"I always thought about it," Centeno said. "It was something that I wanted, getting a chance to play (NCAA) Division I basketball."
To fulfill that dream, Centeno took a little bit of a gamble and went to play at Marist High School in Bayonne, instead of staying in her hometown to play for Belleville High School.
"I knew it was a good program and I knew that if I played well at Marist, I'd get a chance to play in college," Centeno said.
After all, Marist head coach Bill DeFazio had sent a litany of his players to college basketball during his tenure, first at St. Anthony High School in downtown Jersey City and later Marist. In fact, Tara Walker went from being the all-time leading scorer in girls' Hudson County history at Marist to later becoming a major part of the first-ever NCAA Tournament berth for St. John's.
"I played against Tara a lot in open gym, so I knew she was a good player," Centeno said. "I knew that I had a good shot if I did well at Marist."
When Centeno arrived at Marist, she received a new name.
"At the time, we had two kids on the team named Christina," said DeFazio, a member of the NJSIAA Coaches and Hudson County Sports Halls of Fame. "One was Christina Smith and the other was Christina Centeno. Whenever I'd say, 'Christina,' the both of them would look at me, so it got confusing."
So to differentiate the two players, DeFazio started to call Centeno by the name of her hometown.
"I called her 'Belleville,'" DeFazio said.
"Most of my teammates didn't even know where Belleville was," Centeno said.
After a while, the name of "Belleville" got shortened to "Belle."
"Belleville was too long," DeFazio said. "Belle was made for her. The name stuck."
Now, it has become Centeno's nickname so much that she even wears it on a necklace. She's known as "Belle."
"Everyone calls me 'Belle' now," Centeno said. "The teachers here call me that. Everyone knows me by that. Coach [DeFazio] gave me the name and it stuck, all because of where I'm from."
Well, the Belle of Belleville has something to be proud of these days. Her lifelong dream of becoming a college basketball player has become a reality.
Centeno signed a national letter of intent last Friday to go to Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., a Division I program that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Centeno was one of only 10 girls in New Jersey to sign a letter of intent with a Division I school this year.
The 5-9 guard, who was a member of the Hudson Reporter All-Area team as a sophomore, but was plagued by injury last year, will fit in well at Siena, considering that Centeno is totally ambidextrous (shoots right handed, writes lefty), handles the ball well and runs well, all necessary traits in a guard-dominated league.
"A lot of people don't understand how hard it is to get a scholarship in women's basketball," DeFazio said. "I've watched her grow from a little girl into a talented young woman. It's rewarding as a coach to have a player reach the pinnacle."
Centeno, who was also offered scholarships from LaSalle, Northeastern, St. Francis (Pa.), FDU and Manhattan, said that she just felt "at home" at Siena and with veteran head coach Gina Castelli.
"When I first went there, I had a real good vibe," said Centeno, who is also an excellent softball player and sensational student (a member of the National Honor Society). "The coaches were nice to me and I knew they were good people. I really liked Coach Castelli as well. When I went on the official visit and met the team, that's when I knew it was the right choice. It was a very beautiful campus and only five miles from Albany. Siena plays in a league with a lot of schools close to home. It's a really good fit."
Centeno feels that she can play at Siena as well.
"I know that I'll have good competition, because it is a good guard league," Centeno said. "I'll have a lot of players on my level. It's a big accomplishment for me, coming out of a small town like Belleville. Not many kids get a chance to come from Belleville and play Division I basketball."
Centeno said she's also happy to get the decision out of the way before the season begins in earnest with practice this week.
"I don't have to worry about sending out applications or wondering who's watching me," Centeno said. "Everything is all set. I just have to play my game, focus on the season and hope I can have a final season to remember."
Centeno also hopes to remain injury-free. In each of the last three prior years, Centeno had to battle some sort of an injury, including severe ankle sprains the last two years.
"I'm 100 percent now and ready to go," Centeno said. "I'm just glad to have this opportunity. It really is like a dream come true."
Centeno becomes the 12th player that DeFazio has sent to Division I basketball, but the first to go directly from Marist to Division I. Walker had to play at a junior college before going to St. John's.
"To me, this is better than winning any championship," DeFazio said. "Winning championships are great, but seeing a kid working hard and getting a chance to go on to college is even greater."
"I couldn't ask for anything better," Centeno said. - Jim Hague