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Thursday, June 23, 2022

O'Koren gets childhood courts named after him

O’Koren returns to courts where it all began St. Joseph Courts renamed, honoring former Carolina, Nets standout forward When Mike O’Koren was a little boy growing up in Jersey City, he always dreamed about one day playing basketball at the famed courts that sit behind St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, just a stone’s throw away from the O’Koren family residence inside the Pavonia Gardens housing projects near Dickinson High School “For us kids, this was our Madison Square Garden,” O’Koren said. “I spent so much time here playing and learning.” So O’Koren used to make the two-block journey from his home to the courts at St. Joe’s, just trying to absorb so much about the game he loved to play. One of his first coaches at St. Joseph’s CYO program was Ron Steinmetz, better known as “Stymie” to the basketball faithful of Jersey City. Stymie knew early on that O’Koren, better known as “Little” to the people of his hometown, would develop into a good player.
“When he first started playing, he couldn’t even tie his sneakers,” Steinmetz said. “Once we got him playing regularly, he fell in love with the game. And it was fun to watch him progress.” And progress he did. After he went to Hudson Catholic, O’Koren became a three-time All-Hudson County honoree and an overall First Team All-State selection, quickly becoming a household name across the country. O’Koren went off to the University of North Carolina, where he had a brilliant career, leading the Tar Heels to the 1977 NCAA Tournament title game against Marquette, scoring 31 points in the national semifinals against UNLV. After his brilliant four-year career with the Tar Heels, O’Koren was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the 1980 NBA Draft. He spent 10 solid years with the Nets, playing home games just a stone’s throw away from his Jersey City home. O’Koren then became an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Rutgers University. He also did some color analysis work for the Nets on television and radio. O’Koren has already earned Hall of Fame honors from both of his alma maters (Hudson Catholic and UNC) as well as the Hudson County Athletic Hall of Fame. But the greatest honor of O’Koren’s life came last week, when the St. Joseph courts were renamed the Mike O’Koren Courts. O’Koren was present for the dedication of the courts, speaking to the approximately 200 people in attendance. “I have family and friends here,” O’Koren said. “I’m glad to have the chance to see this happen while I’m still here. It’s the schoolyard, near where I grew up. It can’t get any better than this.” When the plaque hanging on the fence and the etching on the blacktop was revealed, O’Koren, usually stoic and not one to wear his feelings on his sleeve, got emotional. “It’s home,” O’Koren said. “It’s my family and friends. I’ve been around the world and no matter where I go, it always comes back to Jersey City. I was in Russia, walking the streets of Moscow with the World University Games team in 1980, before the Olympics (which never took place due to the boycott), and I had people recognize me from being from Jersey City. But this is beautiful. I spent so much time here. I’m so proud of this.” It was something to get all those people to a schoolyard on a Saturday morning in June. But they all came to pay tribute to the guy known as “Little,” to one of Hudson County’s best basketball players ever. Before he headed off to Chapel Hill, O’Koren was perhaps the best all-around hoopsters to ever come from McGinley Square, earning an NJSIAA Parochial A state title along with another decorated 1,000-point scorer from Hudson Catholic named Jim Spanarkel. Back in the mid-1970s, you couldn’t say one’s name without the other. Spanarkel and O’Koren were like peanut butter and jelly, like Abbott and Costello, like Martin and Lewis. When he graduated from Hudson Catholic, O’Koren’s 1,856 points was the third highest total in Hudson County history, but a handful of players have surpassed O’Koren’s point total. But nothing will take away from his greatness and now young, aspiring players will get to see up close how truly great O’Koren was. And it all began in the St. Joseph’s courtyard, a place that now bears his name for eternity. O’Koren reflected on how playing on the courts, with its famed metal backboards and chain link nets, made him a better shooter from the perimeter. “I tried to shoot the ball high off the backboard,” O’Koren recalled. “If you got it high off the backboard, it would go right in. But you had to shoot it soft. I spent a lot of hours there shooting off the backboard.” Steinmetz, who remains O’Koren’s closest friend, give credit to his buddy. “He could shoot anything,” Steinmetz said. “He could shoot bottle caps. This is just fabulous. It’s well deserved.” Bellifemini organizes youth