The Memorial High School boys’ basketball team opened up the 2019-2020 season in quite underwhelming fashion, losing to St. Peter’s Prep by 20 points.
“At that point, I wondered if we’re that awful,” said Memorial head coach Steve Leon, who was entering his sixth season as the head coach of the Tigers. “We lost four starters from last year. Some of them were key pieces.”
The Tigers were 13-13 last season, so Leon didn’t know what to think. One of the major departures was Jadon Cepeda, who earned Hudson Reporter All-Area Third Team honors last season. The rest of the roster resembled a complete crapshoot.
“I had no clue what we had,” Leon said. “You never know what you see in the summer. We had some rotation guys, guys who came in off the bench, who were going to have to play bigger roles. I was worried about the lack of experience. I really didn’t know how we were going to fare.”
It might have conjured up thoughts of Leon’s first two seasons at the helm, when the Tigers won all of three games in 2014-2015 and then improved a year later. Memorial won four times that year.
Leon knew that the Tigers couldn’t fall back to those hideous depths. He put in too much time to make the program respectable again. There was no way that Leon was going to allow the Tigers to be a laughingstock, even if he had to lace up the sneakers and go back on the floor himself.
The Tigers did have one major piece to the puzzle in the electrifying A.J. Aviles. The 5-foot-10 senior guard averaged 13 points per game last season and showed signs of becoming an elite performer in Hudson County.
“A.J. was always playing second guard,” Leon said. “But we had to let him be the man. He had to be the leader, by being the point guard, by being the first one at practice. He had to bring all the leadership intangibles.”
Leon also knew that his team had to figure out a way how to play in the fourth quarter of games. There were many times a year ago when the Tigers were right in the hunt of winning, but a missed shot here and a turnover there led to losses.
“We had to find a way to close out games,” Leon said. “We knew that teams were going to try to take A.J. out of games. If we were going to have a good season, we needed other people to step up and make shots. We couldn’t afford to focus totally on A.J. and then when teams might take him out, we were in trouble. We had to make teams play regular sound defense on us.”
Well, six games into the new season and it looks as if Leon is a genius. Because the Tigers have reeled off five straight wins, defeating Ridge, Livingston, Bloomfield, Bayonne and Kearny. It’s not a championship season just yet, but it certainly beats the alternative.
And there’s no question that a 5-1 start to the new season sends out a message to the rest of Hudson County foes that maybe Memorial is for real this time around.
“I definitely think we’re better,” Leon said. “But now we have to stay hungry and humble. We have to be able to continue this in the league. We can’t be satisfied with this start.”
Aviles is doing his part. He’s averaging nearly 18 points per game and doing everything that Leon expected of him.
“He’s grown so much into the role of being the leader,” Leon said. “I told him that I’m proud of the way he’s matured. He just has to continue to play within himself and play smart. He can’t take erratic shots. He’s doing a much better job of that. He’s also trusting his teammates. It means a lot for a point guard if he can trust his teammates and have them make shots.”
Senior forward Odaly Minaya has also developed into a fine player. The 6-foot-4 Minaya saw limited action with the varsity last season.
“He’s grown into his body a little,” Leon said. “He has a good basketball IQ. He’s a clean-up kind of guy. He gets rebounds and is good around the basket. I always saw potential in him. If you play forward in Hudson County, you have to be a little scrappy. I’m really impressed with the way he’s played.”
Alejandro Arango is a 6-foot-3 sophomore swingman.
“He’s capable of knocking down shots,” Leon said. “He’s also good with the pick-and-roll. But he can step out and hit the three [3-point shot]. Any time you have a guy of that size, it gives you a lot of flexibility.”
Miguel Carambot is a 6-foot-2 junior forward.
“He’s already hit some big shots for us,” Leon said. “In one game, he hit four threes. We have something special with him. He’s improving every day. He’s been a clutch player for us. He’s not afraid to take the shot.”
Senior Kevin Avila is a 6-foot-2 forward.
“He’s a real scrappy guy,” Leon said. “He is also very strong. He lives in the weight room. He’s been working hard at his overall game and works all year round. He’s a real hard worker.”
Senior Ricky Tuero is a 5-foot-10 guard.
“He’s the back-up point guard [to Aviles],” Leon said. “He’s done a nice job. He knows where he has to be and does a nice job when A.J. has to come out.”
Junior Chris Garcia is a 5-foot-9 guard.
“He’s our little sparkplug,” Leon said. “He gets us going. He brings a lot of energy and is committed to the defensive end of the floor.”
Maybe, just maybe, this is the year the Tigers turn the tide.
“We’ve been .500 the last two years,” Leon said. “I think other teams always respected us, but it’s not the same unless you get some wins. We’re set up nice the next couple of weeks.”
After facing perennial favorite Hudson Catholic, the Tigers have four straight home games against Hoboken, Dickinson, Union City and Clifton. Maybe the strong start can extend into an even better start. One never knows in Hudson County basketball.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com (this week about the Giants’ new coach Joe Judge), follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.