North Arlington head coach Brendan Queenan remembers the question when it came from one of his players at the beginning of the season, a question that seemed incomprehensible considering the recent history of Vikings girls basketball.
“I remember early in the season one of our players asked if I thought we could win 17 games,” Queenan said. “That was before our Christmas Tournament. I said, “I thought so, but I also thought we had to catch a few breaks here and there.”
It turns out the Vikings did one better.
North Arlington’s season came to an end on Friday in the North 2, Group 1 semifinals with a loss at top-seeded University, but not before enjoying success that the program has not seen in a generation.
North Arlington concluded the season with 18 wins, which is believed to be the most in more than 15 years. The trip to the sectional semifinals was the first for the Vikings since 2003.
“It’s a step further than we went a year ago (in the state tournament) and we improved on the win total (by six),” Queenan said.
Rather than one star doing the bulk of the heavy-lifting, North Arlington relied on contributions from multiple players over the course of the season. The state tournament was no exception.
Poised to make noise as the fourth seed in the section, North Arlington defeated 13th-seeded Newark Tech in the first round, 51-28, a game. Five different players scored between eight and 13 points in the win, led by sophomore Kyra Garcia’s 13 and 10 rebounds. Skyla Acosta also had a double-double, finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Sophia Veloso added eight points with 10 rebounds. Lia Cruz had 10 points with six steals and Nicole Garcia scored eight points.
In the quarterfinals against 12th-seeded Whippany Park, Cruz led all scorers with 15 points and Veloso added 13 with five assists in the 48-37 win. Kyra Garcia (7 points, 14 rebounds) and Acosta (8 points, 11 rebounds) were against dominant presences on the glass for the Vikings.
The Vikings were without Cruz due to injury against a University team ranked No. 8 in the NJ.com Top 20 and a lineup full of players sure to play Division 1 college basketball in the years to come. University erupted for 35 first quarter points en route to an 88-23 victory. Kyra Garcia had 12 points and six rebounds in the loss.
While it was an unsatisfying ending, merely getting that far for the first time in two decades is proof of how much this group has progressed over the past three seasons.
“I think they realized as the season wore on that this was pretty impressive,” Queenan said. “They expected to win every time we went out there. You could see the culture change. They were disappointed when they lost where previously it was more ‘this is what North Arlington does.’ The attitude has definitely changed.”
Queenan knows those expectations will continue to grow as North Arlington is set to return its top four scorers from this season, losing only Nicole Garcia and forward Kathryn Raftery to graduation.
“I think they do realize that next season we do want to challenge for the sectional final,” Queenan said. “We do want to get there and I think they’re aware that the expectation is that we should be better next season.”
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.)