4 PJ student-athletes sign NLI to NCAA D-I schools

Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School

SPARTA — Aaron Clarke, Samba Diallo, Emma Valiante and Ethan O’Connor have poured their blood, sweat and tears into their respective sports.

The hard work and dedication put in by these four outstanding Pope John XXIII Regional High School student-athletes led them to one of the best moments of their young lives on Wednesday, as they each signed their National Letter of Intent to compete and continue their education at a NCAA Division I university.

Clarke signed his letter of intent to play basketball for Sacred Heart University; Diallo signed his letter of intent to play basketball for University of Massachusetts; Valiente signed her name to play women’s lacrosse for George Mason University; and O’Connor committed to play baseball for Lafayette College.

“We look forward to this day,” Pope John XXIII Regional High School President and Principal Father McHugh said. “It’s great to recognize the students for their wonderful achievements academically and athletically. They have worked so hard with their teachers, coaches and parents to get where they are today. It’s a day of celebration to see their success.”

Clarke, a 6-foot point guard, earned his commitment to Sacred Heart after being a star for the Lions since he was a sophomore, scoring 919 points (17.0 points per game) and handing out 187 assists (3.5 per game). Last year as a junior, he was named the New Jersey Herald’s Player of the Year, Mugs Media Player of the Year and the NJAC Player of the Year by NJ.com after scoring 21 points per game, dishing out 3.4 assists per game and grabbing 2.8 rebounds per game while leading the Lions to an 18-9 record, a sixth straight NJAC American Division and a Non-Public, North A quarterfinal appearance.

Clarke was thrilled that all the hard work he completed over the last two years paid dividends because it helped him find Sacred Heart.

“This is a great opportunity,” Clarke said. “(Sacred Heart) is a school that I love. I want to thank God, my parents, and my coaches. This is something that I wanted since I started playing basketball. I’ve achieved that now.”

Diallo, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward, earned his commitment after playing a big part in the Lions’ success over the last two seasons. He has scored 604 points (11.4 points per game) and grabbed 408 rebounds (7.7 rebounds per game) in 54 games while helping the Lions go 34-20 in that span.

Diallo, who earned spots on the All-Herald first team, the All-NJAC American Division first team and All-Mugs Media team, was also named the Most Valuable Player of the second session of Hoop Group Elite Camp, which brings together some of the premier players in the state, during the summer.

Diallo was overjoyed about his opportunity to play at UMass, a place where he feels he can keep growing as a student-athlete.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Diallo said. “This (commitment) means that if you put in the work, it will pay off. It takes a lot of work outside of what people see you do. I’ve put in the work and I’m ready to keep working hard at UMass.”

Valiante has been an outstanding midfielder for the Lions’ girls lacrosse team over the last three years. She holds the school record for career goals scored (175) and points (234) while directing the Lions to a 36-19 record and three straight state tournament appearances, including a North 1, Group 2 semifinal appearance last year.

For Valiante, an All-Herald first team selection, an All-Freedom Conference North Division first team selection and All-Group 2 third team selection last year, her signing comes two years after making a verbal commitment to the Patriots following her sophomore season.

“This has been a long time coming,” Valiante said. “A lot of my friends said to me, ‘You are so lucky to have committed and you don’t have to work as hard anymore.’ But, I still kept working really hard to keep this commitment. It took a lot of blood, sweat, tears and everything, but I’m so happy that I am officially committed on paper.”

O’Connor earned his commitment to Lafayette after he helped the Lions go 23-8 and reach the Non-Public, North A final after coming off Tommy John surgery as a sophomore. He also played exceptionally well for his summer and fall baseball teams, Locked In Expos and Hit & Run Outlaws.

“It’s great,” O’Connor said. “I’ve put in a lot of hours to make myself healthy and better. I’m glad to see it pay off with this signing.”

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