When Nayely Melenciano came to the United States from her native Dominican Republic, she was all of 13 years old and somewhat lost in her new home of Harrison.
That was until she found sports.
“When I came here, I didn’t know anything,” Melenciano said. “I went to middle school in Harrison and didn’t know anything. I was interested in basketball and tried out for the team, but I didn’t make it.”
Undaunted by the failure, Melenciano kept trying.
“I was practicing with the team and then one day, the coach threw me into the game,” Melenciano said. “I was crazy with my defense, running around, throwing my arms around. So that helped me become a starter.”
Soon after, the family moved to Kearny and Nayely began to play three sports _ volleyball, basketball and softball.
“But I never played softball before I went to high school,” Melenciano said. “I used to play baseball in the streets in the Dominican Republic, but I never played softball.”
In basketball, Melenciano started to make her way.
“Coach (Jody) Hill always told me that I could be a good player,” Melenciano said. “I moved my way up to the varsity. She told me that she loved the way I played.”
Last season, Melenciano averaged nearly five points and four rebounds per game as a key reserve on the Kearny team that posted a school-record 22-6 mark.
Softball proved to be a little bit more of a struggle.
“Last year, as a sophomore, I got up to the varsity and played one game,” Melenciano said.
In that one game, Melenciano managed one hit in two at-bats.
Because of family obligations, Melenciano also needed to work at a restaurant, so that limited her time on the softball field.
As she began her junior year, Kearny head softball coach Jimmy Pickel didn’t know what to expect from Melenciano.
“I actually didn’t know that she would be on the team this year,” Pickel said. “She came out late and said she was interested in playing. I told her that she had to prove to me that she wanted to play.”
And Pickel’s take on Melenciano?
“When she’s there, she’s been all in,” Pickel said.
Pickel vividly recalls the first time that Melenciano caught his eye.
“The first time I ever saw her do anything was her freshman year and I saw her playing basketball,” Pickel said. “I saw her diving for the loose ball and jumping all over the place and I wondered if she could play softball. With her actions and demeanor, I knew she would be a good fit.”
When the softball season started, Melenciano found a spot in the lineup, playing right field.
“I started the season as the No. 7 batter in the lineup,” Melenciano said. “Then I moved up to No. 6. I started hitting the ball and Mr. Pickel had to change the lineup. He put me second and that was the best for me.”
Lately, Melenciano has become one of the Kardinals’ best hitters.
Last week, Melenciano had two hits and three RBI against Hoboken, had three hits, scored three runs and had an RBI against Union City, had one hit and one RBI against Belleville, had one hit, a triple, against Roselle Catholic and had two hits and scored two runs in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals against North Bergen, a game the Kards dropped in heartbreaking fashion 9-8 Sunday in North Bergen.
For her efforts, Melenciano has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Melenciano is the second Kearny softball player to be honored this season, joining Gianna Hoch, who was named Athlete of the Week two weeks ago. Hoch smacked a two-run homer against North Bergen Sunday.
For the season, Melenciano is batting .426 with 23 hits and 11 RBI.
“Did I know she would do this?” Pickel said. “No way. Hitting wise, she gets the barrel of the bat on the ball every time. She runs the bases well. She knows what to do on the bases. I don’t have to tell her. In the outfield, she’s thrown people out at first base. She makes good plays in right field and has a good arm. She never gives up on a play.”
Pickel also loves Melenciano’s personality.
“She’s a bundle of joy,” Pickel said. “She likes to smile. The things she says and things she comes up with make everyone smile. She likes to get everyone up. She’s just a fun person to be around.”
Melenciano was happy to be named Athlete of the Week.
“It makes me feel good,” Melenciano said. “I have to try my best to get a scholarship to college. If I don’t get one, then my second option would be to join the Army, because I can’t afford to go to college without a scholarship.”
Needless to say, Melenciano is overjoyed with the way her athletic life has transformed this year.
“I’m very surprised,” Melenciano said. “I never thought I’d be so important to the team this year. I never thought I could do so good. I know that this has been my best year. I’ve progressed a lot. I feel like I’ve improved a lot as a player, especially in softball. I thought I wasn’t going to be good enough to play varsity this year. I just was going to try to do my best.”
And what about that unique first name?
“Mom said that she used to watch a TV show back in the Dominican Republic and there was a girl who was so sweet on the show,” Melenciano said. “She was a really nice girl and her name was Nayely. That’s where it came from.”
And does Melenciano think she’s a sweet, nice girl?
“Yeah, I think I am,” she said.
The future looks bright for Melenciano in all three sports.
“I want to play next year and make history for my team,” Melenciano said. “Doing well this year makes me want to play more next year. I’m going to practice a lot in the summer to get better.”
Melenciano thinks that she’s a better softball player than basketball.
“I just think that way,” Melenciano said.
Pickel knows now that he has a star in the making.
“She’ll probably play centerfield next year,” Pickel said. “Although she asked me if she could play catcher. I’m really looking forward to next year. I don’t think we’ve seen the real Nayely just yet. She’s shown signs. What she brings to the table with her ability and personality, she’s going to have a big senior year.”
Sure is something to look for.
Kearny junior outfielder Nayely Melenciano airs out her arm during a recent game in North Bergen. Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny junior outfielder Nayely Melenciano. 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.”