Kards ready to take next step up

Photoo by Jim Hague The Kearny boys’ basketball team will look to captains, from l., George Smyth, Joseph Baez and Joseph Esteves, as well as head coach Bob McDonnell (holding ball) to lead the way this season. The Kardinals open Dec. 18 against McNair Academic.
Photo by Jim Hague
The Kearny boys’ basketball team will look to captains, from l., George Smyth, Joseph Baez and Joseph Esteves, as well as head coach Bob McDonnell (holding ball) to lead the way this season. The Kardinals open Dec. 18 against McNair Academic.

The Kearny High School boys’ basketball team made major strides a year ago, winning 13 games and qualifying for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state tournament for the first time in six years, facing Paterson Kennedy.

But as Bob McDonnell enters his third year as head coach, he reflects back to a season that could have been even better.

“We lost too many close games that we should have won,” said McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer. “I think that experience is going to help us immensely.”

With three returning starters and a bunch of other proven veterans, the Kardinals will look to take a step up this season and improve on the win total of a year ago.

“Without a doubt, we should be better this year,” said Mc- Donnell, whose team posted a 13-14 record last season. “Our kids worked hard in the off-season, playing in a lot of summer leagues and fall leagues.”

The Kards were together for close to 60 games during the summer and fall, getting ready for the upcoming season.

“We played a lot of teams that we don’t normally play, so I think that is going to help us as we move on in the Hudson County (Interscholastic Athletic) League,” McDonnell said. “We had a nice combination of games that will prepare us for the season.”

McDonnell said that his four captains all took on leadership roles, even organizing trips to play pick-up games in Clifton, Passaic and Harrison.

“Some even rode their bikes there,” McDonnell said. “That showed me something. They all made sure that the other kids on the team were doing something together.”

Senior guard Joseph Baez, one of the team’s captains, returns. The 5-foot-9 Baez, a former Observer Athlete of the Week, led the Kards in scoring last year at 15.1 points per game. Baez is also a quick ball handler and fine defender. He’s also an excellent baseball player for the Kardinals in the spring.

“The one thing Baez will face this year is that teams are now aware of him,” McDonnell said. “So he’s going to face a lot of double teams. He’s going to see his assist numbers go up more than his points. I believe he’s up to the task of being this team’s leader on the floor. He’s working more on his distribution of the basketball.”

McDonnell said that he has a special bond with Baez, who he has coached since his grade school days.

“There were times last year, when I would say something and he knew exactly what I was going to say before I said it,” McDonnell said. “We’re on the same page and we do get along with each other well. There’s a big give-and-take there. Joe has made big strides in being a team player. If he can improve his defensive mentality to become as impressive as his offensive skills, watch out.”

Another key returnee is 6-foot-5 forward George Smyth.

“He’s our hardest worker in the weight room,” McDonnell said. “He’s put on some weight and gotten stronger. He’s made the biggest strides of anyone. We don’t have a deep bench of big men, so he has to play a big role with us. We need him on the floor. He’s in the best shape of any player we have. In the physical league in Hudson County, he’s going to play against some big-time football players. So he needs to be physical and needs to stand up to it.”

Smyth has also worked on his outside shot.

“He worked hard on his perimeter game,” McDonnell said. “He’s more comfortable out there now.”

Smyth averaged 11.1 points and nine rebounds per game last season. He’s receiving interest from schools like Moravian, Baruch and RPI.

The third returning starter is 5-foot-9 junior point guard Gralen Vereen, who averaged nearly six points per game and 3.2 assists per contest.

“He hit the weight room hard,” McDonnell said of Vereen. “He’s much stronger. He’s a lot more confident in himself. I’m looking for him to run the offense and score some points. He’s a top notch floor leader.”

The fourth senior leader is 5-foot-10 forward Joe Esteves.

“He’s going to help us with his outside shooting,” McDonnell said of Esteves. “He’s going to be my outside threat. He can put the ball on the floor and go by people. He’s very quick. He’s sees the court unbelievably, considering he hasn’t been playing the game that long. But he’s picked up the principles of the game better than anyone.”

Junior Samuel Myers is a 6-foot-3 power forward who “is a first-rate defender and rebounder,” according to McDonnell.

Senior Sammy Sanchez is a 5-foot-9 guard who Mc- Donnell calls “the Energizer bunny.”

“He just keeps going and going non-stop,” McDonnell said. “He’s going to be my defensive stopper.”

Senior Kenny Rankin is a 6-foot swingman who has a nice outside touch.

Exavier Horne, Jacob Bradley, Steve Kryatis, Joseph Sawicki, Kevin Cornelio and freshman Robert Myers provide McDonnell with some quality depth.

“We have many versatile players,” McDonnell said. “We have a good mix of experience and leadership. Many of the players got their varsity exposure last year. They’re expected to step up and fill various roles for the team. It’s all about performing on the defensive end of the floor. But the players believe in themselves and each other.”

The Kardinals open their season Dec. 18 against Mc- Nair Academic of Jersey City, the school where current Kearny assistant coach Mike Reilly was the longtime head coach.

The Kards will also host the Charlie Dolan Holiday Tournament, named after the Kearny native who has given so much of his time to the youth of the community, especially young basketball players. That tournament will feature Dickinson of Jersey City, as well as Belleville and Nutley, Dec. 29 and 30.

There will also be freshman and junior varsity components to the tournament, as well, the same for the girls.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”