Kearny girls’ hoops squad moves on without top players Osorio, Huancaya

The Kearny High School girls’ basketball team had a phenomenal season a year ago, surprisingly winning 18 games, advancing to the quarterfinals in both the Hudson County Tournament and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV bracket.

The Kardinals suffered two major losses in Samantha Osorio and Elena Huancaya, both of whom went on to play college basketball.

Osorio, the 2019-2020 Observer Female Athlete of the Year, is now at Moravian College after enjoying one of the best all-around seasons in Kearny girls’ basketball history, averaging 19.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per contest, earning First Team All-Hudson County honors.

Huancaya, the team’s point guard, averaged 7.3 assists per game, which placed her among the state leaders. Huancaya is now at Rutgers-Newark.

But the team didn’t lose just those two performers. Skyler Matusz also graduated, but Matusz is playing soccer at American University. Matusz was a solid role player for the Kardinals on the hardwood, averaging a little more than five points per game.

However, veteran head coach Jody Hill isn’t bemoaning the losses.

“On paper, it looks like we’re losing so much of our scoring, our rebounding and ball handling,” Hill said. “No question, we’re going to feel it. But I think we have some talented kids who will step into those roles and lead us. I’m excited to watch them play.”

Taking over the point guard responsibilities will be sophomore Ava Hyams. The 5-foot-9 Hyams is a basketball wizard, a 12-month-a-year hoops junkie.

“She’s extremely talented,” Hill said. “She’s 100 percent basketball minded. She plays on a few AAU teams all year long. She’s a very versatile player. She also rebounds well. She shoots well/ She is a good playmaker.”

Hyams’ talents and basketball diversity looks very similar to some kid who played for Harrison High in the 1980s, a kid that scored more than 2,000 points who went by the name of Jody Hill.

“Yeah, she reminds me a little bit of that girl,” Hill says with a laugh. “She’s really dedicated to the sport. She has such a good basketball IQ. She’s very bright. The ceiling is very high with her. She’s shown so much growth since last year. I think she’s going to be very special. We have to see.”

Another returning player is senior forward Julie Fernandez. The 6-foot power forward worked hard on her own through days of the pandemic and has come back to the gym as a force to be reckoned with.

“She put the time in,” Hill said of Fernandez. “Because Sam was so effective, Julie mostly played JV (junior varsity). But this is really her time now. She’s dedicated her time to individual workouts and it shows.”

Sophomore Maci Covello, the soccer standout, is not a slouch on the hardwood. Covello is a 5-foot-10 forward, but don’t be deceived by the height.
“She moves very well for her size,” Hill said of Covello, who averaged five points and seven rebounds per contest a year ago. “She’s very agile. We have worked on her footwork and her speed. She really has the passing ability of a point guard. Sometimes, she catches me off guard with the way she handles the ball. She’s just very athletic. She’s also a natural born leader for a sophomore. I want her to be as vocal as possible. The team seems to listen to her.”

Covello is also a solid defensive player who led the Kardinals in blocked shots last season.

Senior Esmeralda Ruiz was the unsung hero of the team a year ago. The 5-foot-5 Ruiz was the team’s second leading scorer behind Osorio, averaging eight points per game.

“She hit five 3’s (three-pointers) in a big game against Union City,” Hill said.

Ruiz scored 20 in that game, won by the Kardinals, 49-46.

“She’s a very streaky player,” Hill said. “When she’s on, she’s on. I think it’s now her time to shine. I can see her step up and become a top scoring threat for us. She has a great 3-point shot. She’s also very elusive and gets into the lane a lot.”

Bridget Angeles is a 5-foot-5 junior guard who was the starting point guard on the JV team last season.

“She’s one of our hardest workers,” Hill said. “She’s fundamentally sound. She always gives 100 percent. She’s not the most exciting player, but she’s doing everything correct. She doesn’t force the issue. She’s also very fast and her defense is spot on.”

Maggie Ruiz is the 5-foot-4 sister of Esmeralda. They are both seniors, but they are not twins. Maggie is also a guard.

“She’s the one who beats everyone to the loose ball,” Hill said. “She gets on the floor and gets after it.”

Sophomore Natalie Osorio is the 5-foot-8 little sister of Samantha. Natalie Osorio is also a forward.

“She’s a great rebounder,” Hill said. “She has a nice little jump shot. She had a great freshman year. She just finds ways to score.”

Junior Victoria Vinan is a 5-foot-6 swing player.

“She’s very fast and gets to the ball,” Hill said. “She can penetrate to the basket nicely. She’s also one of our top defenders. She can fill the lane with her speed.”

Rachel Palantino is a 5-foot-5 senior who can play either guard or forward.

“I’m so happy she stuck with it,” Hill said. “She’s a quality kid who works extremely hard. She’s extremely responsible as well. She’s a pure shooter. Our goal with her is to get her tougher.”

Freshman Jocelyn Huancaya is the 5-foot-3 little sister of Elena. Jocelyn Huancaya is a point guard like her big sister.

“Her ball handling skills are spot on,” Hill said. “She does all the ball handling drills so well like a well oiled machine. She passes the ball well.”
Freshman Aracely Vasquez is a 5-foot-6 swing player who also can move down to the block.

“She has some nice little post-up moves,” Hill said. “She’s still learning the game, but she’s catching on quickly. I want her around because of her athleticism.”

The Ka rdinals open Jan. 28 against McNair Academic of Jersey City. They face St. Dominic Academy Feb. 2.

Hill said that the Kardinals could be as successful as last year.

“I feel like it’s bold to say that,” Hill said. “But it’s a little too early to tell. I feel like we’re going to have a good team with not a huge drop off. I think we’re going to be okay.”

And that’s good news for Kardinal followers.




Kearny sophomore point guard Ava Hyams. Photo by Jim Hague

Kearny senior power forward Julie Fernandez. Photo by Jim Hague



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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.