It’s one thing to lose players to graduation in high school basketball.
That’s just par for the course. You’re expected to see a handful of players walk up the aisle come June to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, collect a diploma and move on to the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, that happens in all of high school sports. Graduation lays claim to kids every year.
But when you lose players to the instances that are just not planned; when kids depart from a program for one thing or another, that’s when the real adversity kicks in.
The Hudson Catholic boys’ basketball program, the long-standing pinnacle of excellence in Hudson County for the last decade, having won seven consecutive county titles before relinquishing their crown last season to Union City, is experiencing a little bit of the losses, both the anticipated variety and then the unpredicted kind.
The Hawks graduated standout players like Danny Rodriguez (currently playing for Hudson County native Greg Herenda at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck) and heady point guard Jonathan Delgado.
Veteran head coach and athletic director Nick Mariniello knew that he would lose both Rodriguez and Delgado, two players who contributed a lot to the success of the Hawks’ program, winning three county titles during their tenure.
But it was the other losses that have really stunned the Hawks’ program, both on the court and emotionally.
First, Shane Dezonie, a Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team selection a year ago, was expected back to lead the Hawks again this season.
But Dezonie, who was expected to enter his junior year at Hudson Catholic, has decided to transfer to Huntington Prep in West Virginia, considered to be one of the top prep schools in the nation.
No one knows the reasoning behind Dezonie’s departure. He would have been recruited by all the major colleges if he remained at Hudson Catholic, like Reggie Cameron (Georgetown), Louis King (Oregon and now the Detroit Pistons organization), Luther Muhammad (currently starring for nationally ranked Ohio State) and two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Jahvon Quinerly (currently at the University of Alabama after first playing last year at Villanova).
But Dezonie elected to go elsewhere for his final two seasons of high school basketball. Dezonie averaged 16 points per game last year for the Hawks as the team’s leading scorer.
“I’m fine with it,” Mariniello said. “If you look at high school sports across the board, there are kids that transfer all over. It’s become a very transient fact. It’s very unfortunate that you see so many kids continually transferring. Everyone always thinks that the grass is greener elsewhere. Everyone wants everything right now. All I can do is coach the guys at my school. Am I disappointed that Shane left? The answer is yes. But it happens.”
The other loss that the Hawks suffered in the offseason is beyond tragic. Antonio Sellers, the brilliant 6-foot-6 guard/forward who averaged close to 12 points per game last season as a freshman, was diagnosed with brain cancer right after the season ended last March.
Sellers, the son of former St. Peter’s College standout players Keith Sellers and Felicia Harris Sellers, underwent serious brain surgery to remove the cancer soon after his diagnosis. He was hospitalized for several months and has not recovered enough to even attend school, never mind play basketball. That saga is beyond heartbreaking.
“I’m more concerned with Antonio’s recovery,” Mariniello said. “It’s difficult to deal with and none of that has to do with basketball whatsoever. It’s been extremely trying for all of us.”
Everyone involved with the Hudson Catholic program has tried to cope with Antonio’s illness. The Sellers family tries to remain steadfast and strong. After being in the hospital for so long over the last eight months, Antonio has returned home to Bayonne, but just recently had to undergo more surgery to continue his battle with cancer. Without question, prayers are encouraged.
“Having kids transfer happens,” Mariniello said. “What happened to Antonio doesn’t happen and shouldn’t happen.”
So the Hawks move on. Sophomore Zion Cruz, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, is expected to be the team’s best player this season. Cruz is averaging close to 20 points per game, along with seven rebounds and six assists per game. He already has offers from several major colleges after playing for the Team USA 15-and-under national team over the summer.
“I think he’s going to show a lot this season,” Mariniello said. “He is definitely a good two-way player. He’s good defensively with his length, so he’s going to get a lot of steals. He is also very athletic and can run the floor. He’s improved his shooting tremendously.”
Cruz could very well be the best overall player in the county this year, although there are several contenders for that lofty perch.
Justin Glover is a 6-foot-2 junior guard who has shown a lot of promise in the early going. Glover scored 13 points and collected nine rebounds in the Hawks’ dominating victory over Christian Brothers Academy in the opening days of the season.
“He’s a very streaky shooter,” Mariniello said. “He has to be a vocal leader on this team in and out of the locker room. He’s also a good student.”
Glover is being looked at by the Ivy League schools, so his grades are excellent.
Phil Brown, Jr. is a 6-foot-4 senior, a transfer from St. Mary’s of Elizabeth, which closed its doors last June.
“He’s a strong kid,” Mariniello said of Brown, whose game resembles that of the role Rodriguez played last season. “He can finish around the rim. He is a good kid to coach, because he’s our hardest working kid. He’s a good addition to our team.”
Isaiah Griffin is a 5-foot-7 sophomore point guard.
“He’s a great on-the-ball defender,” Mariniello said. “He was our most efficient player in our trip to Delaware.”
The Hawks went to the Slam Dunk at the Beach Tournament in Delaware and dropped two hard-fought games to two secondary school opponents.
Brian Joseph is a 6-foot-5 senior forward.
“He understands his role with the team,” Mariniello said. “He’s good around the rim. He’s also very resilient and has a good work ethic. He plays hard all the time.”
Malcolm Ely is a 6-foot junior guard.
“He has a nice touch and can shoot the ball well,” Mariniello said.
Elijah Gertrude is a 6-foot-1 freshman with a lot of promise. He’s also the son of former St. Peter’s College women’s basketball standout Tonya Gertrude, who was a Hudson Reporter All-Area performer during her days at Dickinson.
“He’s a very athletic kid, but he needs to be a little more physical,” Mariniello said. “He can be a good one.”
The Hawks have a tough schedule upcoming. After defeating Montclair Immaculate 54-51 on New Year’s Eve, the Hawks face Bergen Catholic, then Union Catholic and local rival St. Peter’s Prep Tuesday, January 7 at 4:30 p.m. at St. Peter’s.
Those are three tough games in a matter of four days. The Hawks, currently 3-2, will know a lot more about themselves after those wars.
“We’re a young team with a lot of new players,” Mariniello said. “I think we’ve created a good culture here with this team. I think the kids understand that. I really enjoy coaching this group. They’re easy to deal with. We just need a sense of urgency to play with moving forward.”
That urgency will come in the coming days, that’s for sure. The Hawks have no choice.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and you can listen to the new Hudson County Sports podcast that can be found on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.