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Girls get ready for hoop season in Kearny league

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

The start of the high school basketball season might still be four months away, but it appeared to be in full bloom recently during the Kearny High School Girls’ Basketball Summer League.

For example, Kearny played Harrison last Thursday night in one of the regularly scheduled games in the league that ran from late June and will conclude next week.

The way the game was going, you could swear the game was in the middle of January instead of July. The only reminder that it wasn’t the regular season was the heat coming from outside, the doors to the gym being wide open and fans were blowing to try to keep everyone cool.

Every loose ball was followed with a full-fledged dive on the floor. Bodies were bouncing off each other. Elbows and forearms were flying. It was intense.

Sure, it was Kearny against Harrison and the two schools could face off in Chinese checkers or a forensic debate and it would become heated. But this was particularly passionate for a summer league contest.

“It did get pretty physical,” said Harrison head girls’ basketball coach Al Ruiz said. “The girls all know each other and work out together, so they really want to win here.”

“We wanted to win so much, so it did get a little chippie,” said Harrison sophomore forward Cynthia Ferreira. “You could see the competition. It was good for us.”’

“There’s that competitive side in me that always wants to win,” said Kearny junior forward Nawal Farih. “But then again, you have to be reminded that it’s just a summer league, so you just try to do the best that you can.”

Kearny was missing several of its top players to other commitments, so the final score was lopsided in favor of the Blue Tide, who showed significant ball handling prowess en route to the win.

Ruiz was impressed with the way his team performed in the win.

“We do have a couple of ball handlers,” Ruiz said. “Shanaieda Falcon (a junior this upcoming season) is doing a good job, so that enables us to get Amber O’Donnell away from playing point guard. We have another senior, Kayla Montilla, who also can handle it well. Between Shanaieda and Amber, we have the possibility of having a nice season.”

Ruiz said that he has kept his girls busy during the summer. The Blue Tide also competes in the Paterson Kennedy summer league.

“We get them together three or four times a week,” Ruiz said. “It’s good that we can be together so much.”

“It’s a good opportunity for us to get to know each other better,” Ferreira said. “We talk more and it helps camaraderie. It gives me a chance to become a better player against good competition. It’s good practice and it gives me confidence that I am becoming a better player. And it’s a good feeling anytime you win at any time.”

Especially when it’s against the dreaded neighborly rival.

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison and Kearny locked horns last week in the summer league that has been a godsend for several local teams.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison and Kearny locked horns last week in the summer league that has been a godsend for several local teams.

 

The Kearny girls’ summer league featured 12 teams from throughout Hudson and Bergen counties. Some of the other local teams to play in the league included North Arlington and Lyndhurst.

Lyndhurst second-year head coach John Cousins wasn’t pleased with the way his team performed against Marist, but he was just glad that his team was together in full force, working hard and playing hard.

“This is awesome,” Cousins said. “I’m so happy to get in this league. It’s a great opportunity for us to get better and we have to get better. The girls didn’t play in a summer league last year, so win, lose or draw, this is outstanding. These games don’t count. We just want to try to compete and get better.”

Lyndhurst sophomore Kira Adams agreed.

“It’s a chance for us to get more practice to get ready for the season,” Adams said. “It’s a great opportunity to play in the summer. It creates better chemistry between us for the coming season. We have a bunch of new girls coming in, so we’re getting to know each other better.”

“We’re not doing anything strategic here,” Cousins said. “All we want to do here is compete and play hard. I do like the effort we have been getting. A couple of players have really impressed.”

Junior Cameron Halpern and sophomore Caitlyn Blake are two of the Golden Bears who have shown improvement in Cousins’ eyes.

“I’m just so happy to be here,” Cousins said.“We don’t have to worry about winning.”

Kearny head coach and league coordinator Jody Hill has been pleased with the way the league has turned out.

“We have a 12-team league this year,” Hill said. “We doubled in size. I’ve been able to work with (Kearny boys’ head coach) Bob McDonnell and he’s helped us tremendously. Every game has been competitive. We’re really getting what you want in a summer league.”

Hill said that Thursday’s short-handed game gave other girls a chance to show her what they could do.

