When Carlos Cueto left High Tech High School to take over the boys' basketball program at Union Hill last spring, he knew that he was inheriting a team with some talent.
"I knew that they had some young talented kids in the program and that there were some seniors coming back. I knew most of the kids from coaching them in AAU (for the St. Michael's AAU team from Union City). There was some talent there."
But how much? That was up to debate. After all, the Hillers won all of four games last season. Teams with talent don't win just four games.
This was a program in desperate need of an overhaul and Cueto, the Union City native and former St. Anthony High School and University of Richmond point guard, was just the man to do it.
Cueto wasted little time in instituting his philosophy and ideas on his new team.
"I started working with them a lot from the very beginning," Cueto said. "We worked on conditioning and skills. We decided to go away to camp together, which was a huge help."
Cueto took his new team to the Rutgers University team camp in early July, to help them develop a chemistry and camaraderie.
"It really helped a lot," Cueto said. "It was the first time a lot of them were away from home. They got to hang out together and goof around together. They got to know each other more and they got to know me better."
Cueto entered the Hillers in the Jersey City Recreation Summer League, where they faired better than ever before.
"We made it all the way to the league semifinals," Cueto said. "Then we ran into a little bit of a problem with a team called St. Anthony's."
There was no way that Cueto was ready to take on his alma mater just yet.
"Still, it gave me a good sense of what we had," Cueto said.
However, when the regular season began, the Hillers didn't seem ready.
"We got off to a rocky beginning and ran into a few stumbling blocks," Cueto said. "The first game of the year we had scheduled [against St. Mary's of Jersey City] wasn't played, so we had to wait until the following Tuesday to open the season. Then, we played Hoboken and they opened up a can on us and beat us bad."
The Hillers then went to the Cliffside Park Christmas Tournament and lost to the host team in the finals. They then traveled to Connecticut to face St. Luke's Prep, a team coached by Cueto's former St. Anthony teammate and Fordham standout Billy Lovett.
"We lost that one, too," Cueto said.
For a reward, the Hillers got a chance to face St. Anthony in the Brian Doherty Memorial Classic at St. Benedict's Prep to start the New Year. Some reward. The Hillers were crushed, 66-24.
"My kids didn't come to play that day," Cueto said. "St. Anthony's defensive pressure really got to us. We couldn't do anything right."
The Hillers were 2-4, heading into the rough-and-tumble world of the HCIAA Coviello. After a 40-point trouncing at the hands of the fabulous Friars, one would think that the Hillers were heading toward another season of oblivion.
But something magical happened after the Hillers faced the Friars.
"We played the next day [against Marist] and we were running our offense like it was cake," Cueto said. "We got off to a good start and just kept ascending from there. It was like something special happened."
Sure did. In their next game, the Hillers faced cross-town rival Emerson, the defending HCIAA Coviello champion and a team that Union Hill hadn't defeated in more than three years.
"One play summed it up for me," Cueto said. "There was one play that told me that we were going to win that game. One of our seniors, Richard Dela Cruz, took it upon himself to win that game. He had never beaten Emerson. He saw a loose ball and he dove about six-to-eight feet to get that ball in a close game. I knew then we'd get the win and I knew then that these kids were ready to become winners.
Added Cueto, "After that Emerson game, the kids started to really believe that they were good, that the practicing and the drills were for something good."
The 53-47 victory over the defending county champions and neighboring rivals really gave the Hillers an impetus to keep it going.
"It almost kick-started us," Cueto said.
So the winning continued. There was a win over Ferris, followed by a victory over Hudson Catholic (and Cueto's long-time friends Steve Ricciardi and Efrain Rene, the coaches at HC), and then wins against pre-season favorite Dickinson and Snyder ensued. Lo and behold, the Hillers won their first seven league games.
That's right. Union Hill, just one year removed from a four-win disaster, has motored through the first seven HCIAA games unscathed and sit atop the Coviello Division standings as you read this. They're currently 9-4 overall and 7-0 in the league. It's bordering on the absurd.
It's too amazing that even Cueto himself has a tough time fathoming it.
"Last night, I was sitting at dinner with my wife [Vanessa] and I said to her, 'Can you really believe we're 7-0?' I can't believe it. And we're making it look easy. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I'm absolutely surprised."
Sure, it looks as if Cueto is some coaching genius, but he doesn't want to take the credit.
"It's all about the kids," Cueto said. "They just play harder than everyone else every night. That's what it is. They believe in the philosophy and in hard work. I taught them that if they play good, hard defense, just stopping teams from scoring, then you have a good chance to win."
There are no stars among the Hillers, just hard-nosed tough basketball players. The leading scorer is sophomore point guard Andy Cabrera, a 5-9 ball wizard who is averaging 12 points per game.
"He still makes sophomore mistakes, but talent-wise, it's scary what that kid can do," Cueto said of Cabrera. "Sometimes, you forget he's a sophomore. He's that good."
Senior Senon Sales is the Hillers' off-guard. The 5-10 Sales is averaging 10 points per game and has been the team's most consistent player.
"He's been steady all year," Cueto said of Sales.
Senior Dela Cruz has also been a stabilizing force. He is the team's jack-of-all-trades, averaging about eight points per game.
"He gets a lot of floor burns now," Cueto said of the hustling Dela Cruz.
Sophomore Raugly Sosa, the younger brother of former Union Hill football standout and current Rutgers offensive tackle Pedro, is the team's power forward. Sosa has been on a tear of late, averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds over the last six games.
Junior Eddie Cardenas, a 6-3 forward, is a hard worker who contributes six points and five rebounds per game. Cueto likes Cardenas' work ethic.
"He never misses a practice," Cueto said.
The starting center is 6-3 junior Jason Matos, whom Cueto calls "an energy guy." Matos is a solid rebounder as well.
The reserves are led by senior guard Jorge Banos, a 5-9 spitfire who is a steady influence and runs the team when Cabrera needs a rest. Justin Sanchez, a 5-9 freshman guard, also sees quality minutes and has a great shooting touch, but he's still getting acclimated to varsity basketball.
Cueto said that he doesn't want the excitement that comes with an undefeated 7-0 league start to end. Sure, there are three weeks left in the regular season and a lot of things can happen between now and the playoffs. But for now, the buzz throughout the county is all about Union Hill. And deservedly so.
"I don't want to temper the excitement," Cueto said. "I just want to keep the energy going. People now want to be the ones who knock us off and I like that. Our kids are not used to this. These kids just keep proving me wrong, which I love."
Cueto then paused and uttered the truest words of the interview.
"They just might be becoming a good basketball team," Cueto said.
No, coach, when you win seven straight without a loss in Hudson County, you're already there. You're pretty damn good if you're sitting atop the standings. Damn good indeed.