It’s safe to say that Union Hill High School senior Justin Sanchez is the epitome of what every high school teacher hopes their students become.
Sanchez is a straight-A student who has never once missed a day of school. That’s right; going back to his days in kindergarten, Sanchez has never once been marked absent from school. It’s a pretty remarkable streak, almost like Cal Ripken Jr. playing in 2,632 straight games in the major leagues. In that respect, Sanchez’s consecutive attendance day record has reached more than 3,528 straight days – and counting.
“I guess when I was younger, I just loved going to school,” said Sanchez, who is a two-sport athlete (football and basketball) at Union Hill. “I never wanted to stay home, even when it snowed. I just liked school. After a while, it became robotic. I got up and went to school. I didn’t even need an alarm clock. Even when I was sick, I went to school. As I got older, it got tougher with fatigue and all. But it’s so much of a routine for me now and it’s taken on a life of its own.”
The perfect attendance record has become such an important part of Sanchez’s life that it has become a running joke with his classmates and teammates.
“Our big guy last year, Raugly Sosa, told Justin that he was going to sneak into his house one morning and sit on him all morning so he couldn’t get to school,” Union Hill head basketball coach Carlos Cueto said. “Justin still would have found a way to get to school. That’s how important it is to him. It’s something he’s very proud of.”
“I think I would have been able to do something to get away from Raugly, so I could come to school,” Sanchez said. “And Raugly’s a pretty big guy.”
Sanchez has another motivation why he wants to be in school every single day. He has two older brothers who have run afoul of the law and are members of local street gangs. A police officer once told Sanchez’s mother that he was going to eventually become like his two troubled brothers. That’s all Sanchez had to hear.
“I saw what they went through, and I didn’t want that,” Sanchez said. “I saw what it did to my mother, and I couldn’t even think about doing that to her. My brothers got in trouble with the law and people might think that it’s a negative. But I’ve turned it into a positive. It’s been a big help. I know my brothers don’t want me to follow in the same path they traveled. I know they want me to follow the straight and narrow. I use it as a motivation to do well.”
So that’s why Sanchez not only attends school every day, but he cherishes the education he receives. His grades are essential to him.
“I know that the chances of me coming from the environment that I come from to get a chance to go to college are very slim, like one out of every 100 Hispanics who come from the same background,” Sanchez said. “I fight adversity every day, and it keeps me going. I take my schoolwork seriously and my grades seriously.”
Sanchez also takes his participation in athletics very seriously as well. He was a quarterback for the Hillers during the football season, and as the basketball season commenced, Sanchez found himself in a very similar leadership role on the hardwood.
“I think because he’s a four-year varsity player, the other kids looked to him to be a leader,” Cueto said. “He had to lead both in practice and in games. The others, especially the younger ones, can see how much he wants to win and that affects them.”
Once Hudson Reporter All-Area guard Andrew Cabrera graduated (and headed to Ramapo College), it basically left the leadership role to Sanchez.
“Shooting has always been my specialty, from the first day I became a Hiller until now,” Sanchez said. “I never saw myself as a ball handler. But once Andrew graduated, I knew I had to step up and handle the ball more. I had to get the ball in my hands. In the past, I just adapted to Andrew. I would run and go and knew I’d get the ball. With him gone, my entire game had to improve. I knew I couldn’t get into college just shooting the ball.”
So Sanchez worked on improving all facets of his game, including ball handling and defense.
“He always took a backseat to Cabrera,” Cueto said. “Cabrera was always the main guy. But with Andrew gone, Justin had to work on other things, like his legs, his speed. He still is one of the deadliest shooters in the county, but he puts the ball on the floor and goes to the basket now. He’s become a lot quicker. His defense has improved tremendously. But shooting has been his No. 1 thing. We needed him to score.”
Sanchez proved that Tuesday night in the opening round of the HCIAA Coviello Division playoffs against Hudson Catholic, when he erupted for a career-high 31 points, leading the Hillers into the semifinals with a big 57-45 victory.
In the game, Sanchez showed a bit of his scoring diversity, making six 3-point shots to show his perimeter game, while also connecting on 13 of 16 free throws, displaying his ability to get to the basket.
“I didn’t shoot a single 2-point shot,” Sanchez said. “It was all threes and free throws. It was pretty amazing.”
For his efforts, Sanchez has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
The Hillers now face Lincoln in the semifinals, while Emerson faces St. Peter’s Prep in the other semifinal. How wild would it be if the two Union City schools, playing in their respective final seasons, would meet for the HCIAA title?
“I was talking to [Emerson standout guard] Jairo Cruz the other day about that,” Sanchez said. “We’re good friends, and we talk all the time. I was thinking that if we kept winning and so did they, we could meet up in the finals and that would be just crazy. It’s something no one would have ever expected.”
Especially since Union Hill hasn’t won an HCIAA title since 1955.
“It would be real special for us to get it in the last year,” Sanchez said. “I take pride in being a Hiller for four years. We got to the county final [last year] and the state sectional final. It’s time for us to get our championship. That’s what has made me hungrier. It’s the last year of the school and our last chance to win one. I definitely want to go out with a bang.”
Cueto said that he would go to war for a kid like Sanchez.
“I don’t treat him any differently than I treat my little brother,” Cueto said. “He’s just a truly special kid. He’s a straight-A student who is always in school and always at practice. Everyone who knows him just loves the kid. He’s been much more mature than his years since he was a freshman. I think what he’s been through made him more mature. He’s a kid who knows what he wants and realizes he has a chance to get it.”
One of the things that Sanchez has craved, other than winning a championship, is a chance to play in college. It looks like that will happen, as schools such as Stevens Tech and Catholic University are clamoring for his services.
“I’m definitely pleased,” Sanchez said. “I’m shocked that schools like that would even look at me. I’m a very humble person and I didn’t expect that. I’m very thankful that both schools are interested, and I hope I make the right decision when the time comes.”
As for being the first and last Union Hill team to win the HCIAA title in over 50 years?
“I would love for it to happen,” Sanchez said. “I’m taking it one game at a time, but if it happens, it would be the greatest thing to ever happen.”
Even more so than not missing a single day of school in 14 years. – Jim Hague