Veteran coach Carlos Cueto just knew that coaching this year’s Union City High School girls’ basketball team might have been the biggest challenge of his long-standing career.
Cueto, the former St. Anthony High and University of Richmond standout who was the head boys’ basketball coach at the now-defunct Union Hill for about a decade, then became the head boys’ coach at Secaucus for a brief stint, took over the Union City girls’ program three years ago and has made a smooth transition from coaching boys to coaching girls.
But Cueto realized that coaching this year’s bunch of Soaring Eagles would be a tough task, considering the age of his entire roster, which features a host of freshmen.
“It’s been like a roller coaster ride,” Cueto said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get from day to day. It’s mostly challenging mentally than anything. That’s expected when you have as many as five freshmen practicing and three of them are starting. They’re just so young.”
Cueto said that he hasn’t changed his coaching philosophy, going from boys to girls.
“I haven’t changed my hard core values,” Cueto said. “I’ve just learned to adapt more to coaching girls.”
The Soaring Eagles found themselves in a bit of a bind two weeks ago, when they had a 6-10 record and were watching their season slip away into oblivion.
But the tide has turned recently, as the Soaring Eagles have now won three straight to get to 9-10 overall. The Lady Eagles defeated Memorial, 39-31, on Jan. 30 to get to within one game of .500.
“I know how good they can be,” Cueto said. “But generally, they can’t do it for four quarters,” Cueto said. “They’re young and inexperienced. They get fatigued and start to make mistakes.”
Cueto said that he tried to get the team more physically prepared for the rigors of Hudson County girls’ basketball.
“We spent a lot of time in the offseason in the weight room,” Cueto said. “They had no idea how much of a grind it really is.”
Cueto said that his team was handling the tough road of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League, then the schedule makers weren’t kind, as the Lady Eagles faced league frontrunners Hudson Catholic, Lincoln and Bayonne almost in succession.
“You go into those games and you just hope you can compete,” Cueto said.
But the young Lady Eagles ran into three buzz saws those nights, falling to Bayonne (73-32), Hudson Catholic (66-18) and Lincoln (57-17).
That’s enough of lopsided losses that could really demoralize a young squad.
However, the Lady Eagles were extremely resilient and bounced back to defeat Kearny, Ferris, North Bergen and finally Memorial, the last three in a row.
“They were showing up for practice in good spirits and ready to go hard,” Cueto said. “That’s the first step, the mental part. That’s what we stress.”
Cueto has put his trust in freshman point guard Elainy Pichardo. The 5-foot-2 Pichardo has been a work in progress, but her upside is tremendous.
“I told her that it was her team for the next four years,” Cueto said. “I turned the whole team over to her. She never comes off the court. She has the ball in her hands almost all the time. Already, she’s one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the county. We just have to get her offensive game up to her defense. We’ve put a lot of stuff on her shoulders and she’s handling it. She’ll be fine.”
The starting shooting guard is another freshman in Erika Mercedez. The 5-foot-8 freshman is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13 points per game. She’s had games of 25 against Memorial and 23 and 21 against North Bergen. It’s safe to say Mercedez likes facing the neighboring rivals from up north on Kennedy Boulevard.
“She’s very athletic,” Cueto said of Mercedez. “She does a lot of things. I truly believe that she will be the first 1,000-point scorer in Union City High School history. I also think she’s going to be a scholarship player as well. What level [either NCAA Division II or Division I] will depend upon her. What’s scary is that she doesn’t even know that yet.”
Stephanie Herrera is a 5-foot-5 do-everything. The senior is Cueto’s most reliable player.
“She’s the glue girl,” Cueto said. “She’s our captain. She’s very steady and handles the ball well. She does all the little things you need.”
Zaynah Lopez is another freshman in the starting lineup. The 5-foot-10 Lopez is the team’s premier inside player and post presence.
“She’s a strong inside player,” Cueto said. “She’s a great rebounder and has a great work ethic.”
Junior Maria Lucia Gil is a 5-foot-8 forward who is still getting acclimated to her new home in Union City after arriving from Venezuela in the middle of last season.
“She’s very talented,” Cueto said. “She’s played well the last three games.”
Gil had 10 points against Memorial, 11 against Ferris and seven against North Bergen, all Union City victories.
“She’s been very good recently,” Cueto said of Gil. “We’re glad to get her going.”
Junior Veronica Corado is a solid spot-up shooter who can hit the 3-pointer. Natalie Rosales is yet another freshman in the rotation at forward. Fernanda Young is a 5-foot-11 forward who wants to be able to be a major threat from the perimeter.
“She’s a future pick-and-pop type player,” Cueto said of Young. “She is a good shooter and has a bright future.”
So does the entire Soaring Eagles roster. That’s the great thing about freshmen. They eventually become sophomores.
“It’s fun to see what we can do,” Cueto said. “I said to the assistant coaches that they are all like big bunches of clay. It’s up to us to make sure we mold them the right way.”
After some trying times, it appears as if the Lady Eagles are well on their way.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog (find out how Jim became a Rams fan many years ago) at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com and follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.