Dedicated coaches and players take Cougar teams to winning seasons

The 7th Grade Kittatinny Cougars Girls Travel Basketball Team Photo courtesy of the team

By Laurie Gordon
NEWTON — It was a school night, and the Kittatinny Middle School Girls' Basketball was playing a game against Ogdensburg, in Ogdensburg. Whenever the refs stopped the clock, several parents in the audience started anxiously checking the time on their phones. You see, there was another game that night over in Sparta and getting their girls something to eat, homework done and to that game on time depended on this game ending soon.
Another whistle, “May be time to hit Panera which is right around the corner from where the Travel Game is,” one thought. “Can start homework in the car?”
Play resumed.
Another whistle.
“What's the most concise route from here to Sparta,” another queried, “And looks like a quick stop for pizza or a sandwich now. Anything en route?”
Play resumed.
The parents kept on glancing down in-between plays.
At last, the final buzzer. They rushed to the coaches to sign the dismissal form as their daughters scurried to grab their backpacks: this is the story of playing both school and travel basketball and how the girls manage both and two very dedicated coaches led them to a winning season.
Carmen Liuzza is a prominent attorney at The Law Firm of Gruber, Colabella, Liuzza & Thompson, in Newton. BJ Hough is an esteemed history teacher at Jefferson Township High School. Together, they're a powerhouse coaching combination on the basketball court, working for months with the Kittatinny Cougars Girls Travel Basketball 7th Grade Team. On top of balancing work and the team, both Liuzza an Hough each have three children which means balancing three athletic and extracurricular activity schedules plus academics. It's a lot, but their dedication to coaching is uncanny.
The Kittatinny Cougars play in The Skylands Girls Basketball League and play teams from Hackettstown, High Point, Jefferson, Lenape Valley, Newton, Randolph, Rockaway, Roxbury and Sparta. The season, which just finished on Friday evening, included numerous games, practices and tournaments. For both players and coaches, it's a big time commitment.
Liuzza started coaching when his son, Carmen Jr., was in second grade approximately nine years ago. He has coached one to two teams each season since that time including both Travel and Rec.
When it comes to managing everything, Liuzza said, “A balance comes with time management and a lot of community support. When I create a plan and manage my time, work and children's activities always seem to fall into place.” He added, “I am fortunate to coach with [Hough] over the last five seasons who is instrumental not only in running the team but representing Kittatinny at the league level.”
Liuzza said, “The parents of the players have been a huge help covering when there is a conflict with schedules and assisting in other areas such as running the game clock, keeping the book, etc. I've learned over the years that many hands makes for light work.”
Liuzza's son, Carmen, and older daughter, Sara Rose, are stand out athletes at Blair Academy and Kittatinny, respectively. His younger daughter, Christie, plays on the Travel Team.
Of balancing everything, Christie Liuzza said, “My schoolwork always comes first. I try to do it ahead of time and get a head start on studying for tests and quizzes and starting projects well before they're due.”
Carmen Liuzza said, “By staying involved with their school assignments we try to insure that they start schoolwork early. A good calendar system helps us stay organized.”
Both he and his wife, Christina, as well as Hough and his wife, Theresa, have some pretty incredible tag-team efforts in place to make sure each of their three kids gets to where they need to be and excels academically on top of it.
Hough, coached high school players at the freshman level for ninie years before his eldest daughter-- who plays on the 7th Grade Travel Team—Riley was able to play competitively on a team in third grade.
On top of assisting to coach the 7th Grade Travel Team, Hough also coached the 5th grade Travel Team and 5th Grade Rec team this season. He is the director of Fredon Recreation and Kitatinny Travel Basketball and also runs the Kindergarten clinic. Both he and Liuzza also have long histories of coaching softball and baseball, respectively.
Hough said, “Balancing it all is a challenge. Theresa and I are very organized and we get help from so many people. My mom is always willing to assist in any way she can. It’s important to also have people around you that can not only help, but understand the time that goes into it. The coaches, parents and players themselves make it all work for us.”
He added, “I’m always dealing with so many people when it comes to scheduling. People like Deb Prommel, the Fredon deputy clerk who arranges the civic center gym schedule each week, and the athletic department at Kittatinny High school that includes Chris Carroll and Cindy Bach, make it all possible. They are all very willing and able to accommodate our requests.”
His daughter, Riley, said of the juggling, “Having all these activities in my life is a lot of fun. In order to keep track of everything I make sure to keep an agenda for each day. My family also really helps me to be where I have to be and they are always supportive of everything I do.”
Her sister, Taylor, who plays on Hough's 5th Grade Travel Team and Rec Tream, said, “I try to stay focused and what needs to be done each and everyday.”
Regarding academics, Hough said, “ For Theresa and I, both being in education, we stress academics first. If the girls are interested in other activities, we feel we need to support their choices and we want to allow them to be exposed to as many opportunities as possible. We are big believers in school first and we encourage them to play three sports. All three play soccer, basketball and softball. In order for the girls to be involved, they know our routine and what they need to do for it to work. All three are helpful from the moment they wake up.”
The Hough's youngest daughter is Haidyn.
The 7th Grade Kittatinny Cougars Travel Team had a final record of 9-5.
Liuzza said, “I couldn't be more proud of the girls. While happy with their record, it is not a direct reflection of their improvement. They all worked very hard and focused on how to become better players and improve their individual games. Their understanding of the game itself has improved immeasurably.”
The 7th Grade team's final game was a very close tournament loss to Sparta. They played extremely well.
Hough said, “The 5th grade travel team finished in 3rd place this year with a record of 10-6. Four of the six losses were by 6 points or less. That’s always encouraging
As a Travel Coach this season, Liuzza said his biggest challenge was finding the time to be prepared for each practice.
“I always try to have a plan in place for each practice to focus on a particular area or two for improvement,” he said. “Like anything else, the preparation time often exceeds the actual activity time.” He added, “My biggest reward is watching the girls play together as a team and play unselfishly.”
Three players were selected to the All-Star Team for the 7th grade; Riley Hough, Christie Liuzza and Lauren Cunico. Kayleigh Mastroeni and Taylor Hough were selected to the All-Star Team for the 5th Grade.
Hough said, “The teams are awesome. Carmen and I are really fortunate at the 7th grade level to have not only talented players but players that work hard each day. Each year we have improved in the standings. Carmen is a big believer in teaching fundamentals and it has really paid off from year to year. The girls are constantly improving and are already great basketball players.”
He added, “I think for me, being able to coach with Carmen Liuzza the last five years has been an opportunity of a lifetime. Carmen is a head coach who each player and parent can respect. The team responds very well to him. They listen to his insight and he has basketball knowledge. He will do anything for his family and his team and I think people see that.”
“Something that I think is unique in all of this is that we see many of the elementary teachers and the girl’s future high school coaches attend many of our games,” Hough said. “The players always appreciate that and are overwhelmingly happy to see them at these events.”