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Vikings look to build on huge first-season under coach Corsetto

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

After being away from the game of high school basketball for a few years, veteran coach Rich Corsetto had no idea what to expect from his return to the sidelines, taking over the North Arlington High School program.

Corsetto, a veteran of coaching on the high school and more prominently the collegiate ranks, inherited a good squad when he arrived last year and the Vikings rewarded their new coach with a 20-win season.

The Vikings finished the season with a 20-8 record a year ago in Corsetto’s first campaign.

But can Corsetto expect more of the same success in his second go-round?

“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Corsetto, a member of the National Junior Colleges of America Hall of Fame. “We lost two starters and our sixth man. But we did go to the William Paterson team camp over the summer, played in the Kearny summer league and the Bloomfield fall league.”

Corsetto made his mark as the head coach at Hudson County Community College from 1990 through 1996. When that school dropped basketball, he moved on to become the head coach at Passaic County Community College from 1996 through 2010.

In 20 years as a college coach, Corsetto won 435 games. He also owns a gaudy 255-91 record on the high school level, so Corsetto has won a total of 690 games as a basketball coach over 33 years. With a little luck, Corsetto might reach the magical 700-win plateau this season.

However, luck hasn’t been kind to Corsetto thus far.

First, Mike Paolello, who was penciled in as the Vikings’ point guard, suffered a serious knee injury during the football season and will be lost for the season after undergoing knee surgery.

“That was a big loss,” Corsetto said.

Then, senior Edgar Carranza, who had some big moments for the Vikings last season, will start the season on the side lines for academic reasons.

“He has to clear some things up before he can come back,” Corsetto said. “He was a key rebounder for us last year.”

Corsetto doesn’t know how long Carranza will be out. He could be out until Jan. 1 or even longer.

“We’re hoping it’s sooner than that,” Corsetto said.

One of the key returnees is senior forward Jose Checo. The 6-4 Checo averaged eight points and 10 rebounds per game last year, but those numbers need to improve this season.

“He’s worked very hard in the offseason,” Corsetto said. “I think he’s ready to step up. He’s definitely improved. I’m expecting a lot from him. I’m hoping to see better production.”

Junior Kevin Cerqueira is a 5-11 forward with a lot of promise.

“He did a nice job for us last year,” Corsetto said. “He’s a good defensive player. He’s going to have to be more of a scorer this year. He’s worked very hard over the summer.”

Junior Stephen Velez is a 6-1 forward and strong inside player.

“He works hard on the glass,” Corsetto said. “He’s a good rebounder and he’s good around the basket.”

Junior Joe Morales is a 6-1 forward.

“Joe is a banger on the boards,” Corsetto said. “He’s an aggressive kid. He’s a garbage man in a good way.”

Senior Jonathan Hurley is another solid performer at guard. The 5-11 Hurley possesses a nice touch from the perimeter.

“We need him to make shots,” Corsetto said.

Timmy Ford is a 5-8 junior guard who can play either guard slot.

“He’s in good shape physically from playing football,” Corsetto said. “We have a number of kids who also played football. He’s a tough kid who helps us in a lot of different ways. He can also shoot the ball.”

Corsetto is very excited about freshman Isaac Aguilar, who stands 6-foot-5.

“I’ve been in basketball a long time and I haven’t seen many like this kid,” Corsetto said of the freshman. “He’s going to grow more. I think he’s going to get a chance to start right away. He can block shots and rebound. I think he’s a big-time player.”

Senior Anthony Rotondo is a solid 5-8 guard.

“He does some nice things for us and he can shoot the ball,” Corsetto said.

Dylan Brown is a 5-9 junior guard who also possesses a nice shooting touch from the perimeter.

Junior Darien Nogueras is a 5-9 guard who adds depth to the Vikings’ bench.

Corsetto believes that his team is a work in progress.

“I don’t think I’ll ever change my strategy as a coach,” Corsetto said. “If it works, don’t mess with it. We’re going to press and trap and try to run up-tempo. I’m a strong believer in defense. I think defense creates offense. That’s the reason why we won 20 games last year. I’m looking to do that again this year. We’re still going to press and we’re still going to play up-tempo. That’s what I’m familiar with.”

The Vikings tip off the season against St. Mary’s of Rutherford Dec. 19. The Vikings will also host the William Ferguson Holiday Classic Dec. 29-30, with Trinity Christian, Lenape Valley and Hoboken Charter in the field.

NA’s girls’ hoop squad looks to new coach Lado

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Rob Lado has enjoyed a smooth transition in taking over as the girls’ basketball coach at North Arlington High School.

“I think things have gone pretty well,” Lado said. “They’re adjusting well to a new routine and a new system. We’ve had nothing but a positive attitude. We’re improving every day and I think we’re going to have a good season.”

Lado introduced the Vikings to a faster paced, up-tempo style of play. “They’re catching on with my system,” said Lado, who was an assistant coach on the high school level and head coach on the AAU level before taking the North Arlington job this season. “They weren’t familiar with up-tempo play.

We want to get out on the fast break. We are going to be built on the pick and roll on offense. There are a lot of things I’m implementing that they’ve never done before. But they’re interested and asking questions.” Lado said that he has been helped by JV coach and assistant Karissa DePena, as well as Stephanie Sinclair, who was brought in to work with the program’s freshmen.