basketball groups in the area, including the Jersey Bounce Basketball Academy and Team New Jersey Triple Threat that has approximately 300 youngsters participating. Many of those players were on hand for the court dedication. “This was the hotbed of basketball in Jersey City in its day,” Bellifemini said. “I was looking at the court and there was grass in the cracks of the court. I knew we had to do what we could to fix the courts. When Mike retired, I asked him to think about having the courts named after him. I kept my promise to him.” O’Koren was pleased to have his sister, Mary Jane Baker, and her family on hand for the dedication. Mary Jane’s son, Jack Baker, is the current athletic director at Hoboken High School after a brilliant baseball career at St. Peter’s Prep and St. Peter’s University and William Paterson University. O’Koren’s brother, Ron, couldn’t attend, but Mike wanted to make sure his brother got credit as well. Bellifemini credited other members of his organization like Nick Petruzelli, Chris Esposito and Vito Gigante for their assistance in the day. “They haven’t missed a day working with the kids,” Bellifemini said. But this day belonged to the big kid they all call “LIttle.” “I’ve been around the world and wherever I go, they always ask me about Jersey City,” O’Koren said. “It’s love for my hometown, no matter where I go.
In 1978, I was in Russia, walking the streets of Moscow and I had someone come up to me and said, ‘Jersey City.’ It’s home. This is beautiful. I have friends and family here.” And they were there to show a little bit of appreciation for a guy they all know as “Little,” just a little bit of love for one of their own.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Jersey City's Gaglioti a rising star in women's pro boxing

Jenna Gaglioti had somewhat of a conventional life before two years ago. The 30-year-old Jersey City resident attended St. Peter’s University, graduating in 2013 with a degree in biology. Before enrolling at St. Peter’s, Gaglioti was a student at John Jay High School in New York, where she played basketball and softball. She credits her brother Michael and sister Danielle for giving her the inspiration to become an athlete. Back then, Gaglioti was all set to attend nursing school. But something sparked a fire in Gaglioti after she was mugged a handful of times near St. Peter’s and was physically assaulted by someone she had just ended a relationship with. “I was dealing with some rough phases in my life,” Gaglioti said. “My brother always taught me to defend myself. I tried power lifting and started to get into body building. But honestly, I found those things to be a little boring.” At that time, Gaglioti just happened to be walking past Gleason’s Gym in Manhattan and had a revelation. “I wanted to learn how to box,” Gaglioti said. “I used to follow boxing all the time. I was raised by good parents who always instilled in me that women could do whatever they wanted to do, as long as they put their mind to it. That was me.” Gaglioti trained for approximately two years before a friend of hers named Johnny Lopez said he was going to a gym in Jersey City at Public School No. 6. That’s how the unlikely pairing of aspiring boxer Gaglioti and respected local trainer Luis “Mosquito” Gonzalez took flight. Gonzalez has been working with aspiring boxers in Jersey City for the Jersey City Recreation program for the last 30 years. “Johnny introduced me to Mosquito and we instantly hit it off,” Gaglioti said. Gonzalez has worked with his fair share of female boxers over the years. “I guess I’ve had about 50 or so females of all ages,” Gonzalez said. “My doors are always open for females. I’ve been watching females get involved in the sport for a long time. I always treat them equally as I treat men. It’s crazy how I got involved with Jenna. Johnny walked into the gym and told me he had a friend who was interested in getting involved. I didn’t know who she was. I just needed to take a look at her to see how serious she was. And I could tell right away that she was a boxer. Jenna had no idea that Jersey City had a boxing program. Once she knew, she came to the gym every day. And I could see that she worked harder than most men. She just doesn’t stop.” Soon after the first meeting, Gonzalez asked Gaglioti about her goals with the sport. “She said she wanted to fight pro,” Gonzalez said. “I said to her, ‘Can you do this?’ I told her that it was all about her and whether she was willing to put in the time and the work. I could see right away that she had a very professional approach. She said she didn’t want to fight as an amateur. She wanted to step into the ring and see how it goes.” “When I go into the gym, I am very disciplined,” Gaglioti said. “I think I’m harder on myself than anybody. But I felt like I was ready.” Gonzalez wanted to make sure, so he brought Gaglioti to other local boxing people like trainer/promoter Bobby Rooney of Bayonne.
