For years, one of the best local rivalries was always St. Peter’s Prep against Hudson Catholic. It didn’t matter what setting the two Jersey City parochial powers met in, it was an intense war.
It could have been a forensics debate, a Moot Court showdown, a hockey game or a baseball contest. It didn’t matter. Hudson vs. Prep was as fierce as it got locally.
The two schools would long to face each other. They would circle the date on the calendar. Even when Hudson Catholic was suffering through the lean years competitively in athletics, the Hawks always looked forward to facing off against the Marauders.
It was only natural. The two schools used to fiercely compete for the same students, never mind the similar student/athletes. They also struggled in tugs-of-war for the top athletes as well, although for the better part of the last 20 years, Prep would generally win out.
But things changed dramatically on McGinley Square when Nick Mariniello arrived, first as the head boys’ basketball coach five years ago, then later as athletic director.
Mariniello made the Hudson Catholic basketball program relevant once again and was able to lead the Hawks to their first Hudson County championship in 37 years.
For good measure, the Hawks won it again last year, winning more county crowns in two years than the school had in its five-decade existence.
But when the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League was formed a few years ago, there was a separation of the two schools, due to the divisional breakdown based on enrollment alone. St. Peter’s was in the larger school division, with Hudson Catholic with the smaller schools.
Even though the two basketball teams from the schools were ranked among the best in the state, they weren’t scheduled to face each other in the regular season.
The only chance for the teams to meet would be in the Hudson County Tournament, where the Hawks had defeated the Marauders in the finals in each of the last two years.
For an entire year, local basketball fans – as well as the two schools – have been clamoring for another showdown.
Well, it’s bound to happen this weekend.
The Hawks, the two-time defending county champion and top seed in the county tourney this year, were slated to face the Marauders, the second seed, in the county tourney title game Saturday afternoon at Union City High School at 2 p.m., right after the girls’ tourney title game.
The Marauders were actually ranked higher than the Hawks in the recent statewide Top 20 poll. The Marauders (23-3) were placed at No. 7 and the Hawks (21-3) were at No. 8.
Yes, that’s how close the rivalry really is. Even though the Hawks are the two-time defending champs, the Marauders have been ranked ahead of them.
That’s because a lot of the characters on last year’s county champion have since graduated. The Hawks lost more than 50 points per game to graduation, including All-State standout Reggie Cameron, The Hudson Reporter Player of the Year last year now currently starting at Georgetown.
“I think we’ve created such a high level of expectation,” said Mariniello. “I really didn’t know what to expect with this team. You want guys who can step up and be in the same position as last year’s team, but you don’t know. I think we’re better defensively than we were last year.”
The Hawks have received solid play of late from junior guard Nassir Barrino, who is playing himself into a solid college prospect.
“Nassir is 100 percent comfortable with his knee now,” Mariniello said of Barrino, who underwent surgery last April for a torn meniscus. “He’s had a very good second half of the season.”
Barrino, who is also an excellent student and is being looked at by Holy Cross and Princeton, just to name a few, is averaging 14 points per game.
Senior guard J.R. Lynch is averaging 12 points per contest.
“J.R. has enjoyed an out-of-nowhere kind of year,” Mariniello said. “And he’s been able to sustain it.”
Junior forward Adam Traore has become more of a presence of late. Traore had 23 points in a recent win over Marist.
“We didn’t play well that night,” Mariniello said. “He won the game for us.”
Senior forward Safee Abdus-Sabur has also been a steady force for the Hawks.
Meanwhile, the Marauders have had to find ways to balance a talented and young roster.
“I like what we’re doing,” said Prep head coach Todd Decker. “I still don’t think we’re playing our best basketball yet.”
Last week, Decker was so upset with the way his team was playing defense.
“So we didn’t touch a basketball,” Decker said. “The message was sent. We want to be able to take everyone’s best shot.”
Decker admitted that after 26 games, his team, featuring key players like freshman guard Nate Pierre-Louis and sophomore forward Veer Singh, can no longer be considered as inexperienced. The same for sophomore forward Najaa Hunter, who has become a key player down the stretch for the Marauders.
“With all the time they put in over the summer and this season, there’s no such thing as freshmen and sophomores,” Decker said. “We’re trying to erase the age or grade factor. To their credit, they’ve had a lot of hype this season and they’ve handled it pretty well. I like the way Nate has progressed. There are not many freshmen in the state who have had more of a major role.
Added Decker, “Veer is coming on strong at the end of the season. He’s been rising to the occasion in big games. He’ll be the first one to make the extra pass, make the key play. No doubt, he’s super talented. He has such a sweet stroke for someone 6-foot-8. He understands the game and has everything in place to be a special player.”
Of course, the Marauders can also count on senior Austin White, the team’s leading scorer averaging 18 points per game.
When Decker was reached last Monday, he was asked if Hudson Catholic was even in the thought process.
“I won’t even let them talk about it,” Decker said. “No doubt, we’ve been playing pretty well lately. The opponents will be lined up to face us. We’ll have enough challenges. It’s more about us right now. If we play the right way, play with intensity on the defensive end, we’ll be fine.”
Mariniello, who hinted that his team might be the underdog despite being the two-time defending champion, acknowledged how well the Marauders have been playing.
“It is such a rivalry,” Mariniello said. “They’re playing well right now and are going to be tough to beat. We’ve seen them play about 10 times, so we’ll have a good handle on what they can do.”
So let the game begin. Who wins? The Marauders have a deeper and more talented roster. That should translate to a victory this time, the program’s first since 2010 after winning four straight.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.