“The girls are all really working hard,” Lado said. “I’m encouraged.”

The Vikings have two seniors on the roster in 5-10 forward Brianna Cappuccino and 5-8 forward Samanta Quinones. Both saw limited action last year.

“Brianna is going to get solid minutes and help us with our rebounding,” Lado said. “Samanta is also good with rebounding, but she’s also defensively quick. She can go after the ball well. She’s doing all the dirty work.”

Junior point guard Denaijah Gainza will play a prominent role in Lado’s system.

“She’s a good ball handler,” Lado said of the 5-5 Gainza. “She also can be a big-time scorer. She’s a good shooter and will control a lot of what we do with the ball in her hands. She’s also a solid defender. I expect big things from her.”

Junior Marissa Piscal is a 5-9 forward with good skills.

“She’s our starting power forward,” Lado said. “She’s also a good offensive threat. She’s very strong and moves her feet well to get into good position on the floor. She’s going to be a solid player for us on both ends of the floor.”

Junior Samantha Veloso is a 5-9 forward.

“She’s also a very good athlete who has a nice little offensive touch,” Lado said.

Junior Theresa D’Errico is a 5-3 guard.

“We’re going to count on her defensively,” Lado said. “She’s not afraid of anything. She’s not afraid of mixing it up. She’s the fastest player on the team and she has a nice little shot.”

Junior Victoria Namnama is a 5-4 guard.

“She’s another great athlete who can get after it,” Lado said.

Sophomore Danica Krawczyk is a 5-7 forward who plays both the small forward and shooting guard roles.

“She has a very nice shot and is good defensively,” Lado said. “I’m going to count on her a lot.”

Sophomore Melissa Torres is a 5-7 versatile performer who can play a variety of positions.

“She’s a tremendous athlete, one of the best athletes we have,” Lado said. “She does a little bit of everything. She’s going to play a pretty important role.” Junior Mariah Moreno is a 5-3 guard who will also see playing time.

“She’s fearless and goes well to the basket,” Lado said. Lado likes the depth that he has with his team.

“Because we’re going to play up-tempo, we will have nine or 10 girls who will play,” Lado said. “I’m definitely happy with the turnout. We have a lot of girls who are interested in playing. They’re very energetic. They just have to get used to the up-tempo approach.”

The Vikings open up the 2014-15 season against St. Mary’s Dec. 19. They will also host the Ferguson Holiday Tournament Dec. 29-30, with local rivals Queen of Peace and Lyndhurst in the field, along with Trinity Christian. The Vikings will face nextdoor neighbor Golden Griffins in the opening round.

“I’m looking forward to at,” Lado said. “I think it’s going to be an interesting season.

” Sure looks that way.

Lyndhurst looks to improve in second year under Palek

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

It’s the second year of Paul Palek’s tenure as the head boys’ basketball coach at Lyndhurst High School and he can already tell the difference.

“You could tell in the first week of practice that it was a lot easier,” said Palek, who guided the Golden Bears to a 10-13 record in his first season. “We had a lot of our offense in already and the kids all knew the drills. They’re learning things a lot quicker and it’s remarkable how much you can do after you have a year under your belt. It makes a big difference.”

The Golden Bears also spent the entire offseason together, playing in the Bloomfield summer league and attending open gyms together.

“We graduated six off the team last year and three of them started,” Palek said. “So this is the first time in my coaching career that I had no idea who is going to start. It has made preseason to be very interesting.”

One player who has to be in the mix is 5-10 senior guard Marc Estevez, who averaged 18 points per game last year for the Golden Bears.

“He broke his hand in February and missed the last seven games of the season,” Palek said. “You could see the drop off. We just weren’t the same without him. I expect him to have a big season.”

Palek will expect Estevez to play a lot more at point guard this season.

“It is what it is,” Palek said. “He has to have the ball in his hands. It puts added pressure on him, but he’s our best player and we’re going to rely on him. The others have to find their roles.”

Another key contributor will be 6-1 senior forward Brandon Karlok, who played a lot last season.

“Brandon is very athletic, but he needs to step up,” Palek said. “He needs to get his 10 points per game and he needs to get to the foul line more. But he’s a very good athlete and he’s an excellent defender.”

Junior Vinnie Dorio, a 5-foot- 9 guard, will also get a chance to make an impact this season. Dorio, a baseball standout like his older brother Anthony, saw some time with the varsity basketball team last season, especially after Estevez got hurt.

“He got his feet wet and had some experience,” Palek said of Dorio. “He’s a good shooter. He’s going to have to score for us.”

However, Dorio is also coming off an injury.

“He suffered a back injury that shut him down in July and August,” Palek said. “He wasn’t able to do anything, so he’s still catching up a little. But he’s a good athlete and an excellent piece to the puzzle.”

Sophomore Peter Lazeris is a 5-10 forward who has some promise.

“He’s still learning the game a little bit,” Palek said. “But he plays hard and is going to get his opportunity.”

Junior Ryan Brown is a 6-0 forward.

“He didn’t play basketball last year, so we’re trying to see where he fits in,” Palek said. “We’re looking for him to make a contribution to this team.”

Junior Justin Smith is a 6-2 center.

“He’s a physical presence close to the basket,” Palek said. “He can defend well and rebounds.”

Junior Nick DiTommasso is a 5-8 guard who will see time coming off the Lyndhurst bench.