“We had some incoming freshmen who may have been a little over their heads, but they tried hard and got some good experience,” Hill said.

One of those newcomers was guard Megan McClelland.

“She was thrown out there and handled herself pretty well,” Hill said of McClelland. “She’s going to be a rising star. She’s quick and she’s not afraid to mix it up. It was nice to see her and a few others go out there and just play.” “Since we have such a new team, it was good to get a chance to gel and be together,” Farih said. “It’s helped me a lot that I’ve learned to be more composed and relaxed as I play.”

Ruiz loves the way his team has come together during the summer months.

“We really have put a lot of time and effort all summer,” Ruiz said. “It’s been great for us. We’ve been playing in this league for a couple of years. Jody comes to help us out with the training of the girls. They know her and respect her. It’s all good.”

Hill loves being the host school.

“It’s very convenient for us,” Hill said. “We’re here every day and I get the chance to work with the younger girls. We don’t have to worry about transportation to get here and there. It’s excellent for us. The league is going well.”

Chances are that the Kearny summer league will continue to do well for the years to come as well. The competition is good and the teams are good, so all in all, the league is very good.

Viana new Harrison girls’ soccer coach

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

After graduating from Harrison High School in 2004 as one of the best soccer goalkeepers in the high school’s history, Raphael Viana always hoped he could return to his alma mater as a coach.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” Viana said.

Well, that chance has occurred, as the 28-year-old Viana has been named as the new girls’ soccer coach at Harrison, replacing Annemarie Sacco, who held the position for two seasons.

Viana – who now owns his own soccer company and training school called Go2Soccer in Livingston with another former Harrison great, Tony Dominguez – heard that the head coaching position for the girls’ team might be available.

“(Harrison athletic director) Kim Huaranga called me and said that the position was open,” said Viana, who was in goal for some of the Blue Tide’s state champions in 2001 and 2002. “(Harrison boys’ soccer head coach) Mike (Rusek) might have whispered something in my ear to tell me that if I had interest, that I should call.”

A few phone calls later and Viana was appointed to the position.

He was asked if there was any problem coaching girls’ soccer after being around the boys’ game for so long.

“I don’t look at it any differently,” Viana said. “The girls are athletes as well, first and foremost. Like any other good athlete, you know that if you’re going to play soccer in Harrison, you know what you need to do. You have to have the kind of program that commands respect. There’s nothing better than getting the chance to work in my hometown. It’s a place I have an affinity for and I’m getting a chance to give something back.”

In recent years, Viana had been coaching travel soccer teams in Millburn while starting his business. But now, it’s all about coming home.

Viana said that he learned most about coaching soccer from the current Harrison coaching staff, namely the Rusek brothers, Mike and John.

“I learned so much from those guys,” Viana said. “It’s where I get my coaching from. They had success right away and I hope to have the same kind of success.”

Viana hopes that his experiences as a Harrison soccer player will go a long way as a coach.

“I think it has to help a little bit,” Viana said. “They can see me and think that he went through the same thing, that he’s from here and that he knows what it takes to do it. I’m a Harrison kid. I know that Harrison kids are a little different than anyone else. I think having that edge can only help me with the girls.”

Viana attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park after leaving Harrison. He played soccer for two years there. He had a stint as a volunteer assistant with the boys’ soccer team at Harrison after graduating from FDU-Florham.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to come back home,” Viana said. “There’s something about spending the afternoons in September and October with Harrison soccer. It’s a little surreal that it’s all coming together for me being here.”

Viana said that he’s had a few workouts with the girls since taking over.

“It’s all been pretty positive,” Viana said. “We had a week in late June where we got together and we’ve been getting together twice a week recently. The response has been great.”

Viana said that as many as 40 girls have shown interest in playing soccer this fall.

Viana believes that he can turn things around in a hurry.

“I think they just needed to be coached properly,” Viana said. “I have to make them believe they can win. It’s a nice group to work with.”

Viana was asked what kind of team he expects to field this fall.

“It’s tough to be a defensive- minded team coming from Harrison,” Viana said. “I think it all depends on what style the team allows us to play. We’re from Harrison. We’re going to take some risks. But at the end of the day, I was a goalie, so defense is always in my mind.”

