The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team’s season ended last week with a 62-50 setback to Hackensack in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV quarterfinals.
It was a tough loss for the Kardinals to swallow, considering that they had to play in the state playoffs without their best player, Meagan McClelland, who was in Spain playing with the 18-and-under United States national soccer team.
The Kardinals advanced through the first round against Bergen Tech without McClelland, but her absence was just too much to overcome in the game against Hackensack.
“It was extremely tough,” Kearny head coach Jody Hill said. “In the post game locker room, I had to say goodbye to seven seniors. It’s not just ending the season, but it’s closing the door on relationships, on kids that I spent a lot of time with all year long working with these kids. They know the love and passion I have for them. They’re the ones who put the sweat, the work, the passion and the fight. I know their personal lives. I help them with school.
Added Hill, “I know that they’re so disappointed that their season came to an end.”
But there were positives to be found. The Kardinals won a school-record 22 games this season. The most a Hill-coached team ever had was 19.
“You don’t know how proud of my team we are,” Hill said. “I’m blessed with three tremendous assistant coaches in Janitza Aquino, Vicky Zicopoulous and Theresa Hrubash. We played in two state tournament games. I’m impressed with the way we played in the state tournament games. Sometimes life brings some unexpected circumstances.”
And that meant McClelland getting on a plane and hopping off to Europe.
“I understood her position,” Hill said. “It’s a great experience for her. It’s something she can build on. She couldn’t give me more of her heart when she was playing for us. She brings so much to the table. You’re always going to miss a player like Meagan. She brings so much to the table, offensively, defensively, distributing.”
McClelland was averaging close to 21 points per game this season for the Kardinals. That’s a tough loss to overcome.
“When I heard Meagan was leaving again, I thought it was such bad timing,” said senior center Estefania Dilone, who played her heart out and more in McClelland’s absence. “When we found out she was leaving for Spain, we were upset. I was happy for her. It was a great opportunity.”
The Kardinals all rallied around each other.
“I definitely believed in us the whole way,” senior guard Savannah Iverson said. “It may seem like we didn’t accomplish anything, but we had the best season in Kearny history. The bond the team had was tremendous. The coaching staff had faith in us. They knew we were willing to work hard.”
“We play as a team,” Dilone said. “We don’t play as one. As long as we all believed it, we thought we had a shot. It was a remarkable season, amazing that we won 22 games. No one believed we would be good. Our first game, no one showed up. Then we started winning and things changed.”
The Kardinals won 14 in a row at one point.
“Then people came out,” Dilone said. “I had faith in us.”
Dilone was a major force down the stretch, ending her career with a stoic and memorable 19-point, 20-rebound performance against Hackensack. She will definitely get the chance to move on to play college basketball, as she already has several different offers to weed through.
“I have my coach (Hill) to thank for that,” Dilone said. “She had a lot of faith in me. Until this year, I didn’t know if I could be a player. It took a lot for me to realize that I was good. Now I will play in college and I’m happy about that because I enjoy playing.”
Hill sat Dilone down before the game against Hackensack.
“Before the game, I had a talk with Stef,” Hill said. “I remembered a quote that my coach (at Harrison High) Jack Rodgers once said to me. He said, ‘When things get hard, you need someone to be the leader.’ Well, I said to her that this is the day that you lead by example. Go out and play. She went out and played a tremendous game. She played like a senior who didn’t want her season to end. I’m very proud that she will continue her career.”
As for her other seniors: “Savannah Iverson gave her best every night. She played a good defensive role and was a pleasure to coach. Keziha Mitchell brought us energy every day at practice. Emilee Marshall was the voice of our team and was very unselfish in her role. Diana DeSousa was a great shooter who could knock down shots. Kaitlyn Aquino tore her ACL, the third one she suffered and was still there every day. Jillian McCourt had a great second half of the season and gave us great minutes.”
And of course, there’s McClelland, whose legacy will continue on as she plays soccer at Rutgers in New Brunswick for fellow Kearny native Mike O’Neill in the fall.
The future looks bright as freshman Giana Nigro and sophomores Eliana Huancaya and Skyler Matusz returns.
Still, you only go 22-6 every so often. In the case of Hill, it has been almost two decades of head coaching and she never experienced a year like this one.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to them,” Hill said. “We had some high expectations, but winning 22 games is an amazing feeling. It’s something to be proud of.”
For the players, there are a ton of good memories.
“One of the things I’ll remember was hitting the 20-win mark,” Iverson said. “That was one of our goals. We beat Union City. I’ll never forget that.”
Iverson said that she will also remember being a varsity athlete for nine seasons, four for soccer, four for basketball and one for softball.
“It’s sad because I’ve grown up playing sports,” Iverson said. “And just like that, it ended. It’s pretty hard to wrap my finger around it.”
And it’s hard to fathom that the season ended just like that. What could have been.
Kearny senior forward Estefania Dilone had perhaps her best game in her last one as a Kardinal in the team’s 62-50 loss to Hackensack in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV quarterfinals last week at Kearny. Photo by Jim Hague