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HAPPY ENDING – Hudson Catholic senior Arianna Pacheco goes up for a layup in a recent game. Pacheco gave a verbal commitment to Niagara University and will sign her national letter of intent shortly.

Although Hudson Catholic lost the NJSIAA Parochial A volleyball match in three games to mighty Immaculate Heart Academy, coached by Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer Maria Nolan, it was in no way a reflection of the smallest girl on the court.

Although she’s easily the smallest kid on the floor and she puts on a different jersey than any of the other members of the Buccaneers, Sophia Wintonic doesn’t need to stand out the way she does to command any respect or praise from opponents.

The 5-foot-2 libero already plays the most thankless position on the volleyball court, but the dynamo was all over the court in Wednesday’s tough 23-25, 25-22, 17-25 loss to IHA, the state’s top team for the past decade.

“I want to do whatever I could to help my team,” Wintonic said after the emotional loss, marking the end of her volleyball career at Hudson Catholic. “I put everything out there. I had to do what I did against such a solid team. It was my pleasure to play against them. I just have to play that way.”

Wintonic’s way was diving all over the court after the ball came the Hawks’ way. She was truly amazing to watch. She was laid full out for several balls. She was upbeat and alive, encouraging her teammates after every point. She mishit one return and let out an “Oh, God,” like she was encouraging support from The Man Upstairs.

One point, the ball hit the ceiling as the Hawks were looking to return a volley. Most people thought that the ceiling was out of bounds. The only balls that were out of bounds were the ones that either crossed the back line or went off to the side. Simply put, the ceiling was in play. Wintonic was aware of that rule and was ready to slide across the floor yet once again.

“I absolutely love playing like that,” Wintonic said. “I’m going to continue to play like that.”

Hudson Catholic head coach Fernando Colon was asked if he was upset that the Hawks were that close to making some history, that a film documentary crew was filming a documentary about IHA’s successful journey.

“I tried to tell the team that they were about to play the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan,” Colon said. “I have all the respect in the world for them. We try to emulate everything that they do. They’re the best program in the state for the last decade. We just had to get over that and had to play a clean game.”

Wintonic was instrumental throughout, diving on the floor, taking it off the ceiling, making play after play.

“I thought we had a chance to win and we did,” Wintonic said. “Even though we didn’t win, we pulled together and did our best.”

After the match was over, Wintonic came back onto the floor and was socializing with the champions. That was the true mark of the immense sportsmanship that Wintonic has before she heads off to play volleyball at Bloomfield College. It won’t take long before Bloomfield followers get to see how truly special the little mighty mite is.

“Every time she makes a play, she motivates her team,” Colon said. “It’s almost like she doesn’t want to let her teammates down. She’s really a great leader. I think it was a good experience for our team. All the adversity we went through just to have a season this year is going to pay off.”

Just without the little libero who taught everyone in attendance that height doesn’t exactly mean might…

Speaking of Hudson Catholic, fellow senior and basketball standout Adianna Pacheco had to overcome her own obstacles and adversities to reach a personal promised land.

In March of 2019, as the Hawks were facing Mount St. Dominic in the NJSIAA North Jersey Parochial A North opening round, Pacheco took an elbow to the side of her head.

“It was during the first moments of the game,” Pacheco said. “I didn’t think much of it. I was a little dizzy and then I had to come out. But soon, I got worse and it got scary.”

Pacheco couldn’t properly identify things. She then lost her ability to speak. She went to the Jersey City Medical Center.

“When I was there, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move my legs and wasn’t responsive,” Pacheco said. “I knew something was up.”

After a series of CAT scans and X-rays, doctors were still befuddled about Pacheco’s condition.

“I knew what I wanted to say, but the words just wouldn’t come out,” Pacheco said. “I then ended up having a seizure.”

It was determined that Pacheco suffered a severe concussion. She went to see specialists who work in sports concussions in Wayne and she then started to see the light.

“I told the doctor to get me back on the court,” Pacheco said. “It was a little crazy. It was a little frustrating at first, because I didn’t know what was going on.”

Her goal was to come back and play again, even though some doctors told Pacheco it would be in her best interest to retire.

“That doctor only knows me from one point,” Pacheco said.

“They don’t know the warrior we all know,” Hudson Catholic head coach Pete Vincent said.

Pacheco returned to the hardwood for the 2021 season and last week she was rewarded by accepting a full scholarship to NCAA Division I Niagara University of the MAAC Conference.

The girl who was once told not to play anymore joins teammate Zanai Jones as the first tandem of NCAA Division I products from the same Hudson County team in 40 years. Jones is headed to Villanova.

“I’m beyond grateful,” Pacheco said. “It’s taken so much stress off my shoulders. I’m grateful Niagara gave me a chance.”

Pacheco has still not visited the school, but she plans to sometime this summer before she enrolls in August. She plans on majoring in sports management and wants to become a coach some day.”

As it turned out, Pacheco suffered a severe concussion, but she’s now fully recovered and looking forward to the next chapter in her life.

“Good things happen for a reason,” Pacheco said.

Or something like that. Bravo to this young lady’s perseverance. – Jim Hague

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