By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
A year ago, veteran Kearny High School girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill had to do a bit of last minute scrambling to put together a formidable roster. The Kardinals had lost a ton of talent to graduation, so Hill hoped that the new kids could step in and pick up where the graduating seniors left off.
Well, as the immortal baseball sage Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
“We’ve lost 13 seniors over the last two years,” said Hill, who begins her 11th season as the Kardinals’ head coach. “That’s losing a tremendous amount of experience. For the most part, I’ve never had to deal with that before.”
However, Hill isn’t exactly putting her head down and sulking about her team’s prospects. Quite the contrary.
“It’s a nice feeling to have some younger players who are going to be around for four years,” Hill said. “We’re going to try to mold them, not just for today, but also down the road. There are positives and negatives in having a young team. You take a hit with experience and you ask them not to make the same mistake twice. You learn from your mistakes.”
Hill said that she has been extremely positive since practices began in earnest last week.
“In the early going, we’re breaking down the fundamentals more,” said Hill, who guided her remade team to 15 wins a year ago. “We’re working on them making the right decisions. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Hill likes the athleticism of the team.
“We do have some athletes and we do have some size,” Hill said. “Overall, I think we’re looking to have more of an inside game this year than ever before. Our size is going to be a huge strength.”
As a former Hall of Fame guard during her playing days at Harrison High and later Pace University, Hill was a fearless point guard. So she has always favored guard play.
“We’re a little inexperienced at guard, but we do have some talent,” Hill said. “We have athletic guards who have to learn the game a little more. But I can see the progress. They keep getting better and better.”
Hill also likes the way her team has approached the new season.
“I think they’re very excited about it,” Hill said. “The energy level is excellent and we’re trying to put that energy level out onto the floor. The eagerness is there. I can see that in the seniors. We have spots in the starting lineup that are open to anyone who steps in and proves that they deserve it, prove that they want it.”
Leading the returnees is sophomore Amber Crispin, who stepped in toward the end of last season and became a key contributor and starter. Crispin is the team’s top returning leading scorer, but she averaged only six points a game. That’s a sign of just how much Kearny needs to rebuild this year.
“She came in as a freshman starter and led our team in steals,” Hill said of the 5-foot- 6 Crispin. “She has tremendous speed and competitiveness. She is one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached. I just hope that can carry over to the rest of the team. I hope it’s contagious. She has a lot of speed and energy. She’s also real eager to start the season and I like that. Amber has to be one of our leaders this year, even though she’s a sophomore. She leads by example and also knows what to say to the others. She’s a special kid.”
Another returning player is junior Emilia Fernandes. The 6-foot Fernandes is the team’s tallest player and she has to use that size to her advantage.
“I can definitely see her potential,” Hill said. “This is her time to shine. She’s been very dedicated to improving. She now has tremendous footwork. She realized what she needed to do and took a big step forward. Her goal is to play in college and she’s willing to do anything to make that happen. She’s added more moves near the basket. She’s made a big improvement over last year.”
The rest of the entire Kearny roster is still battling for playing time. In Hill’s eyes, they’re all players right now, not starters.
Freshman Sydney Pace, the younger sister of former Kearny standouts Stefanee and Samantha, joins the fray as a 5-foot-6 guard.
“She’s already played varsity soccer, so she knows what it takes,” Hill said. “She’s not intimidated at all. She comes from a good athletic family and she wants to get on the court to prove what she can do.”
Senior Carolina Souza is another contributor. The 5-foot-5 Souza owns a nice touch from the perimeter and is a good defender.
“She’s paid her dues and put in a lot of time,” Hill said. “She’s a good leader. She just needs to penetrate with the ball better.”
Junior Daniella Echevestre is a 5-foot-6 jack-of-all-trades.
“She literally can play any position,” Hill said. “She’s our most versatile player. She’s a great passer who played point guard on the JV level, but we need her inside more. She’s very strong and uses her body well.” Spiridoula Dimou is a 5-foot-2 senior guard. “She’s one of our toughest kids,” Hill said. “She’s extremely hungry to play varsity. She’s spent the last three years down on the bench, waiting to get put in the game. She’s our most vocal kid.”
Kiana Cardenas is a 5-foot-11 senior forward.
“She has no varsity experience,” Hill said. “She’s very raw. But she’s a coachable kid who is working on her speed. She’s going to provide solid minutes for us.”
Sophomore Nawal Farih is a 5-8 forward whose older brother and sister played varsity basketball at Kearny.
“She has good potential,” Hill said. “She has a good basketball body and goes extremely hard to the basket. She keeps getting better each year. She comes from a good basketball family. She just loves to play and she’s doing great in practice.”
Junior Nicole Sanchez is another back-up guard.
“She’s feisty and scrappy,” Hill said of the 5-foot-4 Sanchez. “She plays defense very well and can make the outside shot.”
Junior Patty Sheldrick is a 5-foot-7 guard with good ball handling skills and a good long range shot. Sophomore Izabela Stazewski is a 5-foot-9 forward who is still learning the game. Sophomore Erica Greenlee is a 5-foot-4 athletic guard who made headway in the Kearny summer league.
“I put her in one game and she had like four steals in a minute,” Hill said. “She has good instincts for the ball.”
Junior Vanessa Gallego is a 5-foot-4 guard who is a reliable defender.
As you can see, Hill has a lot of work to do between now and the Kardinals’ season opener against Hudson County power Bayonne Dec. 20. The Kards will also play this year in the North Arlington Christmas Tournament, where they will face local rival Queen of Peace.
“We definitely will get better as the season moves on,” Hill said. “Right now, we just need to find a little chemistry. They’re finding themselves for the first time. But I think we should have a pretty good team.”