Viana said that he is eager to get practices started for real next month.

“I’m really excited to get this going,” Viana said. “We have to get this program where it should be. I’m not here to be here a year. I’m here to build a program. We’re coming in and we want to win every year. We have to believe we can win a state championship. I’m really excited to think we can do that. We have the right tools in the shed. They just need to be a little sharpened.”

Seems like someone wants to instill the Harrison winning ways in the girls’ soccer program right away – the only way Raphael Viana knows how.

Nutley’s Ortiz named to Team USA U-15 national baseball team

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

Although he had a stellar 6-0 record with a 1.14 earned run average for NJSIAA Non-Public A state finalist St. Joseph of Montvale last spring as just a freshman, Nutley resident Devin Ortiz had no idea what to expect from being invited to the Team USA national 15-andunder trials in Cary, North Carolina last month.

“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Ortiz said. “Three weeks ago, I didn’t even know where I’d be. I just figured I’d be pitching summer baseball somewhere.”

But Ortiz did receive an invite to be among the 40 teenagers to try out for the national squad. He fared well, pitching well in a handful of appearances over the three-week trial.

Last Saturday, Ortiz’s wishes came true, as he was selected among the final 15 players for the United States U-15 national team.

Ortiz is the only representative from New Jersey on the squad, which will play in the World Baseball Classic tournament in Mazatlan, Mexico, beginning next week.

The team is currently en route to play exhibition games at Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, before heading to Mexico for the tourney that begins in 10 days.

Ortiz liked his chances to make the team once he got to the trials in North Carolina.

“I went in there pretty confident,” Ortiz said. “From the first couple of days, I knew it was not like any other tryout I had ever been to. All 40 kids there were very good players, so I just focused on being myself and focused on pitching like I knew I could. I just had to focus on myself and not worry about everyone else.”

While Ortiz both pitched and played the field as a freshman at St. Joseph of Montvale, he was strictly a pitcher for the Team USA trials.

“Everything felt fine,” Ortiz said. “I really felt better than I did pitching my freshman year of varsity. The competition was better, because the players make more contact. After all, these are the best hitters in the country. I didn’t want to put any more pressure on myself. I just had to trust myself and trust my stuff.”

Ortiz said that he relies on a two-seam and four-seam fastball, as well as a change-up and a curve.

But over the summer, Ortiz has also developed a cut-fastball, a la Mariano Rivera, that he has had success with.

“I learned the cutter over the summer,” Ortiz said. “One of the scouts saw me at the trials and said that the pitch had so much of a natural cut, that if I knew how to control it, it would become a good pitch for me. So for the last two weeks, that’s what I’ve been working on. It’s now a pitch that I can go to and use a lot.” Ortiz said that he was a still a little shell-shocked to be selected among the top 15 players his age in the entire country.

“It’s a very big honor,” said Ortiz, who was born in Belleville and played Little League baseball there before moving to Nutley a few years ago. “I’m very excited. I can’t wait to get there. Of course, it’s a big honor to be playing in Chase Field on a big league field. It’s all great for me.”

Ortiz said that he doesn’t think he’ll face undue pressure as a high school sophomore next spring, knowing full well he was a Team USA selection this summer.

“I don’t think it’s any added pressure,” Ortiz said. “I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a great honor. It just makes me come back and work even harder, to pitch the way I did last season and maybe even better.”

Ortiz likes having the Team USA distinction.

“I’m going there to represent my country, represent New Jersey and of course, St. Joseph’s,” Ortiz said. “I also represent Nutley as well.”

The entire process has caught Ortiz by surprise.

“In June, I actually had no clue about all of this,” Ortiz said. “My dad heard about the tryouts, so I came. I just kept working and one thing led to another. It’s really amazing. I’m just happy to be here, happy to get the chance to make new friends here and have a little fun.”

And take in the sights of Mexico as well. Not a bad way to spend a summer vacation.

Nicastro new Nutley girls’ volleyball coach

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sportswriter

After a successful career as the head girls’ volleyball coach at Cedar Grove High School, Cristina Nicastro decided it was time for a change.

