Lyndhurst girls’ hoops: Making strides toward respectability

Over the last few years, the Lyndhurst High School girls’ basketball program has endured some tough seasons, surviving some years of growing pains under dutiful head coach John Cousins.

We didn’t know how to compete against teams better than us,” Cousins said of the Golden Bears’ malaise in recent seasons.

But before the 2016-17 season began, Cousins felt that there was a little change in the team’s fortunes.

“I think going into the season, we were not sure of how much the young kids would be able to contribute,” Cousins said. “But I could see with how hard the kids were working that we were going to see some results. We’re learning. You can see that we’re turning the corner. We’re very excited.”

Just how much have the Bears improved? Well, how’s this for a fun fact. Last year, the Golden Bears won 10 games all season.

After defeating Lodi 50-36 in the opening round of the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference tournament Friday night, the Bears own a 10-5 record this season, which means that they have already matched last year’s win total _ with just about a half of the season to go.

“The kids are doing a great job,” said Cousins, who had to display an incredible amount of patience in each of his first four seasons as head coach. “You could see it in the way we played against New Milford (one of the top teams in the NJIC). They were right there in the game the whole way. The kids’ efforts have been tremendous.”

The win over Lodi has catapulted the Golden Bears into the NJIC Tournament quarterfinals where they will face Eastern Christian Friday at Eastern Christian in North Haledon at 6 p.m.

“I think it has helped that the kids understand their roles better,” Cousins said. “They understand where they need to be. We play a 2-2-1 press (on defense) a lot and they need to know where they have to be. Their understanding of the game improves every game.”

Cousins said that another key to the Bears’ success this season has been the depth of the roster.

“We have 12 kids on the team,” Cousins said. “And all of the kids play in every single game. We’re getting the maximum effort from our roster. We need to play solid defense to be competitive and that’s what we’re doing.”

How stifling is the Golden Bears’ defense? Well, just last week, they held Bergen Charter to just five points total. The game prior, they held Leonia to just 11 points. That’s downright smothering defense.

“That’s the only way we can be competitive,” Cousins said. “We need to play solid defense.”

Leading the way is junior Grace Cappiello, who is averaging a little less than 11 points per game and five rebounds.

“She’s still doing everything we ask of her,” Cousins said of Cappiello. “She had 12 rebounds the other game and eight points. We’ve asked her to do the bulk of the ball handling and she’s done it. She has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders and she’s done a good job. She’s still producing every game. She doesn’t have to be the only one scoring. We’ve had others who have stepped up.”

One of those improved players is sophomore guard Angela Downey, who has really made her mark of late. Downey is averaging 6.7 points and nearly four rebounds per game. She’s also the team’s best threat from 3-point range, having connected on 15 shots from beyond the arch.

“She’s doing much more,” Cousins said.

Sophomore Angelina DeCaro, a 5-foot-10 forward, is playing basketball for the first time and is averaging eight points and eight rebounds per game.

“I don’t think anyone saw that coming,” Cousins said of DeCaro’s contributions.

Junior guard Makenzie McMillan is a 5-foot-5 guard.

“I’d take 12 players like Makenzie,” said Cousins of McMillan, who is averaging nearly six points, three rebounds and three assists per game. “She’s a positive play waiting to happen.”

Senior forward Uxia Parada is a 5-foot-8 fixture close to the basket, but can also stick the long-range shot if needed.

“She goes after the ball and rebounds well,” Cousins said of Parada, who is averaging five points and three rebounds per contest.

Fellow senior Alyssa Mezzina has also been a contributor, averaging five points and nearly five rebounds per game.

Gabriela Schnur, a 5-foot-4 sophomore guard, averages nearly four points and two rebounds per game coming off the bench.

Freshman guard Julia Brubaker has also been a great addition to the program.

“She just brings a great defensive energy every time she plays,” Cousins said of the rookie Brubaker. “She has quickness and defensive intensity. She has a ton of potential.”

The Golden Bears have already secured a berth in this month’s NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state playoffs, but are looking to make some noise in the NJIC Tourney, the league’s first-ever for basketball.

“In the past, we spent so much time in skill development,” said Cousins, who received a lot of help in the offseason from close friend and former Lyndhurst boys’ basketball coach Chuck Martin. “This year, it’s been defensive development. We have made the commitment to practice defense and no question about it, defense is the main reason for our success.”

Needless to say, Cousins is pleased with the Golden Bears’ progress.

“We’re so pleasantly surprised,” Cousins said. “We’re exceeding expectations. Not only are we playing hard, but we’re playing harder. When you have a little bit of success, you want more and they’re working to try to have more.  You can see the results that we have. We’re having positive results. They think good things about themselves and good things are happening.”

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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.”