Hudson Catholic had gone 37 years without winning a Hudson County championship.
But now, the Hawks have won the last two county titles, adding two banners to the walls of the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium.
Even though the Hawks lost some key players from last year’s county champs, like Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Reggie Cameron (now at Georgetown), they seemed prepped and primed to go for a third straight county crown.
“The goals remain the same,” said Hudson Catholic head coach Nick Mariniello, who now also doubles as the athletic director at the school. “We want the division title, the county title and the state. The expectations are the same. The faces may change, but the expectations are the same.”
The Hawks not only lost Cameron to graduation, but also lost point guard Kavon Stewart (Robert Morris) and Kyle McLeggan (Adelphi).
“It’s now time for others to step it up,” Mariniello said. “We have clear cut leaders on this team. The practices have been as competitive, if not more, than any others I’ve had since I’ve been here. There’s a sense of accountability here. The kids get along together really well.”
Mariniello likes the idea that there isn’t a ton of experience returning.
“I am excited about the unknown,” Mariniello said. “The pressures are still there. It’s the pressure that we put on ourselves.”
Mariniello said that the returning Hawk players started to prepare for the new season right after they lost to St. Anthony in the NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectional title game.
“Since we lost to St. Anthony, J.R. Lynch made sure that everyone was in the weight room the next Monday,” Mariniello said. “We started right away. They came to the gym for extra work. They didn’t have to. I didn’t tell them to do it. They came on their own.”
Mariniello can’t stop singing the praises of senior Lynch, who will be in the backcourt rotation this season.
“He’s probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever had,” Mariniello said of the 5-10 Hoboken product and younger brother of former Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year Sybil Lynch (now playing at Pine Manor College in Boston). “I’ve had some great leaders. This is my 14th year as a head coach and he’s right there with guys like Rashad Butler [West Virginia] and Wesley Jenkins [St. Peter’s]. He gets it academically and socially. This school is his salvation. He bought into everything the school has to offer.”
Nassir Barrino is a 6-foot-1 junior guard who averaged eight points per game last season. He’s already receiving his share of college scholarship offers and should be a leader among the Hawks this season.
“He’s a hard worker and good academically,” Mariniello said. “We have to make up the points we lost somehow. Nassir has the experience. Having J.R. and Nassir as leaders is a big help.”
Sammy Friday is a 6-foot-8 junior forward who is also getting his share of collegiate looks.
“He’s still young,” Mariniello said. “He’s only 16 years old. But he’s a good prospect. We’re going to challenge him a little more and watch him mature and develop a little more. I expect big things from Sammy.”
Safee Abdus-Sabur is a 6-foot-5 senior forward. Sabur was a starter last year who averaged seven points per game.
“He’s like our glue guy,” Mariniello said. “He understands his role. He’s a solid, good defender.”
Freshman Patrick Strzala is a 6-foot-3 guard who will play right away.
“I love him,” Mariniello said. “He’s a good shooter. He has such a good feel for the game. He has such a high basketball IQ.”
Junior Adam Traore is a 6-foot-4 forward.
“He’s a tough, rugged player,” Mariniello said. “He’s a good physical presence and has a knack for scoring inside.”
Eric Santana is a 6-foot-3 junior guard.
“He’s a good shooter who doesn’t make mistakes,” Mariniello said.
Marion Williams is a 5-foot-8 sophomore guard who will be in the mix. Marshall James is a 6-foot-6 senior forward who will also get playing time.
Besides Strzala, the Hawks have an impressive array of freshmen who will see action with the varsity.
Guard Khalief Crawford is a 6-foot-3 guard who is already ranked among the best freshmen in New Jersey. Crawford was also the quarterback on the Hawks’ football team.
Tyheen Burno is a 5-foot-9 guard who is the nephew of former St. Anthony and DePaul standout Rashon Burno, currently an assistant coach at the University of Florida.
“He’s quick and tough,” Mariniello said.
Kahmonie Foster is a 6-foot-7 forward with a ton of promise.
“What I like is that the older guys are going out of their way to take the freshmen in,” Mariniello said. “It’s great to watch.”
With that many freshmen in the mix, the Hawks appear to be set for years to come.
“The future is definitely bright,” Mariniello said. “I really do believe that. I think this is a team that will get better later rather than early. I think we’re pretty good defensively already, but we have to work on our execution. We have to wait for the younger kids to develop.”
But Mariniello firmly believes that the Hawks are in it for the long run once again, ready to make it a county “three-peat.”
“It’s going to be business as usual,” Mariniello said. “It’s the way it’s supposed to be. Right now, we’re pretty smooth. I’m pleasantly surprised.”
The Hawks open their season this weekend against Don Bosco Prep, then begin HCIAL play Monday against Lincoln.