“He can really shoot the ball,” Palek said of DiTommasso. “He’s a legitimate 3-point threat.”

Senior Joey Cosenza is another contributor.

“He helps us inside by being a physical presence,” Palek said. “He makes a big difference defensively.”

What hurt the Golden Bears’ chances this winter was the loss of Peter Guerriero, who suffered a severely broken hand during the football season. The injury required surgery, so Guerriero has been subjected to life on the sidelines.

“If he was healthy, I think we might have had the best backcourt in the league,” Palek said. “We need everyone to step up. I think it’s a transition year, because we lost so much to graduation. We have so many roles available right now. It’s like putting together a puzzle, trying to fill the different roles.”

The Golden Bears open up the 2014-2015 season at New Milford. They then have a week off before facing Hasbrouck Heights.

“I think we have a chance to get better,” Palek said. “The kids have to rely on each other and play hard, which they’re doing.”

Whether that translates into results remains to be seen.

Kearny girls’ basketball squad has solid leadership

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team won 15 games last year, featuring a team that had no returning starters. Basically, the Kardinals had to learn on the fly – and they did, but it might have taken a little longer than veteran head coach Jody Hill might have liked.

However, as the Kardinals begin practice for the start of the upcoming season later this month, Hill feels a little better this time than she did at the start of last season.

“For the last two years, we were pretty much in a unique situation,” Hill said. “We had two years in a row where we graduated all five starters from the year before. It just happened that all five starters were seniors. But that’s not the case this year.”

Hill is fortunate to have three returning starters from last year’s team, plus others who have returned to playing basketball after a hiatus from the sport.

“It’s beneficial to know we have some returning experience,” Hill said. “It should help us get off to a better start. To have that leadership on the court is going to make a big difference. It’s definitely going to help us down the road.”

The Kardinals also have strength in numbers. There’s a new interest in basketball in the town, as the number for tryouts increased into the 50s, thanks to a new program instilled in the new Kearny middle school.

“I really think we’re seeing this program explode,” Hill said. “It’s definitely going to help get more girls involved. I think the new program is going to kick start our numbers even more. It’s going to benefit us in the long run. It only can help us being successful.

” For the time being, Hill will count on senior returnees like talented forward Emilia Fernandes, a 6-foot presence who is getting some attention from colleges.

Fernandes averaged 10 points per game last year, but those numbers should improve, thanks to Fernandes’ dedication to the sport in the offseason.

“I’m very excited for her,” Hill said. “It’s a true pleasure to watch Emilia develop. Her commitment to basketball has been excellent. She played AAU basketball in the summer and went to FASST in Lyndhurst for strength and conditioning. Her hard work is definitely showing.”

Hill said that Fernandes has been working on her game.

“She’s become well rounded with her moves,” Hill said. “She has a soft shooting touch and can make shots. She’s a great passer and becomes dangerous if teams try to double her. She’s in better shape and she knew that was an issue in the past. She got herself in the mindset that she needed to get in better shape to be a better player. She wants to play college basketball. That’s the goal. She’s definitely going to get looked at. I think she’s going to be right up there with the best post players in the county.”

Daniella Echevestre is a 5-foot-6 guard who has also worked hard improving her game.

“I couldn’t get her to shoot the ball last year,” Hill said. “But she partnered with Emilia to become a better player. She dedicated herself to improving her game. She has the potential to have great speed and take that speed to another level. She’s also an excellent passer.”

Soccer standout Barbara Paiva has returned to playing basketball after concentrating on soccer for the last two years. But now that Paiva has secured a scholarship to play soccer at St. Peter’s University next fall, Paiva has decided to come back to the hardwood.

“Barbara coming back was a huge surprise,” Hill said. “We missed her and we’re happy to get her back. She might be a little rusty basketball- wise at start, but she’s going to catch on, because she’s such a great athlete. She’s progressing with her basketball. She’s getting better and has so much speed to deal with. She does things you just can’t teach.”

Sophomore Sydney Pace has returned to basketball, after missing the soccer season due to a knee injury. But the 5-foot-7 Pace has rehabilitated the knee and is ready to go.

“She’s back to full action,” Hill said of Pace, whose two older sisters, Stefanee and Samantha, are now coaching soccer at Secaucus High School. “We’re working on getting her speed and strength back, but she’s going to help us.”

Pace averaged seven points per game last year as a freshman.

“She’s absolutely going to be a better player this year,” Hill said. “She’s so ready for the varsity level. She has a good outside shot. She can handle the ball well. She’s just a great athlete. She’s going to be very special this year.”

Senior Nicole Sanchez is another solid all-around performer. Sanchez, a 5-foot- 4 guard, thrives on playing defense.

“She knows she can play defense,” Hill said of Sanchez. “She wants to play the best player on the other team and that’s great to have. We just have to make her a little more of a threat offensively.”

Sophomore Isabel Fernandez is a 5-foot-6 guard who Hill calls “a huge asset to the team.”

“She’s another soccer player,” Hill said. “She got hurt at the end of the soccer season (wrist injury), but she’s coming around. She’s a phenomenal athlete who could be the fastest player on our team. She has the defensive instinct to get steals. It’s fun watching her play. Her speed and instinct are going to help us.”

Junior Nawal Farih is another returning player. The 5-foot-8 junior forward has the ability to leap and get rebounds.

