Kearny boys’ basketball team celebrates league title at awards dinner

The Kearny High School boys’ basketball team had a year to remember in 2015-16, winning 17 games and capturing the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League’s White Division championship, marking the first league title earned by the Kardinals in 52 years, back to 1964 and the days of the World’s Fair in New York and the Beatles first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Yes, it was that historic of a season.

So there had to be something to celebrate such a momentous season, right?

Well, to head coach Bob McDonnell’s credit, he hosts an awards dinner at the end of every year, to recognize his seniors, to award the achievements of the players and to have a happy get-together and meal as a reward for the players’ hard work.

Once again, the Kearny boys’ basketball awards dinner was held at the American Legion Post on Belgrove Drive, with almost 150 people _ players and their families _ in attendance.

The guest speaker for the evening was William Paterson University’s interim head coach Brian Chapman, who is a Kearny native and Kearny High graduate, so he could relate with the players.

Chapman played basketball for Kearny and graduated in 1980, so coming back for the dinner brought back a lot of memories.

“I arrived early for the dinner, so I decided to drive around the town to take a look at some of the old places,” Chapman said. “I had to make sure that the courts were still there.”

Chapman said that he grew up on Midland Avenue and used to frequent the basketball courts at the Gunnell Oval.

“This really was a homecoming for me,” Chapman said. “I loved taking that ride around. It brought back a lot of memories. It was a real honor for me to be there at the dinner. It was a real thrill. It was a great experience. I remember sitting in the same room as those kids and thinking the same way, whether I could play in college, could I go to college. It was kind of surreal being back in my hometown and being asked to speak at a dinner. But it was a real honor.”

Chapman said that he tried to relay the message that anything was possible for those kids.

“I said that I’d been where they’re at now and I said that there will be a point in your life where you could wish you could be where you are now and start all over again,” said Chapman, who works in the admissions office at William Paterson when not coaching. “If there was any advice I could give them, it would be to reach for their goals. I think the kids appreciated that I was from Kearny like them.”

McDonnell liked Chapman’s message.

“He spoke about having a plan for the future, that these kids needed to have a plan,” McDonnell said. “He said that they were already good examples of what happens when you work hard. It really was nice to have a Kearny guy come back to speak.”

Chapman said that it was his honor to greet the Kardinals.

“Bob did a great job with them this year,” Chapman said. “They played hard and won their league. How many Kearny teams can say that? They reached their potential. That says a lot. I was happy to share the excitement with the players. It really was an honor for me to be there with them.”

Junior guard Gralen Vereen, who earned the Hustle Award for the varsity squad, leading the Kardinals in steals and assists, said that he felt honored to be at the dinner.

“It meant a lot, because it shows that people really cared about us,” Vereen said. “They were thanking us for all of our hard work and that really felt great.”

Vereen said that he had a special sense of pride being part of a championship that was 52 years in the making.

“It feels great to know that I was able to take part in something that hadn’t been done in Kearny in such a long time,” Vereen said. “We went at it hard in practice to try to do the best we could in games. We finally won a championship, so that really inspires me.”

The Kardinals did have a roster filled with seniors, so Vereen will be looked upon to carry the winning torch.

“We might have a smaller team and we do lose a lot of good players, but we can do it again if we put our minds to it,” Vereen said. “No one thought we could do anything. But we can win a championship, right here in Kearny.”

Vereen credited his mother, Jennifer, for providing the inspiration in having a good season.

“She was there every step of the way with me,” Vereen said.

McDonnell said that he will miss all six of his seniors.

“The mood in the room was very good, even thought we were saying goodbye to our seniors,” McDonnell said.

Exavier Horne “was part of the program for three years and worked hard to get better,” McDonnell said. “He had a good attitude and got a lot of playing time at the end of the year.”

Sammy Sanchez “was the energy of the team,” McDonnell said. “He had a voice that could be heard miles away. But he’s a great kid who will be missed.”

Joey Esteves “was the recipient of our Most Improved Player,” McDonnell said. “He was a major bright spot for us. He came hard and played hard. He did a lot of things that flew under the radar.”

George Smyth, Jr. “was a three-year varsity player and hard worker who graduated with 711 rebounds,” McDonnell said. “He also had a lot of blocked shots and did things that he didn’t get credit for.”

Joe Baez became the latest member of the Kearny 1,000-point scorer’s club.

“I can’t say enough about what he did for us,” McDonnell said. “He matured into a fine player and became a leader for us. He worked his way up to become a Second Team All-County player.”

McDonnell praised them all.

“These guys did something special at Kearny High School, something special that will never be forgotten,” McDonnell said. “It’s going to be hard trying to replace them.”

There were other award honorees as well.

On the junior high school level, the Coach’s Award went to Westyn Latka and the Hustle Award to Ian Pilgrim. On the freshman level, the Coach’s Award went to Yared Oghabir and the Hustle Award to Omar Martinez. On the junior varsity level, the Coach’s Award was presented to Michael Fitzpatrick and the Hustle Award to Isiah Wheeler.

On the varsity level, the Charlie Dolan Award went to Smyth, the Coach’s Award to Baez, the top defensive player award to Sammy Sanchez, the Hustle Award to Gralen Vereen, the most improved player to Esteves and the academic achievement award to Smyth as well.

Each player was presented with a plaque for winning the divisional title in the HCIAL. Baez was awarded for earning Second Team All-County and Vereen and Smyth were honorable mention All-County honorees.

A special plaque was presented to assistant coach Mike Reilly, who has decided to retire after nearly 50 years of coaching basketball.

All in all, a year to remember for the Kardinals.

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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.”