For the past decade or so, Chris Cantarella has earned a solid reputation as being one of the best softball coaches in Essex County. The Belleville High School softball coach has earned his share of accolades and praise over the last 11 years as head softball coach with the Buccaneers.
But Cantarella has also been a basketball coach, spending the last two decades as an assistant coach with the boys’ program at Saddle Brook High School.
When Liz Ramirez decided to step down as the head girls’ basketball coach at Belleville after last season, Cantarella quickly threw his hat into the ring.
“It was really a perfect storm,” Cantarella said. “I was away from coaching basketball for two years. I have two small children to take care of. But when Liz decided to step down, I started thinking that I enjoy coaching basketball.”
In fact, it was one of the Bucs’ returning basketball players, junior point guard Jehann Dabon, who asked Cantarella about coaching the girls’ hoops squad.
“She’s my starting centerfielder,” Cantarella said. “She asked me, ‘Why are you not coaching this team?’ I like coaching and like watching kids get better. I like helping them to get from Point A to Point B. I wasn’t looking for a job. It just all fell into place.”
Thus, the reason why softball coach Cantarella is now also girls’ basketball coach Cantarella.
And so far, Cantarella is really having the time of his life.
“I’m pleasantly surprised with how the girls have responded to me,” Cantarella said. “I’ve had about 10 of them before as a teacher. I also worked the clock at their games last year, so they’ve seen me. I would walk by the gym during their practices and watch a little.”
Cantarella said that he was fortunate to keep Meghan Leonard on the coaching staff from last year and add former Belleville head coach Cheryl Marion Zenodi as his junior varsity coach and assistant with the varsity.
“It’s a good relationship that I have with the coaches,” Cantarella said. “The girls were very receptive to me. We have a great group of girls. I came in with an open mind. From the very first meeting and then our first practice, they have been tremendous.”
Cantarella welcomed a huge turnout, with 55 girls vying for a spot on the squad.
“The girls have been fantastic,” Cantarella said. “They’ve come in with an open mind. They’re working hard. I’m very impressed with their effort. They’ve come to me during lunch periods and are asking questions. ‘Can you show me this play?’ They want to get to know me.”
The Bucs had a successful season last year, winning 17 games. Because of their success, they’ve moved up a division to the Super Essex Conference-Independence Division, facing Newark Central, Montclair Immaculate, Irvington, Golda Och, Weequahic, Barringer and Newark West Side.
“It’s a tough division,” Cantarella said.
Leading the returnees from last season is Dabon, a 5-foot-1 point guard with a ton of energy and even more grit and determination.
“She handles the ball well,” Cantarella said. “Her biggest problem is that she doesn’t have self confidence. I try to help her with that in softball, but she needs to have it in basketball, because I’m going to rely on her a lot. She has to be the vocal leader of the team on the floor.”
Another key Buccaneer player is 5-foot-11 senior forward Emani Hill-Burton, who earned All-SEC honors last year after scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds per game.
“She’s moving her feet well in the paint,” Cantarella said of Hill-Burton. “She can finish better with either hand. She’s also very athletic. I’ve also noticed that she has good basketball sense.”
Helena Dropic is a 5-foot-7 senior who can play either shooting guard or small forward.
“If I need to go bigger, then she can be a two (shooting guard),” Cantarella said. “If I go smaller, then she can be a four (power forward). She’s not set on one position. She’s strong with the ball. She’s a good leader and has a nice short range jumper.”
Maranisha Rivers is a 5-foot-9 senior forward who is Cantarella’s manager during the softball season.
“She’s a little bit athletic,” Cantarella said of Rivers, whose uncle, David, was an All-American at Notre Dame and played in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers. “She’s one of our better ball handlers, but she can also see over people.”
Sydney Gomez is a 5-foot-5 senior guard who had a fine season a year ago, also earning All-SEC honors.
“She handles the ball pretty well and she’s a good shooter,” Cantarella said.
Sophomore Fiorella Samaniego is a 5-foot-1 guard and the third of a line of Samaniego sisters to play basketball at Belleville.
“She can be on the floor at the same time with Jehann or she can play the point,” Cantarella said. “She’s quick and a tenacious defender. Her aggressiveness is fantastic. She’s a feisty player. I think she can be a really good player for us.”
Juneyla Figueroa is a 5-foot-8 sophomore transfer from Puerto Rico.
“She has good basketball understanding,” Cantarella said. “I can put her on the floor, show her what she needs to do and she’ll do it. She’s smooth. Everything seems effortless to her.”
Sophomore Jazailis Gual is a 5-foot-5 guard.
“She just loves the game,” Cantarella said. “She’s a big Knicks fan and wears a lot of Knicks things. She can play either the two (shooting guard) or the three (small forward). She shoots the ball well. She’s super intelligent.”
Cantarella said that Gual is multi-talented, having earned a lead in the Belleville High production of “In The Heights,” which will be performed shortly.
“She has a tremendous singing voice,” Cantarella said. “She sings the National Anthem at games.”
Janelle Ramirez is a 6-foot junior forward. She’s also athletic, playing goalkeeper in soccer and first base in baseball.
“She has a nice short range shot,” Cantarella said. “We’re going to heavily rely upon her.”
Nathalie Marin is a 5-foot-9 sophomore forward. Jaylynn Pinto is a 5-foot-4 sophomore point guard. Christina Gibson is a 5-foot-7 junior who can play either shooting guard or small forward.
“Christina busts her tail constantly,” Cantarella said. “She can handle the ball and has a nice shot.”
The Buccaneers open their season Dec. 15 against Weequahic.
“I really like this team,” Cantarella said. “They’re a good group of girls who are grasping things well.”
That only bodes well for Cantarella and the future of the Belleville girls’ basketball program.