Nick Mariniello has had to endure his share of emotional strife this season.
The head basketball coach and athletic director at Hudson Catholic had to watch as three of his top players from the school’s first Hudson County championship since 1975 leave the program and head for different schools.
Not many programs can survive losing three vital cogs to a title without graduation as a cause for departure and maintain a winning program.
Then, on a personal note, Mariniello has been dealing with the illness of his father, who has been battling kidney disease for the last two years.
“If there’s one good thing, my father went from being my Dad to being my best friend over the last two years,” said Mariniello, who has been rushing from games and practices to his father’s hospital bed for the last couple of months. “We have done everything together, from going to dialysis sessions and doctor’s visits. If there is one silver lining through all of this, I’ve been able to spend time with my Dad. But it’s been a rough go.”
So you would think that having a sick father and a crumbling basketball roster would be enough to break the spirits of a young basketball coach.
Well, think again.
“Win or lose the rest of the way, this has been the best coaching season of my 13 years,” said Mariniello, who has guided the Hawks to their second consecutive county championship appearance, facing nemesis St. Peter’s Prep this weekend at St. Peter’s University’s Yanitelli Center.
“I really love this team,” said Mariniello, whose team defeated Bayonne to reach the final game last Tuesday night. “Win or lose, I still have this team. I love the way we play, the way we compete. I still don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet and I told the kids that.”
That’s a scary thought, considering the fact that the Hawks have won 26 of 27 games this season.
“The kids have responded to all of the challenges and all of the personal stuff I’ve had to go through,” Mariniello said. “They’ve given me perspective and balance. From a basketball side, it hasn’t been difficult at all. Sure, you say we lost three good kids and we did. No questioning that.”
One of the players who helped turn the Hudson Catholic program around, Rakwan Kelly, who was a Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team selection as a freshman, decided he wanted to go to Newark Tech. Another, 6-foot-10 Michael Young, who was known last year for shattering the backboard in the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium in the school, took his talents to St. Benedict’s Prep. Young will play at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall.
The third, point guard Travis Flagg, went back to Cordozo in Queens. Like Kelly, Flagg was part of the program when Mariniello arrived and was a key component for three years.
The losses would have been enough for most programs to fold up shop and bemoan their fate.
“I think because I’ve been through it all now and I’m older now that I understand it,” said Mariniello, who was the New Jersey Coach of the Year while at Bloomfield Tech. “I don’t think our kids felt any pressure to do what last year’s team did. I think the kids had high expectations of themselves. I think they didn’t need to put any pressure on themselves to do it again. Maybe losing those kids relieved some of that pressure. Who knows?”
It has also helped that senior forward Reggie Cameron is having a senior year for the record books. Cameron, easily the frontrunner to be the Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey when the smoke clears, is averaging 23 points and nine rebounds per game for the No. 2 team in the state.
The 6-foot-8 Cameron, already signed to go to Georgetown, may be having the best single season of any player to go to Hudson Catholic. Believe it or not, that includes the legendary duo of Jim Spanarkel and Mike O’Koren.
Cameron entered the county championship game just 151 points shy of breaking O’Koren’s school scoring record of 1,758 points. While O’Koren got his total in four years, Cameron has compiled his in three.
If there’s a better all-around player in New Jersey than Cameron, then he’s a mystery.
The Hawks have also been blessed with great play from senior point guard Kavon Stewart, who signed to go to Robert Morris before the season started.
“Kavon’s leadership on and off the court has been tremendous,” Mariniello said. “He’s been vocal. He’s become a great student of the game. He understands the responsibility of a point guard. He wasn’t happy with the way he or his teammates performed against Bayonne and he let them know it.”
Another key contributor has been senior Kyle McLeggan, who has gone from a mere role player in the past to a college scholarship player. McLeggan is headed to Adelphi in the fall.
“Kyle is now one of our leaders,” Mariniello said.
The Hawks took 37 years to win a county title. Now, they’re on the throes of making it two straight. St. Peter’s is a much better team now than when the Hawks beat them in the first week of the season in December.
Trevis Wyche and Austin White have formed one of the best guard combinations in the state. Wyche and White combined to score 43 of the Marauders’ 63 points in their semifinal win over Marist last Tuesday. It marks the sixth straight time that St. Peter’s Prep has reached the county title game, having won four straight crowns before losing in the finals to Hudson Catholic last year.
“The championship game pits two very good programs,” Mariniello said. “I’m very impressed with the way Prep has been playing, especially their guard play. High school basketball is a guard’s game and they have two [NCAA] Division I players. I told our kids that we throw the records out and the history out and the rankings and play the championship game.”
It’s a game that might have not taken the most conventional or easiest route, but the Hawks are back again, this time to make history as repeating champions.
“We got through the stint with the kids leaving, then an injury bug to make it back,” Mariniello said. “I’m comfortable with who we are. We have kids who finally understand their roles. We knew that we were going to be the hated ones this year, the hunted. Teams get up to play us. But we’re in the position now to do something great.”
A second county tournament title with an almost new cast of characters might have to be constituted as being great, considering the impressive seasonal record that comes with it.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.