Kearny looks to build on solid girls’ hoops season

The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team enjoyed an excellent campaign a year ago, posting a 17-8 record and advancing to the Hudson County Tournament semifinals.

Although the Kardinals lost some talented players to graduation, veteran head coach Jody Hill is confident that her team will be able to build on the success enjoyed last season.

“We have a great combination of experience and youth,” said Hill, who amazingly begins her 22nd season as the leader of the Kardinals. “We have seven seniors back. We also have a nice group of young kids coming in. We don’t have anyone who is slowing down our progress. We’re moving forward every day. I think having that kind of experience is good. I think we have well balanced talent. I think all the fundamentals of the game are being covered.”

Hill is fortunate to have sensational senior point guard Meagan McClelland back for her final go-round. The 5-foot-9 McClelland, who is a world class goalkeeper in soccer and has already signed a national letter of intent to attend Rutgers University to play soccer there next fall, has been given clearance to play basketball.

McClelland wasn’t as fortunate during the recent soccer season and had to remain on the sidelines due to NJSIAA regulations for the entire year. But McClelland has returned to the hardwood, where she averaged 17.3 points per game last year.

“I know it was very hard for her not to be with her soccer teammates this year,” Hill said of McClelland. “I got the happy news (two weeks ago) that she was going to be able to play for us this year. When she’s with us, it definitely changes the game plan and our goals for the year. You’re able to go above and beyond expectations when you have her.”

McClelland does a little bit of everything for the Kardinals, even beyond her immense talent scoring. She will begin her senior campaign just 110 points shy of becoming a 1,000-point scorer for her career.

But McClelland also handles the ball well, distributes well (almost three assists per contest), rebounds with authority and plays solid defense.

“It’s going to make defenses very tough to guard her,” Hill said. “She can shoot from the outside and get to the post, all in the same offensive set. She’s a very dangerous player for us. I absolutely think she’s one of the best players in the county. I hope she can lead us all season because this is her last shot.”

McClelland’s backcourt mate is also a familiar name, especially with soccer fans. Sophomore Skyler Matusz is a 5-foot-7 shooting guard who managed to break the school’s single season goal-scoring record in soccer last fall, finding the nets an astounding 39 times.

Matusz was named the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League Player of the Year in soccer. Hill believes that her soccer prowess can carry over to the hardwood.

“Her speed is unmatched,” Hill said. “She can get the ball and go coast to coast with the ball. No one can keep up with her. She also sticks like glue to whoever she guards on defense. We will see how it goes with her this year.”

The other guard in the Kardinal mix is 5-foot-4 senior Savannah Iverson.

“She comes with a lot of experience,” Hill said of Iverson. “She’s very tough on the defensive end. She makes good decisions with the ball and she gets to the basket well. She’s a good penetrator.”

Another returnee is 6-foot senior center Estefania Dilone.

“She’s shown tremendous growth over her four years with us,” Hill said. “It’s leaps and bounds from where she once was. I think she’s going to be one of the top post players in the county. She really has developed into a nice player.”

And quite possibly, Dilone has morphed into a college basketball prospect. With her height and ability to shoot around the basket, there has to be some college willing to take a shot on her. But for now, Dilone will cause enough havoc for the Kardinals.

“Her goal is to play in college,” said Hill, who was a standout player at Harrison High School and later Pace University in the 1980s. “She knows she has to become more diversified with her game. She has gained a lot of confidence and this is the first year she’s come in with confidence. She looks smoother. She looks like things are coming naturally. She’s making better decisions with the ball and has developed an understanding of the game.”

Junior Nayely Melenciano is a 5-foot-7 swing player.

“She can play either the three (small forward) or the four (inside player or power forward), depending on who’s in the game. She brings a lot of hustle. She’s feisty and competitive. She has good tenacity. She rebounds well and scraps for loose balls. She’s tough.”

Jillian McCourt, from the famed McCourt family in Kearny (her uncle Rob is the head soccer coach at Monmouth University), is a 5-foot-5 senior swing player.

“She’s a very good athlete who runs the floor well,” Hill said. “She has worked tirelessly on her outside shot. But she has the ability to penetrate well. We just give her the ball and watch her go. She’s another quick defender.”

Junior Gianna Nigro is a 5-foot-4 guard who can also play the point guard position.

“She’s created a great opportunity for us to move Meagan (McClelland) around,” Hill said. “She’s gained a lot of confidence. She has good skills and basketball smarts. She’s ready to make an impact.”

Senior Emilee Marshall is a 5-foot-10 forward who is also a standout volleyball player at the school.

“She’s the strongest player on the team,” Hill said. “She has all the fundamentals down. She rebounds well. We’re going to use her strength a lot. She’s a very hard worker.”

Keziah Mitchell is a 5-foot-10 senior who adds depth to the front line.

“She’s a nice combination of height and speed,” Hill said. “She’s going to give Estefania some needed rest. She’s going to play good minutes for us. She’s energetic and a very vocal leader.”

Senior Diana DeSousa is a 5-foot-6 guard who “is a deadly perimeter shooter.” Junior Kaitlyn Aquino is a 5-foot-6 guard who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. The cousin of former Kardinal great and current assistant coach Janitza Aquino has returned for this season.

“She’s like a new person,” Hill said of Aquino. “She never got a chance to play before. But she’ll play this year.”

Junior Allison DeNuzzo is a 6-foot post player who adds depth to the front line.
“She’s very coachable,” Hill said. “She’s done everything we’ve taught her and she has the potential to do very well.”
Sophomore Eliana Huancaya rounds out the roster. The 5-foot-5 Huancaya can play point guard well.

“She was the starting shooting guard on an undefeated JV (junior varsity) team last year,” Hill said. “She has no fear. She just goes out and plays hard. She’s a good floor general.”
The Kardinals open the 2017-2018 season Friday against HCIAL rival North Bergen, then tangle with Ridgefield Saturday.

Needless to say, Hill is excited about the Kardinals’ chances this season, provided that McClelland isn’t plucked away from her basketball teammates for soccer commitments like what took place right before the Hudson County tournament began last year.

“I think we have the potential to have a good year,” Hill said. “It should be a lot of fun. We’re having fun right now at practice.”
Just wai
t until the season begins for real.


The Kearny girls’ basketball team has high hopes for the season that tips off this weekend. Front row, from left, are Jillian McCourt, Diana DeSousa and Meagan McClelland. Back row, from left, are Emilee Marshall, Estefania Dilone, head coach Jody Hill and Keziah Mitchell. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”