Kearny girls’ basketball team should be athletic and quick

The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team posted a competitive 13-13 record last year in a developmental year for veteran head coach Jody Hill and the Kardinals.

“I think these girls remember the experience of last year,” said Hill, whose team lost in the Hudson County Tournament to eventual tourney runner-up Lincoln and lost in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV tournament. “That team was fairly young.”

Now, as the Kardinals prepare for their Dec. 16 opener against North Bergen, Hill finds the Kardinals to be a year older, wiser and better.

“Last year, we were starting from scratch,” Hill said. “We had a bunch of sophomores that we had to teach how to play varsity basketball. But they all got varsity experience. They all learned our system. We have to expect that there are better things to come.”

One of the reasons for Hill’s optimism is a legitimate inside game with a host of talented forwards to play close to the basket.

“We’ve always been guard strong,” said Hill, who was a stellar point guard during her playing days at Harrison High and later Pace University. “But we really didn’t have an inside threat last year. Now, you’re going to see that we have an inside game and that will open up our outside game, our three-point game. I think our penetrators will be better. I think it’s going to help our transition game. So having the presence down low is going to help.”

Leading the way for the Kardinals is 5-foot-8 junior guard Meagan McClelland, who has been busy over the last few weeks finishing up her commitment to the United States National 17-and-under soccer team as a brilliant goalkeeper.

McClelland stands to miss the first few games of the season due to her USNT commitments, but the talented point guard, who averaged 15 points per game and six rebounds last year in basketball, will be back soon enough.

“Meagan had a phenomenal year for us,” Hill said. “Every game, she stood out. She dishes off with great passes, but she also has a great outside shot. She’s quick with the ball and gets to the basket. She has excellent speed. She’s a study in what a point guard can do. Even though she’s only a junior, we named her as a captain. She gets respect from her teammates. She always wants to do her best. She knows that a balanced team is a better team. We need her to be a playmaker and a creator. She can handle that.”

Senior Sydney Pace, the multi-sport standout, returns to her spot at shooting guard, where she averaged eight points per game last year. Pace and McClelland comprise one of the best all-around backcourts in Hudson County.

“I see a huge improvement in Syd Pace,” Hill said. “Last year, she was coming off the ACL (knee) surgery and she was a step slow. She wasn’t confident at all. But now, she doesn’t even think about the knee anymore. I really expect her to have a standout season. She has great composure and an excellent eye for the court. I think she plays well together with Meagan and that’s a real plus.”

Senior Isabel Fernandes, a 5-foot-7 small forward and soccer star like McClelland and Pace, adds athleticism to the Kards.

“She’s one of the fastest players on the team,” Hill said. “She’s a great defender and great offensive rebounder. She’s also our best jumper. She gets nice lift off the floor. She’s very tenacious down low and helps us with her offensive rebounds to get more points on the board.”
Hill is probably most excited about 6-foot junior forward Estefania Dilone.

“She only started playing basketball her freshman year,” Hill said. “But if all goes well, she can be a major factor this year. She has improved leaps and bounds. She always asks what she can do to be a better player. Her hard work has paid off in her gaining confidence. I’m pleasantly impressed with how far she’s come.”

So far that Dilone was named the team’s third captain.

“She definitely has the size,” Hill said. “So does the team. We have inside players who can contribute.”

Junior Emilee Marshall is one of those players. The 5-foot-11 junior will see considerable playing time. So will 5-foot-10 junior Keziah Mitchell.

“She brings a lot of energy and spunk to the team,” Hill said of Mitchell.

The team also features twin sisters in sophomores Allison and Nicole DiNuzzo. The 6-foot sisters add depth to the Kardinal frontcourt.

Junior Jillian McCourt is a 5-foot-6 versatile player and first one off the bench for Hill at either guard or forward.

Juniors Bre Costa and Savannah Iverson, a pair of 5-foot-3 guards, will also figure prominently.

“Bre is a great team player who is very athletic,” Hill said. “She’s been also good in leading, telling people where to go. Savannah doesn’t make mistakes. She’s a feisty, good defender. She also makes shots.”
Sophomore Gianna Nigro, a 5-foot-6 guard, will be the back-up to McClelland at the point and may get the nod when McClelland is away for the first few weeks.

“She’s a nice back-up who can also play the two-guard (shooting guard),” Hill said. “I’m excited about this kid. I’m confident she can do the job and confident in her game.”

Sophomore Nayely Melenciano is a 5-foot-6 guard who is a nice addition to the varsity.

“She’s a passionate defender who probably gets after the ball better than anyone on the team,” Hill said. “She attacks the basket well off the dribble.”

Junior Diana DeSousa is a 5-foot-5 guard who a “pure shooter,” according to Hill.

“We’re going to get her the ball to make shots,” Hill said.

Junior forward Natasha Magee, a 5-foot-10 newcomer, is a former track athlete who has joined basketball for the first time.

“We’re working with her on the fundamentals, but she’s a quick learner and very coachable,” Hill said.

Sophomore Kaitlyn Aquino, a 5-foot-6 guard, is coming off an ACL tear, so she’s coming along slowly. Freshmen Skyler Matusz, a 5-foot-6 guard, and Eliana Huancaya, a 5-foot-5 guard, will remain with the varsity.

The Kardinals open against North Bergen. They will also host the Charlie Dolan Tournament with Livingston, Irvington and St. Anthony coming to the gym.

Needless to say, it should be a fun season for the Kardinals.

“We put a lot of emphasis on defense,” Hill said. “We try to use our defense to get out into our transition game. We’re going to be exciting to watch.”


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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.”