SCOREBOARD

NJCU women’s basketball program reaches new heights; Compete in NJAC title game for first time ever

New Jersey City University freshman guard Damaris Rodriguez of Secaucus is already making her presence felt in a big way, helping the Gothic Knights to the New Jersey Athletic Conference championship game, the first-ever trip to the NJAC finals
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New Jersey City University freshman guard Damaris Rodriguez of Secaucus is already making her presence felt in a big way, helping the Gothic Knights to the New Jersey Athletic Conference championship game, the first-ever trip to the NJAC finals

There was a time when the women’s basketball program at New Jersey City University was nothing more than an afterthought. Maybe even then, the thought was given too much credit.

Plain and simple, the program was a laughingstock. You would have to search the record books far and wide to find the Gothic Knights with a winning record during women’s basketball season.

Sure, the men’s program has been rock solid, going back as far as anyone could see, from people like Larry Schiner and Paul Weinstein to then the immortal Charlie Brown and then his son Marc Brown. The Gothic Knights were winners year after year.

That is only in men’s basketball. In women’s basketball, they were just gothic.

Three years ago, athletic director Shawn Tucker took a chance on a young local product named Pat Devaney to run the women’s basketball program at NJCU.

No, not the guy who has run the highly successful Jersey City Recreation High School Summer League at Hamilton Park for the past two decades.

This is that guy’s son, the younger Pat Devaney, who some local fans might better remember during his playing days, first at Marist and then at Bayonne High.

Tucker took a chance on the younger Pat Devaney (don’t know if one is called Sr. and the other is Jr.) and gave him the reins of the women’s basketball program.

The younger Devaney had overcome his share of obstacles in his young life, but once he decided to right his course and become a coach, he bided his time as an assistant coach before the head coaching job at NJCU presented itself.

“Basketball was everything to me,” Devaney said. “Basketball was taken away from me and I had to work my way back.”

But then again, why would anyone want that job in the first place? It was frankly a no-win situation – because they never won.

Need proof? Well, the team went winless in 2017-18, losing all 21 of their games. An incident took place in the parking lot after a game and because of that fight, the head coach at the time was dismissed. In 2015-16, the Gothic Knights were a robust 1-23.

The team’s last winning season was in 2004-05, when the Gothic Knights were 14-13 under Alice Schmidt DeFazio’s watch. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1988-89, when the Gothic Knights went 18-9, the best record in the school’s history.

All-time, the numbers are ugly. The Gothic Knights have won 381 games and lost 738 times, a winning percentage of 34 percent.

But for some reason, Devaney wanted the job.

Devaney said that he was inspired by his long-time mentors Bill DeFazio and his wife Alice Schmidt DeFazio.

The DeFazios were a coaching tandem and were Hudson County Sports Hall of Famers who unfortunately both died of the same exact disease, namely pancreatic cancer. Bill DeFazio died 10 years ago and Alice passed away last year.

Alice DeFazio spent more than 25 years of her life at NJCU, including 20 years as the athletic director and 14 years as the head women’s basketball coach.

“I feel in my heart that Billy and Alice are still with me,” Devaney said. “I feel that God also picked me for this.”

Devaney also credited current men’s coach Marc Brown for helping him get his foot in the door.

“I was blessed and fortunate enough to have Marc ask me,” Devaney said. “I’m getting a second opportunity in life because of Marc.”

After Devaney was hired, it was his job to go and get productive players. And it’s safe to say he did the best recruiting job in the history of the program.

“I knew we had to bring on some big talent,” Devaney said.

Devaney somehow put his focus on trying to secure the services of Damaris Rodriguez, the three-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection out of Secaucus High School.

“I saw a game when she scored 42 against Marist in the county playoffs,” Devaney said. “That sealed the deal for me. I knew I had to be able to get her. I wondered why there weren’t other schools knocking on her door. I made sure I was at every single one of her games. I put my focus on getting her. I told her my team needed a leader, a captain. She eats in the gym and sleeps in the gym. I just stayed on her like white on rice. I saw how much she makes other people better. That’s rarely found in college.”

