When Nick Mariniello decided to take over the Hudson Catholic boys’ basketball program last year, he knew that he wanted to do things the right way.
The Hoboken resident made a name for himself as the highly successful coach at Bloomfield Tech, leading that program to several NJSIAA state sectional titles and two trips to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.
So when Mariniello elected to come back to Hudson County – having already had stints as an assistant coach at Marist High School, then St. Peter’s College – to tackle the challenge of coaching at Hudson Catholic, he knew that there were certain things that had to be done first.
“I always want to do things first class,” Mariniello said. “Hudson Catholic has had a very special tradition. I wanted to make it a showplace once again. I wanted to make it a proud place that would make the alumni want to come back and support the program.”
So Mariniello started with the external things. He purchased new uniforms. He arranged to have the floor freshly painted in a place aptly called the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium. It was first about appearance.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” Mariniello said. “I’m almost fanatical about it.”
The late and legendary Pope was the head coach at Hudson Catholic when the Hawks soared over the rest of Hudson County basketball, back in the early 1970s.
It was an era when Hudson Catholic won the HCIAA championship with players like Mike O’Koren and Jim Spanarkel, former Hudson Catholic greats who went on to become college All-Americans and later players in the NBA.
Since that time, Hudson Catholic never reached the same heights. It’s been an endless struggle, year after year of either mediocrity or substandard basketball.
Maybe that’s the reason why the school decided to bring in Mariniello, a proven winner with an impeccable track record, to change the face of the basketball program, to perhaps inject some hope and life where there was none.
Midway through his first season at Hudson Catholic, Mariniello has done exactly that. The Hawks are winning games that they definitely lost in the past, like knocking off perennial local power Bayonne last week, like defeating teams like Lincoln on the road and Dickinson at home.
All of those games would have been lopsided losses in the past, but not any longer. Not as long as Mariniello is acting like a marionette wizard, pulling the right strings, night in and night out.
“From a program standpoint, we’re ahead of where I thought we’d be,” Mariniello said in the minutes before his Hawks defeated Dickinson, 54-43, the Hawks’ fourth straight win over a Hudson County opponent and a win that put the Hawks miraculously above .500 at 8-7.
“The basketball still needs work, but we’re a little ahead of schedule with the program. But when you go against a quality program like a Bayonne and win the game, well, that gives a young team a lot of confidence. It carried over to the Lincoln game. Everything is starting to click.”
What makes the Hawks’ performance thus far so impressive is that Mariniello is doing it with a roster full of youngsters. The Hawks have only one player returning with varsity experience. The team’s best player, forward Rakwan Kelly, is a freshman. The top floor leader, point guard Travis Flagg, is a freshman. Most of the other key players are sophomores. This Hawk lineup has basically a bunch of baby-faced kids, but they’re taking on senior-dominated teams and winning.
“We’re starting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior and none that had real varsity experience,” Mariniello said. “We’re still learning. We’ve still building a foundation.”
Mariniello said that the players are still grasping the high school concept.
“I’ve always been a man-to-man defensive coach, but we’ve played more zone in the last two games than I did for 10 years at Bloomfield Tech,” Mariniello said. “But that’s what we have to do to get the program moving in the right direction. I get a sense now that it’s happening.”
Part of the reason why the Hawks are moving forward is the play of the 6-foot-5 freshman Kelly, who is averaging 14 points per game, but had 25 in the win over Dickinson Tuesday night.
“We’ve put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders,” Mariniello said of Kelly. “If he was not a mature young man, I never would have considered it. But he’s been thrown into the fire and has handled it well. He works hard every single day and I can see him becoming the full package. He hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can really do. He might be mentally mature, but his body is not physically matured.”
The same can be said for 6-foot-1 guard Flagg, who has improved immensely as the season as progressed. Flagg started the season worrying about making mistakes and missing a ton of free throws. Now, he’s averaging about 10 points and five assist per game. It was his four-point play against Bayonne that gave the Hawks the lead for good.
Flagg also connected on his free throws in the Bayonne game and he scored 10 crucial points in the win over Dickinson.
“Just over the last two weeks, Travis has gotten better,” Mariniello said.
Sophomore forward Marc Wilson, who is averaging 12 points per game, and sophomore guard Nikko Velez have been solid contributors.
“Marc Wilson has been doing a great job and Nikko is very mature and knows that we don’t need him to score in order to win,” Mariniello said.
Corey Winston, Jr. is another sophomore who comes off the bench and is a defensive stopper.
“Corey gives us energy off the bench,” Mariniello said. “He’s probably our best defensive player. We just need him to be more consistent offensively.”
Juniors Danny Limming and Drew Grapstul are two big bodies down low. Guards Kyle McLeggan, Michael Alford, Marc Lavelle and Shalique Boyd are all capable reserves, as is former football standout Issacar Albert as a back-up forward who gives quality minutes.
More importantly, the Hawks are winning. They have a 7-3 record inside the Hudson Division of the North Jersey Tri-County Conference. Seven wins inside the county already? It’s one thing that Mariniello is changing the face of the entire program. But with seven wins, they may classify Mariniello ready for sainthood.
“I think it’s a statement we’re headed in the right direction,” Mariniello said. “It was our goal to qualify for the state tournament in our first year. That would be a reward to the kids for buying into what we wanted to preach. It’s hard work, but that’s what we do. I know that we’ve created a buzz, some excitement in the school. People realize that we’re coming. I’m happy with the way we’re playing. I like my team.”
And you certainly cannot argue with the results.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.