Before the 2021 local boys’ high school basketball season began, everyone was just ready to simply hand the Hudson County championship to Union City High School.
At the time, there was still talk of having a modified county tournament, featuring only the teams from the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League.
Regardless of what was going to be played and in whatever capacity it was going to be played, the Soaring Eagles were the team to beat, especially after what transpired in the off-season.
For one, the state’s leading scorer a year ago, Maurice Odum, was returning for his junior year. The 6-foot-2 Odum averaged 27.2 points per contest last season, easily the highest scoring average in the county since the days of the county’s all-time leading scorer Rick Apodaca lighting it up for North Bergen more than 20 years ago.
But then the Soaring Eagles received the services of two standout transfers in point guard Shy’heed Jenkins-Floyd and small forward/shooting guard Mike Jackson. Jenkins-Floyd came from Snyder, while Jackson moved over after Marist closed. All three were All-Hudson County selections last year, Odum on the First Team, Jenkins-Floyd and Jackson on the Second Team.
It formed an All-Hudson triumvirate on one team. Bingo. Just mail it in. The Soaring Eagles were set to soar.
But then, an unforeseen situation arose that put the Soaring Eagles into a straitjacket.
The COVID-19 pandemic played absolute havoc with the boys’ and girls’ basketball schedules throughout the state.
And in terms of craziness, the pandemic hit no one harder than the Soaring Eagles.
In preseason preparation, the Soaring Eagles were shut down due to COVID restrictions, so much so that it delayed the start of the season from Jan. 29 to Feb. 9.
Then Union City played just two games and the Soaring Eagles were sent to the sidelines for another four days. They came back, played one game and then – whammo! – the Soaring Eagles had their season slammed shut due to yet another quarantine.
“We’ve been through a lot,” veteran Union City head coach Drew Morano said. “We were quarantined twice for 14 days each. We weren’t alone, but we had to play the least amount of games in the county.”
Morano is correct. When last week began, the Soaring Eagles played a grand total of three games. The closest team in terms of fewest games was Memorial with six.
It meant that the Soaring Eagles went without a game from Feb. 15 through March 3. That’s just brutal.
Three games don’t actually constitute a season, even in a pandemic. You usually can play three games in a single weekend. The Soaring Eagles practiced for two weeks, got shut down, and managed to get three games in before the final week of the season tipped off.
“We’re trying to keep things in perspective,” said Morano, the son of the legendary old-time Emerson player and head coach Hank Morano. “There are a lot of bigger things to worry about these days. But I have to admit, it has been frustrating. I feel bad for the seniors. It’s a crazy landscape out there. We first learned there was no state tournament, then the season got pushed back, then two quarantines and a lot of cancelations.”
And the last blow to the Soaring Eagles was the cancelation of the HCIAL Tournament, an event that the Soaring Eagles would have had to be considered a favorite.
“It’s a shame,” said Morano, whose team surprised everyone by winning the Hudson County Tournament title two years ago. “Decisions were made by the ADs [athletic directors]. I guess I understand it. I guess we’re lucky to still be playing games.”
Last Tuesday, the Soaring Eagles returned to action, facing the state’s No. 4-ranked team in undefeated St. Peter’s Prep. The Soaring Eagles had all of one day of practice before facing the mighty Marauders.
“We just got back from the second quarantine,” Morano said. “I just said to the team, ‘Guys, let’s go have some fun.’ It’s the thing where Xs and Os go out the window. Just get out there and play together. The kids have been through a lot.”
So facing the undefeated Marauders, the Soaring Eagles somehow managed to gain a 65-57 victory to improve to 4-0. In that game, Odum had 25 points and Jackson had 18.
Odum had an outside shot to become a 2,000-point scorer in high school, a place where very few Hudson County basketball players have ever gone. The pandemic and all the cancelations have pretty much eliminated that lofty goal.
“Mo has only been here in Hudson County since eighth grade,” Morano said. “So he really doesn’t know the history and all. He really doesn’t care about points. He just wants to win. It’s a good thing he doesn’t care, because it would probably bother him. But that’s what makes Mo Mo. He’s just different than the rest.”
Jackson has been a joy to coach for Morano, much like he was for current Bayonne coach Ben Gamble at Marist.
“I really didn’t know Mike,” Morano said. “But now that I’ve gotten to know him a little, he’s just a great kid.”
Two days after the Soaring Eagles’ win over Prep, they defeated Payne Tech of Newark (the former Bloomfield Tech), 86-73, to move to 5-0. In that game, Odum had 32 and Jackson had 28. The terrific twosome was just showing glimpses of what they might have been able to do together.
And that’s about it. Morano was looking for another game to be played Saturday, the last day that the NJSIAA will allow teams to play basketball this season. If not, then the Soaring Eagles end the season undefeated at 5-0, but it was just scratching the surface on what might have been.
“Every time we came back from a quarantine, we always tried to embrace it, because we felt we still had the county to play for,” Morano said. “Once we didn’t have the county to push for, it really hurt. We figured we were lucky to still compete and play some good teams.”
So as Morano prepared his team for the final week of an emotionally difficult campaign, he tried to exhale a little. But it was still hard to think about what the Soaring Eagles could have done with a full season and county and state tournaments to play for.
“We’re all a little drained,” Morano said. “We were just happy to be back in the gym and playing again. We’re not being judged for seeding or power points. We’re just playing.”
Morano was asked if he could ever handle another season quite like this one.
“I certainly hope not,” Morano said. “I would like to say never, but you never know. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself with this. The kids were so resilient. They had it taken away from them so many times, but they kept coming back. I think they understand. I think we took every game and embraced it. The younger guys can get to it and improve. The seniors should just enjoy it.”
As well they could the final week of the most insane season ever recorded in New Jersey high school basketball history.
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 legendary College of Holy Cross basketball standout Rev. Earle Markey, S.J., the West New York native who decided to become a Jesuit priest instead of pursuing a career in professional basketball with the Boston Celtics.