Boys Basketball – 2014-15 Preview: Class B North
When it comes to classic Shore Conference basketball and long-standing rivalries, no division can match Class B North in a good year. With programs like Neptune, Red Bank and Long Branch as the traditional powers, the division has provided countless classic games and season-long rivalries between accomplished teams. Those glory days appeared to have faded a couple years back, but B North came back to the forefront last year thanks to Matawan, Red Bank, Long Branch and Neptune and now looks primed for one of its most competitive seasons in a long time.
Four teams in the division – Matawan, Red Bank, Colts Neck and Wall – return their leading scorer from last year, and six of the eight teams return at least three starters. One of the teams that does not return three starters is Matawan, which returns two All-Shore players to its backcourt who will make the Huskies a favorite in both the Shore Conference and in B North. With so much talent back at the other teams in the division, however, it is possible Matawan – or anybody else in the division – could scratch and claw its way to a postseason berth and turn that berth into a championship run. The possibilities are many in this division and there is a good chance that a 10-4 record is enough to win it.
Head Coach: Tom Stead, 19th season
2013-14 Record: 24-5 (10-2, first in B North)
Returning Players: Jason Dunne (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Joe Piscopo (Sr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Chris Tawiah, Austen Planes, Nick Tomkins, Dritan Gyjriqi
Newcomers: Mergim Gyjriqi (Jr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Nick Smith (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Esposito (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Samson Ore-Onotolo (Sr., 6-6, Center), Zaire Jackson (Fr., 5-7, Guard), Randy Myers (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Pat Hennessy (So., 5-10, Guard), Thomas Williams (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Michael Dunne (Fr., 6-0, Guard)
Fresh off their best season in nearly 50 years, the Huskies enter the 2014-15 season with expectations fit for a champion. They raised the bar for the 2013-14 season when they beat Christian Brothers Academy on the road in the 2013 Shore Conference Tournament, and last year’s Matawan team jumped clear over that bar. After a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and a Central Jersey Group II championship, does Matawan have any more room for improvement? There are some considerable question marks going into the season, but with seniors Jason Dunne and Joe Piscopo back for one more year, the program’s best days could still be in the immediate future.
Dunne, who signed a National Letter of Intent with the University of Hartford during the fall, is back after an All-Shore season last year, during which he averaged 15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Piscopo was a second-team All-Shore selection after averaging 10.8 points and 2.9 steals as the Matawan point guard. With three other starters and a sixth man gone to graduation, Dunne and Piscopo will likely have to shoulder more of the load as some of Matawan’s new pieces acclimate themselves to larger roles. Junior Mergim Gyjriqi played scattered minutes in big games for Matawan last year as a sophomore, while seniors Nick Smith, Matt Esposito and 6-foot-6 center Samson Ore-Onotolo look for increased playing time as well. Freshmen guards Zaire Jackson and Michael Dunne will have a chance to earn minutes right away, and sophomore Pat Hennessy gives the Huskies a shooter to spread the floor for Piscopo and Dunne. Just as Austen Planes, Nick Tomkins and Chris Tawiah did last year, the new starters and rotation members simply need to perform roles around arguably the Shore Conference’s top backcourt. It may not happen in December, but come February, Matawan could again be among the Shore Conference’s top five teams.
Red Bank Catholic
Head Coach: Jim Catalano, second season
2013-14 Record: 19-6 (12-2, second in Class A Central)
Returning Players: Eddie Hahn (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Evan Madigan (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Joe Montano (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Liam Byrne (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Kevin Fazio (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Tom Montano (Sr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Quentin Nelson, Kyle Jeffrey, Tim O’Hara
Newcomers: Joe Agius (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Joe Poccia (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Mike Travers (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
During the early part of his first season on the Red Bank Catholic bench, head coach Jim Catalano was adamant that his team was not going to be very good early in the season because it would be working out the kinks while learning his system. The one step back helped the Caseys take two steps forward during the second half of their schedule and once everyone was on board with their new coach, Red Bank Catholic transformed into one of the deeper, more potent teams in the Shore Conference. Current University of Notre Dame freshman offensive lineman Quenton Nelson was at the center of the RBC offense last year, so even though the Caseys return all of their perimeter talent, they will have to adjust to life without a skilled big man in the post.