Rodriguez was clearly a scholarship player after high school, but perhaps the coronavirus pandemic limited college coaches to properly recruit. For some unknown reason, other than the fact she stands 5-foot-3, Rodriguez really didn’t have any concrete offers to consider.

The lack of scholarship offers didn’t get to Rodriguez.

“Honestly, I wasn’t that disappointed,” Rodriguez said. “I figured it’s their loss. Coach Pat showed the most interest. He was at every one of my games. He was a point guard like me, so I figured he could help me bring my game to a higher level.”

For some reason, Rodriguez was worried about being a college player, whether or not she would fit in.

“I was scared and nervous,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I could fit in. I didn’t know what I could do as a college player. But after the first game, I said to myself, ‘I have this.’ I knew I could definitely do my thing.”

Rodriguez has more than done her thing. She leads the Gothic Knights in scoring, tossing in almost 18 points per game. She has also added five assists per game, almost three steals per contest and 3.3 rebounds per outing.

Oh, by the way, the Knights are winning this year. They own an 8-2 record and were set to face Montclair State for the New Jersey Athletic Conference championship Friday night. It’s the first time in the 50-year history of the NJCU women’s basketball program that they have qualified for the league championship, just three years removed from the horrific winless campaign.

“I knew about the history,” said Rodriguez, who has been named the NJAC Player of the Week once and the NJAC Rookie of the Week three times this season. “It’s part of the reason why I came here. I wanted to bring a championship to this program. It’s definitely a challenge to do something that’s never been done before.”

Another fine freshman is 6-foot-3 center Briana Davis from Lincoln, who is averaging 4.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per outing.

“She might be the most underrated player in the NJAC,” Devaney said. “Her potential is through the roof.”

Former St. Anthony and Marist All-Area selection Zyearah Taylor-Gaston, a junior forward, has taken more of a secondary role with the Knights this season.

“I want to keep the Hudson County kids in Hudson County,” Devaney said. “I want to keep them home.”

Another key player is freshman guard Nahjeemah Holmes of Elizabeth, who is averaging 12.9 points per game, giving the Gothic Knights a potent rookie backcourt.

And get this: Because of the pandemic, the NCAA is giving back this season of eligibility, so both Rodriguez and Holmes have four years remaining. That indeed is a blessing.

Holmes has had a bit of a tough life. She was shot in the back and couldn’t play basketball for two full years.

“She’s turning her life around,” Devaney said. “She’s a big part of what we’re doing.”

Other local products on the team include junior guard Dionna Lenardo of Bayonne and Hudson Catholic; junior guard Emily Ruiz of Jersey City from Dickinson’s basketball program and County Prep; sophomore guard Joscelyn Williams of University Charter (the first female from University Charter to play college basketball) and sophomore guard Jasmine Reese of Jersey City and Hudson Catholic, who just can’t catch a break, suffering knee injuries in each of her first two years of college.

Rodriguez is studying criminal justice at NJCU with the hope of one day becoming a police officer.

She is confident the Knights can topple the Red Hawks of Montclair State, even having lost to them twice in the regular season. In fact, NJCU’s lone two losses were to Montclair State.

“Deep down, I know we can beat these guys,” Rodriguez said. “If we stick together, we can do this.”

Regardless of what happens against Montclair State, this has been a momentous astronomical unbelievable season for the NJCU women’s basketball program. Just think they were a winless joke three years ago. Now, they’re playing for a championship.

“I really thought we could make the playoffs this year,” Devaney said. “The pieces just started to fall into place. I thought it might take a while rebuilding this program.”

That’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to secure a superstar. Rodriguez wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“I am extremely happy where I landed,” Rodriguez said. “I love my teammates and love my coach.”

It’s safe to say that they love the fabulous freshman Damaris Rodriguez, who has a good shot of being the best women’s basketball player in the school’s history, if she’s not that already.

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 the legendary Togo Palazzi, the former Union Hill and College of Holy Cross All-American who spent eight years with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s.