When St. Peter’s Prep played host to Hudson Catholic in a boys’ basketball tussle last Saturday, it should have had the feeling of a Hudson County Tournament game, maybe even the tourney’s finale.
There should have been a hot, packed gym, more than likely at the new Frank Gargiulo High Tech High School in Secaucus. There should have been thousands of avid fans cheering every high-flying slam dunk and long-range 3-point shot. There should have been enough intensity to slice with a plastic knife.
But that’s not what happens in the 2021 COVID-19 pandemic world.
The two rivals met to close out the abbreviated season with neither team reaching the 15-game slate allotted by the NJSIAA. There wasn’t much on the line except for immense pride that normally happens when the two rivals meet in anything from a chess match to tiddlywinks.
“Ten to 15 years from now, these kids will reflect on how hard it was to make it through this season,” said St. Peter’s Prep head coach Alex Mirabel, after his team emerged with a very hard-fought 49-45 victory. “It was the hardest thing any of us has gone through. We were able to make the most of it. It was part of our lives and now we move on.”
“It was a typical Hudson Catholic-Prep game,” said Hudson Catholic head coach Nick Mariniello. “We weren’t happy with the outcome, but it was enjoyable to be out there with these kids. We want to play against the best. We decided we needed to play these guys.”
And that they did.
It wasn’t a textbook basketball game. It wasn’t one for the highlight reel. Although the Marauders finished their campaign with an impressive 10-1 ledger, the team was still reeling somewhat from the loss to Union City five days earlier – after having to sit out close to a month due to COVID protocol.
“It’s a little disappointing,” senior guard Ray Ford said. “We wanted to finish this season undefeated.”
The Marauders won the Hudson County Tournament last season for the first time in nine years, but the pandemic eliminated all thought of having a tourney this year.
“We really wanted to go back-to-back and didn’t get the chance,” Ford said.
In the game, the long-range jumpers weren’t falling. There were very few opportunities for breakaway dunks that would energize a crowd. Although this was a small gathering on hand of about 75 people or so, many of whom were Prep parents honoring their graduating seniors on Senior Night.
One of those graduating seniors is Ford, who ended his Prep career with 13 points before he heads off now to Fairleigh Dickinson University, where Ford will play for a fellow Prep alum in FDU head coach Greg Herenda, the North Bergen native.
The Marauders held a 19-16 halftime lead on the upstart Hawks, which caused Ford to get a little vocal in the Prep locker room.
“At halftime, we talked and said that we have to play harder,” Ford said. “This is our Jersey City rival. Everyone in this game knows each other. It was fine for me. My parents are here. This was the last game I was playing wearing a St. Peter’s Prep uniform. We had to win.”
All-County junior guard Mark Armstrong scored 11 of his team-high 16 points in the second half, including a resounding slam dunk off a steal at the buzzer for the game’s final score.
While the pandemic has more than likely killed off Armstrong’s pursuit of 2,000 career points, he still can manage to become the school’s all-time leading scorer, a mark held by Jack Gordon, who went on to play at Monmouth University.
“Mark made sure that we literally went out with a bang,” Ford said.
The Hawks, thanks mainly to an inspired effort from senior guard Malcolm Eley, who tallied a game-high 18 points, hung around gamely from the opening tip. Eley and teammate Elijah Gertrude (14 points) combined to score all of the Hawks’ 11 points in the opening period that was tied at 11-11.
“They took it to us,” Mirabel said. “That was a wake-up call. We had to be together, win or lose. It helped us to stay together.”
Imaginary lids were thrown atop both teams’ baskets in the second quarter, as the two teams combined to make a total of four shots in the second period. Ford made two of those baskets – a long 3-pointer and a driving shot – to put the Marauders ahead by three at the break.
Football standout Kenny Soares, who is definitely an NCAA Division I prospect as a tight end, made his presence felt in the third period, scoring five of his eight points off the bench, helping the Marauders increase their lead to 35-30. Point guard Alif Bass also scored five of his 10 points in that third stanza.
One might think that the Marauders would just pull away and coast home from that point, but that was far from true. The Hawks were far from done.
“Our kids rose to the occasion today,” Mariniello said. “Mark Armstrong is a top-level player and we told our kids, ‘Go stop him.’ This was definitely a college level game in terms of intensity and our kids didn’t fold.”
Five different Hawks scored in the fourth quarter, including a clutch 3-pointer from Justin Glover. Hudson Catholic actually took a 43-42 lead with under two minutes to play on two clutch free throws from Gertrude, who is only a sophomore and has an incredible future.
But Ford showed why he’s a Division I player by canning two shots and Bass, a junior, drained a monstrous 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining to give the Marauders a 47-45 lead.
“We didn’t panic,” Mirabel said. “We got the ball to our best players and have them make plays.”
Tahaad Pettiford, the Hawks’ fabulous freshman point guard, controlled the ball for a good 30 seconds as the clock wound down. The youngster then spun the wrong way into the lane, where Ford was there to knock the ball away with six seconds left. He then pushed it ahead to Armstrong for the thunderous slam that ended the scoring.
Pettiford will make the right play about 200 times before his career at Hudson is through. On this day, it was the wrong move.
“It was enjoyable to be around these kids,” said Mariniello, who ended the shortened season with an 8-4 record, but defeated state-ranked foes Roselle Catholic and Trenton Catholic in the course of the campaign.
“This closes the book on my high school days,” Ford said. “I can’t wait for the next chapter. I always dreamed of being a Division I player. I would have loved to have played this game in front of a lot of crazy fans. I miss the fans. It was a little bit of fun to see everyone’s support this season.”
There was another special person in attendance. Antonio Sellers, the former Hawk standout swingman who is waging an emotional battle against brain cancer, managed to walk into the Prep gym with assistance from a cane and his loving father, former St. Peter’s College star Keith Sellers. Seeing Antonio perched behind the Hawks’ bench gave everyone an emotional lift.
“Having Antonio around is really special,” Mariniello said.
It sure was. It was a fitting way to end the basketball season, but there should have been thousands of people in attendance and there should have been a trophy at stake. Maybe next year.
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 former St. Anthony point guard and retired Jersey City Police deputy chief Bob Kilduff.