The Bruins of North Bergen High School are always a competitive boys’ basketball team. That is, as long as Kevin Bianco is the head coach and Steve Ricciardi, Jr., the former head coach at High Tech, is his main assistant.
The pairing of Bianco and Ricciardi has worked wonders in recent years for the Bruins, especially two years ago, when the Bruins won 23 games and went all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship game.
Last year, the Bruins won 17 games, putting a team on the floor that was never really healthy from the get-go.
So, the Bruins played a ton of unproven sophomores and juniors and allowed them to get their feet wet in the rough-and-tumble world of Hudson County basketball.
Bianco also schedules an insane amount of games for the Bruins to play during the summer months, so that they gain a sense of camaraderie and chemistry before the games count for real come December.
“We knew that we had a lot of young kids returning,” Bianco said. “So we scheduled like 40-to-50 games in the summer time and let them shoot 40-to-50 3s [three-point baskets] to get ready. We do have some senior leadership, so that helps to settle things down. I think playing together in the summer helps tremendously, especially with the younger kids, who just have to learn about the speed of the game. It’s one thing to play on the freshman and JV [junior varsity] levels, but once you get to varsity, it’s another thing.”
And Bianco knew last season, the Bruins were playing with a sophomore-dominated lineup.
“And when you have sophomores play and they run into a senior-dominated team, in some cases, that’s a three-year age difference and that’s huge,” Bianco said. “So we needed our kids to gain a little of that maturity level that’s totally different in varsity.”
The Bruins suffered a huge loss to graduation in two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection Abdallah El Saleh, who is now playing regularly at Bloomfield College. El Saleh was a First Team honoree as a junior, but was limited last season due to injury, but still managed to secure a berth on the Second Team.
Still with the losses that the Bruins suffered, Bianco had a sense that his team would fare well this season. And in the early going, the Bruins are holding their own, posting a 3-1 mark as the calendar turns to the New Year.
“I thought we would be able to do well if we shoot well,” Bianco said. “If we’re scoring, we feel good. I think the team is feeling pretty confident early in the season.”
One of the reasons for the Bruins’ early success is the play of junior guard DeAvion Ellis. The 6-foot-1 Ellis enjoyed a breakthrough season last year averaging 15 points per game as a sophomore. But Ellis has to take a step up this season and become more of a leader.
“I think he’s gained a little more leg strength,” Bianco said of Ellis. “He’s getting off his feet well. He’s also putting the ball in the basket.”
A lot of Ellis’ success might be pointed to his summer regimen, which included a stint with the famed AAU team Playaz out of Paterson, the organization run by former Knick forward Tim Thomas.
“He was out there playing against some of the best talent in the state,” Bianco said. “He was exposed to players at a higher level and I believe that is going to help his confidence. He can really shoot the ball. We’re counting on him to increase his scoring and help us defensively.”
Another returning player is 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Nazir Nwadike, the son of former Dickinson standout Chi-Chi Nwadike. Nazir averaged 14 points per game as a freshman last year, but he has been slowed thus far with an ankle injury. Nwadike may return to action in mid-January.
“I still don’t think he realizes just how strong of a player he really is,” Bianco said. “We threw him into the mix right away last year and he handled himself tremendously.”
Jayden Williams, a 5-foot-10 junior point guard, also returns.
“We know that Jayden can be a solid defender,” Bianco said. “He can also go to the basket strong.”
The Bruins have been bolstered by the return of 6-foot-4 senior forward Francisco Paulino, who grew up in North Bergen, then moved to play high school ball for three years at Pope John of Sparta. But Paulino moved back with his family to North Bergen over the summer and he’s been able to play right away for the Bruins.
“He didn’t play with us at all during the summer, so he’s still feeling his way a little,” Bianco said. “But he knows a lot of the stuff we do. He’s getting acclimated to the style of basketball in Hudson County.”
Another transfer is 5-foot-10 junior Leandro Cuello, who was at Hudson Catholic, where he played sparingly.
“He’s a similar player to [Jayden] Williams,” Bianco said. “He’s a tough, Hudson County-type guard. He’s scrappy.”
Freshman Cesar Perez has been working his way into the mix. The 6-foot Perez is a good shooter.
“He’s very aggressive,” Bianco said. “His problem right now is his strength and catching up with the speed of the game. But he’s played well for us.”
Sophomore Elijah Camacho, the son of former Marist star Eli Camacho, is a 6-foot swing player.
“He’s been our most consistent player thus far,” Bianco said. “He has long arms and defends well. He can also shoot it well.”
David Gabriel is a 5-foot-10 sophomore who comes off the bench.
“He can shoot it very well,” said Bianco, who should know a little about shooting, because he was a lights-out shooter when he played for North Bergen and William Paterson.
Senior Hugo Guzman is a 6-foot veteran who knows what Bianco wants out of a senior.
“He has a football player’s body, so he’s very strong and physical,” Bianco said. “He does all the dirty work.”
So, the Bruins have that look of being their typical pain-in-the-rear selves this season, sneaking up on anyone and everyone.
“I think we can get a little more consistent on defense,” Bianco said. “I think we’re getting there. The kids that played major minutes last year are even better. We have to be able to put teams away. We can’t let teams just hang around.”
Count on the Bruins to do their fair share of damage this season. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com