postseason honors. The Kardinals had a highly successful season, improving from eight wins last year to 13 wins this season and qualifying for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
It was important to have a postseason awards program, according to McDonnell.
“In the past, the awards banquet was held inside the high school,” McDonnell said. “This year, we were able to get out and hold it at the Legion, including the seventh and eighth graders. It makes them all feel like they’re part of something special.”
More than 60 players attended the dinner including 10 student/managers.
“I think it was great, especially getting the young kids involved,” McDonnell said. “It gives the seventh and eighth graders something to look forward to when they get to high school.”
There were individual awards presented.
Joseph Baez, the team’s leading scorer, was presented with the Most Improved Player award.
Senior Zack Latka was presented with the Charlie Dolan Award, given to the player who best exemplifies dedication to the program and community service. The award is named after Dolan, the Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer who is one of the biggest benefactors of Kearny High School basketball. Dolan was in attendance to present Latka with his award.
Latka was pleased to have someone like Herenda on hand for the ceremony.
“It means a lot to me, because we don’t get to hear from college coaches a lot,” Latka said. “When he was talking about grades, that was a message that hit home to me. I hope to continue playing on the college level and I know that I need good grades to do that.”
Latka said that he was happy that the team improved so much.
“It meant that we all put in a great team effort,” Latka said. “We all put in the time. It was all about a team goal. We wanted double figures in wins and to make the state playoffs. We knew we’d all get better. I’m very proud of my teammates. I wouldn’t have wanted to play with anyone else. I hope that they can continue to build on what we’re leaving behind.”
The top hustle award went to senior Gus Chemin, while the top defensive player went to Gralen Vereen.
The Coaches’ Award, given to the player who best personifies the philosophy of the coaching staff, went to George Smyth. The award for academic achievement went to Jake Fitzpatrick, who posted a 3.4 grade point average.
“We had a good year,” Mc- Donnell said. “We improved in wins, improved in the county tournament and made the state playoffs.”
And the majority of the Kearny roster returns, other than seniors Latka and Chemin, so the future looks very good for Kearny basketball.