After averaging about six points and four rebounds per game last season as a reserve, Steve Velez knew that he was going to have to play a bigger role on the North Arlington High School boys’ basketball team this season.
“I saw how much we were losing in graduation,” Velez said. “We were losing two main important seniors and I knew that I was going to have to fill one of those spots. I wanted to be a main contributor.”
So as soon as last basketball season was over, Velez went to work.
“I lost 38 pounds through diet and exercise,” Velez said. “I started running two miles a day. I hit the weight room every day. I played football and that really helped me get into shape.”
Velez was a defensive end and offensive tackle for the Vikings in the fall.
“I got a lot stronger and my moves were a lot quicker,” Velez said.
Velez has been playing basketball since he was a youngster and always took the sport seriously. He played for five different AAU programs over the last five summers. He had a stint with the famed St. Michael’s CYO program in Union City that was coached by former Secaucus High School head coach Carlos Cueto.
“Coach Cueto showed me the ropes and got me away from the grammar school mentality,” Velez said. “He helped me get much better.”
Then there was a stint with the Pure Basketball AAU program out of Bound Brook. And there was a time with Hoop Heaven in Whippany.
“I got a little bit of something from all of them,” Velez said.
Velez said he also learned a lot from the Vikings’ coaching staff, namely head coach Rich Corsetto and assistant coaches George Rotondo and Marcello D’Andrea.
“Coach Corsetto always told me that I should be concerned about finishing,” Velez said. “If the man wants me to finish, I’ll finish. I missed a wide open layup last year against St. Mary’s (Rutherford) and I told them that loss was on me. Coach D’Andrea told me that he was going to need me big time this season. He said he needed me to be big, but I didn’t have to be 6-foot-4 to be big.”
Corsetto mentioned a basketball legend who played bigger than his size _ namely Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.
“He’s like a Charles Barkley for his height,” Corsetto said. “He’s all work, all desire, all determination, all drive.”
That was news to Velez’s ears.
“My favorite player all-time is Charles Barkley,” Velez said. “I would love to play like him.”
So Velez did everything he could to improve as a player for this season.
“To be honest, I was very nervous,” Velez said. “It was a huge role for me. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to fill it. But I knew the coaches were relying heavily on me.”
“He’s such a hard worker,” Corsetto said. “He’s such a great kid. He’s unselfish. He practices as hard as he plays. I knew he was going to get better. I could sense it from the first day of practice. I could tell he was going to have a great season.”
Velez knew that he was going to give his all.
“I had to play hard,” Velez said. “I had to be tough and leave it all on the floor. It didn’t matter that I was undersized. I had to have a nose for the ball. I had to predict where the ball was going to land.”
Velez had a good idea that he was headed for a solid season when he scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a win over Belvidere.
“That’s when I thought I could fill the spot,” Velez said.
Just recently, Velez has exploded with his all-around play.
“He’s been our MVP,” Corsetto said. “You can’t hide that. Because of his numbers, his consistency throughout the season, his points, rebounds and assists, he’s done a great job.”
Velez’s surge began with a win over Saddle Brook, a game where he compiled a triple-double, totaling 19 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing off for 11 assists.
“I knew then that I had to ride this streak out,” Velez said.
He then had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a win over Wallington and capped it all off with a brilliant 36-point, 21-rebound, seven assist game against Wood-Ridge.
Think about that game. Velez scored 36 points, hauled down 21 rebounds and still managed to dish off for seven assists. Even the immortal Barkley never achieved totals like that.
“I was absolutely shocked,” Velez said. “It’s the most I ever scored in my life. I was almost at a loss for words. That was a game for me where everything was going in. My teammates kept feeding me the ball because I couldn’t miss.”
For his efforts, Velez has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Velez has enabled the Vikings to post a 20-5 record as they prepare for their first round game against Shabazz of Newark in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs next week.
“It means a great deal to me, because I put so much time and effort into it,” said Velez, who is averaging 13.5 points and seven rebounds per game this season. “I have to thank my father (Norberto) who took me all over the place to play and helped me get better. He spent all the time and money because he wanted me to be good.”
“He comes from a great family,” Corsetto said. “His mother and father don’t miss a game. He gets great support. His father is constantly working with the kid.”
Velez is also a good student who hopes to attend New Jersey City University to major in business and marketing in the fall, enrolling in NJCU’s five-year program. It’s a school where former Viking basketball and soccer great Tyler Krychkowski headed to after his days at North Arlington were over.
“Tyler was someone who I looked up to,” Velez said. “I looked up to Tyler and Nick Martin. They were great players and I learned a lot from them.”
And maybe, there’s a young player in North Arlington who is watching Velez so totally overachieve this season and became inspired by Velez’s play.
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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.”