Belleville resident, Lyndhurst native Skelly making mark at Rutgers-Newark


Nicole Skelly may be majoring in psychology at Rutgers-Newark, with a minor in criminal justice, but there’s no denying what Skelly wants to do when she graduates from R-N in May of 2018.

“I want to be a coach,” said Skelly, a resident of Belleville and native of Lyndhurst who is a senior on the Scarlet Raiders’ women’s basketball team. “The ultimate goal would be to be part of the FBI, but coaching would be the overall goal. It’s probably a faster career.”

Skelly has also already had hands-on experience as a coach.

Her father, Chris, is the founder of the North Jersey Celtics AAU program for young girls from fifth grade on through high school. While Chris started the program, Nicole is now a major part.

“I’m trying to help my Dad,” Skelly said. “Or maybe it’s my Dad trying to help me.”

The North Jersey Celtics have about 50 young ladies playing for any of their four teams _ 5th and 6th grades, 7th and 8th grades, and two different high school teams. Nicole is the head coach of the 7th-8th grade team and one of the high school teams, while assisting her father and Kim Douglas with the others.

“It can be very stressful,” Skelly said about balancing college courses, college basketball and coaching. “I just take everything day-by-day. It helps me a lot with time management. Being able to manage everything helps me a lot with schoolwork.”

The North Jersey Celtics are based out of Lyndhurst, where Skelly grew up before recently moving to Belleville. Her father has also served as the assistant head coach and head junior varsity coach at Weehawken High School.

Skelly said that she learned a lot from playing for her father, then coaching with him.

“My Dad always asks a lot of questions to me and that helps,” Skelly said. “Basketball has helped to keep us together. When I was younger, he would take me to games with him and we really developed a strong bond. He coached me and now I coach with him. It’s funny how it all worked out. We now go to clinics together. He taught me a lot. I owe my knowledge of the game to him. It comes from him.”

Rutgers-Newark head women’s basketball coach Ashley Cieplicki sees Skelly as being another member of her coaching staff.

“To me, as a player, she’s like another assistant coach on the court,” Cieplicki said. “She’s very smart and understands what’s going on. She’s another reflection of me out there. She always works hard.”

Cieplicki said that she knew of Skelly, but sort of inherited her at R-N, especially since Skelly attended Kean University as a freshman.

“She embraced our style of play when we came in,” Cieplicki said. “Without a doubt, she’s developed into a leader for us. I think that just comes natural to her.”

Her organizational skills with her AAU team have helped her with the Scarlet Raiders.

“She’s the one constantly on her phone, texting on her phone, organizing shoot-arounds and open gyms,” Cieplicki said. “She’s a behind-the-scenes leader on this team.”

Skelly spoke about her decision to attend Rutgers-Newark after a semester at Kean.

“I just think Kean wasn’t for me,” Skelly said. “I saw the family aspect at Rutgers and loved it.”

But in Skelly’s tenure, there have been three head women’s basketball coaches. The latest, Cieplicki, did not recruit Skelly.

“I just knew there was a better opportunity to further my education at Rutgers,” Skelly said. “I look at things differently now. I appreciate everything that Coach Ashley says to me. She wants me to mold the team to be a better representation of her. I understand that.”

Skelly has enjoyed a great start to her senior year, scoring 16 points in a season-opening loss to FDU-Florham and 14 in a win over Cedar Crest. Both totals represent career highs for Skelly.

And for her efforts, Skelly has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Skelly said that she embraces the idea that as a senior Skelly has to take the bull by the horns.

“I definitely don’t mind taking the leadership role,” Skelly said. “I think I just have natural born leadership talent. I like the idea of the family aspect and I try to relate that to the team. I bring that into play every day.”

Skelly said she’s comfortable playing with the Scarlet Raiders, especially since fellow senior Nikki Sammartino, a North Arlington native and graduate of the now-defunct Queen of Peace, as well as sisters Faith and Hannah Ashby were all teammates with Skelly on the North Jersey Celtics a few years ago.

But Skelly’s future is without a doubt headed toward a life in coaching.

“I know she wants to be a coach,” Cieplicki said. “I can definitely see her becoming a coach. When I’m out recruiting at AAU tournaments, there’s Nicole out there doing all the coaching, Her team goes to so many tournaments and I just happen to run into her team and she’s coaching away. She’s able to juggle so many things and makes it work.”
The other fascinating aspect to Skelly’s life is her appearance. She has several tattoos on her arms and legs and is one to wear very flamboyant colored hair, although her hair color has been more subdued as the season tipped off last weekend.

“My Mom is a barber,” Skelly said. “She shows me different colors and says she’d like to try them out, so I say, ‘OK, I’ll try that one on now.’ It makes going out there to play a lot of fun. My teammates are always asking me about what color my hair will be for the next game.”

Last season, Skelly had her hair blonde, dark and multi-colored like green and blue.

“It’s all fun,” Skelly said.

And as for the tattoos?

“Well, my Dad and Mom both have them,” Skelly said. “If it works for them, then it would work for me.”

It works well now for Cieplicki and the Scarlet Raiders, who won twice over the weekend in the John K. Adams Tip-Off Classic at the Golden Dome. The Scarlet Raiders defeated Cedar Crest and St. Joseph’s of Long Island at the classic to improve to 2-1 on the young season.

Skelly is averaging 12 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the early going, much improved over her 3.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game averages of a year ago.

“A lot of her improvement goes back to the spring and summer,” Cieplicki said. “She really worked hard to get ready for this season. She’s a real credit to the program.”

And Skelly is a player with an already bright future as a coach down the road.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer