Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
Throughout this season, the Cardinal Hayes basketball squad suffered through some close losses and went through some hurdles. But they found a way to get some good wins as well. One reason for that is because of the resiliency of one of their upperclassmen.
This season, Julien Soumaoro found a way to be a leader for the Cardinals. The 5-foot-11 senior point guard has some flash in his game, but can also make plays on the court wherever he is at and is one of the city’s most underrated floor generals. You may not know who he is now, but you will later on.
When asked what motivates him to be successful on the court, he replied, “What motivates me to be successful is my family, you know, my support system, people who believe in me.”
A native of the Kingsbridge section of The Bronx, he comes from a borough that’s tough and gritty and is ready for war on the court at any time. “The Bronx is, New York in general, is the Mecca of Basketball, you know, a lot of players come from The Bronx and stuff, so I feel like I’m in the middle of a lot of stuff, I’m in the jungle basically,” said Soumaoro.
On growing up in an urban area like Kingsbridge, he replied, “The jungle ain’t easy, you’re going to get tested, you’re going to get challenged, it’s all about coming out and playing, play normal.”
Growing up he played at the famed St. James Park on Jerome Avenue, a big court with an asphalt where many players go and catch a good run on many summer days. “There’s always neighborhood runs, when I was younger, it was always the older guys that I used to just watch and, you know, wanted to play with them,” he said.
Throughout his four years at Cardinal Hayes, he has received a great education on and off the court and is a model student in the classroom and has been one of the leaders on it.
Soumaoro worked his way up from the freshman and junior varsity levels in his first two seasons of high school and then made it to the varsity team as a junior, and was a part of a potent backcourt that included Joe Toussaint, who recently finished his freshman season at the University of Iowa and Jaylen “Ju-Ju” Murray, who is now at prep school powerhouse Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut.
On his first season of varsity basketball, he replied, “Junior year, it was fun, I’m not even going to lie. Junior was one of the funnest high school experiences I ever had. We had – everybody knows – Joe Toussaint, Jaylen Murray, we had Adam [Cisse], Shemani [Fuller], that’s the big, and we was just having fun, and Jalen Smith, you know, it was fun.”
That season, the Hayesmen went 23-6 and won the CHSAA Archdiocesan championship and went all the way to the city semifinals, where they would lose to Archbishop Stepinac at Rose Hill Gym on the campus of Fordham University in The Bronx.
When asked if playing with the duo of Toussaint and Murray, both Division I-caliber players motivated him to do bigger things on the court, Soumaoro replied, “Absolutely, once I saw Joe commit, it was just, I just want to be the next big thing after, and then we also had Jaylen Murray, ‘Ju-Ju,’ [as he was most commonly referred to], so he brought like people out, he did his thing, and it was just fun, to be honest.”
Last summer, he played for the famed Riverside Church program on the Adidas circuit and held his own. When asked about the experience and if it benefited him in any way, he replied, “Playing with Riverside, you know I was honored to play with Riverside, that’s a good program, you know Adidas Gauntlet Gold. Riverside was just like a family, you know, I just want to be one of the next people in its history. The thing I like about Riverside, is that they always had the gym [available] for me, whenever I needed it, so if it was after practice, school, I went to Riverside, just worked out, summertime, just worked out, so the gym access, I couldn’t ask for anything better. On the circuit, there were coaches that came out and watched me, and they always just promoted [me], so that’s why Riverside is like a family.”
This past season, as a senior, Soumaoro took more of a leadership role as an elder statesman. “You know, obviously, I was prepared for it,” he said, “Going back to freshman year, we go back, I came into the mentality that it was just going to, you know, [be] me and a couple of other people, so when Joe left and Jaylen Murray left, I wasn’t really like in shock or like, disappointed or anything, it was just, now I got to step up, and that’s it.”
This past season, he led the Cardinals to an 18-9 record and he was the second-leading scorer in the CHSAA with 21.3 points per game. Hayes made it all the way to the CHSAA “AA” quarterfinals, before the season was shut down, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked about his senior season as a whole, he replied, “I feel like my senior year, as a whole, it went pretty alright, you know, we started off a little sluggish, and then we picked it up. Right before we was about to get good, this whole thing happened.”
If not for the coronavirus pandemic, chances are that Cardinal Hayes probably could’ve had an opportunity to advance even further into the playoffs, but unfortunately, that will always remain a mystery.
On whether he felt that the Cardinals could’ve had a chance to go further, Soumaoro replied, “Absolutely, the last practice that we had, before all this, you know, the last practice went pretty well. We was feeling good, we was feeling fast, and we knew, me and Shemani [Fuller], that’s the other senior leader, we’ve been to Fordham already, so we already knew what it was like, so we couldn’t wait for that.”
On finding out that his senior season came to an abrupt halt, he replied, “That was heartbreaking, we was looking forward to something all year, we was working for it, all the lessons we took early in the season, we always said, ‘It’s not about now, it’s about Fordham, it’s about later on, the overall goal,’ and then it’s like, we can’t even get to reach our ultimate goal, and we can’t do nothing about it. So, it was just heartbreaking.”
When asked what he’s doing to stay safe during this pandemic, he replied, “To stay safe during this pandemic, everybody stays inside, washes their hands, you know. I’m in the house working out, as much as I can, whenever I can.”
On completing the rest of his senior year by doing remote learning, he added: “Remote learning, it’s new for me. Like, I would prefer being in class, it’s easier, because we get more work online than we used to do in class, so it was like, ‘Wow,’ but you got to get it done.”
This Friday, May 15th, was supposed to be his final day of classes at Cardinal Hayes, with his graduation taking place on June 6th at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown Manhattan. But because of everything going on with the pandemic, for Soumaoro and his classmates, there will be no commencement ceremony in a church, but rather a virtual one. But the experiences of the school on the Grand Concourse have taught him a lot.
On what he’ll miss about being a Hayesman in reference to school and basketball, he replied, “What I’ll miss about Cardinal Hayes? Cardinal Hayes was fun, like, just being around, like, you’re around good vibes, people is [making] jokes all day, and then people, like, they show love. Games, the student section, they be active. Basketball-wise, I’m going to miss the brotherhood, obviously, you know. What I love about Cardinal Hayes is, it don’t matter who’s on the team, everybody’s going to show love, everybody’s going to have fun.”
With Hayes now in his rearview mirror, it was time for Soumaoro to make his decision. As of this week, he has made his decision to do a postgraduate year at Woodstock Academy, a prestigious prep school in Woodstock, Connecticut.
When asked why he chose to go to Woodstock, whose boys Prep Gold program that has been on the rise the last couple of seasons and has several players currently playing at or committed to schools like Rider, Bryant and UMass, he replied, “For the prep school route, I was thinking about what would make me happy as far as where I want to play collegiate basketball, so there are some schools that were recruiting me for the Class of 2020, but I felt there were other schools recruiting me for the Class of 2021 that I was more, you know, comfortable with, so like, an extra year at a prep school would benefit me.”
At the present time, schools such as Sacred Heart and UNC-Greensboro have been looking at him. But if he flourishes at Woodstock, more and more will come his way and start making offers.
On what he can expect from a school like Woodstock, which will be a prelude to college, he replied, “I’m actually pretty excited to go to Woodstock, because I kind of know the people that’s going there already, there’s some fellow New Yorkers that’s going there, so I already know who I’m going in there with, basically. As far as like, cultural shock, yeah, I was culturally shocked, and I don’t think that’s going to be a big problem for me, because I don’t act crazy, I have a lot of self control, and my main focus is just getting better anyways.”
Next year, he and Woodstock will be playing in events that will have at least 20-30 Division I coaches on hand, as well as dozens of scouts from professional teams in attendance. When asked how excited he’ll be about that, he replied, “I’m excited, you know, I feel like it’s going to open a lot of doors, and I’m going to walk through them doors, you know?”
Time will tell what happens to Julien Soumaoro. But he has come a long way from that kid that played ball at St. James Park. In another twelve months, he may have a scholarship to play for a college and receive a free education. The sky is the limit for the kid from Kingsbridge Road.