By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Bob McDonnell now has the position he had coveted for years, namely the head coaching position for the boys’ basketball team at Kearny High School.
Now, it’s up to Mc- Donnell to show everyone that he deserved the shot.
One thing was for sure. There was no need for a transitional period. McDonnell, who has been involved in Kearny basketball on the youth level for what seems like forever and was the former freshman coach and assistant on the varsity, knows all the kids and they all know him.
It wasn’t like an outsider was coming in and taking over. McDonnell has been a fixture in Kearny for more than 20 years.
“Honestly, there wasn’t a transition,” Mc- Donnell said. “Even for some of the players who came out for the team for the first time. It’s been going pretty well.”
There has been a lot of learning in the preseason.
“We’ve put in a system that is not like any other system they’ve seen,” said McDonnell, who was an assistant coach at Berkeley College for the last three years before replacing Bill Schoener at Kearny. “We’re trying to install the system. Some kids are picking it up faster than others.”
McDonnell said that there was one main obstacle that he faced during the early practices.
“One of our biggest problems has been a lack of fundamentals on defense,” McDonnell said. “The majority of our practice time has been spent on defense.”
But McDonnell seems to be making progress.
“I met with each kid individually and I asked them each what they felt they needed to improve on,” McDonnell said. “The majority of them said defense. That’s good, because that’s what we are trying to stress. We want to be a better defensive team.”
The Kardinals also want to be a better team than they were last year, when they won only five games.
“The kids have all set individual and team goals,” McDonnell said. “I wanted them to be realistic goals. They said they want to improve and win more games. They said they’re going to try to win at least 10 games.”
That total may be a challenge, playing teams in the competitive Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League. “I think the kids are up for the challenge,” McDonnell said.
Leading the returning players is 6-foot-3 junior forward Zach Latka. The lanky Latka is a player to watch.
“He has a quick first step to the basket and he’s also a very good shooter,” McDonnell said. “From 15 feet and in, he can make shots. Most definitely, he’s going to play a big role for us and set the tone.”
Senior Isaac Osorto is the Kardinals’ starting point guard.
“He sees the floor well and is a good passer,” McDonnell said of the 5-foot-9 Osorto. “He’s our floor leader. He’s definitely what I want in a point guard. He’s like the coach on the floor.”
Senior Joel Vivas has shown a lot of promise. The 6-foot-5 Vivas will be a key down low for the Kards.
“He rebounds well,” Mc- Donnell said of Vivas. “I’d like him to be a little more physical. But he has great leaping ability and goes up to get the ball.”
Junior Gustavo Chemin will play a big role as well. Chemin is a 6-foot-2 forward.
“He’s a hard worker,” Mc- Donnell said. “I’m looking for him to be a defensive stopper and rebounder.”
Senior Agmed Fraih is a 6-foot-3 forward that McDonnell likes to call “O.J.”
“He provides a little muscle underneath,” McDonnell said. “He’s a banger down low. He goes to the boards really hard. He’s really a team leader.” George Smyth, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, is also in the mix at forward.
“He has great court intelligence,” McDonnell said. “He sees the court well. He’s a total team player and he’s going to play right away.”
Senior Julio Vasquez is a 6-foot point guard.
“He plays defense aggressively well and is accepting his role well,” McDonnell said. “He knows he has to play defense for us.”
Senior Michael Trama is a 6-foot-2 forward.
“He’s probably our best jump shooter,” McDonnell said. “He’s also going to help us down low.”
Sophomore Sammy Sanchez is a 5-foot-10 guard who is playing organized basketball for the first time.
“He’s an aggressive kid, a football player,” McDonnell said. “He’s also quick and not afraid to get on the floor. He’s still learning because he never played basketball before. But he’s good to have on the team.”
The Kardinals also have a fine addition in a veteran coach. Mike Reilly, who was the long-time head coach at McNair Academic in Jersey City, has joined forces with McDonnell on the Kearny coaching staff.
“He’s great to have around,” McDonnell said of Reilly.“He’s great with the players and works with them well. He knows the finer points of the game. We have a nice working relationship because he knows the fundamentals and can help with drills with the kids.”
The Kardinals open their season Friday night against Bayonne.
“I think the goal is to improve,” McDonnell said. “I don’t expect miracles overnight. As long as they keep working hard, they’ll improve and that’s what we’re looking for.”
And there’s a coach who will be in place for many years to come.