Jenn Caliendo is Harrison through and through. She’s born and raised in Harrison, schooled there in from pre-kindergarten through Harrison High, eventually graduating from Harrison and moving on to Rutgers-Newark.
In her journey through the years, Caliendo was an athlete, predominately a severely undersized center for the girls’ basketball team. She continued her career in college at Rutgers-Newark, playing three seasons for the Scarlet Raiders, ending in 2009. She had to reinvent herself as a player at R-N, going from playing center in high school to guard in college.
“I had to learn to become a versatile player,” Caliendo said. “I knew that was going to be my assignment. My whole college career was getting to be an all-around versatile player.”
Caliendo also learned from two great coaches in her career, going from the immortal Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer Jack Rodgers in Harrison to Kevin Morris at Rutgers-Newark.
“I learned about the values of playing man-to-man defense, full court too,” Caliendo said.
She also learned something about herself – she wanted to be a coach one day.
So Caliendo volunteered her time coaching kids on all levels – recreation, youth leagues, then her alma mater. She became an assistant to Erika Thompson at her alma mater.
“I learned from other coaches, learned about their philosophies,” Caliendo said. “I learned so much from Erika.”
Caliendo spent three seasons as Thompson’s assistant with “Lady Blue,” the nickname for the Blue Tide’s girls’ basketball program.
When Thompson became a mother during last season, she stepped down to concentrate on her parental duties.
“When Erika told me she wasn’t coming back, I didn’t know what to think,” Caliendo said. “It was going to require a whole new chapter in my life. But I knew I wanted to be the head coach. Years back, I knew I wanted it.”
For Harrison athletic director Kim McDonough Huaranga, it was a no-brainer. She recommended Caliendo assume the head coaching duties. Caliendo was then appointed as the new head coach.
“I was beyond grateful,” Caliendo said. “It was really my dream come true.”
Caliendo realizes her importance to the Lady Blue sorority.
“Especially in this post-pandemic world, I have the responsibility of keeping these girls afloat and even inspired to continue to play sports,” Caliendo said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I know the importance of being a student/athlete.”
In her playing days at Harrison, Caliendo was named the school’s top scholar/athlete and was honored at the NJSIAA’s annual luncheon. She was also a member of the National Honor Society.
“My academics and sports were my No. 1 priorities growing up, so I expect nothing less from out girls,” Caliendo said. “I’m grateful to have the chance to motivate them from my experience and not just tell them.”
Caliendo had to face the adversity of coaching Lady Blue through the endless pandemic. In fact, for most of the time over the summer, Caliendo could do nothing. The summer leagues and clinics that her team usually participated in were all canceled due to the pandemic.
When the NJSIAA decided that the basketball season could begin on Jan.19, the Blue Tide were in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis. The program was shut down and the team was in quarantine mode.
However, the day before the quarantine was placed, Caliendo had to deal with tragedy. Her mother, Rose Mockus, who was a great supporter of the Harrison basketball program, died after a long illness.
“She was part of me,” Caliendo said of her mother. “She was truly part of our program.”
The Blue Tide had to remain away from basketball for two full weeks.
“Our two leaders (senior Haley O’Donnell and junior Emily Leiras) accepted the responsibility and conducted Zoom meetings,” Caliendo said. “But we went two full weeks without seeing each other. It was such a gap.”
Caliendo kept her chin up.
“I always see the beauty in things,” Caliendo said. “It’s a building season for us. Patience is our team’s attitude right now. We had to slow things down and work on fundamentals. A lot of the girls don’t know fundamentals, so it’s been tough. We haven’t been able to have a smooth couple of days.”
The Blue Tide had two days of practice last week before facing a very good team in Weehawken. The final result was not pretty.
“We have hard working young girls,” Caliendo said. “I’m so proud of them. They could have been down, but they’re not. They’re not discouraged. They’re ready to fix their mistakes and get back out there. I’m excited about that.”
Leiras is the team’s top returning scorer. The 5-foot-6 Leiras averaged 14 points and six rebounds per game last season.
“She’s versatile,” Caliendo said. “She can play power forward. That’s her natural position. She shoots the ball really well. I’m going to use her on the perimeter a lot. She’s also very strong. I’m going to use her all over the floor.”
O’Donnell is a 5-foot-3 point guard who averaged 12 points per contest last season.
“She’s a good ball handler,” Caliendo said. “She brings energy to the game. She’s fun to watch. She’s willing to put her body out there, all over the floor. She dives for loose balls. She has black and blue knees. Black and blue knees should be part of the Lady Blue program. That’s what Haley’s all about. She’s our captain.”
Sophomore guard Fatma Mohamed is a 5-foot-2 shooter.
“She’s developing her basketball IQ,” Caliendo said. “She’s getting smarter. She also embraces criticism. Through eye contact, I can tell she’s listening. She’s catching on quick.”
That’s a great concept – listening with the eyes.
Sophomore Janiyah Gutierrez is a 5-foot-5 forward.
“She’s strong in the post,” Caliendo said. “She has a lot of energy. I’m giving her a lot of responsibility to watch the sophomores. With all the adversity we’ve gone through, we need that. She’s strong and has some basketball skills.”
Sophomore Amaree Andujar is a 5-foot-1 guard.
“She’s a good ball handler with a positive attitude and energy,” Caliendo said. “It’s something to capitalize on. It all starts with the right attitude. That’s the most important thing. She works with her teammates well.”
Rasha Abdeljalil is a 5-foot-5 sophomore forward.
“She is a hard worker who is still learning,” Caliendo said.
Another newcomer is 5-foot-6 sophomore center Jamie Benavidas.
“I’m so pleased with her attitude,” Caliendo said. “She shows up and is executing. I’m working with her. I think I’ve found a center.”
Make that an undersized one – just like Jenn Caliendo.
Needless to say, Lady Blue won’t be a bunch of world beaters this season.
“It’s a building season,” Caliendo said. “We have 13 girls in the whole program. We have a lot to work on.”
But Caliendo is ready for the challenge.
“I think the goal is teaching them how to define what success is to them,” Caliendo said. “Just being one percent better than yesterday. That’s it. It’s not just about the wins this year but choosing to push through the adversity. I believe we have something special in our hands. And all the challenges we have come across thus far shows that. I’m grateful to be in a position to teach them that.”
The Harrison girls’ basketball team this year will count on the leadership provided by senior guard Haley O’Donnell (left) and junior forward Emily Leiras (right). Photos 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.”