“She’s a great team player and a good vocal leader,” Hill said of Farih, whose brother, Mohamed, plays basketball at St. Peter’s University. “She’s very consistent and has a positive attitude.”

Junior Isabella Staszewski is a 5-foot-10 forward who gets her share of rebounds. “She’s a nice inside player with nice size,” Hill said. “She fills the lane well.”

Senior Amanda DeSousa is another addition from the Kearny soccer team. “She’s been a nice surprise and it’s nice that she came back,” Hill said. “She is very quick and a good athlete.” Senior Ashley Matos suffered a dislocated knee last season, but has returned to the team this season.

“She’s bouncing back nicely from the knee,” Hill said. “She’s trying hard.”

Senior Patty Sheldrick is a pure shooter and a 3-point field goal threat.

Freshman Megan McClelland is a great ball handler with a bright future.

“She has a good chance to help us right away,” Hill said.

The Kardinals open their season Dec. 19 against Union City. The Kardinals will host their own holiday tournament, with St. Anthony of Jersey City, Roselle Park and Becton Regional also participating.

Needless to say, things look good for the Kardinals on the hardwood.

“I think we will have a tougher schedule,” said Hill, whose team will be with the A Division of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League. “Everyone has to step up. But I like the team. I really do.”

McDonnell vows improvement in Kards this season

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The Kearny High School boys’ basketball team won eight games last year in Bob McDonnell’s first year as head coach.

So what does McDonnell, the retired Kearny police officer, expect in Year Two?

“I’m quite honestly looking at 15 wins at least,” McDonnell said.

That’s setting the bar pretty high for a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season in quite some time.

But McDonnell is confident about the Kardinals’ chances, as the new season begins later this month, for a few reasons.

One, the Kardinals will play in a more competitive division of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League this fall. Instead of getting thrown to the wolves of the county like St. Peter’s Prep and Bayonne, the Kardinals will face teams that they can actually compete against.

“Without a doubt, that has to help,” Mc- Donnell said.

Plus, the Kardinals have a lot of players back from the team that ended up being competitive a year ago.

“We have four of our top six players returning, including three starters,” McDonnell said. “We have also played about 80 games since the end of last season.”

McDonnell had the Kardinals play in the Bloomfield and Cliffside Park summer leagues, as well as their own.

“That helps the camaraderie,” McDonnell said. “The kids have played so many times together and spent so much time together. They learn to lean on each other, both on and off the court. The kids all know where they’re supposed to be. They’ve spent a full year with me, so they know what to expect from me and the coaching staff and we know what’s expected of them.”

McDonnell also liked the commitment he received from the players in the offseason.

“They spent a lot of time with conditioning and weight lifting,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had 27 kids going to those sessions: 95% of our players went to the conditioning and weight lifting every day.”

McDonnell also thinks the mental attitude of the Kardinals has helped.

“The kids have all matured,” McDonnell said. “We have our top seven guys with varsity experience and that helps. They are more mature and they’re working hard. They wanted to be part of the group that turned things around. They definitely believe that they can do that. I just hope that their closeness translates into wins. Hopefully, we’ve learned from past mistakes.”

Leading the returnees is senior forward Zach Latka, who averaged more than 14 points per game last year. The 6-foot-4 Latka saw some action as a sophomore two years ago, then blossomed under McDonnell.

“His whole approach to the game has changed,” McDonnell said of Latka. “He’s more mature. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, not just athletically, but academically as well. He’s become a great leader for us.”

Senior Gus Chemin is a 6-foot-3 solid rebounder and scorer. He’s also a standout volleyball player.

“He’s a versatile player who is extremely quick and a solid leaper,” McDonnell said. “He also has a good shot. He gives us strength under the boards. He’s also a good athlete and shows that during volleyball season.”

Junior George Smyth is a 6-foot-4 power forward who has also improved.

“He led the team in rebounding (193 rebounds) last year,” McDonnell said. “He played AAU basketball over the summer, He’s going to have a solid year.”

Junior Joe Baez saw considerable action a year ago at either guard slot.

“It depends on the other team’s offense,” McDonnell said of where Baez will end up. “He’s more of a two (shooting) guard, but can play both.”

Junior Joseph Esteves is another key member of the Kardinals’ backcourt.

“He’s another good athlete,” McDonnell said of Estevez. “He plays spirited and intense. He’s also a good 3-point shooter.”

Sophomore Gralen Vereen is a 5-10 point guard supreme. McDonnell liked what Vereen brought to the Kardinals last year that he played seven games as a freshman, but it’s Vereen’s show this time around.

“He sees the court very well and makes plays,” McDonnell said.

Junior Sammy Sanchez, who had a good football season, gets into the mix at guard. Kenny Rankin, another football player, is also a junior who plays swing.

Sophomore Ryan Tully, the promising baseball player, is another member of the Kearny roster.

Devon DaSilva, Exavier Horne, V.J. Shala and Eric Morales, are all striving to get on the field for the Kardinals.

“Our tryouts were spirited and intense,” McDonnell said. “The kids have really worked hard and are looking forward to the season.”

Blue Tide girls’ hoops squad looks to continue winning ways

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

The Harrison High School girls’ basketball team won 18 games a year ago and lost a solid group of players to graduation.

But that doesn’t mean that Blue Tide head coach Al Ruiz expects his team to struggle this season.