So Nicastro took a similar position at Nutley High School.

“It was very difficult to leave,” Nicastro said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team. The parents, the administration, the community were all great. It was very hard to walk away from a program that I helped to build. We were pretty strong and I was looking forward to continuing with that.”

But last year, Nicastro took a job as a permanent substitute teacher at Nutley and things changed.

“I’m in the process of getting a certification to become an English teacher,” Nicastro said. “I started subbing in Nutley and I found it to be so motivating.” In fact, part of the motivation came from hearing the voice of athletic director Joe Piro.

“I listened to him on the loud speaker making the daily announcements and I was so impressed,” Nicastro said. “I sought him out in the building and talked to him. I just wanted to talk to him about sports. I wasn’t thinking about leaving Cedar Grove at the time, but I guess through that exchange, things progressed.”

The 28-year-old Nicastro, a former standout volleyball player at Verona and later St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, knew then that she wanted to move on to Nutley. In fact, she already had moved into the township.

“It was a perfect fit for me as a coach,” Nicastro said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

Nicastro was introduced by Piro to the parents and the team in May and the response was tremendous.

“The turnout was amazing,” Nicastro said. “It was more than I expected. In fact, it was overwhelming. From that moment on, they were all behind me.”

Some 40 prospective volleyball players attended the initial meeting. Nicastro never had those numbers at Cedar Grove.

Nicastro then enrolled her new team in the Bloomfield summer league.

“It was just to get a feel of what we had,” Nicastro said. “We are also having open gyms every Tuesday night. I’m overwhelmed with the interest. The more girls that we have interested, the better the program can be. I am very pleased with the turnout.”

Nicastro and her assistant coach Jenna Dwyer, a Nutley product, have been monitoring the progress of her players.

“We have a lot of volleyball players in the district,” Nicastro said. “I want to be able to establish a winning volleyball culture in Nutley. I love the game and know the game. I feel like I can establish that in Nutley.”

Nicastro said that the open gym has featured girls who never played volleyball before to the returning players. The competitive Bloomfield league has been limited to those who played in the program last year.

“But the girls are so interested,” Nicastro said. “They’re out on the court and trying hard. It’s great. It’s been a little time consuming, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Nicastro only has two returning starters and six returning players from last year’s Nutley team that posted a 10-6 record.

“We’re changing everything,” Nicastro said. “We’ve introduced all new rotations. The girls seem to be very happy and I’m happy with their performance. I would like them to understand that volleyball is a mental sport. We are trying to simplify everything.”

Nicastro believes that the Maroon Raiders will have to be a defensive-minded squad this season.

“From what I’ve seen, we have to be a defensive team, so the main focus will be to get in the swing defensively,” Nicastro said. “If we focus on defense, I think it can pay off in the fall. We’re setting the tone for a very successful season.”

Nicastro said that she comes from a family that is totally involved in sports.

“My family is so involved,” Nicastro said. “My father comes to everything. My brother is now so ingrained in volleyball that he offers me tips. They are my biggest supporters. They’ll be at all the matches.”

Nicastro is excited about her opportunity at Nutley.

“I think it’s something that is very fitting,” Nicastro said. “It all fits well. Nutley is a great community with great people. I am looking to make my home here. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Lots of learning and fun at Kearny girls’ hoop camp

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Jaeli Torres is a 12-year-old resident of Rutherford. Her father and uncle were basketball standouts during their heyday at Rutherford High School, so it would be only natural for young Jaeli to want to learn about the game like her dad and uncle.

“My uncle set the record for most points there, so basically, I had no choice,” Torres said.

So in order to learn more about basketball, Torres came to Kearny recently to attend the Kearny High School Girls’ Basketball Camp. It’s been a fixture for the past decade at the school, run under the guidance and leadership of Kearny head girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill.

It was a beneficial week for Torres.

“I learned how to do most of the drills,” Torres said. “I learned how to do things in basketball with the older girls. I liked that. I took some hits, but it made me pick myself back up and get back out there. It was a lot of fun.”

That was the basic premise of the week. The 75 or so young ladies who attended the week-long camp got to learn a lot about the fundamentals of basketball, but had fun in doing so.

