Hannah Hidalgo, of Merchantville, was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game this year and is headed to the University of Notre Dame this fall. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
There’s a good reason why recently graduated Paul VI star basketball player Hannah Hidalgo is confident she can become an impact player at the University of Notre Dame when she heads to South Bend, Ind., this fall. She’s spent nearly her entire life playing hoops against boys who were older, bigger, stronger and faster. As one of the youngest in a family of six that includes four boys, Hannah was never babied on the basketball court. She had to earn everything she ever got.
And boy, did she earn some incredible accolades during one of the best high school basketball careers in South Jersey history.
She’s a two-time South Jersey Player of the Year as named by the Courier-Post, a finalist for the National Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American (where she was named co-MVP of the All-American Game this spring after setting a single-game scoring record), a member of Team U.S.A. U-17 national team. The past four years she led her Paul VI Eagles to an 82-12 record that included two appearances in the Non-Public A state championship game. She scored nearly 700 points her senior year to finish her career with 2,135 points while also racking up nearly 500 rebounds and almost 400 assists. She had 541 steals in 91 games played and even had 30 career blocked shots despite being only 5-foot-7. About the only thing she’s leaving high school without is a state championship, as the Eagles lost close games to St. John Vianney in the state title game the past two years.
Ironically, Hannah, a Merchantville, Camden County resident, didn’t even like basketball when she first started playing. She showed up to games to drink the Gatorade.
“When I first started playing, I was playing in a recreation league with all boys. I’ve always been playing against boys. I didn’t really like basketball at first, I didn’t like it at all. I was just there to drink the Gatorade,” she said. “My dad would get mad at me because I didn’t want to touch the ball, but as I got older I was just always in the gym and (basketball) kind of grew on me. With all my brothers playing basketball and my parents coaching it, the game just grew on me.”
Her father — and Paul VI varsity girls coach — Orlando said he knew his daughter was something special on the basketball court from a very early age.
“At a very young age — probably when she was 8 years old — we could tell she was different. Just her desire to compete and the amount of time she would practice trying to achieve something, I could tell she was different. She was special. I’ve coached for more than 20 years so I’ve seen a lot of kids, and she’s definitely different. I saw her and D.J. (Wagner, star guard from Camden High and University of Kentucky recruit) when they were little and they played in a league together in Camden, and I remember thinking, ‘wow, at that young age both of those kids are special.’ The same things I saw in her, I saw in D.J., and in high school all that came to fruition,” Orlando said. “She was always around basketball and she was always playing against boys. Even in middle school, she played as the only girl on a boys team. She learned how to play the game at the level the boys played, and being around her brothers playing basketball so much really helped her become the competitive player that she is. She’ll go up against anybody. The only time she got to play against girls was when she played for her AAU team, other than that she was practicing or playing against boys, and I think that gave her an advantage.”
When you watch Hannah play basketball these days you see a fearless competitor whose drive to be the best is almost manic. She has an incredible skill set and was almost too good to play high school basketball as a junior and senior. She can score in such a variety of ways that no Paul VI opponent could stop her. Her WORST game this year, scoring wise, came in a 95-33 dismantling of Bishop Eustace and she STILL had a triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists). She can score in the lane off the dribble, she can get her defender moving toward the basket, stop on a dime and pull up and nail a 12-foot jumper. She can hit 3-pointers, she can sink fadeaways at the baseline.
But she wasn’t always that good. It’s taken years of dedication, endless hours in the gym and the willingness to get knocked around by bigger, stronger, tougher boys for years because she knew that’s what it was going to take to make her dream of playing elite Division I basketball come true.
“If I have to go away and play somewhere big I always play against my brother, who is 6-foot-4, 190 pounds (to prepare). It always helps going up against boys who are going to be bigger, stronger and faster. That prepares me for playing against the girls. No point guard I’m going to play against is going to be 6-4, 190, so going against (my brother) helps me,” Hannah said. “I have to find different ways to score against my brothers and my cousin — he’s 6-foot-4 also and crazy athletic — so I have to be able to find different ways to score. If I just try to finish the way I normally do, he’ll pin my shot (against the backboard). Being able to score in different ways with jump shots, mid-range, floaters, stuff like that.”
“Her younger brother is 6-foot-4 so she had to learn how to play against him, and her other brothers were always bigger, faster and stronger — so she had to adjust her game and figure out ways to compete against them, and that has really helped her in high school and AAU. I’ve coached kids who have played at a very high level, so she’s always been around that type of elite level player. And she was never afraid, she’d go against them and try to kick their butts,” Orlando said. “All those moves come from her playing against boys who are very physical. When she played against boys and got knocked down, we didn’t baby her, she just got right back up. She didn’t want you to come running to her because that would embarrass her more than anything. So she’s learned how to be physical. She’s only 5-foot-7 but she’ll go in there against a 6-foot-4 girl. She’s learned how to use the angles of the court to get her shot off, or she’ll get fouled and figure out how to still make the basket.”
