Union City girls look to be much improved; long-time fixture at St. Anthony games Sears passes; COVID shutdowns

Union City junior forward Erika Mercedes
Union City junior forward Erika Mercedes

The Union City High School girls’ basketball team won 13 games last year, including a thrilling victory over Livingston in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.

Veteran head coach Carlos Cueto, who had stops at High Tech, Union Hill and Secaucus in his coaching career before settling in with the Soaring Eagles four years ago, has assembled his best roster since coming to Union City.

And to prepare for the coming season, Cueto called upon the wisdom of his former coach, namely legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, who coached Cueto at St. Anthony High School during Cueto’s playing days, before Cueto went on to the University of Richmond in the late 1990s.

“I called Coach Hurley and asked him what I should do now coming back from the pandemic,” Cueto said. “He told me to just let them play. They had been cooped up inside for so long and they hadn’t played. So I had to be a little more creative in practice and let them play.”

It helps that Cueto has a veteran team to work with. Most of the players have returned from a year ago, except for a few who had to work instead of play this season because of the pandemic.

In fact, Cueto has only eight varsity players. It makes practices interesting.

“We do a lot of four-on-four scrimmaging,” Cueto said. “Having the same girls back makes things easier. We’ve been scrimmaging more than ever before.”

Leading the returnees is junior Erika Mercedes. The 5-foot-9 Mercedes begins the shortened season just 150 points shy of the magical 1,000-point plateau. She averaged 17.9 points and 10 rebounds per game last season, earning Second Team All-Hudson County honors.

“She’s already drawing some college interest,” Cueto said of Mercedes. “She’s a really athletic wing player. We are trying to get her to score even more and expand her game. She also has the ability to be a good defender. But we don’t want her to expend all of her energy on defense. She’s a very good player.”

Junior Elainy Pichardo is also back. Pichardo is a 5-foot-3 point guard.

“She’s the little engine that gets us going,” Cueto said. “The ball is always in her hands. We just have to limit her turnovers. She plays with so much heart. I’d love for her to shoot a little more. I think she can play in college as well.”

Junior Fernanda Young is another Soaring Eagle returnee. The 5-foot-11 Young has a great shooting touch.

“She has improved tremendously,” Cueto said. “She needs to be more consistent all around. She has to be more than just a 3-point shooter. But she doesn’t play inside. I don’t even put her at the block.”

Senior Alondra Cepeda is a 5-foot-6 wing player.

“She’s a knock-down shooter,” Cueto said. “She has a nice stroke from the outside.”

Junior Natalie Rosales is a 5-foot-8 forward.

“She’s a good athlete who plays volleyball and softball,” Cueto said. “We need her to come in and rebound for us. She picks up everything we do. We need her to do all the little things.”

Junior Francisca Polanco is a 5-foot-4 guard.

“She can be a good role player for us,” Cueto said. “She plays good defense.”

The team welcomes two freshmen. One is 5-foot-9 Jaylyn Orefice, who has a chance to be one of the top freshmen in the county.

“I’m looking to her to be one of our top scorers,” Cueto said of Orefice. “She’s a lefty who gets to the basket well. She can shoot it well. She’s strong. I’m looking for her to do a lot of things.”

The other freshman is a familiar face to the coach. She’s 5-foot-5 Alyssa Cueto, the coach’s daughter, who is also very talented.

“She’s getting ready to back up Elainy,” the coach said. “She’s a smart girl. She picks things up quickly. We need her to be more aggressive.”

But what is it like for the 44-year-old Cueto to coach his daughter?

“It’s been pretty cool,” Cueto said. “When she was younger, I didn’t want to coach her. I wanted to stay away and be a father and a fan. But now, I’m enjoying it. We talk a little before and after practice. I thought it would be a little tougher, but I’m really enjoying it.”

The Soaring Eagles begin their season Tuesday against Snyder and Thursday against North Bergen…

The season may not begin for some local teams. It was learned right before press time that the Secaucus boys’ basketball team has been shut down in quarantine until Feb. 1 and the Bayonne girls’ basketball team has been shut down until further notice. You can be rest assured that this is not the last one of these tales of teams being halted because of COVID-19 concerns…

And speaking of St. Anthony, the Friar family lost one of its integral parts last week when Bobby Sears died after contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Bobby Sears, a Vietnam veteran, was a jack-of-all-trades for the Friars’ basketball program, being the team manager, team fixer-upper, team confidant, team father figure. He was behind Bob Hurley and the Friars’ bench with water bottles and towels in hand for the players. The kids all adored Bobby and in turn, he adored them.

From a personal standpoint, Bobby was a good long-time friend, someone who I joked with all the time, someone who I looked forward to seeing. This horrendous virus has taken 400,000 Americans, but this is the one that really hits close to home, because he was always around, always a part of my life, especially when I was doing my physical therapy at Strulowitz and Gargiulo in Jersey City.

Words can’t even begin to express the sorrow I feel for his wife Diane, sons Michael and Todd and his grandchildren. Be well, Bobby. I’ve shed my tears for you…–Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com