“We lost a good amount of talent to graduation, but we’ve had other years where the others picked up the slack in the following year,” Ruiz said. “That’s what we’re hoping happens to us. We have some good players back that have to help us this year.”

The Blue Tide also won first round games in both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs last year, so it was a successful season all around.

“We definitely need our seniors to help us out,” Ruiz said. “They have to lead by example and lead on the floor.”

One aspect to the game that Ruiz likes about the Blue Tide is their defensive intensity.

“I feel we have the best defensive backcourt in the league (the NJIC Meadowlands),” Ruiz said. “We feel they are among the quickest and can get after the ball very well.”

Senior Amber O’Donnell is the top returning backcourt player for the Blue Tide. The 5-foot-6 O’Donnell averaged 10 points and six assists last year.

“It makes it a lot easier, knowing she’s back,” Ruiz said of O’Donnell. “It’s a little bit of a relief and takes a lot of the pressure off, because I know she’s there to lead us. She’s been in almost every situation possible and understands how to handle things. She’s just gradually improved since her freshman year.”

The other returning guard is 5-foot-6 senior Kayla Montilla, who is another speed demon ball hawk on defense.

“She’s almost too fast for herself,” Ruiz said. “Between her and Amber, I don’t know who goes faster. But they enable us to do a lot of different things.”

Montilla averaged close to eight points per game last year.

“She can sprint the floor 50 times when others can go about 35 times,” Ruiz said of the speedy Montilla.

Ruiz said that Montilla averaged nearly seven steals per game last year.

“She’s a point guard’s worst nightmare,” Ruiz said. “No one wants to see her when they walk into the gym.”

Sophomore Cynthia Ferreira is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13 points per game last year.

“She can score the ball, no question,” Ruiz said. “She can play down low or she can shoot the ball from the outside. She has a nice shot. She plays bigger than what she is.” Ferreira is roughly a 5-foot-8 forward, but she can play any position.

Junior Tabatha Ferreira (no relation to Cynthia) is the team’s shooting guard. Tabatha is a 5-foot-6 guard.

“She’s also pretty quick defensively,” Ruiz said. “She’s also an athletic player. That’s the way we have to go to ex get after the ball.”

Junior Shaneida Falcon is another guard. Falcon is about 5-foot-4.

“We may play four guards at the same time,” Ruiz said. “We hope to get up early by getting up and down the floor.”

Senior Kayla Ortiz is a 6-foot post presence.

“She has been working on her shooting,” Ruiz said. “We need to have that post presence if we play so many guards.”

Junior Alona Ortiz, Kayla’s sister, is another who plays close to the basket. The younger Ortiz is 5-foot-8.

Senior Renee Clifford is a 5-foot-7 versatile player.

“She is a very good outside threat,” Ruiz said of Clifford. “She can shoot it well.”

Freshman Jailyn Montilla, the sister of Kayla, is a welcome addition.

“She can play well down low,” Ruiz said of the 5-foot-7 rookie. “She will allow us to keep building for the future.”

The Blue Tide got ready for the coming season by being very busy during the summer months, playing in the Kearny summer league and the Paterson Kennedy Great Falls summer league.

Ruiz said that the early start to practice, getting three tryout sessions prior to Thanksgiving vacation, enabled the Blue Tide to hit the ground running.

“We were able to build on what we did over the summer,” Ruiz said. “It was very helpful going into the first practices (Monday). We can start rolling right away.”

And start running, pressing, trapping, doing what Harrison girls’ basketball teams do best.

“We haven’t skipped a beat,” said Ruiz, whose team will tip off the new season Dec. 19 against neighboring rival Queen of Peace. “I think we’re going to be alright. I think we will at least be .500 and make the state playoffs. That’s the first goal. We have to see what happens.”

State champs again!

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The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team shows off the NJSIAA Group 1 state championship trophy it won after defeating Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday at Kean University in Union. It marked the 25th NJSIAA state championship in the school’s rich and storied history, adding to their state and national records. It was the first time since 2008 that the Blue Tide earned a state title. Senior Ali Lahrif increased his single season school scoring record to 37 goals in the process, as the Blue Tide avenged defeats in the overall state title game in 2012 and the state semifinals last year. For more about the Blue Tide’s latest state title, read Jim Hague’s reports from the state title game in The Observer sports section.

NJSIAA Group I run with school’s 25th state title

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Blue Tide romps past Haddon Township to complete dominant run

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

UNION – 

It took 36 minutes of onesided dominant play for Harrison High School to take the lead in the NJSIAA Group I state soccer championship against Haddon Township Sunday afternoon at Kean University.

It took all of 20 seconds after halftime for the Blue Tide to enforce their will against their beleaguered opponents. Then it took a span of just one minute and 45 seconds to blow the doors off the contest, like the Blue Tide did in each of their five previous state playoff games prior to Sunday.

Christian Restrepo scored a goal with four minutes left in the first half, then Cristian Marquez, Ali Lakhrif and Ali Lachgar all tallied in the second half, as the Blue Tide romped to a 4-0 victory, giving the school its state and national record 25th NJSIAA state title – and the school’s first since 2008.

The 4-0 whitewash of Haddon Township capped an incredible streak of dominance for the Blue Tide, who finished their season with a 24-3 record, including their six straight wins in the state playoffs by an incredible margin of 31-1.