“Bobby liked her and thought she had a lot of potential,” Gonzalez said. “The feedback I got from people about Jenna was all positive. I didn’t hear anything negative.” There was only one obstacle. The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic put an absolute halt to the sports world, never mind an up-close-and-personal sport like boxing. So Gaglioti had to wait out the pandemic and see what transpired. After all, she wasn’t getting any younger. The clock was ticking on a pro boxing career. “When the pandemic hit, everything was stopped,” Gonzalez said, “But the Dominican Republic opened its doors to us.” Last October, Gaglioti had her first pro bout, a four-rounder in Sousa of the Dominican Republic, where the COVID rules were a little less stringent than those in the United States. Gaglioti fought at 155 pounds against Jeanmary Martinez Paulino and won via unanimous decision. Paulino had won all three of her previous fights and the promoters there probably thought that Gaglioti would be a pushover. No such luck. And in February, Gaglioti climbed into the ring for her second pro bout, another four-rounder, again in the Dominican Republic, this time fighting under the promotion of former WBC world middleweight champion Miguel Cotto. Gaglioti won this bout via a technical knockout in the second round. Needless to say, Gaglioti is well on her way. “I just want people in Jersey City to know who she is,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone who sees her fight falls in love with her.” Her next fight is scheduled for May 21, also in the Dominican Republic against an unnamed opponent. “My goal is to get her one more fight in the D.R. and then find somewhere in the United States,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve already been offered a fight in Oakland for later this year. I want to be able to build her into a fighter that Jersey City could be proud of.” Gaglioti has a lot of family in New York and also in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, where her family originates. In the meantime, Gaglioti is keeping herself very busy in the other parts of her life. She works as a home health care aide, working with the rehabilitation of all kinds of patients. Gaglioti is also a personal trainer doing strength and conditioning with clients. She is also working with clothing brands and also dabbles as a model. Needless to say, she’s a very busy young lady. “I really would love to get into working with inner-city kids,” Gaglioti said. “I see the kids who come to work out with Mosquito’s other boxers and I don’t want to see these kids go into the streets. I want to help kids succeed in whatever they do.” And Gaglioti has now found a friend of a lifetime in a guy called Mosquito. “He’s helped me with so much,” Gaglioti said. “He’s more of a father figure to me. He’s not just my coach and trainer. He’s become a friend of mine. I think I’ve thanked him about a million times. He really pushes me hard. We’re just fine tuning things right now. The training will get a lot harder in April.”
Luis "Mosquito" Gonzalez (left) and his prized pupil Jenna Gaglioti Gonzalez is hoping to find a few people that would want to sponsor Gaglioti. If anyone or any business would be interested in sponsoring Gaglioti, you can contact Mosquito at “We’re building a friendship, but it’s still very professional,” Gonzalez said. “I think she respects me for who I am. I’ll do anything for her. We do everything together. We’re a true team.” Gonzalez believes that Gaglioti’s star is certainly on the rise. “I really think she will make it,” Gonzalez said. “She does eight-to-10 rounds in training now. It’s still early in her career, but she has the desire to be among the best in the world. I think she needs about four or five fights before she can make a title bout. I think it helps that she’s getting more welk known. I see so much potential in Jenna. She’s very professional in everything she does. She takes everything so seriously. She really gets me going and makes me work harder. But she has the talent.” Gaglioti knows that the road ahead won’t be easy. But it’s a road in pro boxing that Jenna Gaglioti, the former nursing student at St. Peter’s College, is making a name for herself in pro boxing. “It’s kind of weird to think that I’m a professional boxer now,” Gaglioti said. “It’s also kind of shocking to the people who knew me when. I never thought I would become a professional. I just thought I was going to learn how to hit the bag.” Not anymore. She’s strictly into hitting opponents these days.

