The 2019-2020 girls’ high school basketball season hadn’t even begun yet and Hudson Catholic, the defending Hudson County Tournament champion, had already suffered a handful of losses.
Oh, the losses weren’t in the usual column that measures a team’s success or failure. No, the Hawks lost some key players to graduation, including Haylee Ramirez, who was a Hudson Reporter All-Area Second Team selection a year ago, and Ineysiah Surrell, an imposing figure down low for the county champs.
Ramirez is now a starter at Felician University who was featured in the Scoreboard portion of this column last month.
The Hawks also lost two players that transferred out of the program and headed for what they believed to be greener pastures.
But the totally unexpected blows came in the form of three season-ending knee injuries — including one to promising sophomore forward Soraya Ortiz, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee, requiring major reconstructive surgery.
So with the roster in complete flux, Hawks head coach Pete Vincent had to turn to the true star he had left in his lineup, namely junior point guard Zanai Jones.
For the first two years of her brilliant career, Jones has served as the best pure point guard in the county, acting as the facilitator first and allowing the scoring to be done by other players.
But really with no other proven varsity player around, Vincent had to call upon Jones.
“The first two years, she was a pass-first point guard,” Vincent said. “But I told her that we needed her to be more of a scorer this year. So basically, she has been wearing two hats every game, both as the point guard and a scorer.”
“Scoring more,” is a term that every basketball player would love to do, so from a practical standpoint, it wasn’t difficult for Jones.
“I guess things most definitely changed over the summer,” Jones said. “At first, it was hard to play without the players we lost, but we had to move on without them.”
During the summer months, Jones went to the playground to work on her shot.
“I tried to go to the park as much as I could to shoot more,” Jones said. “I worked with a personal trainer who helped me to get shots up. Most colleges now want players who can score, so if I had to change my game, then I would do it. I always knew that I could score. I just didn’t have to.”
However, this season was different. If the Hawks were going to contend for another county crown, then Jones had to lead the Hawks on the floor and in the scorebook.
“It’s fun to switch things up a little,” Jones said. “It opens things up for other people to score. Some people might think it’s predictable, but I don’t let teams see what’s coming. They don’t know what I’m going to do now and that’s a lot of fun.”
Vincent had faith that the multi-talented Jones could do the job.
“She’s handled it all pretty well,” Vincent said. “She also helped the team’s chemistry. Not only was the scoring necessary, but a lot of the colleges that were interested in Zanai intimated that they would like to see her score. They wanted her to be a little more aggressive with penetrating, getting to the basket, putting herself in position to score. It’s very hard to defend Zanai.”
Vincent said that Jones has different lightning-quick moves that are impossible to defend.
“She has a stop-and-go step that is just not taught,” Vincent said. “Her ability with the ball is amazing. She has tremendous poise and ball control. Her quickness with the ball is something. I think her unpredictability with the ball in her hands is something special. I think pound-for-pound, Zanai is the best guard in the county and in the top five in the state.”
Jones has certainly showed off those talents, as the season makes the turn for the homestretch.
Jones has been filling up the statistic sheet all season long, but lately, she’s been on a tear. She had 24 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals in a huge 61-51 victory over Bayonne, then followed it up with the best game of her career.
Jones tallied a career-best 40 points, including the 1,000th point of her career, added six rebounds, seven assists and five steals in a lopsided win over Dickinson, had 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals in a loss to Long Island Lutheran and had 17 points and six assists in a win over Union City in the opening round of the Hudson County Tournament.
For her efforts, Jones has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
For the season, Jones is averaging just a shade below 20 points per game to go along with 5.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.8 steals per contest.
“It’s a lot easier to just let her go and let her perform,” Vincent said. “She’s very coachable and knows what she’s supposed to do.”
Jones had a triple-double this year, scoring 22 points, dishing off for 10 assists and collecting 11 steals in a victory over Kearny.
Jones likes being the team leader for the 21-3 Hawks, who were headed into the county tournament semifinals against Secaucus at press time.
“My teammates and I are on the same page, so that helps,” Jones said. “I wanted to do this. The goal from the beginning of the season was to win the county again, but not just the county, but the [NJSIAA] state sectional [North Jersey Non-Public A] as well. It’s always nice to win again. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
Jones also has college plans in her sights. She has already received a handful of NCAA Division I scholarship offers. Owning a 3.7 grade point average doesn’t hurt the situation either.
“She’s taken an accelerated honors schedule and will graduate from Hudson Catholic with an associate degree in liberal arts,” Vincent said. “She’s a very bright intelligent kid.”
“I’ve received some interest, but I think it’s only going to get better,” said Jones, knowing that most colleges begin full throttle recruiting during the summer between junior and senior year. “I have about a half dozen offers now, but I want to get as many as possible.”
You can be rest assured that the letters will overflow Jones’ mailbox this summer.
For now, the Hawks’ leading scorer and assist maker wants to make sure that her team repeats as county champions. The steps for that are in place this week with the tourney’s semifinals and finals on tap. The Hudson County Tournament finals are slated for Saturday, February 29 at 1 p.m. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com