Harrison girls enjoying breakthrough season

The Harrison High School girls’ basketball team is enjoying its best season in six years. With seven wins in their first 11 games, they are on pace to top the 18-win mark they enjoyed in 2013-2014. They’re just two victories away from what the Blue Tide compiled last season.

So what are the keys to success that have propelled Erika Thompson-Mendoza’s team to the best 11-game mark of her four-year head coaching career?

“Our senior’s eagerness,” said Thompson-Mendoza, who was a three-time All-Hudson County player during her playing days at High Tech. “They all wanted to have a good season this year. They’re eager to win. They played together in the summer league in Kearny, a very competitive league. They did a lot of things together.”

And that helped the overall goal – playing solid team defense.

“But more than just playing defense together, they play more as a team,” said Thompson-Mendoza. “By being more mature and understanding their roles, they’ve become bigger and stronger. They are understanding how they should play. They knew that we had to play defense if we were going to win.”

The Blue Tide is managing to get most of their points off their defense.

“Most of our points come off transition,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “We press a lot and of course, that gets me so energized. They get me into it. They have so much energy and so much fire. I don’t think we’d be good just sitting in a zone. We have to play with high energy, especially defensively.”

Leading the way for the Blue Tide is 6-foot senior Kayla Lucas. The youngest of Harrison legend Ray Lucas’ three daughters is a four-year starter for the Blue Tide who fills out the stat sheet every night.

“Every year, she’s gotten better and better,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She’s so versatile. I can use her anywhere on the floor. She gets a ton of rebounds. She can handle the ball. She’s so long and so athletic, so she creates a big threat in our press. She gets a lot of steals. She’s a big benefit to me, because I can use her at the point, at guard, at forward. She is also a leader both on and off the court.”

Junior Haley O’Donnell is a 5-foot-5 guard.

“Haley is the spitfire of the team,” Thompson-Mendoza said of O’Donnell, a multi-sport athlete. “She’s the one who is guarding the top player on the other team. This year, her shooting has improved tremendously. She plays at the top of our defense. She then keys the fast break with her steals and we’re able to score off transition. I think she’s more comfortable with the way she plays and she’s more confident in her play.”

Sophomore Emily Leiras is the team’s leading scorer. The 5-foot-8 guard is averaging close to 12 points per game.

“She’s just a natural,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “Every single day, I see her at the (famed Harrison) Courts, playing, working on her game. She plays a lot with and against the boys. She is able to get the rebound and take it all the way down the court. She’s good now, but she still has so much to go.”

Senior Kasey Vasquez is a 5-foot-4 guard/forward.

“She plays with a ton of heart,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She just never gets tired. She goes back and forth, up and down the court. She is one tough cookie.”

Kathleen de Souza is a 5-foot-6 junior forward.

“She is feisty,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She didn’t get too much time last year, but because of her energy and attitude toward the game, she is getting time this year. She’s been a force for us on defense. I think each player brings her own individuality on defense and that helps us. But Kathleen is also a great rebounder.”

Daniela Munoz is a 5-foot-4 senior guard.

“She plays wherever she’s most needed,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She’s very fundamentally sound. She shoots the ball well. If I need a shot or two to be made, I put her in. She makes shots.”

Jeralyne Montalvo is a 5-foot-6 senior swing player.

“She’s a great shooter,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She’s also one of our captains. She worked hard in the offseason. She worked on getting better.”

Melissa Toth is a 5-foot-6 junior guard.

“We used her for significant minutes recently,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She got a bunch of steals and started to score a little. Her mental toughness is there. She’s with it every single practice and does what we ask.”

Senior Chelssy Silverio is a 5-foot-7 power forward.

“She’s a very good rebounder and a solid defender,” Thompson-Mendoza said.

Junior Beatriz Soares is a 5-foot-8 junior who has recovered from anterior cruciate knee ligament surgery last year, an injury she suffered during a game.

“I’m excited about her,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She’s big and strong. She’s fundamentally sound. She can rebound as well.”

Junior Jocelyn Esteban is a 5-foot-4 guard who played on the junior varsity squad last year.

“She worked her tail off on JV to get here,” Thompson-Mendoza said.

Louisa Gomes is a 5-foot-7 junior guard.

“She has a solid body,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “She came from Brazil last year and knew about the game. She’s gotten so much better over the past year and has a wonderful attitude.”

So the Blue Tide owns a 7-4 record thus far. Logic says that the Harrison girls are far better than they have been in recent years.
“I think we’re right at where I thought we would be,” Thompson-Mendoza said. “I thought that this was going to be our year. I waited until it all clicked and it happened. I’m finally happy. They finally got it.”

The coach also has a new addition – son Kashton Mendoza, born six months ago.

“It’s amazing,” Erika Thompson-Mendoza said. “He’s the greatest blessing in my life. The girls all love him and he loves the girls.”

As for the name?

“I wanted something unique,” Erika Thompson-Mendoza said. “I wanted to give him a name no one has.”

Harrison also has a name that hasn’t been heard in a while during girls’ basketball season. It’s called “winners.”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Thompson-Mendoza said.



The Harrison girls’ basketball team is enjoying its best season in seven years. From left are Kayla Lucas, Jeralyne Montalvo, head coach Erika Thompson-Mendoza and Daniela Munoz. 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.”