Nick Mariniello doesn’t pay attention to preseason basketball polls. So when he receives word that his Hudson Catholic basketball team is ranked as high as No. 3 in New Jersey in one poll and even No. 2 in another, it means nothing to the third-year head coach.
“I think that the kids have worked hard to get some of the recognition they’ve been getting,” said Mariniello, who led the Hawks to a 22-6 record a year ago, before falling in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals to Marist and in the NJSIAA Non-Public B North semifinals to St. Anthony.
“But those rankings and recognition mean nothing unless you follow through with it,” Mariniello said. “I thought winning the league outright last year was a big step, but then we lost to Marist twice and we didn’t do what we needed to do in the end. I think this team has matured over the year and we’re more mentally tough. Sure, the expectations are higher, but we’re not looking too far ahead.”
Mariniello knows that it’s all part of the process of rebuilding the Hawks’ program.
“I think the first year, we flew under the radar a little [with a 13-12 record],” Mariniello said. “But we became the hunted very quickly. We became the bulls’ eye on everyone’s schedule. It was whether these kids could handle that kind of pressure. They have to realize that the most important game is the next one we’re playing, not another one down the road. If we can do that, then I think we’ll be fine. But we know we can’t take anything for granted.”
Leading the returnees is junior forward Rakwan Kelly, who has been a stalwart for the Hawks since Mariniello arrived. The 6-foot-4 Kelly had to take a little bit of a backseat last year with the arrival of some talented transfers, but Kelly, who has earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors in both of his first two seasons with the Hawks, is prepared to be more of a leader this season.
“He’s the glue to the team,” Mariniello said. “He’s the one who gets to guard the other team’s best player. He’s a good leader and a hard worker. He’s worked on his outside shot and will help us more offensively, but he brings it on the defensive end. I want the rest of his teammates to value the defensive side the way that Rakwan does.”
Junior Reggie Cameron arrived last year after the closing of Paterson Catholic and he instantly became the Hawks’ leading scorer. The 6-foot-7 Cameron has incredible touch from the outside and is already getting some looks from major colleges. Cameron averaged 19 points per game last season, earning Second Team All-Area honors.
“He’s comfortable now with us and he’s worked very hard in expanding his game,” Mariniello said. “He’s worked hard on the defensive side and he’s mentally tough. I think as you get older and mature, things tend to get better.”
Senior Grant Ellis, another player who transferred into Hudson Catholic last year from St. Benedict’s Prep, has already made his mark. The 6-foot-5 Ellis has already signed a national letter of intent to attend Iona College next fall. Ellis averaged 10 points and eight rebounds per game last year.
“He’s probably our best athlete,” Mariniello said. “He can shoot the basketball with no problem. He’s been working on other aspects in his skill set. He understands his role on this team and if he continues to do what he’s been doing, he has a good shot to have a very good season with us this year.”
Junior point guard Kavon Stewart, who arrived from Paterson Catholic with Cameron, is a solid floor leader and another who is getting some major college recruiting attention. The 6-foot Stewart had 15 assists in a scrimmage last week against St. Joseph of Metuchen.
“He’s really worked on his leadership and I think he’s ready,” Mariniello said.
Junior Travis Flagg is a 5-foot-11 combination guard who has also been part of the program for the last two seasons. Flagg has struggled with his perimeter game in the past, but Mariniello believes those woes are part of Flagg’s past.
“Travis has worked very hard on his shooting and he’s also shown a lot of maturity,” Mariniello said. “I think he’s helped us become closer as a team.”
The other impressive member of the Hawks’ roster is newcomer Michael Young. The 6-foot-9 junior Young, a transfer from St. Benedict’s Prep, is considered among the top prospects in the country, but he’s still a work in progress.
“He’s a big-time player,” Mariniello said of Young. “We’ll use him in different ways depending upon the matchup.”
No wonder big-time college coaches like Jay Wright of Villanova and Rick Pitino of Louisville paid visits to Hudson Catholic in the offseason, because the Hawks are full of talented prospects.
Senior Mark Wilson is a 6-foot-3 returning player who will play a multitude of positions for the Hawks.
“He’s a good athlete and can handle anything we ask of him,” Mariniello said.
Junior Kyle McLeggan is a long-armed defender who can cause havoc on the defensive side. Senior Jesse Jones is a good shooter and instant offense provider.
Mariniello has been very impressed with the contributions of freshman guard Nassir Barrino. The 5-foot-11 Barrino can play either guard position.
“Nassir is also a phenomenal kid and an honor student,” Mariniello said. “He fits in well.”
The Hawks open the season this weekend with games against Bayonne and Rutgers Prep. If everything goes according to plan, the Hawks should be soaring come March with a shot at both the county and state sectional titles in order.
“It’s exciting to be mentioned with teams like St. Anthony and St. Peter’s Prep,” Mariniello said. “One is the defending national champion and the other is the four-time defending county champ. It’s going to be tough and we have a lot of competition, but I like the competition. I think we have a chance to be pretty good, but we have to be lucky as well. We have to stay away from injuries and play together all year. If we do that, we have a shot, but right now, I’m more concerned with Bayonne and Rutgers Prep than any of the others.”
Just like Mariniello is not paying attention to any preseason rankings or polls.
“It doesn’t make sense to do so,” Mariniello said.
But you can rest assured that others in Hudson County are interested to see three of the state’s top 10 teams all located within a few blocks of each other in Jersey City.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.