Jenn Caliendo had high hopes for the 2021-2022 girls’ high school basketball season. Things just had to be better for the Harrison High School alum in her second year as the head coach for the program where she once played before heading off to play at nearby Rutgers-Newark.
“We won our first game of the season,” Caliendo said. “The morale of the team was high. We were able to have team meetings. We went to a college basketball game together (at St. Peter’s University) as a team. Things were going well.”
Then disaster struck. The omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus shut down the Blue Tide’s operations for three weeks.
“It’s not easy to get shut down like that,” Caliendo said. “It was up to the girls to stay in playing shape while we were shut down. At the end of the day, it was up to them to do it on their own. But it was tough on them. I always tell these girls how tough they are. Well, this was proof. I always get compliments on how tough our girls are.”
Caliendo said that her team is still in the learning stages.
“We only had seven practices all of last year,” Caliendo said. “I think they came back this year with the mentality that they wanted to learn. I think they were ready to roll with the punches, but they weren’t ready for a three-week quarantine. I think the senior leadership did well with the rest.”
So when the Blue Tide returned to action last week after the unexpected layoff, Caliendo was impressed with the way the Blue Tide came back.
“I think they came back excited to play,” Caliendo said. “I could tell that they did a lot of work on their own.”
However, the Blue Tide suffered a setback during the first week of the return. Senior guard Emily Leiras, the team’s leading scorer, suffered a knee injury in a loss to Secaucus, soon after rolling her ankle as well. Leiras, who averaged close to 15 points per game, will be lost to the Blue Tide for an undetermined amount of time.
“We’re going to have to adjust to not having Emily,” Caliendo said of the 5-foot-6 senior, who plays both guard and forward when she’s healthy. “It’s definitely a loss. It’s also big for her, because her goal is to be able to play in college.”
Leading the other Blue Tide players is junior point guard Fatma Mohamed. The 5-foot-4 Mohamed has the ball in her hands most possessions.
“She’s doing an amazing job for us,” Caliendo said. “She’s really stepped up. Her basketball IQ level is off the charts. She’s growing into the leadership role. She has really improved in the off-season and now she’s getting more comfortable.”
Rasha Abdeljalil is a 5-foot-5 junior swing player.
“She can play forward or guard,” Caliendo said. “She’s really quick on her feet. She’s one of our fastest players. One of her strengths is that she plays amazing defense.”
Amaree Andujar is a 5-foot-3 guard.
“She’s our backup point guard,” Caliendo said. “She really steps up when we need her. She really has helped to create the good chemistry we have.”
Junior Jamie Benavidas is the team’s 5-foot-7 center.
“She’s a hard worker,” Caliendo said. “She puts her body on the line all the time. I think all five of our players do that. But Jamie has definitely improved and she has developed her role. She’s very aggressive. She’s doing an amazing job on the boards.”
Caliendo has been impressed with the performance of freshman forward Paulina Niczewski. The 5-foot-9 rookie has done some great things thus far.
“She’s still learning,” Caliendo said of Niczewski. “She has a lot of skill. She has the fundamentals down. She could become a dominating player in our league. She’s going to continue to play a big role for us. It’s easy to see the potential she has.”
The Blue Tide owns a 2-3 record thus far, despite the shutdown.
“It’s such a big turnaround over last season,” Caliendo said. “We were able to build some chemistry this year where we didn’t have that chance last year. The chemistry is strong on the team. I think these girls understand what it takes because they had to go through the trials and tribulations. They know what it’s like now. I think we’re going to have a good season.”
There certainly is a lot of season left for the Blue Tide, who definitely needs Leiras to make a full recovery soon.
Senior forward Emily Leiras suffered two injuries last week for the Blue Tide of Harrison, who still hope to have a solid season. Photo by Jim Hague
Learn more about the writer ...
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.”