Expectations run high for Kearny girls’ basketball team with many players returning

There’s been an unfamiliar feeling for Jody Hill as she observes her Kearny girls basketball team practice this preseason. With seven of the top nine scorers from last season’s 17-10 squad back and an unprecedented amount of work put into the offseason, the Kardinals enter the winter with a level of experience and expectation that is higher than its been in a very long time.

“It’s a new feeling for sure because we’re coming into practice and so many of them have been through the program and know the drills, know what we’re trying to instill and we can progress that much quicker,” said Hill, who enters her 25th season as head coach. “I can’t remember the last time that we had as much experience as we have coming in. We’re feeling really great about that.”

Unfortunately for Hill and Kearny, that depth and maturity has already been tested when senior forward and lockdown defender Julia Araujo suffered a season-ending injury during the state soccer tournament, creating a huge void in the lineup.

“There’s really nobody who can replace Julia because she was an elite athlete,” Hill said. “Between her size, her quickness and her mobility, she was probably our best defender on the team and she was a great rebounder who runs the floor. There’s no one person that can replace everything that she did for us and it is a blow to the program. (Fortunately), we do have a lot of great athletes who can help fill that spot as best as we can.”

Even in Araujo’s absence, the Kardinals have the pieces to contend for its first Hudson County title in girls basketball. The biggest reason is in the front court where Ava Hyams (14.6 points, 9.0 rebounds rebounds per game) and Maci Covello (13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) are back for a fourth year in the starting lineup.

According to Hill, the 5-foot-11 Covello, who recently earned Third Team, All-State honors for soccer by NJ.com, has continued to expand her game in the post, adding to her already intimidating presence in the paint, while also being capable of bringing the ball up the court.

The 5-foot-11 Hyams, who recently committed to play at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, will see more time at forward, but is truly capable of playing any position and taking any role on the court, leading the team in assists, steals, 3-pointers, rebounds and scoring last season.

“The two of them are two of the most special players I have ever coached and have ever seen and have watched grow since their freshman year,”Hill said. “Both are two of the most versatile players that I have coached during my 20-plus years.”

Hyams shift from point guard to more of a point forward is a credit to the development of a trio of Kardinal point guard options.

At the moment, sophomore Olivia Covello and junior Jocelyn Huancaya are set to start in the backcourt, with the tandem likely to share the point guard spot. The younger Covello has shown an improved handle and is poised to be one of the team’s top perimeter defenders. Huancaya, who finished last season strong and has improved her outside shot.

Another option at the point is sophomore Villanueva, who has shown an advanced feel for the game and is willing to mix it up defensively well. While Villanueva is likely to come off the bench, Hill has the confidence to play all three guards on the floor at the same time and go with a smaller, quicker lineup.

Kearny’s backcourt depth has been further bolstered by two new arrivals. Senior Yashlee Rodriguez, who moved from New York City, is instant offense off the bench, while freshman Mariel Ruiz-Martinez might already be an impact shooter on a team that has traditionally relied upon transition to generate a lot of its offense.

Natalie Osorio, one of four senior co-captains, is the likely starter at the wing when Kearny plays a more traditional starting five, though junior soccer standout Aracely Vazquez is fighting hard for the spot as well. The 5-foot-8 Osorio has gotten stronger, allowing her to make a bigger impact on the glass. Vazquez, plays bigger than her 5-foot-7 height in the paint and is one of the team’s stronger rebounders.

Briana Lopez is another forward option off the bench, who plays well in spurts. Senior Gianna Charney and junior Jordan Bailey are capable shooters who can be called upon in a pinch as well.

Kearny, which enters the season with title ambitions, will quickly be tested on opening night, Dec. 15 as it travels to defending Hudson County champion Bayonne. It will be the first of many challenges in an always tough HCIAL American Division that also features reigning sectional champion Union City as well as Hudson Catholic, Snyder and St. Dominic Academy of Jersey City among others.

“I think we have a really, really good chance of going to the end in Hudson County,” Hill said. “Do we have a shot to win it all? I think it’s wide open and I think if we continue to keep working hard, we definitely have a legitimate chance to do it.”

Learn more about the writer ...

Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)