After enduring a tough 6-14 campaign where she graduated seven seniors, Belleville High School girls’ basketball coach Liz Ramirez is taking a different approach this season.
“I’ve basically started all over,” Ramirez said. “We have two seniors and the rest are all sophomores and freshmen. So we’re very young. While I’m looking forward to the future with these girls, there’s no time like the present. I’d like to get it done with the team I have now.”
Ramirez likes one predominant factor about her team. “We’re very tall,” Ramirez said. “We have four girls who are 5-foot-11 and taller. I’m right at home with these girls.”
Ramirez stands about 5-foot-10.
“We’re working on their timing and their understanding of the game,” Ramirez said. “But the one thing you can’t teach, we have. You can’t teach height.”
The Buccaneers currently have a 1-3 record heading into regular season action in the Super Essex Conference.
“We’re getting a good idea of what we have and the girls are getting a good feel of where we’re at,” Ramirez said. “We have a couple of girls who got a lot of varsity time last year and we’re relying on them.”
One of those players is 5-foot-10 senior guard Priscilla Olavarria, who has been nothing short of spectacular through the first four games of the season. Olavarria had a 25-point game in a win over Montclair Immaculate and has reached double digits in scoring in all four contests.
This all comes with Olavarria having to learn a new position.
“Last year, she played the four (power forward) for us,” Ramirez said. “This year, she’s playing the two (shooting guard). She’s very comfortable with the move. She averaged about five or six points per game last year.”
So there’s an obvious improvement.
“She has much more confidence,” Ramirez said. “She is a very well rounded athlete. It’s been a seamless transition for her changing positions.”
The team’s new point guard is freshman fireball Jehann Dabon, who has been excellent thus far. Dabon had 12 points in a game against St. Elizabeth Academy and 11 in the win over Montclair Immaculate.
“She’s an excellent ball handler,” Ramirez said. “She sees the floor well. She’s the prototypical point guard. It’s just a matter of her getting used to the level of competition. But everything else is in place for her to be a good player for us.”
Junior Gianna Benacquista is the team’s center. The 6-foot Benacquista, who had three sisters who played for Belleville before her, has been a godsend thus far. She scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the game against St. Elizabeth.
“She’s improved tremendously,” Ramirez said. “She’s also a good athlete. She can get outside and shoot the 3-pointer. It’s a weapon we could use and we’re going to see how that works. But she’s a presence down low.”
Sophomore Emani Hill is the team’s power forward. Hill stands 5-foot-10.
“She has a nice shot from the elbow and is one of our best free throw shooters,” Ramirez said. “We’re working on her becoming a better rebounder.”
Janelle Ramirez (no relation to the coach) is another starter who is also 5-foot-10.
“She’s a very good player and she’s very tough,” Ramirez said of Janelle. “She just needs a little more finesse to her game. But when she gets a rebound, no one is taking that away from her.”
Senior Janae Bryant is a 5-foot-9 forward and team captain.
“She’s a great rebounder, but she’s also a very good all around team leader,” Ramirez said of Bryant.
Senior Keila Garcia, who is also a standout softball and soccer player at Belleville, is a 5-foot-4 guard who adds depth to the backcourt.
Needless to say, the pieces are there for the Buccaneers.
“We’re much improved over last year and we definitely expect more,” Ramirez said. “I think we can get into the states (the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV bracket). We’re definitely capable of getting there. But now, it has to happen.”
The Buccaneers can also be more competitive in the Super Essex Conference Independence Division, where they face teams like Montclair Kimberley Academy, Arts, Science Park and Newark Central, all of Newark, Cedar Grove, Glen Ridge and Golda Och.
“It’s a good group,” Ramirez said. “The younger kids just need a little more experience.”
Time will certainly tell.
Learn more about the writer ...
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.”