Friday, March 25, 2022

St. Peter's greats play 'Remember when'

Bob Fazio fondly recalls his days as a basketball player at a place that was then called St. Peter’s College. “When I played, we had some unbelievable teams and had some unbelievable times,” said Fazio, the school’s No. 5 all-time leading scorer with 1,590 points. “It was a great place to play. It was a lot of fun back then.” Fazio, the Union City native, had the great fortune of having played at the Jersey City Armory and Yanitelli Center when it first opened in 1976. As the Peacocks prepared to play in the biggest game in the school’s rich basketball history, facing Purdue in the NCAA Sweet 16, Fazio, now the president of the prestigious Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, recalled some of his favorite moments as a Peacock. “I remember playing Oregon with Ron Lee and Greg Ballard in the NIT in Madison Square Garden,” Fazio said. “And there were 19,500 fans chanting, ‘Let’s Go Peter’s.’ That was one of my best memories. I remember the first time we played in the Garden, we played Manhattan and they were ranked No. 15 in the country. It was the Saturday before Christmas and the Garden was sold out. We pulled off the victory and made the back page of the (New York) Daily News. Playing in the Garden was so special. I was on the team when we opened Yanitelli Center and I scored the first four points in the building’s history. I made sure no one else was getting the ball that game. My wife (Maureen) said to me the other day that I remember every play of every game and I honestly do.” That’s why Fazio had a gigantic sense of pride when the Peacocks advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, becoming this year’s media darlings, getting attention from all the major media markets like the New York Times, ESPN and the Dan Patrick Show. “I’m very proud and very happy,” Fazio said. “It’s a great thing for this team.” One of Fazio’s teammates was Ken Markowski, a Jersey City/Bayonne boy who was also a 1,000 point scorer at the place affectionately called “Harvard on the Boulevard.” “My hardest working teammate was Bobby Faz,” Markowski said. “He would fit in perfectly with the Peacocks of today.” Markowski currently lives in North Carolina, but his heart never left Jersey City. He fondly recalled one of the greatest Peacocks of all time, namely Elnardo Webster, who unfortunately and ironically passed away this week at the age of 74. “Guys like El were men compared to us,” Markowski said of Webster, who scored 1,163 points in just two varsity seasons with the Peacocks. Webster was part of the famed “Run Baby Run” Peacock team of 1968 that upset Duke in the NIT quarterfinals. “Guys like El, Harry (Laurie) and Teddy (Martiniuk) taught us to be tough. I remember going to practice in the Armory, but we had to wear sweatsuits, because it was always so cold.” Rick Baker was another member of those SPC teams with Markowski. “I remember going to watch those great St. Peter’s teams practice when I was in high school,” Baker said. “When I was a freshman with Marko and Keith (Cerruti), we would scrimmage against the older guys like Teddy Martiniuk and (former New Jersey state senator and later U.S. Congressman) Albio Sires.” Cerruti would go on to become a respected basketball official, but is more remembered for his on-the-court altercation with Larry Fogle of Canisius, who was the nation’s leading scorer at the time. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” C erruti said. “I remember Marko making a great 360-degree move in the NIT against Ron Lee in mid-air. It was one of the most unbelievable moves I’ve ever seen. Seeing my friends Marko and Ricky improve as much as they did was a thrill. It was a great time to be involved in college basketball.” Cerruti and Baker both literally grew up blocks from the SPC campus, so watching the current Peacocks do as well as they’re doing means a lot to both long-time friends and teammates. Another former Peacock great is Daren Rowe, a New Rochelle, N.Y. native who played for the Peacocks in the mid-1980s, eventually earning All-MAAC and All-Metropolitan New York/New Jersey his senior year playing for head coach Ted Fiore. “I’m really happy for this team, happy and proud, as proud as a Peacock,” said Rowe, who was an assistant coach at Montclair State under Fiore and eventually became Fiore’s replacement at Montclair State when Fiore retired seven years ago. “I think it’s great that this team is getting the recognition that they deserved. This team doesn’t back down to anyone. I’m just