Carley Martin is an aspiring 11-year-old standout from Roosevelt School in Lyndhurst. Her father, Chuck, was the long-time head boys’ basketball coach at Lyndhurst.

“I learned how to do the weave drill,” Martin said. “I learned how to attack the front foot in playing one-on-one. I liked that they let us help the little girls with their shooting. I love basketball. It’s my favorite sport. I practice it every day.”

Ally Scrimo of Kearny was excited.

“I’ll be turning eight on Saturday,” proclaimed Scrimo, a student at Schuyler School in Kearny. “I learned how to jab step here. I feel like it’s made me become a better player.”

Ten-year-old Lindsay Chesney, a Kearny resident and a student at Garfield School, agreed.

“I’ve learned how to become a better player one-on-one,” Chesney said. “The camp has encouraged me and made me want to play more. I came here last year and wanted to come back, because I like basketball a lot.”

Kasey Vasquez is a promising 12-year-old from Harrison’s Washington Middle School.

“I learned a lot about ball handling,” Vasquez said. “I like to play guard, so this makes me more polished.”

Vasquez was excited to learn that Coach Hill was once a product of Harrison and went on to become one of the greatest players in the history of Harrison High School and a member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.

“That makes me even more impressed,” said Vasquez, who didn’t know about Hill’s background. “That can basically help my life, knowing I can be like her.”

Photo by Jim Hague The entire group of young ladies who participated in the Kearny High School girls’ basketball camp pose with head coach and head instructor Jody Hill (c.).

Photo by Jim Hague
The entire group of young ladies who participated in the Kearny High School girls’ basketball camp pose with head coach and head instructor Jody Hill (c.).

 

Cheyanne Iverson (no relation to former Philadelphia 76ers great Allen Iverson) is a 12-year-old from Lincoln School in Kearny.

“This is the fifth year I’m coming to the camp,” Iverson said. “I love coming. It’s a lot of fun.”

Iverson was asked if she wanted to have the nickname of “The Truth,” like Allen Iverson.

“I don’t like that name,” she said. “I learned about moves and weaves. I feel like I’ve become a better player here.”

Like Iverson, Skyler Matusz is a 12-year-old student of Lincoln School in Kearny.

“I definitely learned a lot about ball handling and that helped me a lot,” said Matusz. “I’m a guard and that helps.”

Matusz did not know that Hill was a standout guard.

“Maybe I have to listen to her a little more now,” Matusz said.

Bre Costa is a 14-year-old who will be a freshman at Kearny High School in September. It was her first time at the camp.

“I learned about the camp at school,” Costa said. “I got a flier. It seemed interesting, so I decided to come.”

Costa plans on trying out for the Kearny High School team in November.

“Coming to camp made me love the game more,” Costa said. “It made me want to play more.”

That’s what Hill wants to hear – getting more girls interested in playing basketball. Hill’s camp is unique in that it is strictly for girls, ages 7-14. Sorry, no boys allowed.

“Every year, we tend to get a few compliments, because the camp is strictly for girls,” said Hill, who has had the camp ever since she became the head coach at Kearny 11 years ago. “The parents tell me that the girls love to come because it’s all girls. They all know that most places, boys dominate. This way, the girls get the most out of being here. They’re all on the same playing field.”

Hill said that she always tries to offer a little something different each year.

“I keep trying to improve it,” Hill said. “I learn as I go. I take experiences from other camps and bring them here. We’re always trying to do new things and fresh things. The counselors do a great job with that.”

Added Hill, “It’s a great feeling to see all the same faces coming back. Hopefully, it means we’re doing something right. Maybe we’ve inspired them a little to keep playing and keep coming back. We also try to make the camp as much fun as possible.”

Many of Hill’s former players return as camp counselors, like former Observer Female Athlete of the Year Janitza Aquino, currently a standout for nationally ranked Montclair State.

“We want the girls to get the most out of it,” Hill said.

Hill said that she never thought about telling the campers about her playing background.

