With a victory this weekend in the tourney finale against St. Peter’s Prep, the Hawks will have captured their seventh straight county title, which would supplant Marist as the all-time leader in consecutive championships.
Marist won six during the heyday of coach Mike Leonardo in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Ironically, Mariniello was an assistant coach under Leonardo at Marist for two of those six straight county crowns.
But Mariniello didn’t want to think about his team knocking on the door of immortality.
“I never really looked at it that way,” Mariniello said. “When I took over this job at Hudson Catholic, it was a totally different place. I think the boys’ basketball team has challenged our other programs in the school. The culture changed in the entire sports program.”
Mariniello doubles as the school’s athletic director as well.
“I’m more proud of the fact that our softball team has done well, our volleyball team has done well, our girls’ basketball team has done well,” Mariniello said. “Our track teams, our bowling team, our baseball team. I’m more proud of that. There’s life back in the building again. I honestly look at it that way as opposed to being the basketball coach. I think that this is what I’m supposed to do as a basketball coach.”
Still, seven in a row is a lot. Four years ago, the Hawks were dead in the water in the county final against Prep and somehow wiggled out of it and kept the streak alive.
Now, the two rivals will meet for the county title for a third straight time this weekend at St. Peter’s University’s Yanitelli Center.
St. Peter’s Prep head coach Alex Mirabel doesn’t consider the showdown with the Hawks as a rivalry.
“It’s not a rivalry, because we have never beaten them,” Mirabel said. “It always comes down to whether we can handle a championship atmosphere. We definitely have our hands full. We have to execute better. I don’t want to just compete with them anymore. I want to beat them. It was a long time ago that we did. We’ve been preparing to beat them all year long. We have to be at our best to beat them. But in order to have that happen, we have to have them in our sights all year long.”
The two long-time rivals advanced to the HCT finale once again with impressive wins in the semifinals. The Hawks dispatched of Lincoln, 60-44, and the Marauders took care of Union City, 48-31.
The Marauders have been playing stifling defense all season long, led by senior stopper Shayne Simon.
Simon might be headed to Notre Dame to play football and be a defensive back for the Fighting Irish, but for now, he’s making sure that he’s a lock down defender against the Hawks’ high-flying scoring duo of Jahvon Quinerly and Luther Muhammad.
“We always make sure we play defense at a high level,” Mirabel said. “We have guys who have bought in and play as hard as they can. They play together and do what we ask them to do.”
The Marauders have benefitted immensely by the transfers of former St. Anthony players Dimitri Plexidas and Mark Walker, who stepped in and became players of impact for the Marauders.
“They’ve helped us tremendously,” Mirabel said. “It was good to bring in players with no egos who were willing to work. It sure helps that they played for Coach [Bob] Hurley. You can see the difference. They’re both pretty good.”
And you add West Point-bound sharpshooting senior Brendan Thiele to the mix and you have the makings of another county finalist.
The Hawks have been missing McDonald’s All-American Louis King, who is more than likely out for the season with knee problems.
“Obviously, when you lose a McDonald’s All-American, it’s going to hurt your team,” Mariniello said. “But we’re talented enough to do things a little differently.”
Freshman forward Shane Dezonie has stepped up his game in huge fashion. He’s scored 16 points in each of the last two games with King on the sidelines. Shane’s big brother Shackyille has been the glue to the Hawks all season.
Quinerly, who lifted a huge burden off his shoulders by declaring his intentions to go to Villanova last week, has been rock steady, but it’s been the play of Ohio State-bound Muhammad that has made a world of a difference.
Muhammad had 32 points in the quarterfinal win over Marist last Saturday and added 23 in the semifinal win over Lincoln.
“Luther has been tremendous,” Mariniello said. “I think the more engaged he is defensively, the better he gets. He’s been relentless off the glass and making shots all over. The others now have to match his intensity. The one thing about him is that he just plays. He’s had two really good games now back-to-back. He gets the younger guys going.”
It should be an interesting showdown between the two rivals, even if one coach doesn’t think it’s a rivalry. Prep and Hudson could play each other in Scrabble or marbles and it would be a Battle Royale.
But the Hawks and Mariniello are chasing history with this one, a chance to cement their legacy as one of the greatest programs in Hudson County folklore. And to think, it was just only a couple of years ago when there was all this talk about the Hawks going for their first county title since the glory days of Jim Spanarkel and Mike O’Koren in 1974. Now, it’s all about a dynasty and setting a new record. We’ll see what transpires over the weekend.
And next week, we’ll have coverage of both the boys’ and girls’ championship games from Yanitelli Center. The girls’ final was still being determined at press time with Hudson Catholic facing defending champ Secaucus and Lincoln locking horns with Marist in the semifinals.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.