The Union City High School boys’ basketball team trailed Hackensack by 18 points in the first half of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectional championship game recently.
That seemed insurmountable, even for the Cardiac Soaring Eagles, who learned how to come from behind all season long.
“We couldn’t make a shot in the first half,” said Union City head coach Drew Morano. “Honestly, I didn’t see it coming.”
But the leader of the Soaring Eagles wasn’t about to concede defeat.
“I just told everyone that we had been down before and we could do it again,” said senior guard Gabe Johnson, whose leadership all season had been the stuff legends are made of. “I said that it wasn’t that bad. We could find a way to win.”
Johnson hit a shot right before halftime that sliced Hackensack’s lead to 16.
“All we needed was a few stops,” Johnson said.
“The kids are resilient,” Morano said. “They just don’t quit.”
In the second half, the Soaring Eagles began their march.
“We just chipped away at the lead,” Morano said. “The lead went from 16 to 14 to 11 to eight. I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we can do this.’ I have to give Gabe credit. He let the game come to him. And we have a group of seven who all stick together. I’ve said that each one of the seven had a chance to win a game this year. Our gym was packed and that really helped.”
“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear Coach Morano, so I was just calling plays on my own.”
So the wonderful run that the Soaring Eagles enjoyed, a winning streak that began after a loss to Memorial in January and continued straight through the Hudson County Tournament, carrying the Soaring Eagles to their first-ever county championship, wasn’t about to end in the state sectional title game.
They had reeled off 12 straight victories since that loss to Memorial and were poised to push the streak to 13 against Hackensack with a state trophy on the line.
“We all stepped it up at the right time,” said Johnson, who had 14 points. “The rest of the team came up pretty clutch.”
Maurice Odum, who had a sensational state tournament, scoring 23 points and adding seven assists in a win over Montclair, led the way with 15 points, seven rebounds, five steals and four assists. Dimaggio Rovira added 14 and Josue LaBeet had 12, giving the Soaring Eagles four players in double figures.
When the smoke cleared, the Soaring Eagles somehow, someway had a 58-54 victory and with it, the first state sectional championship in the history of the school.
Not a bad legacy for these kids, first winning the county title and then a state title.
“We had a lot of comebacks for a 20-win team,” Morano said. “We won 13 in a row and 15 of 16. Since we made LaBeet a starter, we went on that run. Nothing against [Wilmer] Garcia. With him coming off the bench, we went on that run. He was the heart and soul of the team.”
Morano tried to wrap his head around the fact that his team won both a county and state title in the same year.
“I never thought we could do both,” Morano said. “These kids are amazing. Winning this section has never been easy. We could have been gone in the first round against Memorial, who deserved to beat us. They outplayed us and outcoached us. We then beat Montclair and beat Fair Lawn on the road. I knew to win this that we had to win a game on the road. And then we came back again and beat Hackensack.”
The Soaring Eagles also came from behind to defeat Hudson Catholic in the county semifinals, trailing by 11 in the third quarter and stunned the seven-time defending county champs to win, then beat Marist in the title game.
Yes, this was a season to remember. It didn’t matter that the dream season came to an end in the overall Group IV state semifinals against Newark East Side a day later. The state-ranked Red Raiders ended the great winning streak with a 57-46 victory. Johnson scored 11 points in his final high school game. LaBeet led the way with 12 points and Rovira had 11.
But there was nothing to be ashamed of. There are two trophies headed to the Soaring Eagles’ awards case, the county one and now a state one.
“So many times, we came away empty handed,” Morano said. “We just kept knocking on the door and eventually good things would happen. The stars were just aligned this year. It was our turn. I’m just happy for the kids. They really worked hard and stayed together.”
“We just came together as a team at the right time,” Johnson said. “It’s sunk in pretty well. We won both. It was never done before and now we can say we did it.”
They certainly did.