Despite her talent, Hannah said it took her a little while when she got to high school to develop the type of consistent confidence she needed to go along with her skill set.
“I didn’t have that dog in me when I was a freshman,” she explained. “I didn’t like to talk, I just went on the court, did what I had to do and went home. But as I got older, it really grew on me — I don’t know where it came from, but this fire grew in me and I have such a love for this game now. I guess that dog came out of me. God blessed me with a talent so I try to take advantage of every opportunity. I play hard. I play every game like it’s my last game.”
That fire is burning brightly now, and her father relishes the opportunity to talk about his daughter’s competitive drive. He’s more proud that she’s willing to take on anyone, anywhere, than he is about any trophies or scoring titles.
“She’s one of a kind. There are plenty of stories about her competitiveness — she would lose a game and call me and I remember how upset she was that she lost a game. She would go and watch film and try to figure out how to get better and how to do better against her opponent. She was always that person. Not only does she display that competitiveness on the court, but outside the court she’s always been a student of the game and trying to figure out ways to get better. She hates to lose. She doesn’t care what the score is, she’s playing hard on both end of the court. You can never tell if we’re winning or losing, because if we’re up by 20 she’s playing like it’s her last game, and if we’re down 20 she’s playing the same way. She’s a player who hates losing,” he said. “She puts countless hours in the gym and she has worked on attacking the basket, her mid-range shot. There were times during her high school career that we’d finish a game and right after she’d have to make 50 three-pointers before leaving the court. That was every game, win or lose. She’d be there shooting, and that’s just who she is. She wants to be great at what she does. The way she’s climbed to become a McDonald’s All-American and playing for Team U.S.A. — that’s a credit to her. She’s put in so much work to be the best. She’s never content or satisfied. She loves the game, and she doesn’t disrespect it by just walking out there. She’s going to give it all she’s got.”
Orlando said it’s like something out of a movie when his daughter steps on the court and you see that fire burning in her eyes. She has a relentless motor and will do anything to win — diving for loose balls, defending a 6-foot post player, ramping up full-court pressure the whole game if necessary.
“She’s like two different people. Outside the court she’s very quiet and reserved, and a little goofy when she’s around the family. She’s very humble, doesn’t boast about anything — but when she steps out on the court it’s like a whole different person comes in,” he said. “She’s aggressive, she talks, she’s in your face. That’s just her competitive nature. As a father, and as a coach, it’s a dream to have a kid who plays so hard on both ends of the court. Normally you’ll have a kid who’s really good on offense but doesn’t play any defense, or you’ll have a kid who gets after it on defense but isn’t very good on offense. In her case, she’s great on both ends of the court. And her motor just doesn’t stop.”
After a legendary high school career and a busy summer, Hannah soon will be off to Notre Dame, where she’ll be joining another South Jersey legend — Kylee Watson of Mainland Regional, who also scored more than 2,000 points in her prep career before going to the University of Oregon for the first two years of her NCAA career.
“I’m extremely excited to go to Notre Dame, to go play with those girls and be coached by one of the top coaches in the game (Niele Ivy). I’m super excited for that and to be around that whole environment at Notre Dame,” Hannah said. “I think that’s going to be a great opportunity. Four years ago I didn’t have a dream school or know where I wanted to go, but I think that was a good thing because if I had a dream school and didn’t end up there it would have been heartbreaking. I just took whatever God gave me and he opened all these doors to go to any school that I wanted to, which was a blessing. Notre Dame built a great connection with me.”
Her father says that whatever you saw from Hannah in the blue-and-white of Paul VI — expect more of the same in South Bend.
“You’re not going to see too much of a drop-off (once she gets to Notre Dame) because of the type of personality she has. When she was in middle school we had conversations and set goals. I always believe you have to set goals for yourself because how else will you know if you can accomplish something? So, one of the things we said was we wanted her to get 2,000 points in high school, win a state championship, be a McDonald’s All-American player, be a Team U.S.A. player — those were the goals, and sure enough, she was able to accomplish everything except winning a state title,” Orlando said. “We set those goals, and now one of the things she wants to do (at Notre Dame) is she wants to win Freshman Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and win a couple of national championships, so she’s already setting goals for herself in college. Those things will motivate her to continue to try to be an elite player. Playing with and against some of the best players in the country, and being able to shine, tells you that in college she’ll be the same.
“One thing about her is she’ll watch film and be in the gym as much as possible. (At Notre Dame) she’ll have trainers and coaches there to help her out, and I can see the sky is the limit for her.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Hannah Hidalgo, a point guard at Paul VI and 2023 graduate, scored more than 2,000 points during her illustrious career as an Eagle. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)