For the last three years, Ava Hyams has been counted upon to be a facilitator on offense, a key rebounder and an outside shooter for Kearny. This season, the 5-foot-11 senior Hyams has added another responsibility to her list – defensive stopper.
A void was created in the Kardinals’ defense following the season-ending knee injury to standout Julia Araujo. It’s a role that not only has Hyams filled, but embraced.
Take last Thursday’s game at Caldwell when standout guard Lauren Sanderson struck for three 3-pointers in the first quarter. It was then when Hyams wanted to take things into her own hands.
“Against Caldwell, this girl (Lauren Sanderson) came out and started lighting it up. I think she hit a quick three 3’s and Ava asked to guard her,” Kearny head coach Jody Hill said. “She went ‘Coach, I think I can disrupt her shot. I think having the size (advantage) a little bit, I think I can disrupt her and would love to guard her if you let me.’ We let her guard her and she didn’t score any points for the rest of the way.”
“Seeing that girl hit those threes, I knew I had to shut her down, I had to do that for my team,” said Hyams. “Playing the best (scorer) actually makes me play better on offense. Defense creates offense and I truly believe that because that’s how I play.”
Not only did Hyams hold Sanderson scoreless the rest of the way, she matched her season high with 22 points, making four 3-pointers and pulling down 11 rebounds as the Kardinals defeated Caldwell, 52-46.
Hyams has posted double-doubles in four consecutive games, starting with a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in William Masopust Jr. Holiday Classic final against Nutley. She was named the Tournament’s MVP.
Thanks to her all-around impact, Kearny is off to an impressive 8-2 start and Hyams is The Observer Athlete of the Week.
For the season, Hyams, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute commit, is averaging 15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.4 assists per game.
“Ava just has a different sense of maturity this year where she’s like ‘what we need to win, I’m willing to provide to the best of my ability,’” Hill said. “I don’t think we really had to rely on her so much (defensively) because of Julia. But now with Julia gone, it made us say ‘why not try Ava?’ and when we did, it was an eye-opening thing for us because we didn’t realize how good her defense could be.”
The extent Hyams’ ability on the defensive end became clear during the AAU season when she played for New Jersey Freedom. There, she was often asked to defend the opposing team’s best offensive player, regardless of position
“If it was a small guard that was dribbling through everyone they would be like ‘Ava, go out there and shut her down.’ Or it could be the tallest girl, like 6-7, and they’d make me face-guard her,” said Hyams. “I can guard anyone at any level, at any speed or at any height.”
“I think it’s a huge bonus for our team to know that Ava now has the stamina to do it on the offensive end as well as giving us that defensive spark,” said Hill. “She knows the game, she has the experience of defending great players from playing in a top AAU league. She’s coming into the year, that’s all she was used to, guarding great players on elite AAU teams.”
At Kearny, Hyams describes her role as the “stealer” in the middle of the Kardinals’ full-court press defense. A stark contrast from her previous role.
“(Last year) I was actually all the way in the back. Coach was trying to hide me,” Hyams said. “I really have learned to use my length and I know I’m longer than a lot of these girls that we’re playing against.
“I definitely can steal balls from small guards just by putting my hands out. Guarding bigs, I can elongate my body up and deflect a pass coming in to them.”
While it might seem like there’s a lot on Hyams’ plate, she doesn’t feel any pressure about it. Instead, with her college commitment secure and the Kardinals playing well, she is playing relaxed.
“I’ve been playing very loosely and having more fun,” said Hyams. “Now that I’m committed,I don’t have to think about anybody looking at me.
“We’re five strong and we can potentially do big things this year.”
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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.)