prideful, joyous and ecstatic for this team.” Rowe said that he has been able to connect with some of his former teammates, as well as other Peacock alumni, during the Peacocks’ improbable run to the Sweet 16. “I’m glad to see St. Peter’s finally getting some respect,” Rowe said. “I’m not surprised with what we’ve done. We’ve always been known as a defensive-minded, hard-nosed team. We’ve always been good defensively.” Rowe said that his teams always just “went out and played.” “This really has brought back a lot of great memories,” Rowe said. “Watching this team brought back thoughts of great teams, great teammates. We were a close-knit group.” Rowe’s coach Fiore didn’t want to detract from the incredible coaching job done by current St. Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway. “He deserves all the credit,” said Fiore, the second winningest coach in St. Peter’s basketball history. “Shaheen has done a great job with this team. He really got this team prepared to play in the tournament. I’m really happy for Shaheen and his team.” John Dunne, the current head coach at Marist College, was the head coach at St. Peter’s when the Peacocks last made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, ironically losing to Friday night’s opponent in Philadelphia Purdue. Dunne also has fond memories of his days coaching the Peacocks. “I think there’s always going to be a sense of pride,” Dunne said. “I think it’s fantastic, what they’re doing, representing the MAAC. It made me think back to the whirlwind that we went through (back in 2011). It was a frenzied time, but this is even more so. It’s intensified now because it’s the Sweet 16. But it certainly brings back memories, memories that last a lifetime.” Fazio is proof of that. “I am the greatest champion for St. Peter’s basketball,” Fazio said. “I loved the place. I love giving back to the school. You can’t buy the feelings I have for the school.” Feelings that obviously never fade long after the final buzzer sounds.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Union City's girls represent Hudson's last standing team

When the high school basketball season began a few months ago in early December, the Union City High School girls' team found themselves in a bit of a predicament. The Soaring Eagles lost their first five games of the new season. A year after having to miss a majority of their games due to COVID-19, the Soaring Eagles were on the wrong side of the ledger five straight times to begin the new campaign. A lot of other teams might have folded up the tents and given up on a season after five setbacks to start the season. But a lot of those teams aren't coached by Carlos Cueto. Cueto, the former St. Anthony High School and University of Richmond point guard, had made stops along the way coaching with the famed St. Michael's CYO program in his adopted hometown of Union City, where Cueto was raised. He then also was the head boys' coach at Secaucus High School before taking the position as girls' basketball coach in the district where he has been a long-time teacher. Cueto remained determined even after the brutal 0-5 start to the season. "The girls were all surprisingly upbeat even after the 0-5 start," Cueto said. "They just kept showing up for practice, kept their heads up and kept working hard. They never once quit. That says a lot." Sure does, because the Soaring Eagles made it all the way to the recent Hudson County Tournament finale, where they lost to Bayonne, 39-23, in a shocking offensive freefall. It was almost as if someone put a steel lid on top of the Soaring Eagles' basket and kept the ball from falling through the nets. That loss was on a Saturday afternoon. "We had not much time to be down on ourselves," Cueto said. "It was such a quick turnaround from Saturday to Monday." The Soaring Eagles earned the No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA's North Jersey Section 1, Group IV bracket, so that was good news. "We were the top seed, so it meant that we never had to leave playing at home," Cueto said. "We could just stay home and relax." Well, the Soaring Eagles didn't exactly take it easy in the postseason, taking their game to the state sectional without having to climb on a bus. They defeated Barringer, 62-32, in the opening round, then moved on to knock off Columbia of South Orange/Maplewood, 53-36 in the sectional quarterfinals, beat Paterson Eastside, 52-41, in the sectional semifinals and finally handled Morristown, 48-37, to capture the first-ever state sectional girls' basketball championship in school history.