“I was expecting a really tough game,” said veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek, who enjoyed his seventh overall NJSIAA state title and incredibly, the 300th victory since Rusek and his younger brother John took over the Harrison program some 15 years ago.

For the first 36 minutes, it was a tough one – for Haddon Township goalkeeper Kieran Burns, who was diving left and right to make save after save, as the Blue Tide just kept the pressure on from the outset.

The Blue Tide unleashed a barrage of shots at Burns and the onslaught just kept coming. The Blue Tide shot it wide right, wide left, dead on to where Burns had to make a diving save. Leandro Gonzales thought he had a goal, but hit his blast over the crossbar. Marcelo Esquivel hit the crossbar. Restrepo hit the post.

At one point, the Blue Tide held a 20-1 advantage in shots, but had nothing to show for their hard work.

“We just needed to get one,” Rusek said. “We were playing well. I thought we needed to get the first one.”

Finally, Restrepo secured a rebound of a Lakhrif shot and knocked it past Burns for the only goal the Blue Tide would need.

“After we got the first goal, there was a sense of relief,” said Restrepo, a senior midfielder who played a huge role in each of the last two Blue Tide state playoff runs that came up just a little short. “I thought one would just keep us going.”

After halftime, that’s exactly what happened – and it didn’t take long.

Marquez, a junior midfielder, collected the ball immediately after the second half began, moved within shooting range and fired a low shot to the far right side of the goal that eluded Burns. Just 20 seconds into the second half, the Blue Tide had a 2-0 lead.

Photo by Jim Hague From l., assistant coach Mickey Rusek, senior Leandro Gonzales, head coach Mike Rusek, assistant coach John Rusek, senior forward Ali Lakhrif and senior midfielder Jorge Castro pose with the NJSIAA Group I state championship trophy after the Blue Tide rolled past Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday at Kean University. It was the 25th state title for the school, the seventh in head coach Mike Rusek’s regime and the 300th win since Rusek took over the Harrison program 15 years ago.

Photo by Jim Hague
From l., assistant coach Mickey Rusek, senior Leandro Gonzales, head coach
Mike Rusek, assistant coach John Rusek, senior forward Ali Lakhrif and senior
midfielder Jorge Castro pose with the NJSIAA Group I state championship
trophy after the Blue Tide rolled past Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday at Kean
University. It was the 25th state title for the school, the seventh in head coach
Mike Rusek’s regime and the 300th win since Rusek took over the Harrison
program 15 years ago.

 

“I definitely knew it was coming,” said Marquez through the help of an interpreter. “I just didn’t expect it to happen that quickly.”

“We were pushing to get that second goal,” Rusek said. “That was a great goal.”

However, it paled in comparison to the one that followed.

Ten minutes later, Lakhrif knocked in one of the most amazing goals ever witnessed. The senior forward, who came into the game already holding the school’s single-season goal record with 36, secured the ball just outside the box, then somehow maneuvered his way through three defenders including using a spin move, then shook the final defender with a fake and chipped the ball toward a helpless Burns for a 3-0 lead.

“His touch is incredible,” Rusek said. “He made me fall over with the last fake.”

“One goal wasn’t enough for us,” said Lakhrif, who cemented his place in Harrison soccer history with his 37th goal of the season. “I just needed to score one more. It was my last game. I just made the defender go for the ball. He fell down and I shot it.”

Sounds simple, but in reality, the goal was a truly a strike of genius.

Less than a minute later, the Blue Tide put the finishing touches on the masterpiece. Lachgar, who incredibly was stranded at Journal Square last week trying to get home in time for the state semifinal against Waldwick, missing the game, was pulled down in the penalty area. The senior, who lives in Harrison, but attends County Prep, calmly nailed the penalty kick for his first and only goal of the season, pushing the lead to 4-0.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d score a goal like that,” Lachgar said.

Goalkeeper Nick Araujo wasn’t seriously threatened, making just three saves to secure the shutout, his fifth of the state playoffs.

“It was nice to be part of something this special,” Rusek said. “These seniors had a crushing defeat in the state playoffs last year after being undefeated. To end it like this might have been better than any other team we’ve had.” Certainly no other state champion enjoyed such a dominant run. In championship seasons past, there were overtimes and penalty kick shootouts and drama galore. Not this time. This was pure dominance, top to bottom.

“We were pretty sure that since we got another chance to come back (to the state championship game), we weren’t going to let this one slip away,” Rusek said. “We’ve really enjoyed a special time here. When things come together and the kids are out here with a sense of purpose and reason, it’s really nice to be a part of it. It’s unique that they all play for the team, rather than themselves. It’s very unique that way.”

“It was a great way for us senior players to finish,” Lachgar said. “After the last two years, we came so close, but we didn’t have the luck. It’s a great feeling to dominate the way we did.”

“It was a great year,” said Lakhrif, who wore one orange shoe and one lime green cleat for good luck. “I’m going to miss it.”

It’s also a United Nations of sorts, with kids from different backgrounds in Latin America, South America, Europe and now the Middle East, with the two Moroccans (Lakhrif and Lachgar). What are the odds of two players from Morocco who never knew each other before high school joining forces to carve out their own little slice of Harrison soccer history?

Rusek said that the Blue Tide dedicated their state championship victory to the memory of late Harrison Mayor Raymond McDonough, who died last February of a heart attack.