“Maybe it’s just a modesty thing,” Hill said. “I don’t know. There’s some information about me on the flier, but I usually don’t have a tendency to talk about myself. I tend to talk about Janitza and what she’s done. I do have a tough time talking about myself. Maybe I have to do a better job of that.”

Hill said that she adores working with the younger players.

“I can see the passion and the love that these girls have,” Hill said. “When they come here, they tend to feel good about themselves. After the week is over, they come over and give me a ‘high-five,’ and say thanks. It’s very rewarding. They now come to camp, get the Kearny aspect of it and maybe they can stick with it and give it a shot in high school. We just want to make basketball fun for them.”

It sure looked like that mission was accomplished.

Hill credited sponsor AlarisHealth at Kearny, especially Bernice Marshall, for supplying the camp T-shirts. AlarisHealth provides health care services and technological innovations for post-operative care, short term rehab patients and long-term patients alike.

Local boys’ basketball teams hone skills at Kearny summer league

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The temperatures outside may be approaching 90 degrees in the hot summer July sun, but for two nights a week, things are just fine inside the Kearny High School gym, even with the fans blowing at full blast.

Kearny High School has been the host of a boys’ high school basketball summer league, with 13 different schools encompassing three counties. It has been a highly competitive and spirited league, organized by Kearny head boys’ basketball coach Bob McDonnell.

“The level of competition has been fantastic,” said McDonnell, whose own team has participated in the league.

Kearny has not hosted a boys’ summer league in several years.

“Back then, we had only six teams here,” McDonnell said. “Next year, we’re looking to expand it to 20 teams. We had some schools who got back to me a little late for this year. The interest is definitely there.”

Each team receives a regular schedule of 10 games. There will be no playoffs or league championship this year.

The Police Activity League helped to defray some of the cost of the league, as well as the boys’ and girls’ basketball camps, the boys’ and girls’ soccer camps and the girls’ basketball summer league.

McDonnell said that he also received assistance from the Kearny Board of Education to host the summer league.

“The Board of Education has been great in letting us use the facilities,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell reached out to his friends in the basketball coaching fraternity and got commitments from 13 different schools. North Arlington, Belleville and Harrison were also among the local schools to participate, along with Rutherford.

For McDonnell, it was a good chance to get to see what his new players are like.

“I only have two returning seniors, so what the league does is give me a chance to play some incoming freshmen,” McDonnell said. “We have a constant rotation of kids going in and out. Without the league, we would be unable to get any idea.”

McDonnell said that the league has served as an eyeopener.

“Some of these kids have never played on a level like this before, so it’s all new to them,” McDonnell said. “They’re working hard and doing well.”

McDonnell has been impressed with the development of Joe Sawicki during the summer league.

“He didn’t play much last year for us with the varsity, but he’s improved tremendously,” McDonnell said. “His confidence is building up. I think that will help him a lot.”

Joe Esteves is another Kearny player who has benefitted from the summer league.

“The more kids we get a chance to play on a varsity level, the better off we’ll be,” McDonnell said. “We get to see what the kids need to work on.”

North Arlington has benefitted tremendously from the summer league, winning five of its seven contests, including a solid win last week over Belleville.

George Rotondo, one of the top assistants for head coach Rich Corsetto, looks at the league as a golden chance for his program.

“We were able to get them in a full league close to home,” Rotondo said. “We lost three seniors to graduation, so we have some young kids getting some playing time. It’s a great opportunity for these kids to play together.”

Some of the basketball players have been doing double duty this summer. They have been attending football workouts in the morning, then playing basketball at night. People like Mike Paolello and Kevin Sequeira are standout basketball players who are getting ready for football season.

“Their dedication is tremendous,” Rotondo said. “This has been very good for our program. We’re getting a lot from this. It’s a great benefit.”

Edgar Carranza is another returning Viking hoop standout who will also play football this fall.

“I think playing in this league helps us out, because it gives us an idea about our incoming freshmen,” Carranza said. “They get to see what high school is like. Winning helps, but losing teaches us to be a little hungrier. It is a little tiring, going from football to basketball, but it will definitely help us get ready.”

Belleville High School coach Jim Stoeckel also believes the league is beneficial, win or loss.