Cueto gave credit to his senior class for making the state playoff run. "They showed a lot of leadership," Cueto said. "I think they deserve a lot of the credit. They kept winning and said, 'Why not us?' They believed in themselves." And now, later today, the Soaring Eagles will now have to board a bus to face Section 2 champion Westfield in the overall state Group IV semifinals at Franklin Township High School in Somerset. Game time is 5 p.m. The Soaring Eagles have now won 21 of their last 23 games, easily the hottest team in the Group IV bracket. True, Westfield defefated Bayonne in their sectional semifinals, so that doesn't play well for the Soaring Eagles. But that doesn't deter the Soaring Eagles in their quest for state immortality. "I think they saw what the boys did a couple of years ago (the Union City boys' team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV crown in 2020) and wanted to do the same," Cueto said. "I love my team. I love these kids. They have stuck together all year to get to this point." Senior Erika Mercedes has been the team's leader. Mercedes is averaging 15 points per game in her third straight All-Hudson County type of season. Fellow seniors include point guard Elainy Pichardo and forward Fernanda Young. Sophomore Jaylyn Orefice has been a solid second scorer, averaging 13.8 points per contest. Orefice tossed in a team-high 19 points in the sectional championship victory over Morristown. And another key contributor is Cueto's daughter Alyssa, a solid playmaking guard. So whatever happens later today happens. Nothing will ever take away the state sectional title the Soaring Eagles captured after the inconspicuous start. The rest of Hudson County's hoopsters have gone home for the spring. One team remains. All hail the Soaring Eagles.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Hudson's Hawks claim another Hudson hoop title

Tahaad Pettiford was in seventh grade the last time Hudson Catholic won the Hudson County Boys' Basketball Tournament title, back at a time when it was almost an annual occurrence that the Hawks were crowned as the county's best. The Hawks had set a new record for consecutive county championships when they won their seventh straight title in 2018. But the streak came to an end in 2019, when Union City defeated the Hawks and a year later, St. Peter's Prep won the championship. There was no county tourney in 2021 due to the pandemic. Pettiford was in grade school, but remember knowing full well that he wanted to attend Hudson Catholic. "It was all about Coach Nick (Mariniello)," Pettiford said. "He's the reason why I came to Hudson Catholic. I knew he would make me a better player." Saturday afternoon, Pettiford showed everyone how he's a great player right now as a sophomore. The sweet shooting southpaw tallied a team-high 25 points, leading Hudson Catholic to a 60-55 win over rival St. Peter's Prep to win the Hudson County Tournament title before a packed house at High Tech High School in Secaucus. The two rivals have met each other three times this season, with the Hawks taking two-of-three. And there's a chance that the two teams could meet again in the NJSIAA Parochial A North state tournament Friday night, a game that would be played at Hudson Catholic. ' The Hawks took control of the game in the first quarter, courtesy of a 15-2 run over the final 3:43 of the quarter, with Pettiford scoring five of those points. Junior Elijah Gertrude had seven of his 12 points during that span, as the Hawks held a commanding 22-9 lead after the first quarter. Holding the high-flying Marauders to just nine points the first quarter was a credit to the Hawks' defense. "I would have to say our defense set the tone," Mariniello said. "I knew that from that point, they would be chasing after us." And a team has to exude so much energy trying to come from behind, no matter who is playing for the other team. Mark Armstrong became the all-time leading scorer in the history of St. Peter's Prep basketball with his first five points of the game and the Villanova-bound Armstrong ended with 32 points. But that meant that the rest of the Marauders managed just 23 points.
Also, the Hawks had a field day at the free throw line, connecting on 18-of-22 from the stripe, including their first nine straight to start the game. "We did a great job with our free throws," Mariniello said. "We weren't that good all season." The Hawks held a 31-17 lead at the half and saw the lead dwindle to jusy four at 45-41 with 6:12 left. But while the Marauders were celebrating the comeback, Pettiford calmly came down the floor and drained an uncontested three-pointer that pushed the lead back to seven. Pettiford then drove the length of the floor and threw down a slam with his right hand to make the score 50-44 with 3:09 left. Those two big shots pretty much sealed the deal. Mariniello said that the Hawks received an emotional boost by having classmate Antonio Sellers in attendance. Sellers was a basketball star-in-the-making when he was stopped by a brain tumor that has required several surgeries over the last two years. "Having Antonio here really meant the world to our team," Mariniello said. "His spirit and passion was felt by everyone here." When the time came to collect the trophy, Sellers, who would have been a senior this year, was with his friends and classmates to secure the hardware. "This was a lot of fun, but we want to keep it going," Pettiford said. The teams may just get together again later this week.

