The Kearny High School boys’ basketball team enjoyed a successful season in 2015-16, winning 16 games and earning a sense of respectability throughout the basketball community in New Jersey.
Now comes the hard part.
Head coach Bob McDonnell begins his fourth season with a ton of question marks.
“We lost a lot,” McDonnell said. “We graduated four starters. We lost a 1,000-point scorer (Joseph Baez) and a 700-rebounder (George Smyth). Those were tough losses.”
However, McDonnell believes that the Kards can rebound quickly and be a competitive force this season, despite the fact that the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League has eliminated the two-divisional format and has gone with just one giant league.
It means that the Kardinals will have to face every team in Hudson County at least once.
“Do I think we have capable people to fill those slots?” McDonnell asked. “Yes, I do. It’s tough to replace four starters, but I think we’ll have a good team. Let’s see how it works out.”
McDonnell likes his team’s approach.
“They’ve been working very hard,” said McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer. “They’re picking things up nicely. I think the hard work will pay off. They played roughly 40 games together in the summer and fall. That’s going to be a help as well. They know each other pretty well. We have some experience back from last year, but not a lot.”
The most experienced veteran on the roster is 6-foot senior point guard Gralen Vereen, who was an Honorable Mention All-HCIAL honoree last year.
Vereen averaged eight points per game and ranked among the top 30 in the state in steals and assists.
If the Kardinals are going to be competitive this season, they need a big season out of Vereen.
“We need him big time,” McDonnell said. “He has the ability to become a good scorer. He’s been working on his jump shot a little. He’s never had a problem getting to the basket. He’s the team captain and he has to lead the way. He’s bigger and stronger than he was last year. He’s even grown two inches. We’re counting on him to do a lot for us and pick up some of the scoring slack we lost.”
Robert Myers is a promising 6-foot-5 sophomore with a ton of talent.
“He’s a slasher who can get to the basket,” McDonnell said. “He can get to the rim well. He just has to assert himself a little and get a little confidence in himself. If he does, he can be a real good player.”
Javon Jackson is a 6-foot-1 senior who is a transfer from Pennsylvania who will have an immediate impact here.
“He’s a great jump shooter,” McDonnell said. “He can tend to be a little streaky at times, but he has a nice shot. We need him to hit shots from the perimeter to open up our inside game.”
Samuel Reginald Myers _ yes, all three names _ is a 6-foot-2 senior and the older brother of the talented Robert.
“Samuel Reginald is a big-time rebounder and defender,” McDonnell said. “We need him to be strong inside. We also need him to stay away from fouls and stay in games. He’s a physical presence and we need that. He can be like Dennis Rodman.”
Here’s to hoping he’s more like the former NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer on the court and not off it.
Senior Steve Kyratzis is a 5-foot-8 guard.
“He’s our defensive stopper,” McDonnell said. “He’s a really strong kid who gives us all-out hustle.”
Michael Fitzpatrick is a 6-foot-4 junior forward.
“He has a lot of very good court smarts,” McDonnell said. “He knows where he’s supposed to be and gets good position all the time.”
Eric Morales is a 5-foot-10 senior who is a very good scorer and helps the Kards’ backcourt situation. Joseph Stawicki is a 6-foot-6 senior forward who provides rebounding and defense and can be a force inside for the Kards.
Isiah Wheeler is a 5-foot-9 sophomore who is lightning quick and also has good court sense and savvy.
“Isiah goes only one speed and that’s fast,” McDonnell said.
The Kardinals open their 2016-2017 season at home Dec. 16 against North Bergen.
The Charlie Dolan Holiday Tournament will be played Dec. 28 and 29 and will feature Memorial, Dickinson and Nutley, so that should be a good two-day event honoring one of Kearny’s truest basketball legends.
“We have a lot of inexperience,” McDonnell said. “But the kids know their roles and have been doing a good job. All they need to do is fill their roles for us to be successful.”
The Kards will get to know how good they are come January.
“We have an eight-game stretch in January with games against Hudson Catholic, Dickinson, Lincoln and St. Peter’s, all within a three-week span,” McDonnell said. “Of our 25 opponents, 17 of them made the state playoffs last year. It’s going to be tough.”
But the Kardinals, under McDonnell, always find a way to persevere. This may have to be one of those times as well.
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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.”