“It’s great for us,” Stoeckel said. “I didn’t get hired last year until September, so there was no summer league to go on. This gives us the opportunity to have a head start. I’m not really worried about winning or losing, as long as we get better basketball wise. It’s great to get 10 games together. I can see that the kids are putting the work in to get better.”

Andre Velez is a junior on the Belleville basketball team.

“We’re getting a chance to work on team chemistry,” said Velez, a point guard. “That definitely helps. We’re getting ready for the winter now. We get to know who are teammates are and what they can do on the floor. We didn’t get a chance like this last year and that hurt us. Now, we know what we can do.”

The Kearny summer league runs Monday and Wednesday nights with games beginning on all three courts at 5 p.m. The league will run for the next two weeks.

NA’s Cordeiro named Observer Male Athlete of Year

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By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer

Danny Cordeiro never thinks like he’s doing anything special when it comes to playing sports. The recent North Arlington High School graduate simply went about his business and kept himself busy as an athlete.

“I try not to think too much about it,” Cordeiro said. “It never crossed my mind what I was doing.”

However, what Cordeiro was doing was carving his place permanently in the history of North Arlington High School athletics. If he’s not the best all-around athlete in the school’s history, Cordeiro is very close. For sure, he had a historic career of firsts that will never be duplicated.

Cordeiro was a superstar soccer player for the Vikings for four seasons, culminating in an All-State performance as a senior. He scored 30 goals and added 19 assists during his senior campaign, earning a scholarship to New Jersey Institute of Technology in the process.

But Cordeiro was also a phenomenal performer in track and field. Read more »

Baseball reigns supreme at Kearny Kards Kamp

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By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer

Sure, Kearny is known as “Soccertown, USA.” And, of course, the World Cup soccer tournament was coming to a close last week.

But for 75 local youngsters, baseball was the primary sport, as they took part of the week-long Kearny Kards Kamp at Franklin School Field.

Headed by Kearny High School head coach Frank Bifulco and assisted by a host of talented baseball instructors, the Kards Kamp gave youngsters a lot of instruction while having a lot of fun at the same time. Read more »

Nutley East Little League repeats as District 8 champions

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By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer 

It’s one thing to win a District 8 12-year-old All-Star Little League championship.

It’s another thing altogether to win that same district crown, one of the most competitive in New Jersey, for a second straight year.

Considering that you have to totally turn over the roster from one year to the next, it’s almost next to impossible.

But that’s what the Nutley East Little League All-Stars did last week, successfully defending the New Jersey District 8 championship the league captured a year ago.

“I’ve never seen it,” said Nutley East Little League 12-year-old manager “Tiny” Latino, a veteran of coaching Little League for almost 40 years. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. It’s a big accomplishment.” Read more »

Kearny’s Kelly named Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year

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By Jim Hague

 Observer Sports Writer 

Nicole Kelly’s incredible athletic career began at a very young age.

“I think I was four years old,” said Kelly, the recent Kearny High School graduate. “My mom put me on a softball team that she was coaching, but I was too young to play. But I was on the team.”

Kelly didn’t take long to become acclimated to softball.

“From what I remember, I hit the ball so far,” Kelly said. “The rules were that I could only run one base, so I had to stop running at first.”

Three years later, Kelly was introduced to her second sport.

“I was about seven years old when soccer took over my life,” Kelly said. “Soccer was new and exciting. I loved it. I wanted to be more active. Soccer became my sport.”

When the time came for Kelly to become involved in high school sports at Kearny, she was ready to make her mark.

Kelly became a dominant two-sport athlete, excelling in soccer in the fall and softball in the spring. As a slick kicking and passing midfielder, Kelly led the Kardinals to their fourth straight Hudson County Tournament championship, scoring 13 goals and dishing off for 19 assists for the Kardinals enroute to a surprising 21-5 record.

As a slick fielding centerfielder and lead-off hitter in the lineup, Kelly batted .300 with two doubles, a triple, 24 runs scored, 13 stolen bases and 11 runs batted in.

More importantly, Kelly was a main cog on two teams that both won Hudson County championships during her senior year, a first for the history of the school.

For her efforts, Kelly has been selected as The Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year, the first time in the history of the award dating back to 2002 that either a male or a female shared the honor.