“I think we all miss him a lot,” Rusek said. “We wanted to win it this year for him. He was a big supporter of our team. He was definitely here in spirit.

‘Dig Pink’ event big moment for Nutley volleyball

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Cristina Nicastro took over the Nutley High School girls’ volleyball program this fall and wanted to have the Maroon Raiders get involved with a community- related project during the season.

For the prior three years, while she was the head coach at Cedar Grove, Nicastro organized a “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where all of the proceeds of the event would go to the Side- Out Foundation, a group of volleyball teams on the high school, college and club levels that raise money for breast cancer awareness and research.

“I wanted to do the same thing here in Nutley,” said Nicastro, who just recently completed her first season with the Maroon Raiders. “Everyone was so supportive. The school’s administration, the kids, especially the parents, all got behind this cause.”

So as the season wound down, the Maroon Raiders played host to Bloomfield and held their first-ever “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where anyone and everyone was asked to don pink clothes and reach into their pockets to help the worthy cause.

“As soon as someone walked into the gym, there was pink everywhere,” Nicastro said. “It really was amazing. It was truly a ‘Pink- Out.’”

The parents made baked goods to be sold that day. The players were at the gym all day prior to the match decorating the gym and making the place pink and festive. “

Our players made paper volleyballs with their names on it, asking for a donation,” Nicastro said. “We probably made 1,000 paper volleyballs. It was really nice.”

The Third Half Club of Nutley, an athletic support group comprised of Nutley alumni, donated the money to purchase the pink T-shirts that the players wore.

“We also asked everyone there to wear something pink,” Nicastro said. “It really was a special night.”

More importantly, the Maroon Raiders managed to raise $3,000 for their efforts, one of the top schools in the “Dig Pink” fundraiser nationwide

And to make the evening complete, the Maroon Raiders won the match against Bloomfield, avenging a defeat earlier in the season.

“Next year, it will be bigger and better,” Nicastro said. “Hardly anyone knew about it this year. Hopefully, we will turn it into a Nutley volleyball tradition, a community event for years to come.”

The Maroon Raiders completed the first year of the Nicastro era with an 11-11 record. The new coach had hoped for better results, but after all, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“I’m happy we got to .500,” Nicastro said. “We had a rough start and it was hard to come back from it.”

The Maroon Raiders dropped their first four matches this season, putting them in a hole that was difficult to climb out of.

“We were 0-4, but it was so frustrating, because we were losing games in three sets and losing by two or three points,” Nicastro said. “We were so close, right there in every single game.”

The Maroon Raiders had a chance to upset perennially state-ranked power Livingston in the opening weeks, but fell to a hard defeat.

“I think that was all part of the growing pains,” Nicastro said. “The girls were getting to know me and I was getting to know them. It was tough for a while. But then, things finally clicked. The girls got used to the rotation and started beating teams left and right.”

Senior Molly Demgard was one of the top Maroon Raider performers. The outside hitter earned First Team All-Super Essex Conference honors and finished the season with an astounding 127 kills.

“She was my top returning varsity player and I really depended upon her experience,” Nicastro said. “She has a great serve and held us on the line.” Senior setter Jennifer Lohr also played a huge role.

“We relied on her to set on every single point,” Nicastro said. “We played a 5-1 formation, which meant that we were asking a lot of her. She did a phenomenal job. There were very few balls that she didn’t get to.”

Lohr had 191 service points to lead the team.

The team also relied upon senior reserves Victoria Matturro, Kristen Palermo, Abigail Gardner and Amanda Llano, who aided in the cause.

Matturro and Gardner were defensive specialists, Palermo an outside hitter and Llano a middle hitter.

“The seniors really helped to acclimate me to the program,” Nicastro said. “They were a huge help.”

Assistant coach Jenna Dwyer, a Nutley alum and former volleyball and basketball standout at the school, was also a huge help.

Junior Claudia Martin was the Maroon Raiders’ outside hitter, with twin sister Tess the opposite hitter.

“Claudia has a very unique serve who came up big for us on the back,” Nicastro said. “Tess had a big role in that she played three of the six rotations on the back row and helped us keep balls alive.”

Sophomore middle hitter Jessica Robinson had 226 digs, tops on the team.

“She was the libero once and we switched her position,” Nicastro said. “She studied hard and learned the position well. She became a great defender and was very consistent. She’s an excellent utility player.”

Sophomore Sara McEnery was another middle hitter, with good size (5-foot-10) at the net.

“We relied on her a lot,” Nicastro said of McEnery, who had 52 blocks, tops on the team.

Junior Emily Varga was the team’s reserve setter. She also spent a lot of time studying the game this year.

“She will be ready to step into that role next year as our top setter,” Nicastro said of McEnery. “I’m confident she can step into that role well.”

So the Maroon Raiders made Nicastro’s first season a successful one.

“I did consider it a very successful season,” Nicastro said. “I came in and had to make some changes. They had to understand my way of teaching the game.”

And for a change, the postseason won’t be that long.

“The girls are already talking about next season,” Nicastro said. “They’re ready to go now. They’re all excited about it and talking about it. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Harrison’s Lachgar finds his way and makes finale memorable

Lachgar_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team was all set to take on Waldwick in the NJSIAA Group I semifinals last Wednesday and senior defender Ali Lachgar was definitely excited to play in the game and get a chance to avenge last year’s loss in the same round of the state tournament.

