Carvajal leads miraculous Hudson Catholic turnaround

Do-everything senior guard brings Hawks back into contention

Eight games into the 2003-04 high school basketball season, the Hudson Catholic Hawks owned a less-than-impressive 1-8 record. True, the Hawks faced some monster competition in those eight games, like state powers St. Benedict’s Prep and Bloomfield Tech, but 1-8 is 1-8. No way around that fact. A record like that conjures up thoughts of disaster.

With the season spiraling towards oblivion, Hudson Catholic head coach Steve Ricciardi looked at his players and asked for some help.

“I didn’t know where we were going,” Ricciardi said. “I knew we needed someone to step up and be the go-to guy. We have nine seniors on the team, four of whom have been varsity players for three years. I had no one stepping forward, so who else was it going to be?”

Ricciardi approached his senior captain, Hugo Carvajal, and asked him to become the team leader, to do a little something extra.

“I guess you can say that,” Ricciardi said. “When you’re the student council president and an academic leader, you would hope that he would become a leader on the floor as well. So I said, ‘Hey, Hugo, it wouldn’t be so bad if you could be an academic and an athletic leader.”

“I have to admit I was a little panicked,” Carvajal said. “I never had a losing season in my entire life. This was my senior year. When we were 1-8, I couldn’t believe it. I was saying, ‘What’s going on?’ This couldn’t be happening. So I took it upon myself to step it up a little. Who else was going to do it?”

Ricciardi reminded Carvajal of his shooting prowess earlier in the season, when he was practicing his shooting with what is called “the big ball,” a larger sized and heavier ball that is designed to increase shooting range and touch.

“I told him when he’s shooting the big ball, it makes him have the right shooting mechanism,” Ricciardi said. “I asked him, ‘Why not go back to shooting with the big ball for a while to get your correct form back?’ All he needed to do was put in a little extra time.”

“I call it the ‘Magic Ball,'” Carvajal said. “When my shot goes in with the magic ball, then it makes the regular ball feel like a tennis ball and the rims look so much larger. It improved my range and my shot. Everything just seemed to come together.”

The move worked, because over the last nine games, Carvajal has been on fire and the Hawks have followed suit right behind.

Since Carvajal took the bull by the horns and became the Hawks’ leader, the team has won seven straight games to draw even at 8-8 and have miraculously catapulted themselves back into contention for both an NJSIAA Parochial A North and HCIAA Coviello playoff berth.

“When we were 1-8, we went through the schedule and our coaching staff said, ‘We can do this,’ ” Ricciardi said. “We figured we could get to .500. It wasn’t going to be easy. Our main concern then was not to have the kids fall apart. Hugo got us on a little roll by taking command. He’s been shooting it real well.”

Over the last seven games, Carvajal has eclipsed 20 points five times and has been averaging 19 points per game – up from 10 points a game over the first eight games of the season.

Last week, he hit a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat St. Peter’s Prep in a game where he scored 23 points and scored 20 points in a win over Technology of Newark.

For his efforts, Carvajal has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Ricciardi said that Carvajal is not only shooting and scoring.

“He’s doing all the little things right for us,” Ricciardi said. “He’s setting screens and distributing the ball. He’s playing solid defense. He’s making big plays for us.”

“I think I’ve been gaining a lot of confidence,” Carvajal said. “It just took a while for me to get going. I finally feel now I have the confidence to lead the team where we want to be.”

Carvajal, a 6-1 shooting guard, said that he never truly believed that the Hawks could rebound after the horrific start.

“It really is amazing,” Carvajal said. “When we were 1-8, you never think something like this could happen. I honestly never thought we could come back, especially after 1-8. What more could you ask for?”

Ricciardi said that Carvajal caught the eye of renowned college basketball scout Tom Konchalski, the editor and founder of the prestigious HSBI Report.

“Tom Konchalski told me that he would personally recommend Hugo as a walk-on wherever he went to college,” Ricciardi said. “Now, you have to understand that when this guy says something like this, it’s done. It took me by surprise. He didn’t even know Hugo. But Tom said he liked the way Hugo played and liked his makeup and character. That tells you a lot.”

Carvajal is leaning toward attending Penn State University, but is also considering Boston College and Northeastern, strictly on academic basis.

However, if there is a chance to play…

“I was a little surprised when I heard about what he (Konchalski) had to say about me,” Carvajal said. “I never thought I would be able to play at a big school. When you hear something like that, it gives you a little competitive edge and makes you want to work even harder.”

Carvajal, who is ranked No. 14 in his graduating class, hopes to major in some sort of engineering, perhaps civil engineering, in college.

Ricciardi, who has known Carvajal since he was a youngster playing in the St. Michael’s CYO program in Union City, has watched Carvajal mature into a fine young man.

“Hugo has worked very hard to get where he is,” Ricciardi said. “He’s a fine young man. He’s the captain and this is his team, so I’m happy to see that he’s doing well and the team is doing well. He deserves this.”

As do the Hawks deserve the shot to play in the state and county playoffs, which now appears likely, thanks to the torrid shooting of Hugo Carvajal. – Jim Hague


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