When the high school basketball season came to an end in early March, North Bergen High School senior Xavier Silva was convinced his high school career had ended as well.
“I thought it was over,” Silva said. “I had even stopped playing because of it. I didn’t think I’d get another chance.”
Memorial High School’s standout senior Byron Bautista felt the same way.
“It was pretty much over,” Bautista said. “I knew that there were state All-Star games, but I didn’t get picked for those. So I pretty much thought that was it.”
In years past, there was a Hudson-Essex All-Star game that gave Hudson County’s top players another chance to play one more game, but the game fell apart with a lack of sincere interest from the Essex County coaches.
Local organizers, like the tireless Steve Ricciardi Sr. and Rich Myrlak, who put that fundraising All-Star game together, became tired of trying to get cooperation from the Essex County high school coaches, so the game became a part of the past.
But this year, the coaches and administrators at Kearny High School decided to see if there was interest in holding a Hudson County All-Star basketball game, much like the one held annually in soccer.
People like Kearny High School athletic director John Millar and his basketball coaches Bill Mullins and Jody Hill made a few phone calls to the coaches and athletic directors around the county, and sure enough, the interest was indeed there.
There was enough talent to organize both a boys’ and a girls’ All-Star game, an event that was held at Kearny High School last Thursday night. More than 60 Hudson County high school senior basketball players got one last chance to wear their school uniforms and colors, participating in a game that certainly became a talent showcase for some.
In fact, most of the players in the game still had not made a decision about college. Some, like North Bergen’s All-State girls’ standout Lauren Jimenez, had already signed national letters of intent with their respective colleges. For example, Jimenez is headed to James Madison University, so her future wasn’t in question. But the majority of the others involved in the two All-Star showdowns are still trying to impress the college coach and scout, hoping that their ability might just some recognition, some financial aid, or the pinnacle, the college scholarship.
“That’s what I’m still hoping for,” said Bautista, who is more than likely headed to Kean University in the fall to play for local native Sean Drennan, the son of Dickinson High School head coach Bill “Red” Drennan. “I’m hoping that someone might notice me.”
Bautista did have a great senior year at Memorial, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds per game, earning First Team All-Area honors from the Hudson Reporter. He was a given to participate in this game and jumped at the chance to play in it.
“I was looking forward to it,” Bautista said. “It’s a real good feeling to be chosen and I knew that I was going to have fun. There’s a lot of good competition here.”
“Not everyone gets a chance like this to play in an All-Star game,” said Silva, who earned Second Team All-Area honors this season, averaging nearly 19 points per game for the Bruins. “It’s a great opportunity.”
Yessy Tejada is more known for his football prowess and baseball ability. The St. Joseph of the Palisades senior is headed to Rutgers to give a try at walking on to the Scarlet Knights’ football team in the fall. His baseball talents have been long documented.
But Tejada also played basketball for the Blue Jays, even if it wasn’t readily known.
“It’s definitely my third sport, but I love playing basketball,” Tejada said.
However, getting to Kearny to play basketball during the middle of the baseball season provided a little bit of a challenge. The Blue Jays played CREATE Charter earlier that afternoon, a game where Tejada had four hits.
But he then had to rush home to Weehawken, change out of his baseball uniform, pick up his basketball gear and head to Kearny in time for the 7:30 p.m. basketball game.
“It was a little tough, but I managed to pull it off,” Tejada said. “This was a good experience for me.”
And it was definitely the final organized basketball game of Tejada’s career.
“That’s it, my last game,” Tejada said. “I had to make the most of it.”
There were very interesting sidelights to the All-Star game, like Bayonne High School players Rashad Callaway and Nico Thompson being cordial teammates to Marist players like Alvin Adams. Rivals like that hardly ever get along. The same can be said for Union Hill players Raugly Sosa and Andrew Cabrera actually looking for Emerson’s Bryan Cruz on the fast break. Those are sights you don’t normally see.
There was one last chance for North Bergen’s talented trio of girls’ basketball players, namely Jimenez, Cassandra Chenet and Cynthia Rivera, all playing one last time for coach Dan Reardon.
On paper, the girls’ game looked like a mismatch, with the three North Bergen girls on the same team with Secaucus’ standouts Cory Roesing and Kristen Bronowich and Hoboken’s brilliant guard Jennifer Albuja. All three had to come to the game after playing softball games earlier that afternoon.
However, the Jersey City/Bayonne team kept it close and only lost by a handful, obviously overachieving. Angelica Bermudez of St. Anthony and Stefanie Phillips of St. Dominic Academy more than held their own out there.
There was another sight that local hoop fans won’t see again. Chris Hicks and Darryl Cannon represented St. Aloysius High School in the boys’ game. It marked the last time that anyone would ever wear a St. Al’s basketball uniform, as the school will close its doors in June. It was almost bittersweet seeing Hicks and Cannon wearing the red and black, knowing fully well it had a sense of finality.
There were others who definitely made the most of their last high school basketball game. Clearly, the most impressive player on the floor in the boys’ game was the little-known Alex Ozojie of University Charter in Jersey City, who showed off every facet of his game during the course of the evening. The lanky 6-foot-5 Ozojie was running up and down the floor with abandon, blocked three shots with ferocious authority and showed his ability to hit a 3-point shot. His performance was eye-popping and made a big impression with the college coaches in attendance. Ozojie is a big-time talent.
The other player who was a huge hit in the game was CREATE Charter senior guard Keith Williams, who obviously played a huge role in the Crushers’ state sectional championship team, but flew under the radar a little playing on the same team with All-Area standout Walik Albright.
Williams put on a show during the game, impressing both NJCU coach Charlie Brown and Ramapo coach Chuck McBreen, both of whom are vying for Williams’ talents.
“He’s the most impressive kid out there,” said Mike Reilly of McNair Academic, one of the coaches for the game about Williams.
Ozojie and Williams left the gym in Kearny having made names of themselves in an All-Star game that didn’t even exist at the beginning of the season. Here’s to hoping that it remains, because it certainly acted as a showcase for kids like Ozojie and Williams.