North Arlington girls basketball coach Brendan Queenan knows it will be difficult for the Vikings to raise the bar even higher after going from two wins in the Covid-shortened 2021 season to 12 in 2022 and 18 last season.
And while North Arlington has yet to play its first scrimmage, the start of the preseason has him optimistic that this group might not be done yet improving.
“This first week of practice has been the best first week I’ve ever had at North Arlington,” said Queenan, now in his fourth season as head coach. Even on a Saturday morning, they were all there and ready to go. Everybody’s ready to go, everybody’s excited, trying to replicate or surpass last year.”
With five of the top six scorers back from a season ago, Queenan expects the Vikings to be much improved on the offensive end. That starts with senior center Skyla Acosta, who averaged 8.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game a season ago.
“Everything is going to revolve around her. If you look at how we played last year, the games where teams defended her well, we struggled,” said Queenan about the 6-foot-0 Acosta. “She’s tough to handle down there (in the paint). She knows that she’s got several different moves she can use to get to the basket and if she doesn’t, she can find somebody. She’s good at passing out of the post. It’s a luxury.”
Unlike the previous two seasons, Acosta won’t have another true forward playing alongside her after the graduation of Kathryn Raftery. Fortunately for North Arlington it does return several guards capable of playing bigger than their height, starting with Sophia Veloso, who shifts from point guard back to the forward role she played as a freshman. The 5-foot-8 senior averaged 6.6 points and 5.8 rebounds, while serving as a jack-of-all-trades.
Sophomore Lyndsay Gilbert is the starting point guard. Gilbert, who started 11 games last season, primarily off the ball, has impressed with her poise and basketball IQ early on.
“The thing that has really impressed me is her instincts,” Queenan said. “She really knows how to play the game and what to do in certain spots.”
Senior Lia Cruz, who led the team in scoring (8.9 points per game) and in 3-point shooting (27) a year ago, is also back at guard and should be able to use her speed to her advantage both going to the rim and finding an open spot on the perimeter.
The third guard is 5-foot-5 junior Kyra Garcia, who is looking to build off of a strong finish to last season when she averaged a double-double over three state tournament games.
“She’s really emerged as a key piece,” Queenan said. “She’s a scoring threat, a defensive threat and even at 5-foot-5 she rebounds.”
The rebounding ability of Garcia and Veloso make this the most versatile team Queenan has had at North Arlington.
“It’s extremely versatile. Everyone on the team is expected to know multiple positions,” Queenan said. “We have a lot of interchangeable parts, which I think will be good for what we want to do defensively.”
Off the bench, 5-foot-5 junior Shelby McCann is another one of the versatile players who can handle the ball and make an impact on the defensive end of the floor. Six-foot freshman Madison Kornas is a promising center set to play right away and sophomore guard Charlize Torres plays bigger than her listed height of 5-foot-5.
Sophomores Sophia Lasek and Sophia Poremba, junior Amaya Cuffie and freshman Shelby Targett are all vying for time in the backcourt while junior Janytxi Sanchez brings added depth inside.
North Arlington opens the season on Thursday, Dec. 14 when it hosts Lodi before traveling to Emerson two days later. The Vikings will once again be hosting the William Ferguson Holiday Tournament before turning the calendar to 2024 with games against rival Lyndhurst and reigning Group 2 finalist Secaucus.
“This is what we’ve been building towards all along,” said Queenan, who’s team reached North 2, Group 1 semifinals before falling to eventual state champion University of Newark. “This is what the finished product is supposed to look like and we finally got there. It was hard to imagine a few years ago, but now we’re here, we recalibrate the goals. Settling for a .500 season really is not acceptable. We want to exceed that.”
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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.)