Another Hudson County title for Bayonne girls

Veteran Bayonne High School girls' basketball coach James Turner knew that there was only one way to defeat Union City in the Hudson County Tournament championship game Saturday afternoon. Simply put, the Bees had to lace and tighten their collective sneakers, look deep inside their collective souls and play defense against one of the top offensive teams in the county. If the Bees were to collect yet another county crown, it had to be on the defensive end of the floor. "It was all about defense," Turner said. "We had to blitz them. I knew that the game would be won or lost in the first quarter." The Bees certainly did exactly that. They shut the Soaring Eagles out early on, outscoring Union City, 11-0, in the opening stages. It was almost a carbon copy of the last time there was a county tournament in Hudson County. In 2020, the Bees raced out to an early lead in the title game against Hudson Catholic, scoring the game's first 13 points, and never looked back. Saturday in the same location (High Tech High School in Secaucus), it was like deja vu all over again. The Bees grabbed the early double digit lead and never trailed, securing a 39-23 win over the Soaring Eagles, to capture the eighth county crown in Turner's career and the astounding and almost unthinkable 27th county title in the school's history. The prior 19 county titles were captured under the guidance and leadership of legendary Hall of Fame coach Jeff Stabile. Turner offered his team some sound advice right before the opening tip. "I told them that we had been here before (there was no county tournament held last year due to COVID-19) and that they should not let the game be bigger than you," Turner said. "I told them that they couldn't panic and that they should just play their game." The Bees' three seniors, namely Eniya Scott (headed to Fairleigh Dickinson-Teaneck in the fall on a scholarship), Julyssa Moody and Jalaiyah Smith all played like the poised senior leaders that they are. While Scott didn't have her best game, she was definitely in control and wouldn't allow the Soaring Eagles (making their first-ever appearance in a county title game) to make any sustainable run. "I think being here before made this one a little less nervewracking," Scott said. "I think we were definitely able to prepare for this game because we had been here before."
Moody agreed. "I think it helped because everyone knew their assignments," Moody said. "The first quarter set the tone for the entire game. You never know. They could have hit a couple of threes and got right back into it. But we wouldn't let it happen." Union City head coach Carlos Cueto knew that his team was in trouble after that first quarter, when there appeared to be a lid on the Soaring Eagles' basket. Nothing they threw up went in. "When you're playing a good veteran team, a team with good experience, it's tough to come back against," Cueto said. "We had a chance, cutting it to six in the third quarter, but then they hit two big shots and that was it. The pressure got to us early and we couldn't respond to it. They were ready to play and we weren't." The two teams split their games in the regular season, but this time, it was all Bayonne, like the experienced team they are. The Soaring Eagles have a relatively young roster and they will be back, although losing senior guard Erika Mercedes will be a big one to overcome. Turner knows that his team will be ready for another challenge next season. "This is as good as it gets," Turner said. "It never gets old. I think it's good for the school and the community. Other girls will see us win and want to be a part of it. But the bottom line here was that we played defense." Holding a team to just 23 points in a county championship game? Yeah, that's as good as it gets.

Fitting tribute for Jersey City hoops legend Rooney

It might have been a few years in the making because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Friday night was well worth the wait. That's because Jersey City basketball legend Mike Rooney got his just rewards, when the gymnasiumn at Snyder High School was renamed in his honor. The 78-year-old Rooney was honored with a celebration at halftime of the Snyder-McNair Academic game, with a host of Rooney's basketball brethren on hand. Rooney's uniform number 32 was retired and a beautiful banner was placed on the walls of the gym with his 1,626 point total and his three-time All-Hudson County and twice All-State on the banner as well.
