To fully grasp the meaning of the 7-2 start Belleville’s girls basketball team has gotten off to, all head coach Chris Cantarella and the upperclassmen need to do is think back to just two years prior when they went 0-13 in a Covid-shortened season and there were just nine players in the entire program.
“It’s a world different from what it was the last two years because of the record,” said Cantarella, now in his sixth season as head coach. “Most of the girls on the team have been through our Covid year, which was not good, as well as last year which was a struggle. The attitude is much different. They’re a lot more jovial, it’s a lot better to win than it is to lose. They come into practice a little bit more motivated and enthusiastic.”
Winning understandably those that to a team and the Bucs enter the second month of the season, tied for first in the Super Essex Conference – Freedom Division with Newark Lab at 7-1.
A big reason for the success has been a level of depth Belleville has not enjoyed in recent memory as Cantarella counts eight girls who are capable of starting. That depth has also allowed him to return to play a man-to-man defense that has allowed just 22.3 points per game.
“I have a little bit more depth this year so I can play a more physical type of man-to-man defense and doubling on ball screens,” Cantarella said. “When you have a little more depth you can do it. In our practice sessions, they’ve been working really hard at getting better at it.”
As part of that man-to-man defense, point guard Ashley Cely is sure to be matched up with the opposing team’s top scorer. The return of the 5-foot-5 senior, who missed all of last season due to injury, has proven invaluable to the Bucs.
“She doesn’t do a lot of scoring, but she does a lot of everything else,” said Cantarella. “She rebounds, she distributes the basketball, she plays great man-to-man defense, she plays awesome helpside defense.”
The other point guard is sophomore Camila Cortes-Alonso (5-foot-5), who has been able to show more of her all-around game, since she is no longer counted upon to do everything on the offensive end.
“She’s a great basketball player who handles the ball very well and has a good mid-range jumpshot,” Cantarella said. “She was probably our best basketball player last year and has improved again this year.”
Another strong defender in the starting backcourt is 5-foot-6 senior Amelia Fabara, who is also the Bucs’ best player in transition.
At one forward spot for Belleville is Gianna DaSilva, a 5-foot-7 senior, who is strong in the post defensively and as a rebounder. Ath the other spot is junior Sheyla Amparo, who is the team’s top rebounder.
“She’s a tough kid, she understands her role on our team fantastically,” said Cantarella. “She knows that she’s there to play defense, rebound and be a presence.”
Perhaps no bigger testament to the improved depth is sophomore McKayla Reed, a starter a season ago, who now comes off the bench. The 5-foot-10 Reed has a great wingspan and is capable of playing in the post and on the perimeter.
Also, coming off the bench is 5-foot-9 junior Katheinne Avecillas-Macgregor, a transfer from Ecuador, who can play the two, three and four on defense. Five-foot-seven senior Amadi McIver, a Dickinson transfer, is another strong defender who excels in transition.
Other players, who have key roles off the bench include Danae Ruiz-Luna, a junior who transferred from Ecuador, senior Mikaela Andrade, who returns after missing last year due to injury, and promising freshman post player Mya Estrict.
Belleville looks to continue its winning ways on Tuesday, Jan. 17 against Technology before traveling the next day to play at St. Vincent of Newark. These are the Bucs last two games before the Essex County Tournament is seeded.
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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.)