The high school basketball season was winding down to the last precious few games, so it meant that Gralen Vereen’s career was coming to an end. The Kearny High School senior had spent four years developing himself as a standout point guard for the Kardinals and now Vereen had to focus on the season and career’s close.
“I really wanted to cherish the last few moments,” Vereen said. “I wanted to carry the team as much as I could and try to do whatever I could to help my team win.”
Kearny head coach Bob McDonnell noticed the slight change in his team captain, brought about because of the way opponents have been defending the 6-foot Vereen.
“I think the opposing teams have changed their philosophy against Gralen,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think there was any added pressure on him. But I think he started to take the ball to the basket more and getting to the foul line more. I think teams tried to get more physical with him, so he became more patient and waited for his opportunity. He really stepped it up with his scoring, while keeping his steals, assists and rebounds the same.”
For most of the season, Vereen has been among the top 10 in the state in steals and assists.
“He’s a good passer,” McDonnell said. “Instead of forcing bad shots, he’s taking the ball to the basket more.”
Vereen said that he has been motivated of late in an attempt to get recognized by some college in order to play on the next level in the fall.
“I want to play in college,” Vereen said. “This is what I worked hard for all summer.”
Vereen’s quest to become a solid basketball college basketball player actually began some eight years ago, when Vereen started to take the game seriously and went to basketball camps like the one McDonnell ran in Kearny every summer.
“I remember him as one of the nicest kids I ever coached,” McDonnell said. “I remember him being a team player first and the individual side second. He always listened and always wanted to be a better player. He was a quiet kid, but he was very confident. He didn’t think he was the man. He didn’t think he was great. But he was confident.”
Vereen saw it a totally different way.
“I was always the least talented kid out of everyone,” Vereen said. “I wasn’t talented and wasn’t confident. I wasn’t in the position I am now. The confidence came maybe later on. So I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play on that level.”
Vereen worked on his size and strength. He worked on his skill set. He was determined to become a better player _ one that was going to lead the Kardinals this season.
“I was just focused on getting to the next level and I had to continue with the process,” Vereen said. “Once we got on track, I just had to keep it rolling. I had to keep the underclassmen calm and the seniors in the right place.”
With just a handful of games remaining, Vereen kicked his game into another gear. He scored 35 points, had 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals in a game against Hoboken; had 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and 10 steals against Irvington and scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, had 10 assists and six steals in a win against Becton Regional.
And for his efforts, Vereen has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Vereen is averaging almost 15 points, six assists and 5.3 rebounds per game, but those numbers have greatly increased right before the Kards are scheduled to face Randolph in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs this week.
“I’ve seen the gradual improvement,” McDonnell said. “He played junior varsity and a little bit of varsity as a freshman, then started varsity as a sophomore. For the last three years, he’s been the starting point guard for us. He’s been a natural leader as the point guard. I felt he could develop into a good ballplayer for us. And he has. Others feed off him. He always accepted his role and knows what is expected of him.”
And Vereen has developed into a strong leader _ one that will apparently play on the next level.
“Nine colleges have come in to take a look at him,” McDonnell said. “Schools in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey have expressed interest. Without a doubt, he’s proven he can play on the next level. He’s a great student as well, so that’s going to help him out big time.”
Vereen is undecided whether to study electrical engineering or sports management in college, so that could sway his decision.
“I’m starting to believe it can happen,” Vereen said. “I know we can challenge anyone. I know now I have the ability to score the ball.”
That was proven with his recent performances _ better late than never.
Kearny senior guard Gralen Vereen. Photo by Jim Hague