A lot of people might recognize Rooney for being the long-time athletic director at County Prep or for organizing his Jersey City Recreation basketball league that was played at Dickinson High School for more than 40 years. But before all of that, Rooney was a basketball legend -- and that's an understatement. At Snyder from 1961 through 1963, he was recognized as a Parade All-American who played in his fair share of All-Star games up and down the East Coast. In college, Rooney first attended St. Bonaventure University, where he quickly became a complete legend for his actions on and off the court, then after he was asked to leave the Bonnies, he ended up at the University of Oklahoma where he earned his degree. Yes, he has a college degree, but that was mostly earned in basketball, where he averaged close to 30 points per game during his time in Norman. From there, Rooney was a late-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers and played professional basketball in the old Eastern League, which was just a little more competitive than today's NBA G-League, considering that the NBA had only 12 teams back then as opposed to the 32 teams the NBA currently houses. Needless to say, it was much tougher to make it in pro basketball in the early 1960s. Rooney also played in a slew of semi-pro leagues in the area, showing off his incredible shooting range. People today marvel at the range of Steph Curry, nailing shots from 30 feet on a regular basis. Well, that was Rooney's game. Onlookers were astonished with the way Rooney drained long-range jumpers from 35, even 40 feet, with regularity. It was amazing to some. To Rooney, it was commonplace. When one throws the word around "legend," chances are that it doesn't really fit the person, but in the case of Mike Rooney, he wears the tag of legend the way most men wear a necktie. In Rooney's case, legend doesn't even begin to describe what he was as a player. The best way I personally can attest to his legendary status stems from a day more than 30 years ago. I was the sports information director at St. Peter's College and we were playing St. Bonaventure in a game early in the 1989-90 season. The radio announcers for St. Bonaventure asked me if I would be the halftime guest that game. I gladly agreed to do the interview, figuring that the announcers would ask me about the Peacocks. The entire 10 minute span was spent talking about one topic: Mike Rooney. That's the best way to describe a legend. We didn't once talk about St. Peter's College basketball, which was my job, promoting the Peacocks and the program. Nope. The whole thing was about Rooney -- and he was removed from Olean, N.Y. for about 30 years at that point. Rooney had the distinction of being one of the first players in NCAA history to score more than 1,000 points for two schools -- St. Bonaventure and Oklahoma. After his playing days were over (and he played competitively well into his 40s), Rooney concentrated on being the first-ever athletic director at County Prep in Jersey City and running his popular men's basketball league at Dickinson High School. Thousands of men paraded through Rooney's popular league, finding a way to remain competitive, led by the man who is truly a basketball legend in the city that he never left. He's a legend in places like upstate New York and Norman, Oklahoma as well. Rooney was extremely humbled by the honor that was bestowed upon him. "To think the gym is being named after me? That's just incredible," Rooney said. "I'll always be a Snyder guy. I can think of about 20 others who deserve this more than me. I don't deserve this. I love to be the one who is joking, but this is serious. It's a great honor and I can't thank the people behind it who made it possible. It shows that the people in this building did their job, the teachers, the principals, they prepared me for life. It shows me that they were successful in doing their jobs. But I don't deserve this." Bob Martin, who was Rooney's teammate and an All-County player like Rooney, was happy to be on hand for the celebration.
From left, Ed Petersen, Bob Hurley, Mike Rooney and Bob Martin get together to celebrate the gym at Snyder being named after Rooney and his jersey number being retired. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Martin said. "It was an honor and pleasure to have played with this guy. Never once did it cross our minds that he was a ball hog or someone who shot too much. No, we made sure we got him the ball, because we knew it was going in. He hardly missed from wherever he shot on the court. Just to be on the court with him was a tremendous honor. I'm glad that they did this for Mike. He deserves it." Ed Petersen, the retired FBI agent who also served in security for Major League Baseball and the NFL, played with and against Rooney in his various leagues. "It means the world to me to be here," Petersen said. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything. Mike was so enjoyable to play with over the years. When he got hot, he couldn't miss no matter where he was on the court. He was tremendous to watch and even better to play with. He's been a good friend for all these years. I'm glad that they did this to honor Mike. He's a great man." Now, the students of Snyder will recognize the immense talents that Rooney possessed every time they walk into the gym and see the giant banner with his name on it. It was a great honor for a great man, one that will last in perpetuity. One of Jersey City's best hoopsters has his name attached to the gym and students will get to know a little more about someone who is a true legend, a man deserving of the title and deserving of the honor bestowed upon him Friday night. Congrats to Mike Rooney, one of Jersey City's best hoopsters of all-time.