It’s a Buccaneer bonanza: Belleville’s girls off to best start in ages

Veteran Belleville High School girls’ basketball coach Liz Ramirez knew that she had the makings of a good team during preseason.

“We had a lot of talent back from last year,” Ramirez said. “Plus, the SEC (Super Essex Conference) dropped us from the Independence Division to the Freedom Division. I didn’t know if I liked it or disliked it, but it is what it is.”

Ramirez learned one thing about being in the Freedom Division.

“We’re extremely competitive in this league,” Ramirez said. “We’re just playing the cards that were dealt to us.”

Well, the Buccaneers were dealt a royal flush, because they’re enjoying the best start to a season that any Belleville girls’ basketball team had in ages.

“It’s the best start since I’ve been here,” said Ramirez of the Buccaneers’ 4-1 start over the first three weeks of the new season. “We’re thrilled. I told the kids that I was ecstatic about everything that’s going on right now. I’m super proud of them.”

The Buccaneers have defeated North Star Academy, St. Vincent Academy of Newark, Lacordaire Academy and People’s Prep, while the lone loss was at the hands of Bloomfield.

“We were extremely competitive,” Ramirez said of the Bloomfield loss. “They’re two divisions ahead of us. We’re doing a really good job.”
One of the main reasons for the Buccaneers’ success has been the play of sophomore point guard Jehann Davon.

The 5-foot-3 Davon has been running the show for the Bucs.

“She does pretty much everything for us,” Ramirez said. “She controls the tempo. She has a lot more confidence than she had last year. She knows what she has to do and orchestrates the fast break very well.”

Another key is 5-foot-1 senior shooting guard Najalis Gual.

“She’s just a seasoned player who understands the plays,” Ramirez said. “She is a very good defensive player.”

Sydney Gomez is the Bucs’ starter at small forward. The 5-foot-4 junior is another solid defender.

“She’s definitely our best defensive player,” Ramirez said. “She shut down Bloomfield’s best player well. She’s our best defensive threat.”

Junior Emani Hill is a 6-0 junior, but she’s more of a finesse player, according to Ramirez.

“She’s learned a lot about the game over the last two years,” Ramirez said. “She’s mastered the high-low with her teammates.”
The one teammate that Hill runs a lot of the high-low sets with is senior Gianna Benacquista, who is the team’s best player. The 6-foot-1 Benacquista is averaging 17 points and five rebounds per game and has even been displaying a shot from 3-point range.

“She can do it all,” Ramirez said of Benacquista. “She answers the call every game. She’s definitely our team leader.”

Yancyzka Flores is a 5-foot-10 sophomore forward off the bench.

“She’s the first player off the bench,” Ramirez said. “She has the amazing ability to find the ball. We have specific plays where we use our size to our advantage. Flores can also shoot the 3-ball. We capitalize on that.”

Fiorella Samaniego is a 5-1 freshman guard. She’s the third Samaniego sister to play for Ramirez.

“I think having sisters in the program really helped her confidence coming in,” Ramirez said. “Her confidence level is off the roof. She’s been doing pretty well.”

Samaniego can play point guard to spell Davon when necessary.

Helena Dropic is a 5-foot-4 junior guard who Ramirez is working with to improve her outside touch.

“We’ve talked to her about becoming more of a 3-point shooter,” Ramirez said. “The other day against Bloomfield, we put her in and she hit a three right away.”

The Buccaneers face Christ the King of Newark on Thursday, Jan. 5 to resume their season.

“It’s a great start, but we have to keep it going,” Ramirez said. “I think they’ll be able to do it.”

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.”