Belleville boys’ hoops on a tear

When veteran basketball coach Jim Catalano decided to return to his roots two years ago and coach the boys’ basketball team at his high school alma mater, namely Belleville High School, he had no idea that it would turn out to be this successful.

“We had some young kids who had to step it up,” said Catalano, who was the long-time head coach at New Jersey Tech, now known as NJIT. “We lost three starters to illness and injury. We were just starting to come together and then the kids went down. We had to bring up JV (junior varsity) players. I had no idea at all what they were going to do.”

The Buccaneers, who finished a respectable 15-9 last season, had to replace a ton of talent. Junior Danny Castillo went down with a serious illness and remains hospitalized. Zair Stevens broke a bone in his hand. Shanne Laguindanum suffered an ankle injury. The team appeared headed for disaster.

But Catalano gave the younger kids on the team a chance to play. Lo and behold, the results are staggering.

The Belleville Bucs are bucking up, winning seven straight games to improve to 10-5 overall. They appear to be in excellent shape for the post-season tournaments, namely the Essex County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs, with a strong possibility of securing a home game in the state playoffs.

It’s no small accomplishment to win seven straight high school basketball games. But especially since the Buccaneers had to overcome such adversity and inserted young and inexperienced players in key roles, it makes the run even more impressive.

“Little by little, they have been coming together,” Catalano said. “I tell them that if they play defense, they always have a shot.”
Sure enough, Catalano’s words ring true, because the Bucs held a high-scoring Caldwell team to just 30 total points in a 44-30 victory last Thursday. Caldwell entered the game with a stellar 10-1 record, but the Bucs took it to the Chiefs.

“They are buying into my little quirky things,” Catalano said. “And the excitement is there. You should see the kids on the bench screaming and yelling. When you win, basketball is a lot of fun. We’re having fun.”

Catalano was asked about the win streak.

“I really don’t care about things like that,” said Catalano, who is the headmaster at The Patrick School in Hillside. “I just can tell that the building is excited. The place is packed for every game. We have a bunch of great kids.”

Leading the way for the Bucs is senior forward Hector Castro. A former Observer Athlete of the Week, Castro is averaging 20.2 points and nine rebounds per game. The 6-foot-4 Castro is an athletic specimen with incredible leaping ability.

“He’s a legitimate double-double practically every game,” Catalano said of Castro, who scored 32 points, had 14 rebounds and eight steals in a win over Arts of Newark and tallied 29 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and six steals in a win over Abundant Life.

“His rebound ability is uncanny,” Catalano said. “He never gives up going after the ball. He’s aggressive all the time. I never saw anyone who can jump and get off the floor so quickly. Now Hector is starting to get some help from others.”

Catalano said that some colleges have called and inquired about Castro’s availability. He’s a good student, so qualifying should not be a problem.

“We’re still working on his game, like his mid-range jump shot,” Catalano said. “He also has to be focused on the floor 100 percent of the time. I try to explain to him that a college coach like I was can take a look at him and if he’s not giving 100 percent, the coach will lose interest right away. He has to be intense all the time. But he’s a legitimate college prospect.”

Another key contributor is sophomore point guard Ethan Laquindanum, the cousin of Shanne. Catalano has so much faith in the 5-foot-9 Laquindanum that he made him the team captain, even though he’s just a sophomore.

“His dedication and his aggressiveness put him over the top,” Catalano said. “His leadership is uncanny. His anger when things are not going well is encouraging. We needed someone like that. I expected that from him.”
Laquindanum is averaging 10.6 points, 7.3 assists and 4.5 steals per game. He had 10 points and 13 assists in the win over Abundant Life and tallied 13 points and 10 assists in a win over Newark Academy.

“He’s doing everything we ask of him,” Catalano said.

Another key player is 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Nasir Bey, who has been a pleasant surprise. Bey is a nice compliment to Castro, averaging 14.3 points and six rebounds per game.

“With the offense we run, he’s scoring more at the elbow,” Catalano said. “Naz and Ethan are very good together. He’s doing a great job also on defense.”

Another sophomore contributor is 5-foot-10 guard Richmond Casino.

“He’s going to be a good player,” Catalano said. “He sees the floor well and is a great ball handler. He’s really starting to come now. He was dominating at the JV level so we brought him up.”

Casino is averaging six points per game.

Mofeo Kuku is a 6-foot-5 junior center.

“He’s been everywhere on the floor,” Catalano said. “He knows now when to block a shot and when to defend. He’s been very impressive.”

Senior guard Gio Torres is a 5-foot-10 sharpshooter.

“He’s our 3-point specialist,” Catalano said. “He hit three 3-pointers against Caldwell that pretty much sealed the deal. We’re still playing around with the lineups to see what works. The game against Caldwell was the best game he played for us all year.”

So at 10-5 overall and a seven-game win streak, things are looking good for the Buccaneers of Belleville.

“It’s been fun,” Catalano said. “The kids are starting to get excited. They see what they’re supposed to do and if they do it, they see what happens. It’s been great.”




The Belleville boys’ basketball team is rolling along these days, winning seven straight games. From left are seniors Matthew Caliolio, Hector Castro, head coach Jim Catalano and Jimmy Mejia. 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.”