The Hudson County Boys’ Basketball Tournament semifinal had reached the midway point of the third quarter and the seven-time defending champion Hudson Catholic looked like they were pulling away from the upstart Soaring Eagles of Union City.
The scoreboard read: Hudson Catholic 35, Union City 24. The Hawks scored the first seven points of the second half. For all intents and purposes, the game seemed to be over. After all, the Hawks hadn’t lost a single game in the county tournament, some 25 straight, dating back to 2012, when they captured first county crown in 37 years.
Everyone in the spanking-new gym at the new High Tech High School, named the Frank Gargiulo Campus after the long-time Superintendent of Schools for the Hudson County Schools of Technology, started to sense the game was slipping away from the Soaring Eagles and into the hands of the dominant defending champs.
That is, everyone except the Soaring Eagles’ brilliant senior guard Gabe Johnson.
Union City’s veteran head coach Drew Morano called time out to address his team, but it was the team’s sensational floor leader who uttered the first words.
“Coach Morano called time out, but I told everyone to keep their heads up,” Johnson said. “I told them that we got this. We’re going to get the W [the win]. We just had to execute better, play good defense and cut into the lead. I told them that we had it.”
Morano didn’t know what to think.
“Honestly, I needed to do something to stop the bleeding,” Morano said. “The lead went from four to 11 and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ We hadn’t won against them in so long. But Gabe just took over. He had a different look in his eye. He controlled everything and they didn’t have an answer.”
Sure enough, Johnson scored 16 points to lead the way for the Soaring Eagles, as they ended the Hawks’ incredible run of seven straight county championships with a stunning 58-56 victory.
One night later, the Soaring Eagles did the unthinkable, as the fourth-seeded Soaring Eagles knocked off second-seed Marist, 64-55, to win the school’s first-ever county title, thanks to Johnson’s 22 points.
“I liked having the quick turnaround,” Morano said about playing in consecutive days. “After getting the emotional win, we didn’t sit around and wait to play the final. I told the kids that they got a big win like the one against Hudson Catholic, that they couldn’t waste it. You don’t beat Hudson Catholic and then come back to lay an egg. We had to finish the deal.
Imagine this: The Soaring Eagles defeated the top seed in Hudson Catholic and the second seed in Marist in consecutive nights to win their first-ever county championship. Score one for the public schools over the parochial institutions.
“I’m just happy to win it,” said Morano, who won a county championship as the head coach of Emerson, which merged with Union Hill a few years later to form Union City High. “I’ve been around a long time.”
Morano has been coaching either Emerson or Union City for the last 19 years. His father, the legendary Hank Morano, was the head coach at Emerson for 31 years. Needless to say, the Morano family has had a stranglehold of the Union City coaching box for a half century. Combined, the Moranos are a coaching institution.
The Soaring Eagles got a lot of contributions in the county tourney Final Four. Although Johnson stood out and shined like the best player in the county, there were others that contributed.
DiMaggio Rovira (whose middle name is indeed Joe and wears uniform No. 5 like the famous Yankee Clipper) had 14 clutch points against Hudson Catholic and 10 in the title game against Marist. He did not play basketball last year.
“DiMaggio brought something to this team,” Morano said. “He was committed to play. I saw it in the weight room and in our spring league.”
Eugene Boakye is another senior who joined the team this season and made a positive impact, especially on the defensive end.
“We don’t have a starting five,” Morano said. “We have a starting seven. They all play and all contribute. They all have won games this year. They all had a moment this season.”
The Soaring Eagles didn’t rest on their laurels, winning their first two games in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV tournament, defeating neighboring rival Memorial in overtime in the opening game of the state playoffs, then blew out Montclair, 82-58, to advance to the sectional semifinals. Maurice Odum has been the star of the state playoffs, scoring 18 against Memorial and a season-high 23 against Montclair. Since losing to Memorial in a regular season game last month, the Soaring Eagles, now 22-6, have reeled off 11 straight wins.
“We get good guard play and we’re able to spread things out a little,” Morano said.
And they’ve been led by the best guard in the county who has played like a superstar down the stretch.
“It’s so cool to know that they’ll hang a banner in the gym and this team will never be forgotten,” Johnson said. “It’s special to be remembered as the first ones.”