North Arlington head coach Marcus Jimenez didn’t necessarily have making the state tournament as a top priority as he went about trying to build back up a boys basketball program left in shambles.
It does however show just how much progress has been made in just one season. On Monday evening, after The Observer is set to print, the Vikings, seeded 11th, will be making their first state tournament appearance in six years when they travel up Route 17 to face sixth-seeded Wood-Ridge in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 tournament.
“Was it at the top of our list? Absolutely not. It was more focusing on the process, making sure our behavior matches our daily habits, just getting better each and every day,” Jimenez said. “We felt as though we were heading in the right direction. We just needed to experience some of those tough losses early on. We learned from our mistakes, we improved from them and now we’re in the state tournament.”
While playing in the state tournament will be a first time experience for everyone, Jimenez is trying not to put too much added emphasis on the game itself.
“We haven’t really stressed too much about it,” said Jimenez, who has turned up the speakers in the gym in an effort to replicate the kind of crowd noise they’ll hear at Wood-Ridge. “They know it’s a big game so me stressing that it’s a big game is not going to help them. We’ve just been focusing on us and what we need to do to be successful.”
At a point in the calendar where the uniforms have already been handed in, North Arlington (10-14) is not just playing its best basketball of the season, but arguably its best in recent memory, having won five of its last seven games, a stretch which included a four-game winning streak.
Senior forward Bernie Pimentel has started to put it all together offensively, scoring a career-high 26 points in a Feb. 9 win over Wallington, then later adding 18 in a victory over Bergen Charter.
Senior guard Kyle Villani, who recently committed to play football at Division II Southern Connecticut State, has been a dangerous outside shooter, making three or more 3-pointers in four of the last six games.
Villani hasn’t been the only shooting threat from the perimeter. Vincent Richard struck for six 3-pointers in a Feb. 10 victory over Brearley and freshman Jesse Calfayan has averaged 13.2 points per game over the last five, showing why he was viewed as a potentially special talent before the season.
“I would say so,” said Jimenez when asked if the past two weeks were the best North Arlington has played all season. “I think we still need to work on the little things. We still need to get better at communication, leadership, things I’ve been stressing all year. But for the most part, the players have bought into the system. All the players I’ve challenged them in one way or another and I’ve felt that they’ve all risen to the challenge
“I do feel we’re heading in the right direction with the current team that we have now, as well as with the future players.”
Considering North Arlington’s 10 wins this year matches the total of the previous four seasons combined, saying the Vikings are “heading in the right direction” is an understatement.
Lyndhurst, which had a fine 16-9 regular season under new head coach Perrin Mosca, is the ninth-seed in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2. The Golden Bears will head to Newark on Tuesday for a showdown with eighth-seeded Science Park at 4 p.m.
Anthony Pizzuti hasn’t slowed down since his record-breaker 53-point performance on Feb. 7, averaging 20.7 points per game since then. The size of Pizzuti, Matt Slaby (11.6 points per game) and CJ Baillie (9.1 ppg) will certainly be put to the test against a Science Park team that is arguably the biggest they have seen all season.
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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.)