But disaster struck. Lachgar, who attends County Prep in Jersey City but plays soccer for his home district of Harrison, left his school in plenty of time to get back home to Harrison in time to catch the team bus.

“I left school at 1 p.m. and got to Journal Square about 1:50 p.m.,” Lachgar explained. “When I got there, there was an announcement that all (PATH) trains from Journal Square to Newark were suspended temporarily.”

Apparently, a woman had fallen onto the train tracks and needed to be rescued. Service was shut down.

After an hour, Lachgar was panic stricken.

“I tried calling my parents, but they were at work,” Lachgar said. “There was no one else I could think of. Every minute that went by was so frustrating.”

The Harrison team bus was leaving school at 4 p.m. in time for the scheduled 6 p.m. kickoff at Indian Hills High School in Oakland.

It was at that time that Lachgar realized his worst nightmare had become a reality. He was going to have to miss the Blue Tide’s huge state semifinal game.

“I had to wait for my Dad to come get me,” Lachgar said. “No trains were running all night. I missed the game, what could have been my last game. I was so disappointed not to be there.”

“It was terrible,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said. “He was actually texting me and telling me where he was. I asked him if there was any way he could get someone to take him to the game, but there was no chance.”

The transportation issue had plagued Lachgar in the past.

“Since he goes to County Prep, he would come and go at practice,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said. “We didn’t know if he would be able to make it to practice every day. It was difficult being at another school.”

“My parents had it in mind that I would go to County Prep to further my education,” said Lachgar, who is another player of Moroccan descent on the Blue Tide roster, joining record-breaking goal scorer Ali Lahkrif. “I always played soccer with my friends down the courts. I never thought I would play soccer in high school.”

Lachgar went from Washington Middle School to County Prep, instead of going to Harrison High.

“At first, I was a little disappointed, because all my friends went to Harrison,” Lachgar said. “I was a little heartbroken and hurt, but after a few months, I got over it.”

But there was always that transportation thing. “Especially this year,” Lachgar said. “Practice would begin at 3:30 and there were times I didn’t get there until 4. But the coaches were understanding and were really lenient. Coach (Mike) Rusek always told me that he knew he had a place for me.”

Rusek definitely liked Lachgar’s potential, especially his size along the backline.

“He was a JV (junior varsity) player his first two years and last year, he came in off the bench,” Rusek said. “(Assistant coach and brother) John (Rusek) and I always thought that Ali would help this team out. He’s smart. He’s such a tall kid, but he’s smooth for his size. He could pretty much play anywhere, but he definitely helped us on the back line.”

Lachgar missed the game against Waldwick, a game won by the Blue Tide, 4-0, to advance to the overall NJSIAA Group I state championship game against Haddon Township Sunday.

“It was a big loss for us,” Rusek said. “I had to make a few adjustments on the way to the game. I was a little nervous that he wasn’t there, because Waldwick had a high scoring forward (Andrew Hymson) who had 20-plus goals this year. But the rest of the team stepped up without Ali. It could have been a tough one.”

Lachgar was obviously pleased that his high school career didn’t end in Journal Square.

“It was a huge sigh of relief for me, because I got to play one more game with my teammates,” Lachgar said. “I was checking updates on line about the game. I knew we would do well. We dominated.”

And Lachgar was not about to miss the state finale. “I was going to be at the school early,” Lachgar said.

Lachgar was with his teammates when they got to Kean University Sunday afternoon and the Blue Tide rolled once again, defeating Haddon Township by a similar 4-0 outcome, capturing the school’s national record 25th  state championship.

And as luck would have it, Lachgar, who went the entire season without a single goal, got his chance to make the score books.

With the Blue Tide holding a commanding 3-0 lead, Lachgar was taken down in the penalty area, earning a penalty kick.

“We have a rule that if you get fouled in the box, it’s your penalty kick,” Rusek said. “You earned it. Unless you want to pass it off to someone else, it’s yours.”

Lachgar didn’t hesitate at all. “He just grabbed the ball and went to the line,” Rusek said. “He didn’t have a goal all year, but he knew he was taking that shot.”

“Usually Leandro (Gonzales) takes the penalty kicks and he wanted to take it,” Lachgar said. “But I always joked with my friends that I was saving my goal for the state finals. This was my last chance, so I was taking that penalty kick and burying it.”

Which is exactly what Lachgar did, putting a cherry on the one-sided sundae that gives Harrison yet another state championship.

“There’s no better feeling in the world,” Lachgar said. “I can’t even put it into words. Was this really possible? I was the last one to score in the 25th state championship in the school’s history. You can’t even explain it. It’s amazing. It’s kind of like a Cinderella story. From not being able to help on Wednesday to scoring a goal in the state championship. Just amazing.”

“It really is incredible,” said Rusek of Lachgar, who has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week and the final honoree of the fall scholastic sports season. “It was well earned. Here’s four years of hard work all coming together in that one moment. It’s really like a Hollywood ending. Ali is the kind of player that every coach would like to have. It’s a great way for him to end his career.”

Lachgar would like to continue playing soccer in college. He has received moderate interest from schools like Seton Hall and Ramapo. He would also like to major in athletic training in college. Needless to say, he would be a major get for any school who gets him – provided he gets to the game on time.