Grace Jakim, senior in Notre Dame High School, charges down the court. Rich Hundley photo
Grace Jakim, senior in Notre Dame High School, charges down the court. Rich Hundley photo

Prior to the CYO of Mercer County 21st High School Basketball Girls All-Star game, which took place at the historic Broad Street CYO Center in Trenton March 27, Notre Dame teammates Grace Jakim and Nicole Villalta-Barrantes engaged in conversation about what the experience meant to them.

Villalta-Barrantes began her basketball career in the CYO playing for St. Raphael-Holy Angels of Hamilton, while Jakim did likewise playing for Our Lady of Sorrows of Hamilton. Now the Lawrenceville teammates were ending their careers together – on the same floor where they started in the John “Mincey” Manczak Memorial Gymnasium.  

“Grace was talking about how it was kind of full circle; and when she said that it kind of opened my eyes to how much of a full circle it really was,” Villalta-Barrantes said. “I started my basketball career playing at the CYO when I was little, so to end it by also playing at the CYO, finishing my high school career there was absolutely amazing. It brought back so many memories just standing in the gym. I hadn’t been there in a few years. Everything felt nostalgic.”

That is the beauty of the annual affair, which had been postponed the previous two years due to COVID-19.

It began in 1999 when new CYO Athletic Director Pat Hardiman decided to showcase the best of Mercer County’s basketball seniors for one final time in their high school careers. The CYO Center was the perfect venue, considering most of the players in those early years began their playing days there.

“After that it just evolved into getting representation from every team in the county with a senior player, sometimes multiple players, to come and finish the season a with fun game surrounded by the best players,” said Hardiman, now the organization’s Yardville Branch Director. “It now encompasses all the teams, prep schools included. There is still CYO representation, but it’s really for the entire county, and it’s always nice to see a CYO player come back and do well.”

That was certainly the case in the girls’ game this year. Villalta-Barrantes won MVP honors after she scored 21 points to lead the Red team to a 73-67 victory over the Navy Blue squad. It put the capper on a day where the Bordentown resident was also honored as the Renee Keister Award winner.

“I didn’t think I was gonna win the MVP award; there were so many good girls on the team, anyone could have gotten it,” Nicole said. “I was just happy to be there and honored in the first place to be receiving the Keister Award … I couldn’t really have asked for more. “

Jakim also helped in the victory with 16 points, while Notre Dame’s Halle Besler had 17 and Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy’s Gayelle Labissiere chipped in with nine.

“Alll three of my girls played great and did a really good job and represented the area well,” said James Martinos, who coaches the Notre Dame team. “It’s rewarding for the seniors to get the opportunity to represent the area and play in that game.”

In the boys’ game, the Silver team defeated the Royal Blues, 107-99 as Pennington’s Ethan Pires won MVP honors with 24 points.

“Both games were back and forth, with a lot of shots taken and a lot of shots made,” Hardiman said. “That’s the whole point of the game. Come out and show what you can do, have fun doing it. You can play with kids you hadn’t played with before and play with your teammates one last time. It was a good afternoon.”

There were no Notre Dame or TCPA participants in the boys’ game. Notre Dame’s Ean Chambers and James Primerano were on the roster but could not attend. Unfortunately, that seems to be a trend in recent years, and the reasons are varied.

Probably the biggest issue is the timing of the game. By late March, many of the all-star selectees are already wrapped up in spring sports practice and want to focus on that. For teams that did not make the state tournament, or had an early exit from states, many players have not shot a ball in nearly a month and feel too rusty to play.

But Hardiman is looking to rectify that by moving the game to earlier in March, now that the NJSIAA has done away with the Tournament of Champions.

“In the past there have been Mercer teams in that tournament, so we wouldn’t get the best players if we did it before the Tournament of Champions if Mercer teams were involved,” Hardiman said. “Now that they’re not having it, we can move it up a couple of weeks.”

No matter when it is, Martinos will continue to promote the game to his seniors.

“We encourage our kids to go,” he said. “Halle Besler is playing lacrosse now, she’s super busy but she put down her lacrosse stick and went and played well and did a good job. I think any time the kids get an opportunity to play and get recognition and represent, it’s always a good thing.”

A native of Staten Island, Martinos helped organize the Jaques Girls All-Star game there after a boys’ game had been held for many years prior.

“My thought process is, why wouldn’t we have something for girls?” he said. “They’re seniors, they played all these years, now it’s one final opportunity to play one final game. It was popular right from the outset and it’s still going to this day. I think the CYO game should definitely stay and it’s something that’s important, I think the kids appreciate it.”

It is definitely staying. And while there is some talk that it should move to another venue due to limited parking in the area, that would defeat one of the game’s main purposes: to showcase one of Central Jersey’s most iconic basketball arenas.  

“For many of the players, it was their first time in the gym,” Hardiman said. “We had our practice on Thursday night [when the teams were chosen], so it was the first time they came in and they were in awe of the place. They didn’t know it existed and they admired how beautiful the court was. They couldn’t wait to get back for the games on Sunday, and when they did, they had fun.”

As for the players who had been there before, they appreciate the Manczak arena more now than when they played there as kids.

“I like to think about how many people have gone through it,” Villalta-Barrantes said. “One of my high school gym teachers [former ND coach and McCorristin player Ann DeMille] even played there when she was younger. Just knowing the amount of people and great players who have played there and how many generations have grown up playing there – it’s really insane. Plus, how many memories it holds; it’s amazing.”

And it’s a great place to conclude a career.