Local teams begin practices to mark the start of winter sports season

Skyla Acosta

Last Monday marked the first official day of tryouts for the winter sports seasons. And as the basketballs are brought out of storage and the wrestling mats are set to be rolled out for the first time, local coaches are not only eager to begin, but they expect to see a fresher, more energized group of players.

Last year, the NJSIAA introduced a revised athletics calendar designed to give athletes a larger gap between seasons. The difference has been noticeable and in the eyes of winter coaches, a positive.

“I think a little extra rest is always good both mentally and physically for athletes,” said Jody Hill, who enters her 29th season as Kearny’s girls basketball head coach. “I recall some soccer seasons where the team would go to the finals or semifinals and only have a couple of days (rest) and we’re expecting 100-percent at tryouts. It’s a lot on the kids when it’s like that.

“I think they’re all excited to be back, they had a nice little break and I’m hoping that they’re high-energy and well-rested.”

One place that plans to hit the ground running on Monday is at North Arlington as the Vikings’ girls basketball team returns the top four scorers from last year’s 18-10 team.

With such a veteran group, led by seniors Skyla Acosta, Lia Cruz and Sophia Veloso, as well as a productive summer of workouts and games, head coach Brenan Queenan knows he can be more advanced for the start of the preseason.

“We’re going to handle it more like a midseason practice the first two days,” said Queenan. “We used the summer to really implement the things we want to do. The next two days are going to be more review (previous stuff) with conditioning starting next week.

“Coming off of last year’s success, they’re looking forward to the start of practices. The seniors, when they got here we were 2-9, 12-12 and then 18-10 so they want to keep that going and have a better record for their senior year.”

North Arlington isn’t the only local team with a lot of the pieces set to return from last season. Lyndhurst, under second-year head coach Christian Boyce, returns three of its top four starters, in forwards Asya Akar and Brooke Harper as well as guard Samantha Mayer. Nutley is projected to return nearly its entire roster from a season ago for new head coach Kara McNish.

On the boys side, expectations are high at Lyndhurst, where the Golden Bears return four starters from last year’s 16-10 team. Senior forward Anthony Pizzuti (20.8 points per game), headlines the list of returners, which also includes seniors CJ Baillie, Matt Slaby and Jake Mayer and junior Shawn Bellenger. North Arlington is set to bring back several pieces from last year’s 10-win team as does Belleville and Kearny, which has a new coach in Marc McCaffrey.

Hill’s team will have a different look this season, following the graduation of four-year starters Maci Covello and Ava Hyams as well as Natalie Osorio, all three are now playing college basketball. But despite the losses from last year’s team, which went 22-7, Hill is excited for a new batch of talent to go with some holdovers, who primed for bigger seasons.

“We’re excited for some new energy and some returning players who we expect great things from and hopefully a couple of new surprises,” Hill said. “We are coming in not fully knowing what to expect, but we’re hopeful that people are going to step up and we’re going to do what’s necessary to be a successful team again this season.”

Basketball and wrestling teams can hold their first scrimmages on Dec. 4 with opening day set for Dec. 14.

For hockey and swimming, opening day is Dec. 7 with the first day of scrimmages set for Nov. 28.

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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.)