SCOREBOARD

Basketball season never ends in Hudson County

BATTLIN’ BRUIN – Jayden Williams, a promising sophomore, will be one of the players to watch this basketball season for North Bergen.
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BATTLIN’ BRUIN – Jayden Williams, a promising sophomore, will be one of the players to watch this basketball season for North Bergen.

The calendar reads August. It means it’s time for summer barbeques, the beach, baseball, basketball.
Wait a minute. What’s with that last one? Basketball? In the summertime?
But that’s definitely the case with a lot of the local high school basketball programs, who do not take the summer months off. In fact, some programs go full tilt in the summer, trying desperately to get better.
Take for instance, the Bruins of North Bergen.
North Bergen boys’ head coach Kevin Bianco is overseeing his team play in seven different leagues during the summer months. That’s right. Seven. No misprint.
Bianco’s teams are playing in places like Kearny, Clifton, Cliffside Park, Hackensack, Bloomfield (the high school and the college) and Teaneck. There are times — make that several instances – in which the Bruins are scheduled to play in two, sometimes three different summer leagues per day.
Just one day last week, assistant coach Juan Fuentes coached a North Bergen team in the Kearny summer league, then without fanfare or accolades, he packed up the Bruins and shipped them off to Montclair to play a game in that summer league.
“It does get a little crazy,” Bianco said. “We’ve played a lot of games since June 1. We had games at 5 and 6 at Montclair and then 8 p.m. at Kearny.”
On this day, it was the other way around, playing well in Kearny and then heading off to face tougher competition in Montclair.
“All of our coaches are heavily involved,” Bianco said. “We have more than enough kids who are interested in playing. We’re getting a chance to have our kids play a lot together. For us, the only time in the summer that we’re not in the gym together is when we can’t be. But once we’re allowed to play, we’re there. It’s something we’ve gotten used to doing. We know that if we want to be even semi-competitive, it’s what we have to do.”
The past two seasons, Bianco’s Bruins have been more than just competitive, winning 22 games in each of the last two campaigns and losing just a total of 13 times. The Bruins advanced all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV finals last season, falling to Hackensack in the title game.
Bianco, the 2017 Hudson Reporter Coach of the Year, knows now that he has to basically rebuild his program once again, after losing four key players to graduation.
So the summer leagues give Bianco’s players a chance to play against top competition while learning the ins and outs of the North Bergen coaching staff, especially the head coach.
“It’s good for the kids to understand what the competition is all about and how tough it is,” Bianco said. “Some of these kids played last year when the games were blowouts. Now this is a totally different scenario. They can’t sit around and wait for someone else to make a play. They have to be the ones now who do it.”
Perhaps the main ingredient of the Bruins’ rebuilding plans is senior forward Abdallah El Saleh, who was able to escape from war-torn Lebanon to find a better life in the United States. El Saleh averaged 15.3 points and nine rebounds per game for the Bruins last season, earning First Team Hudson Reporter All-Area honors in the process.
El Saleh, who has already received a scholarship offer from Bloomfield College (where he has played summer league ball), will be one of the top players once again in Hudson County come December.
“We think he’s maturing into the role that we want,” Bianco said. “Last year, he didn’t have to handle the ball much at all. Now, since we lost so many people, he has to handle. We know that when he makes a mistake, it’s only a mistake of aggressiveness. I think that’s what makes him who he is. He doesn’t make many mistakes.”
And if El Saleh is going to make mistakes, then it’s better to get them out of the way in the summertime.
El Saleh has also been keeping himself busy by playing for the New Jersey Force, one of the top AAU programs in the state. So El Saleh is trying to get in games with the Bruins in seven summer leagues and playing for another team? That’s beyond a fanatical pace.
“I believe he can do it,” Bianco said. “I’ve been coaching him since the fifth grade. I know what he can do.”
El Saleh scored 27 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had seven assists in the state playoff loss to Hackensack. That alone should tell everyone just how talented of a young man he is. El Saleh is also a dedicated student in the classroom, so his grades and test scores are not an issue.
It is all up to whether someone wants to take a chance on an undersized forward or someone who is trying to learn late to play at the guard slot.
“I know I’d take a chance on him,” Bianco laughed. “But I’ve known him for a while.”
Bianco is also happy with the progress of three rising sophomores, including guard Jayden Williams, who saw limited time on the varsity last season as a freshman, but now stands to play a lot of varsity this coming season thanks to his development — as well as the departure of some others.
“Jayden is very talented,” Bianco said. “He played with us during our state [playoff] games. I think the summer is going to help him. He has a lot of promise.”
Another kid with a ton of promise is 6-foot-6 Ronald Peralta, who also should see his playing time increase dramatically.
“He’s very athletic,” Bianco said of Peralta.
Kevin Gardner, a key reserve off the bench last year for the Bruins, returns for his senior year.
So Bianco is having a ball, running from gym to gym in northern New Jersey, balancing the schedules of his players.
“I always said that if we do well in the summer, then we’ll do well in the regular season,” said Bianco, who has battled leukemia twice in his life, including a bout with chronic myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia in 2011. “North Bergen needs to have summer leagues. At least I know my kids are playing.”
Bianco receives assistance from his assistant coaches like Fuentes, Henry Riano, Steve Ricciardi, Jr. and Xavier Silva.
“We’re just trying to get better every day,” Fuentes said. “We basically have a whole new team, so this is a great experience for them. They’re all getting a lot of minutes right now. We do as much as we can in evaluating the kids. We’re hoping that we can continue winning for the next three years.”
Bianco remains upbeat.
“I think we have a chance to be very competitive,” Bianco said. “I think it’s going to matter which team is the best conditioned.”
North Bergen is doing its conditioning on the floor all over the state. The Bruins will be ready.

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.