The Hudson Catholic High School boys’ basketball team was at the pinnacle of all local squads, having won a record seven straight Hudson County championships prior to two seasons ago.
But then upstart Union City knocked the Hawks from their perch and last year, it was St. Peter’s Prep’s turn, and suddenly, almost too swiftly, Hudson Catholic went from being a dominant dynasty to an almost afterthought.
Hudson Catholic’s respected head coach and athletic director Nick Mariniello knows that his program underwent a tumultuous and emotional season a year ago, dealing with the sudden life-threatening sickness of standout player Antonio Sellers, after the 15-year-old Sellers was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“His health was and is the most important thing to us,” Mariniello said of Sellers, who has become disabled due to the illness. “It was the most important thing to me, to our program, to our school, to everyone. It affected everyone. There were no answers to it. Young people aren’t supposed to get sick like that. We talked about it and then we saw it with the Make-A-Wish day here [the organization sent Sellers and his family to Duke to see a basketball game last March]. It wasn’t easy.”
Then, the coronavirus COVID-19 hit and the Hawks had a totally different set of circumstances to deal with.
“The whole COVID thing and dealing with the quarantine,” Mariniello said. “I think I needed to be here from a personal standpoint. I think basketball brought us all together. I think it put a lot of things into perspective.”
The Hawks also had to deal with the loss of Hudson County All-Area honoree Zion Cruz, who left the school last June. Cruz, considered one of the top talents in the entire country, has now enrolled at The Patrick School in Elizabeth.
“Once he was gone, he was gone,” Mariniello said of Cruz’s departure. “I actually sat down and talked with him and thought a change of scenery might be good for him.”
Cruz is a close friend of Sellers, but it is not known whether Sellers’ illness had anything to do with Cruz’s departure.
The Hawks will begin the condensed season this week with a home game against Dickinson on Tuesday and a game at Hoboken on Thursday.
They begin the 15-game schedule with a roster that has some talented holdovers, some newcomers via transfer and some impressive freshmen to make the entire team among the strongest in Hudson County once again and vying for a county title.
Leading the returning players is 6-foot-1 senior guard Justin Glover.
“He’s a drop dead shooter,” Mariniello said. “He can make a shot from anywhere. He reminds me of [two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year] Reggie Cameron [who played at Georgetown University]. He’s one of the best pure shooters in New Jersey.”
Glover was getting major looks from Ivy League and Patriot League schools before the pandemic hit. All recruiting from those conferences have come to a halt due to the pandemic.
“Justin is a straight A student and a member of the National Honor Society,” Mariniello said. “He’s going to graduate from high school with 30 college credits already from St. Peter’s University. He’s an articulate young man. I truly feel he’s a Division I player.”
Another returnee is 6-foot-2 senior guard Malcolm Ely.
“He’s a very good defender,” Mariniello said. “He found a way to get better over the summer through the COVID. He’s been extremely impressive so far, both in his basketball and in his maturity levels. He’s one of our captains.”
Elijah Gertrude is a 6-foot-3 sophomore wing player who is the son of former Dickinson High School and St. Peter’s College women’s basketball standout Tonya Gertrude.
“Elijah is an athletic player who is still very young,” Mariniello said. “He’s still developing, but I think he has a shot to be really good. He has a shot to be a really special player.”
Tahad Pettiford is a 5-foot-11 freshman point guard. Young Pettiford will have the ball in his hands from the opening tipoff of the season.
“He’s extremely talented,” Mariniello said. “He has a high basketball IQ. He’s extremely coachable. He comes from a good basketball family. He’s extremely mature beyond his years. He’s a good teammate. The chemistry between him and the rest of the team is a good fit right now.”
Keith Mency is a 6-foot-2 senior guard who was a three-year starter at the now-defunct Marist, where he averaged 11 points, five assists and nearly three steals per game. Mency will fit in nicely at Hudson.
“He’s a great kid,” Mariniello said. “He’s a hard worker who can really stroke the jumper. He’s also a very good defender. He’s definitely been a welcome addition.”
So has been 6-foot-3 forward Xavier Edwards, another transfer from Marist. Edwards is a junior with a load of skill.
“He’s a glue guy,” Mariniello said. “He just has to find his way with us. I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”
The Hawks suffered a huge blow when 6-foot-6 senior Tymell Stevenson suffered a knee injury and required ACL surgery, putting him on the sidelines for the season.
The Hawks also lost freshman Alex Mussung to meniscus surgery on his knee.
Others to see action with the Hawks this season include 5-foot-7 junior point guard Randy Cruz, who is no relation to Zion.
“Randy is a pit bull,” Mariniello said. “He’s a tough kid.”
Senior Kayden Easy is a 5-foot-10 guard who comes off the bench. Kyle Smith, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, also gives Mariniello some depth.
The Hawks are all set to begin their season, but Mariniello is fearful that the COVID-19 crisis is not done rearing its ugly head.
“The biggest concern right now is waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Mariniello said. “There’s a lot going on. We go through a list of things every day. I don’t know if it’s going to hit us. We have a plan in place and we’re going to execute it. But the whole thing can get shut down at any minute.”
Regardless, Mariniello is going to continue to do what he does best.
“We’re going to make sure our seniors are placed in the right schools,” Mariniello said. “I think we’ve always been good at it. It’s what I’ve been working on.”
And getting through the toughest of times.
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 listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely Jersey City baseball legend and former Boston Red Sox All-Star shortstop John Valentin.