If you just closed your eyes at Hudson Catholic High School Tuesday night and dreamed of another era gone by, you could have sworn you were at Hudson during its glory days.
The gym was packed, with the bleachers opened on both sides of the court. That was a rarity.
The atmosphere was electric, the temperature sweltering.
You could have easily thought it was Hudson Catholic, circa 1975 or so, back when the players were named McDonough, Spanarkel, O’Koren, Corrugan, O’Brien, Clark, Bihuniak and Nierstadt.
And a crotchety old guy with a hole in his shoe to expose his swollen, gout-ridden toe and a cigar in his mouth named Joe “Rocky” Pope, the person who best personified Hudson Catholic back then, was marching up and down the sidelines.
It certainly felt that way and looked that way Tuesday night, because Hudson Catholic was alive again for a big-time basketball game. The upstart, young Hawks were playing host to the rival down Montgomery Street, namely St. Peter’s Prep, the three-time defending county champion.
This was the first real opportunity in the Nick Mariniello era of Hudson Catholic basketball to make a true statement that the Hawks were for real, that they were deserving of the hype and the preseason state ranking.
They were taking on the Marauders, who had elevated themselves to elite status in recent years, culminating with the third straight county title and the NJSIAA state sectional crown last year.
Thus, the reason for the excitement and the big crowd. The showdown with the Marauders brought out a lot of the Hudson Catholic loyal alumni, including the aforementioned Mike O’Koren, the former North Carolina and New Jersey Nets star and long-time NBA assistant coach. O’Koren has been very visible at Hudson in recent months and has once again embraced his alma mater.
It’s always a rivalry when Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep face each other in anything. If the two schools were embroiled in a chess match, it would be a battle akin to war. If they faced off in tiddlywinks, there might be need for an arbiter to handle the peace summit.
But usually, Prep gets the upper hand in most of the battles – and has done so for a very long time. It’s been Prep’s domain, with Hudson Catholic playing the role as the subservient pauper.
But since Mariniello took over the hoops program at McGinley Square, there has been somewhat of a shift in power. Mariniello, the former assistant coach at both Marist and St. Peter’s College, gained respect for building the Bloomfield Tech program into a state champion powerhouse, and the Hoboken resident was poised to do the same at Hudson Catholic.
The first year of Mariniello’s stint at Hudson Catholic was a successful one, seeing the young Hawks develop into a legitimate local threat.
But this was Mariniello’s second season at Hudson and the expectations were a little higher as the season began. It also didn’t hurt that the Hawks received assistance with the addition of two highly regarded transfers from the now-defunct Paterson Catholic in standout forward Reggie Cameron and high-octane point guard Kavon Stewart and another in transfer Grant Ellis, a 6-foot-4 forward who came to Hudson Catholic from St. Benedict’s Prep.
When you put the newcomers with the returning players like sophomore Rakwan Kelly, who made Hudson Reporter All-Area last year as a freshman, Marc Wilson, Travis Flagg, Danny Liming, and Michael Allford, you had the makings of something special.
The Hawks had won 12 games already this season prior to Tuesday night, but this showdown with the rival was going to be a defining moment, one way or the other. Thus, the reason for the buzz, the excitement, the jam-packed crowd in the stifling hot gym, named after the legendary coach who strolled the sidelines the last time there was this kind of buzz at Hudson.
“We knew it was going to be a war,” Mariniello said. “We were facing the three-time defending county champ, a team with solid, veteran players. We want a rivalry like this. We want to play good teams. We want to put our program up against good programs.”
It might have been difficult for kids like Cameron and Ellis to understand the Prep-Hudson Catholic rivalry, considering that both kids are not from Hudson County and have only been enrolled at Hudson Catholic for a few months.
But both Cameron and Ellis were more than aware.
‘The big one’
“A lot of the guys were talking before the game that this was a big one,” Ellis said. “I knew that a lot of people were going to be here, so I was going to have to go out and perform. When you see the big crowd, you know it’s game time and you just can’t lose and disappoint those people.”
“I kind of knew about the rivalry before I even got here,” said Cameron, who was all set to be a major part of Paterson Catholic’s success, much like St. Anthony players Myles Mack and Kyle Anderson, before the school closed last June. “We knew we had to come out and play hard. We had to have an aggressive style and be aggressive. This is the best team in the county for the last three years. We had to be ready.”
Cameron was more than ready to be part of the rivalry, scoring 22 points, including nailing two free throws with 7.5 seconds left, giving Hudson Catholic a 67-64 victory. Ellis, who has only been eligible to play for the last three games, scored 12 points, so the newcomers to the rivalry had the biggest hand in the outcome.
“This definitely puts us on the map,” said Cameron, who has solidified himself as one of the top performers in the county. “We beat a team like St. Peter’s, a team that basically has all upperclassmen. It’s going to give us a lot of confidence the rest of the way.”
As for making the two clutch free throws, hitting nothing but net, like he had ice water running through his veins?
“I had a lot of confidence going to the line,” Cameron said. “I spend a lot of time working on my free throws. I just knew they were going down.”
Ellis liked the big-game atmosphere.
“It shows that we have a lot of support now,” Ellis said. “It can only go up from here.”
Kevin Walker had a big game for the Marauders, scoring 24 points. He’s come a long way from being just a ball handling point guard to now an efficient scorer.
But this was a night that belonged to the Hawks. They have arrived. They belong.
“I wasn’t here in the 70s, but I heard that this is what it was like all the time,” Mariniello said. “The place was sold out. The crowd was excited. I’m proud of the way the kids responded. It was a nip-and-tuck game and coming out on top shows that we’re growing up. We’re starting to mature. We have a long way to go, but we’re a talented team that is starting to play well together.”
As for the rivalry, has there been a changing of the guard?
“I don’t think the kids lived the rivalry until they experienced it,” Mariniello said. “They might have understood it. They might have been able to talk about it. Now, they’ve lived it. It was a great high school basketball environment. It was a phenomenal night. I’m proud that we were able to give the fans, the student body and the alumni something to be proud of. We showed them a piece of history.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.