There was a time not so long ago that winning the Hudson County Tournament basketball title would be an absolute novelty for the Hawks of Hudson Catholic.
After all, the Hawks went 37 years without winning a single county title. From the glory days of Jim Spanarkel and Mike O’Koren actually beating St. Anthony in 1975 in the Jersey City Armory to the present day Hawks of 2012, there was a championship drought at the school on McGinley Square.
But now, it’s almost an afterthought. The Hawks have themselves a legitimate dynasty, after winning their fifth straight county crown last Saturday night at St. Peter’s University’s Yanitelli Center. The Hawks took down rival St. Peter’s Prep, 74-55, without much of a fuss or tussle.
Those days of winning the county championship as a novelty are long gone. In fact, according to the architect and mastermind behind the Hawks’ ascent to county royalty, Nick Mariniello, winning the county championship is now something that the Hawks plan on doing.
“We look at it as something we’re supposed to do,” Mariniello said after the Hawks were never seriously threatened Saturday night.
And it looks like the Hawks are not going to be relinquishing that title anytime soon.
Luther Muhammad, the game’s high scorer with an easy, breezy 30 points, is only a sophomore. The same for Jahvon Quinerly, who scored 23 points in the title game just a few days after being held scoreless in a scary two-point semifinal win over Snyder.
You have two legitimate major NCAA Division I products not seemingly going anywhere for the next two seasons, so it would appear as if these Hawks have a legitimate shot of going after Marist’s record of seven straight county crowns.
In today’s day and age of New Jersey high school basketball, you have to put those words into the equation, because kids are changing basketball and home addresses and area codes faster than Clark Kent goes from suit and tie to red tights.
With kids transferring from school to school left and right, you can never be truly sure of Muhammad and Quinerly’s high school residence for the next two years. But if they stay at Hudson and stay healthy in doing so, chances are that no one will come close to knocking the Hawks from their lofty perch.
“It’s pretty amazing getting five straight,” Muhammad said after Saturday’s win. “But we want to keep it going. We’re not stopping here. Sure, there’s pressure on us to do it again, but we can handle it. There’s a domino effect from every team every year. One team wins, so the next one comes in and is expected to do the same.”
“Me and Luther want to keep it going right here,” Quinerly said. “It means a lot to our coach to bring it every year. It’s definitely tough, especially with the game we had the other night [the 57-55 win on Marion Williams’ buzzer beater]. But we’ve just had to play through it.”
Williams is the lone senior on the Hawks’ roster. He lifted the Hawks past Snyder with the clutch play last Thursday night, scoring his team’s last seven points and erasing a five-point deficit in the process.
Williams had 13 points and nine assists in the championship game win over the Marauders, earning the Most Outstanding Player in the county tourney in the process.
“It’s very exciting,” Williams said. “It’s a great experience to be a part of the last three in a row. It’s very amazing and something that a lot of people don’t get a chance to do.”
Williams said that it was important for the Hawks to come out confidently and play like a champion Saturday night, especially after their scare against the Tigers.
“We had to put them away early,” Williams said. “It made it easier for us.”
“Marion’s our senior,” Quinerly said. “He had his three, so we had to make sure we got him his fourth.”
Like it’s expected, like a rite of passage from player to player. If you’re a Hudson Catholic basketball player, you win the Hudson County Tournament. It’s what is expected of you. Novelty? That’s long gone. Dynasty is more like it.
True, St. Anthony does reside in Hudson County and the Friars are indeed undefeated at 26-0 and ranked No. 1 in the entire state of New Jersey, not to mention among the top five in the country.
But the Friars choose not to participate in the Hudson County Tournament, rather leaving their focus for the NJSIAA state tourney and subsequently, the NJSIAA’s Tournament of Champions if they get there.
But the lack of the Friars’ participation in the county tourney should not diminish what the Hawks have accomplished one iota.
“We obviously have guys who can make shots,” Mariniello said. “We have guys who work hard on both ends of the floor. I’m happy for the kids. They didn’t get caught up in the drama of the streak. They just wanted to win again.”
It wasn’t that long ago when winning five in a row of anything would be a foreign thought to the Hudson Catholic basketball program. Heck, the school almost shut its doors for good in 2008, but a last-minute fundraising campaign and the inclusion of female students kept the school alive and operating.
And now look. Five Hudson County titles in a row. It somehow seems unreal, considering everything the school went through. And that streak isn’t about to end, not with Muhammad and Quinerly still around for two more years and an influx of other talented kids like the promising Danny Rodriguez still around.
The Hawks played the county game with an inspiration in their hearts. Beloved assistant coach Joe Forenza is currently hospitalized and missed the county tournament.
“The kids won it for Joe,” Mariniello said.
Incredibly, Forenza was on the bench with Marist when the Royal Knights had their string of success under Mike Leonardo. It’s some run that Forenza, the former North Bergen sharpshooter in the early 1970s _ before the memorable Bruin days of Danny Callandrillo has enjoyed as a coach. Everyone hopes and prays for Forenza’s rapid recovery.
One thing is also for sure. St. Peter’s Prep has a stud sophomore player of its own. Brendan Thiele did his best J.J. Redick impersonation Saturday night by scoring an impressive 24 points in every way imaginable. He rained down five 3-pointers and took the ball to the basket with reckless abandon.
Thiele, who was thrown into the fire and played right away last year as a freshman, sometimes with the look of a wide-eyed deer stuck in the headlights, was a cool, confident young man Saturday night. He has two more years as well to shine in the Hudson County spotlight, although it’s going to be hard to knock Muhammad and Quinerly off a pedestal that they so rightly already occupy.
The Hawks, winners of 20 straight games now, move on to the NJSIAA Non-Public A North playoffs, where they were scheduled to face Bergen County champion St. Joseph of Montvale in the first round this weekend.
Notice the shift in state playoff brackets. There’s no showdown with St. Anthony on the horizon. Unless, of course, it’s in the Tournament of Champions, which would be something to behold, but both teams have to travel tough roads to get there in two weeks.
“Let’s see what happens,” Mariniello said.
We’ve all seen what has happened over the last five years and it’s nothing short of incredible.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.