With the retirement of Jeff Stabile at Bayonne High School and Jack Rodgers at Harrison within the last few seasons, Bill DeFazio has become the dean of all Hudson County girls’ basketball coaches, going back to his early days at St. Anthony High School and currently residing at Marist.
In recent years, DeFazio has earned his share of accolades and honors, including induction into both the NJSIAA and the Hudson County Sports Halls of Fame, as well as the 500th win of his illustrious career.
But there’s one thrill that DeFazio gets more than any other – winning an HCIAA title.
DeFazio captured three league titles during his tenure at St. Anthony (1982, 1983, and 1987) and won three previous HCIAA crowns at Marist (1998, 1999, and 2001).
But it had been seven long years since DeFazio experienced the thrill of being a county champion. There were some close calls, but the Royal Knights simply fell a little short.
“The girls always worked hard,” DeFazio said. “We’ve been there a lot of times. We just missed out.”
So over the last seven years, DeFazio started to wonder. Maybe he wouldn’t get another chance to enjoy the ecstasy of winning another title.
“If I said that I didn’t think that way, I’d be lying,” DeFazio said. “We lost three straight years to North Bergen [which went on to win two of those three HCIAA Coviello titles]. It was tough to lose those times. I thought for sure that we would be back, but you never know for sure. You have conversations with yourself and you think maybe it’s all in the past. You never know.”
DeFazio knew that he had a good group of kids returning for this season, a balanced lineup with solid guard play and good post performers. He had a Division I player in Cristina Centeno, also known as “The Belle of Marist,” who had already signed a national letter of intent to attend Siena College in the fall. DeFazio also had a powerful forward in Ebony Thomas, who most certainly will play college basketball somewhere next season.
But he also had an intangible – namely a little slice of history. There have been countless Royal Knight performers over the years who have served their school well.
Last summer, DeFazio called upon some of the stars of the past to school the players of the present.
“We had five former captains, namely Tara Walker [a three-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year], Renee Vales, Angela Fitzgerald [another former Reporter Player of the Year], Christina Smith, and Janelle Biamonte all come back in the summer to work with our kids,” DeFazio said. “Every night in the summer, they were in our gym playing with our kids, helping them to get better. They worked and worked and pushed our kids. No question, those former players willed us to win.”
“It helped us out a lot,” said senior point guard Lynea Blue. “Where else would we get competition like that?”
Walker was a fine player at St. John’s, while Fitzgerald and Biamonte are currently playing college basketball (Fitzgerald at New Jersey City University, Biamonte at Felician).
“They told the girls in August that they shouldn’t forget to put another banner on the wall,” DeFazio said.
“We weren’t going to be able to play competition like that on the high school level,” Blue said. “They really got us to be better players. And before the season started, we took a picture of us pointing at the wall, where the banner would go. It’s what we wanted.”
DeFazio knew then that he had the makings of a champion.
“No question, it helped us a great deal,” DeFazio said. “It got us ready to play this season.”
Especially defensively. A year ago, DeFazio wasn’t happy with the Royal Knights’ defensive intensity, and he let them know it. If they wanted to compete this year, they needed to improve defensively.
“It was a focus all year,” DeFazio said. “But there’s no question that they wanted to, because they’re so close and play so well together. Especially the seniors. They handle everything. Even when there’s a team meeting. They’re the ones who handle it. They speak up. They’ve been through the wars.”
The Royal Knights’ battles continued through the HCIAA Coviello regular season, where they finished as the league runner-up to archrival Bayonne, courtesy of a late-season loss. But the Royal Knights were hoping to gain some sense of revenge against the neighboring school down the block.
“That loss really prepared us for the last game,” Blue said. “We knew we wanted another chance against them.”
Mission accomplished. The two teams met for the third time in the Coviello finale and this time, the Royal Knights won, taking a 53-34 victory.
And DeFazio had the long-awaited league crown, the seventh in his historic career and quite possibly, the most rewarding.
“All the thoughts of the other teams came back to me,” DeFazio said. “It definitely reminded me of the other championship teams. It really is a good feeling. We just felt that if we kept working at it, we’d get another shot. We just kept working.”
The seniors contributed like they always did. Centeno was her typical self.
“You would never know she was a big-time player by her attitude and the way she practices,” DeFazio said. “She’s looking for everyone else to succeed.”
Thomas scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds.
“She lived up to the challenge and provided a presence on the floor,” DeFazio said.
But the real star Saturday was Blue, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“She really carried us,” DeFazio said of Blue, who had 16 points and seven assists. “She directed the team on every set. The way she handled the ball and distributed the ball, she gave us just what we needed.”
“I had no clue about it,” Blue said about the MVP award. “I didn’t even think I played that well. I was just so happy that we finally won. I was happy to be playing and not watching like we did the last three years [losing to North Bergen in the semifinals each time]. We were playing and we won. It was crazy, but a good feeling.”
As the reporter turned to walk out of the gym, DeFazio made a promise.
“We’re not done yet,” DeFazio said, talking about the NJSIAA Non-Public (Parochial) B North playoffs, where the Royal Knights are the second seed.
Could very well be another banner brewing. – Jim Hague