Last week, Grace Montgomery of Nutley was named as the other recipient of the year-end award presented by The Observer.

Kelly recently received her award from Observer general manager Robert Pezzolla.

While Kelly said that she had instant success in softball, it was not the same in soccer. “I was terrible,” Kelly said. “When I was trying out for Thistle as a kid, there was a dribbling drill and I knocked all the cones over. But somehow, I still made the team. It took me some time to get to the level that everyone else was at.”

However, by the time Kelly got to Kearny High, she was ready to make a positive impact.

“I was pulled up to the varsity at the end of my freshman year in time for the states (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs),” Kelly said. “By the middle of my sophomore year, I was a starting midfielder.”

Kearny head girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida knew that Kelly had the makings of a standout player.

“She was always quick to listen and then quick to apply what she learned,” Almeida said. “She took our advice and every year, you could see how much she improved. She was always motivated and had the ability to take the instruction we gave and applied it.”

Kelly said that Almeida’s faith in her as a sophomore went a long way.

“It definitely boosted my confidence,” Kelly said. “I was starting over some of the seniors. I definitely started to play well.”

There was some thought of moving Kelly to the front line this season, but Almeida liked the leadership she provided from the midfield slot, more importantly the wing.

“She took on a greater role this year in terms of leadership,” Almeida said. “We always knew that she had her in her. She played aggressively. She was always fun to be around.”

“We lost so many people to graduation and injury, so I thought I might have to change my position,” Kelly said. “At the start of the year, everyone was a little down, so I put the team on my back a little bit to build everyone’s confidence up. Once that started happening, we started playing better. Moods changed and I think I helped the younger kids get used to playing with the varsity. I knew that I was a younger kid once and knew what they were going through.”

Kelly also realized that she had to become more of an offensive force as a senior.

“I knew I needed to be more offensive minded,” Kelly said. “It felt good to be part of three county championships in a row.”

During the off-season, Kelly worked out on her own and to get ready once again for softball. She declined to play softball as a junior in order to get ready for her final soccer season.

“I lifted and ran on my own,” Kelly said. “I went to the batting cages a lot. It was so hard to get back into softball after taking the year off. It was a big obstacle to overcome. Coach (Jim) Pickel was patient with me as I was coming back into it. I didn’t want to be one of the weaker people on the team, so that gave me more motivation.”

Pickel saw a huge change in Kelly.

“When she was a sophomore, she was quiet and did whatever you wanted,” Pickel said. “But she came back this year, she was much more of a leader. She was kind of behind after missing a year. Her timing was a little off at the plate, but defensively, she cut balls off and made plays to keep people from scoring. That was her main objective.”

Pickel said that that Kelly became a better offensive player as the season progressed. If there’s one thing he will remember, it’s her fleet feet.

“Definitely, her speed,” Pickel said. “The first game of the season, she got thrown out trying to steal home, but the last game, she tries it again and she makes it. If she doesn’t do it again, we probably don’t win the (Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League) title. There were two different extremes.”

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Pickel also will remember Kelly’s smile.

“Personality wise, when things were going well, her smile was as wide as possible,” Pickel said.

“I definitely did better than I thought,” Kelly said. “My first thought was that I had to be a leader. I always thought of myself as a leader. Winning the county championship felt awesome, because I knew no Kearny team ever won it before. The first thing I thought was that we won two county championships this year and both against the same school (Bayonne).”

Kelly will now head off to the University of Tampa, where she will major in sports management. Friend and former classmate Aislinn Sroczynski will also attend the same school. Sroczynski will compete in cross country and track and field there. Kelly is unsure about her athletic future.

“I might try to play soccer there, but at first, I want to focus on my academics,” Kelly said. “I’m so excited about going there.”

Kelly, who is the fourth Kearny female to earn The Observer Female Athlete of the Year, joining Allyson Dyl (2008), Janitza Aquino (2011) and Stefanie Gomes (2012), was proud to be put in the same classification of the other honorees.

“It’s definitely honorable,” Kelly said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I guess I feel like I made an impact at Kearny High School.”

That’s for sure.