The high school basketball season was slipping away from the Indians of Weehawken High School.
Veteran coach Jake McNish was stuck with a major dilemma, as his team faced the crossroads of the season with a 4-8 record.
“We just lost to McNair Academic, a team we beat by 30 earlier in the year,” said McNish, who is in his 20th year as the head boys’ basketball coach at Weehawken. “We were halfway through the season with a 4-8 record. At that time, I thought it was time to start looking at the younger kids. I was ready to go with the underclassmen to give them experience and look toward next year.”
McNish wasn’t disappointed with the team, just the results.
“The kids were playing hard, but they literally couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” McNish said. “We lost 40 points per game [from graduated players like last year’s Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year Damian Corredor]. I knew it was going to be a struggle. The kids played hard and gave it everything they had. They just couldn’t make a shot.”
But in mid-January, a mysterious stranger walked into the Weehawken gym and turned the Indians’ collective fate all the way around.
The stranger is 6-foot-7 junior forward McKay LaDuke.
“It all happened so fast,” McNish said. “We got him sight unseen. His father called Zach [Naszimento, the program’s athletic director] and said that he just moved back to Weehawken and could the kid try out for the basketball team.”
Because they were struggling, McNish gave LeDuke a look. After all, what could McNish lose?
“He came to the first practice with his father and I saw he made a couple of shots,” McNish said. “He ran around a little and looked athletic.”
By the second practice, McNish knew he just secured a secret weapon. LeDuke had been a junior on the Marist junior varsity squad.
“The father said he wasn’t playing much there,” McNish said. “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. By the second time he was in the gym with us, I could tell he was a player. He knew what he was doing.”
LeDuke had to sit out the mandatory six practices when a new transfer comes in during the season. Since he didn’t have any varsity experience at Marist, he was able to play right away once he had those six workouts under his belt.
In his first game, LeDuke was nothing more than sensational. He came off the bench and scored 27 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had six assists, as the Indians defeated Wood-Ridge.
It was just the start for LaDuke. He scored 25 and grabbed eight boards in a win over Saddle Brook, had 17 points in beating Wallington, had 11 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Ridgefield and had 17 points and 16 rebounds in a win over North Arlington.
Notice the trend. The Indians haven’t lost a game with LeDuke on the floor. He’s instantly become the Indians’ good luck charm, as the team has improved to 11-8 by winning seven straight.
Monday night, the Indians’ 58-54 win over Secaucus, gave McNish the 300th win of his coaching career at Weehawken. The Indians followed up that win with a 41-34 win over St. Mary’s, giving the Indians seven wins in a row since LeDuke arrived.
“They said I was coming up on a milestone,” McNish said. “I had no idea. I had some good years and bad ones. I’ve been able to weather the storm. It makes me think back to all the kids I’ve coached over the years. Those kids become part of your life. For me, it’s hard to comprehend I could reach 300 wins.”
Getting a kid like LeDuke is a blessing that never happens. A talented kid just doesn’t fall out of the sky and totally turn around a struggling program. But it sure looks as if LeDuke has.
“He’s such a terrific team player,” McNish said of LeDuke. “He draws two guys to him and then he makes the nice pass to his teammate for a score. He’s not a selfish player at all. It’s really the most amazing thing I’ve ever saw. He comes in and changes everything. He just fit in with everyone right away. I think he went out of his way to fit in. That’s the kind of kid he is. The kid has been a pleasure to be around. He makes everyone else so much better.”
Now junior Alain Ravelo can move into the role of a secondary scorer. Ravelo was the main guy when the Indians were struggling. Now, with LeDuke, he compliments LeDuke’s play well, averaging 14 points per game.
“Alain wasn’t struggling when we were struggling,” McNish said. “He was playing hard. He just had to work extremely hard to get his shots. Now, he would rather pass than shoot. I yelled at him recently to shoot.”
Junior Oliver Molano, the quarterback on the football team, is the instant energy off the bench. Freshman Bryan Pedron “is fitting in nicely, with his nice size near the basket,” McNish said.
Senior John Paul Restrepo is the point guard.
“He gives us everything he has,” McNish said. “He’s always flying around the floor.”
Seniors Alioune Diana, a 6-foot-6 forward, and senior Mike Abad, come off the bench.
“Abad has done a nice job rebounding,” McNish said.
So the Indians, courtesy of a talented newcomer and a new lease on their lives, are alive and well at 11-8.
“I love it,” McNish said. “I love being around the kids. They keep me young.”
So does the winning, and the talented newbie and the milestone. They all manage to keep McNish going and on his toes.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.