Four years ago on his first team bus ride, new coach Mike Jones asked his players if their opponent that day—the now defunct St. Al’s of Jersey City – was any good.
One of his players on the school bus responded with optimism, “No. They’re not that good.” After a short pause, she continued, “They only beat us by 22 last year.’’
That was Jones’ baptism to when he took the reins of the fledgling basketball program at Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, a small, all-girls Catholic school located in Elizabeth bordering Hillside and Newark.
“I looked at the previous year; they lost by 50 five times and by 60 once,” said Jones. So in some ways he did realize the mountain he was about to climb.
Jones, a 24-year member of the Elizabeth police force, played in the Union County Police Basketball League where the games were conducted on Benedictine Academy’s home court. Never did the police veteran think a few evening police league basketball games would evolve into a head girl’s basketball coaching position at Benedictine Academy.
“I would get to the gym early and I started to help the girls in practice before our games started,” Jones said. When the position opened up, Jones, a standout at Hillside High School, took over as the new head coach. Four years later he has turned the program from fledgling to formidable.
The new coach had to start off simple with baby steps. “We had to practice just getting the ball over half court,” said Jones. “Then after that we worked on defense.” His first year, offense was a luxury. Jones recalls losing one game by only one point and his team shot one of 33 from the foul line.
Like any new coach, Jones credits the girls for working hard. The same group that couldn’t get the ball across the half court line amassed 18 victories during the 2007-2008 season and a second place finish in the all girls conference, the New Jersey Catholic League.
Last year’s team was led by second team All Union County senior Crystal Orr. Orr was part of the first crew under in Jones’ first season. “She had very little athleticism, but she worked hard,” the coach said. Orr was heavily recruited by D-II schools, but decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh and try to walk on. She had the opportunity to play for Pitt, but took the role of manager for the Big East school. “She is doing great out there and I am really proud of her,” said Jones.
This year’s 12-10 club is just as talented, but injuries have hurt the young team. Sophomore Haneah Jackson had a bad ankle sprain and junior center Cynthia Robinson sustained a bad concussion during a game last week.
The injuries forced the team to withdraw from both the Union County and the state tournaments this year. “It was my call, we had injuries all year and the girls were O.K with it,” Jones said.
All is not lost for the 2009 Benedictine girls team. They did earn a spot at this year’s Catholic League Championship Game at St. Elizabeth College in Morristown on Feb. 27. “That is going to be our championship this year. We are going to be healthy,” Jones said. It will be a bittersweet ending for the conference as a whole. The league’s championship will be the last one. With realignment, the North Jersey Catholic League will dissolve and Benedictine Academy will play in a new league next year.
“I’m really sad to see the conference go because it is balanced and the championship game is like nothing I ever have seen,” said Jones. “All the teams in the league go to the game and have dance contests and the game is what I call the biggest little game in New Jersey.”