Belleville’s Castro: A true senior leader

Editor’s note: Because of a production error, the photo accompanying this story in print was incorrect. We apologize to Hector Castro for this unfortunate faux pas.

The 2019-2020 boys’ high school basketball season was about to begin and Belleville High School veteran head coach Jim Catalano had a little conversation with his senior leader Hector Castro.

“I sat him down to talk to him for two purposes,” said Catalano, in his second season coaching at his high school alma mater after a prestigious career at other places, including NCAA Division II New Jersey Tech, now known as NCAA Division I New Jersey Institute of Technology or NJIT.

“I told Hector that he needed to do certain things to be a player who could be recruited at the college level,” Catalano said. “He needed to hone his skills, but it went beyond that. He had to become a leader. When I was coaching in college, I was the most critical recruiter in the world. If I didn’t like a kid in warm-ups, I’d leave. I used that with Hector.”

Catalano meant that Castro couldn’t do the other things that he used to do.

“Frankly, I expected him to stand out,” Catalano said. “He stands out no matter who we play. Every time he shoots a jump shot, he looks at me now for that nod from me. He doesn’t look to the crowd. We have a tremendous relationship.”
Catalano knew that his 6-foot-3 senior had the on-the-court talent to get recognized by some college. Catalano also realized that Castro had the necessary grades to move on to the college game. It was the intangibles that Catalano worried about, the initial personality vibe that Castro gives off from time to time, the flamboyant and carefree persona that Castro once possessed. It wasn’t going to work on the next level.

“Coach Jim told me that I had to be the leader,” Castro said. “When it came down to me, I had to get everyone focused. I had to get everyone up for the game. Coach told me that I had to be all that for the team, that I had to become a better all-around player.”

Castro averaged 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season for the Buccaneers, who rose out of the doldrums to post a 15-9 record in Catalano’s return to his roots.

But the veteran coach needed more this season, especially with such a young roster, starting as many as four sophomores in games – of course, along with Castro.

“He’s become a leader now,” Catalano said. “Now, the young kids look up to him. He’s come a long way. The simplest answer is winning changes things. His whole presence has changed. He has such an effect on the team and it shows. He’s scoring and rebounding, getting assists and steals.”

There was always one aspect to Castro’s game that Catalano never had to worry about.

“I never said a word about his rebounding,” Catalano said. “The kid has the ability to get rebounds. I don’t know how he does it, but he has the uncanny skill to get to the ball. He has a nose for the ball.”

Castro knows that he has a knack to get the ball off the rim. He is such a quick leaper, like he has springs in his legs. Castro can get off the floor with ease and just ends up with the basketball.

“I think it’s natural,” Castro said. “When the ball goes up, I’m the first one to react. I know where the ball is going to go and I get there real quick. We don’t have a lot of guys who can get boards, so I have to get more. It makes things easier for the rest of the team.”

Lately, Castro has been making things a lot easier for the Buccaneers, who recently enjoyed an 11-game win streak that was snapped last Saturday with a loss to Newark Central in the second round of the Essex County Tournament, two days after beating neighboring rival Bloomfield, 52-51, at Bloomfield in the first round.

Recently, Castro has enjoyed four straight games where he recorded a double-double, meaning double figure totals in points and rebounds. He scored 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds (along with five steals, four assists and three blocked shots) in a win over Newark Collegiate, had 22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals in a win over West Essex, had 13 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and four steals in the win over Bloomfield and had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the loss to Newark Central.

And for his efforts, Castro has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

It marks the second time Castro has earned the weekly honor, having been named Observer Athlete of the Week in the Feb. 6, 2019 editions.

Castro thought that his senior season might suffer after he underwent torn meniscus surgery on a knee that he injured during the final game of last season against Snyder in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs..

“I had the surgery in March,” Castro said. “And I was out for more than a month and a half. I didn’t play much until summer and fall ball, just to get my body back into swing. I was always in the weight room, trying to get stronger, trying to get my legs strong again.”

This season, Castro is averaging just a shade below 20 points per game and has been collecting 8.6 rebounds per contest. But Castro is also averaging 4.3 assists per outing, 3.5 steals and two blocked shots, filling up the stat sheet in every category.

“Every game, he’s been the standout player,” said Catalano, who used to be Castro’s biggest critic. “He hasn’t skipped a beat all season. No matter who we play, he steps up.”

Castro had an incredible outing of 10 steals against Newark Academy this year. His season high in points was 33 against Cristo Rey. His best all-around game was a 32-point, 14-rebound, eight-steal performance against Arts. He also had 26 points and 19 rebounds in an early season loss to West Essex and had 29 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and six steals in a win over Abundant Life. Those are certainly impressive statistics.

But for some reason, the colleges haven’t come calling just yet.

“I haven’t received a call from anyone,” Catalano said. “No doubt, he can play at the next level.”

And if there’s anyone who should know, it’s Jim Catalano, who had to recruit college players for more than 20 years.

“It would be good to play in college,” Castro said. “I’m always listening to him (Catalano). Sometimes, he tells me that I can’t get too lazy. I had a habit of being lazy and I wasn’t hustling up to my full potential. I’m doing it now. I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been a great year.”

After winning 15 games last season, the young Bucs have a 14-6 record this year. Obviously, someone is doing something right – and it can begin with Castro.

Catalano’s words of wisdom before the season certainly hit home.

“I’m happy about that,” Catalano said. “He’s listened and responded to what I told him.”

Sometimes it pays to heed the prophecy of the elder folks.

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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.”