The start of the high school basketball season is still a good four months away, but don’t try to sell that idea to many of Hudson County’s top girls’ teams and players.
That’s because several of the local squads have spent the summer months playing in the highly competitive Kearny High School girls’ summer league that has been ongoing since the last week of June.
The Kearny league expanded this year from six teams last year to 12 this year, including teams like North Bergen, Marist, Hudson Catholic, St. Dominic Academy and Bayonne.
The league provided the area teams a chance to lock horns and play in a competitive setting before they tip it off for real in December.
One game last week pitted the Blue Devils of St. Dominic against the Bruins of North Bergen, which meant a meeting of two of the top returning players in Hudson County, namely Icies Hammer of North Bergen and Hannah Johnson of SDA, both of whom were Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team honorees last year and both were Reporter Athlete of the Week honorees as well.
The two went at it like it was a regular season contest, both showing the fierce competitors they are, despite it being a summer league game that really didn’t mean anything.
In the end, the Bruins came away with a hard-fought one-point victory, but it was great to see two sure-fire college basketball products display their immense talents during a summer league setting.
“It is really good to get a chance to play like this during the summer,” said Johnson, who will enter her senior year at SDA next month. “We get a chance to get some of the other girls involved, some of the new girls who are coming in. We get to know them a lot better playing together. It’s really a lot of fun.”
And as for facing Hammer head-to-head?
“I love playing against her,” Johnson said. “She’s a great player and she’s really big [Hammer stands 6-foot-1, compared to Johnson’s 5-foot-9], so it’s a big challenge to play against her. But I love the competition.”
Johnson, the daughter of former St. Anthony and Marquette standout and Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer Mandy Johnson, knew that the summer league acts as a showcase in case college coaches come to watch. In fact, there were a handful of college coaches in attendance to watch the Hammer-Johnson showdown.
“I know the Felician [College] coaches came to see me last week,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, even more come.”
Hammer also liked the showdown with Johnson.
“We’re good friends,” Hammer said. “I was looking forward to this game to face her.”
Hammer also likes the idea of getting the chance to play with new incoming teammates during the summer.
“We have a lot of underclassmen on the team now, so I like playing with them to get a chance to know them better,” Hammer said. “As a senior now, I have to be a leader and show these girls how to play, get a feeling of what it’s like on the varsity.”
Hammer said that she has spent a lot of the summer working on her perimeter game. In fact, during this game against St. Dominic, she hoisted up at least three shots from beyond the 3-point arc. The perimeter prowess is only going to help Hammer’s chances of securing a college scholarship this season.
“It’s been a fun way to spend the summer,” Hammer said.
“It’s a good way to keep busy,” said Johnson, who also has a job with Jersey City Recreation during the summer months, working the city’s Summer Fun camp. “Keeping busy is always a good thing.”
Some of the coaches also believe that the competitive summer league is good for the development of their players.
“I think it’s essential,” said North Bergen assistant coach Betty Mendieta, running the varsity in place of head coach Dan Reardon for the summer. “It’s a great building block for us. We get to form some team chemistry. The girls get to realize how important it is to be a varsity basketball player year round. We really can’t afford to take time off. No one is ever good enough, because there’s always someone who is working harder.”
Mendieta has spent the last four years as a volunteer coach in the North Bergen Recreation department, working with the younger girls. That work is beginning to pay off, as several of those former youngsters are now becoming members of the North Bergen High varsity squad.
“With the AAU program and PAL, I got to know a lot of the girls,” Mendieta said. “We wanted to make sure we had a good feeder program. I’ve known a lot of them since fourth grade and now they’re playing with us. We’re getting to see the fruits of our labor.”
Hudson Catholic head coach Pete Vincent was also pleased to get his team in a competitive league. Vincent will begin his second season with the Hawks this December.
“A league like this is helpful, because it gives us a little more input into what we’re going to see when the season begins,” Vincent said. “It gives us a chance to see how our players are getting better. It keeps them in shape and keeps them organized.”
Vincent said that the league has given some of his younger players a chance to play on a varsity level.
“We got a lot of JV [junior varsity] players who got a chance to play in this league,” Vincent said. “We have some others who are playing AAU, so the younger kids get a chance to show me how much better they’ve gotten since the end of last season. I try to get to see them play as much as I can during the summer. The chemistry between them gets better. It’s good for us, because most of the teams here we will face during the regular season. It helps us see different styles of play.”
Vincent said that he’s had about a 75 percent attendance rate during the summer months, which is pretty good, considering vacations and other commitments.
All in all, it was great to see the girls playing at a highly competitive level during the summer and makes everyone anticipate what should be an exciting girls’ basketball season during the winter months.
Except for one thing. No one wants to rush the winter months coming just yet. The summer weather has been too sensational to even think about December.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.