The Kearny High School girls’ basketball program enjoyed a sensational season a year ago, winning a school-record 22 games, thanks a lot to the play of do-everything guard Meagan McClelland, the 2017-2018 Observer Female Athlete of the Year, and strong power forward Estefania Dilone.
Well, it’s sad to say that seniors eventually graduate from high school. McClelland is doing her thing these days as a standout goalkeeper for Rutgers University and the 20-and-under United States National soccer team. Dilone is playing basketball for Bloomfield College.
In fact, veteran Kearny head girls’ basketball coach Jody Hill cannot recognize her roster, having lost an astounding 10 players from last year’s historic team.
Seven seniors graduated from the team. Three others departed for an assortment of reasons. It leaves Hill with the daunting task of having to rebuild the Kardinals’ roster basically from scratch, using little-used underclassmen and total newcomers to the program.
“We had a tremendous year last year and we enjoyed it,” said Hill, who amazingly begins her 23rd season as the head coach of the Kardinals. “But we realized how quickly things can turn around in high school sports.”
Sure, things can change, but this is a complete devastation.
“We’re looking on the bright side,” said Hill, the eternal optimist. “We have a goal in mind to try to improve every day. We have a lot of players from the JV (junior varsity) team from last year and we have some freshmen players, who were asking to take on some responsibilities.”
But losing 10 players? That’s just astounding. Not only did the program graduate seven seniors, but Skyler Matusz has decided to concentrate on soccer and Kristina Hernandez and Nayely Melenciano moved away. What can you do?
“I can’t remember ever having this situation before,” Hill said. “But I believe that a lot of the girls are looking forward to the opportunity to get playing time. When one door shuts, another one opens. There are positive things that can come from this. We just have to keep working toward success.
Added Hill, “I like challenges. I’ve always liked challenges. We all like a challenge. I think people are going to look past Kearny this year and I’ll say that with grit, intensity and hard work, we can succeed. If I can get the girls on board with that mentality, we’re going to have an enjoyable season.”
Junior Eliana Huancaya is going to have to take on an increased role, especially since All-HCIAL honoree McClelland is in Piscataway. The 5-foot-3 Huancaya has a nice shot from the perimeter and also has the ability to be a good floor leader.
“But we don’t want Eliana to be the next Meagan McClelland,” Hill said. “No one can be that. We can’t replace her. We just want Eliana to go and play. She’s going to be a leader and a scorer and that’s fine. She played all year round and has become pretty good.”
Senior Gianna Nigro has also returned. The 5-foot-3 Nigro was a solid contributor last year.
“She got good playing time last year and she deserves to have a good senior year,” Hill said. “She’s been very vocal and that helps. She’s the best shooter on the team. We need her to get that shot off. We’re counting on her. We need her to take shots.”
Junior Samantha Osorio is the team’s 5-foot-9 forward.
“She’s one of our most athletic players,” Hill said of Osorio. “She can jump so high. I’m amazed at her jumping ability. She also has developed a knack of catching the ball, then making a move. She’s developed a nice little post move and is more fundamentally sound. She also does all the little things right.”
One of the team’s captains is a profile in courage. Senior Kaitlyn Aquino is a 5-foot-6 forward, but more importantly, just the fact that she is on the floor serves as a reminder of how tough playing high school sports can be. Aquino suffered two torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) in a span of 13 months and had to endure the grueling rehabilitation process twice.
“She really is an inspiration to us all,” Hill said of Aquino, the cousin of Hill’s assistant coach Janitza Aquino, a former Observer Female Athlete of the Year honoree.
Senior Allison DiNuzzo is a 5-foot-11 senior forward. Her twin sister Nicole is currently out of action with an injury.
“She’s a positive person who gives 100 percent at practice,” Hill said. “She gives you everything she can and will give us solid minutes.”
Sophomore Esmeralda Ruiz is a 5-foot-6 guard who has impressed Hill in the preseason.
“She’s one of the toughest kids on the team,” Hill said. “She’s very feisty. She gets on the floor after loose balls. She’s going to see tremendous minutes this season. She’s very well rounded.”
Julie Fernandez is a 6-foot sophomore forward with a ton of promise. In fact, she might remind some of Dilone when Dilone was a raw sophomore.
“She’s a presence inside,” Hill said. “She’s very strong. We’re working on her post moves and her foot quickness down low.”
Senior Shawna Tonner will also contribute at either the guard or forward positions.
Faith Remias is a 5-foot-10 junior forward.
“She’s strong around the basket,” Hill said. “She dedicated herself to the game and played a lot of AAU basketball in the summer. She’s also a vocal kid who is going to help us.”
Soccer standout Alison Canales is also on the basketball team. The 5-foot-7 sophomore is a benefit to the Kardinals’ defensive side.
“She’s extremely athletic,” Hill said. “She has good speed and plays great defense. We just have to find her strengths. She brings a lot of positive energy.”
Sophomore Cheyanne Iverson will also find her way into the rotation before season’s end.
As the Kardinals begin to tip off the 2018-19 season Friday afternoon at home against Dickinson of Jersey City, the eternal optimist in red and white is doing exactly that.
“I have a lot of belief in these girls,” Hill said. “They have a lot of talent when they play together. My mind doesn’t stop. I just have to put them in the right positions and expose our strengths. I’ve had to handle challenges before, but this is tenfold. I think these girls are ready to do better. We’re just going to try to figure it all out.”
The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team lost a lot to graduation and more to other circumstances, but these seniors are ready to fight for the red and white. Front row, from left, are Shawna Tonner, Gianna Nigro and Ariyonna Alves. Back row, from left, are head coach Jody Hill, Nicole DiNuzzo, Kaitlyn Aquino and Allison DiNuzzo. 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.”