While the Caseys won’t have the proven, conventional center this season, they will have some shooting and length on the perimeter. Junior Eddie Hahn is a breakout guard for the basketball team before he rose to stardom on the football field and he’ll go from throwing touchdowns to draining three-pointers during the winter. Senior Liam Byrne and junior Evan Madigan emerged as pleasant surprises thanks to their shooting and scoring ability, while 6-5 senior Kevin Fazio brings some size and overall skill to the equation. Senior point guard Joe Montano is in his third varsity season as a starter and will be more of a creator without Nelson in the middle anymore. Junior Joe Agius will help replace the missing rebounding with his athletic 6-5 frame as the Caseys look to continue their ascent to the ranks of the Shore Conference’s elite. It did not quite happen last season, but a deep, athletic, talented roster has RBC dreaming big in boys basketball.
Head Coach: Joe Fagan, first season (seventh overall)
2013-14 Record: 14-10 (9-3, second in B North)
Returning Players: Micah Kerr (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Marcque Ellington (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Kerry Kirkwood (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Diondre Dunn (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Keishawn Kirkwood (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Cameron Calderon (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Shawn McMillan (Sr., 6-0, Guard), O’Shane Currate (Sr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Shakeem Richardson, Myles Mooney, Tyrell Montgomery, Lamar Ford
Newcomers: Royal Moore (Sr., 6-1, Guard; Transfer from Ocean), Jared Kimbrough (Fr., 6-6, Forward/Center), Barry Brown (So., 6-0, Guard; Transfer from Cardinal McCarrick)
While it’s debatable whether change is good or bad, the fact remains that change is inevitable, and inevitability poured over the Neptune boys basketball program this offseason. Not only did the Scarlet Fliers say goodbye to the two players who combined for a healthy majority of their points, but they also said goodbye to a head coach who has led Neptune through a golden age as a coach and player. The Neptune Board of Education voted against rehiring Ken O’Donnell – a Neptune legend and one of the Shore Conference’s most successful basketball coaches – and tabbed Joe Fagan to take his place. Fagan left his post at Jackson Memorial after six years to take the job after guiding the Jaguars to two Class A South division titles, three 20-win seasons, four Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal appearances and a Central Jersey Group IV final appearance in 2012.
In addition to the coaching change, Neptune will have to adjust to some significant roster turnover as well. The Scarlet Fliers lose a combined 30 points per game with the graduation of Shakeem Richardson (17.9 points per game) and Myles Mooney (12.3). Although the Scarlet Fliers return eight players who saw playing time in a deep rotation, there is not a lot of scoring within that group of returnees. Fortunately for the Fliers, some of the change on the roster should help make up for the lost scoring, most notably the addition of senior guard and Ocean transfer Royal Moore. When on the floor, Moore has performed as one of the Shore’s top players and was an All-Shore second-teamer as a sophomore at Ocean. The Fliers also add 6-6 freshman Jared Kimbrough, who will be a key contributor right away at several spots on the floor, mainly at center, according to Fagan. Returnees Marcque Ellington, Micah Kerr, Kerry Kirkwood and Keishawn Kirkwoood have also emerged during the preseason after solid seasons last year, while Diondre Dunn, O’Shane Curate, Shawn McMillan and Cameron Calderon will all factor into the deep rotation as well. If Moore gets integrated quickly and the Scarlet Fliers can use their athleticism on the defensive end while spreading the wealth on offense, the rest of B North could be in some trouble.
Head Coach: Scott Martin, 14th season
2013-14 Record: 18-11 (7-5, third in B North)
Returning Players: Sadiq Palmer (Jr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Anthony Mitchell (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Jack Navitsky (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Justin Gilson (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Moses Birch (Jr., 6-9, Center), Eddie Hendrex (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jimmy Ferrogine (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Tyler Christie (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jake Marcin (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Johnny Dengler, Corey Martin, Jesse Mack
Newcomers: Jack Anderson (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Connor Kelly (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Matt Reardon (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Ben Sprauer (Jr., 6-3, Forward)
Red Bank head coach Scott Martin called last season one of the most rewarding during his time as head coach, which is saying something considering the program’s success during those 13 years. A trip to the Central Jersey Group III championship game is one obvious reason to be happy with last season, but last year was the best of Martin’s tenure because of how bad the previous season was. Red Bank won just four games in 2012-13 after the sudden and shocking death of senior Albert Martin during a preseason scrimmage, and the host of returning players resolved to play the 2013-14 campaign in honor of their late teammate. The result was an 18-11 record – a 14-win turnaround – and a run to the sectional finals that included road wins over division rivals Neptune and Long Branch. All that while featuring one of the Shore’s most balanced scoring attacks, with one player averaging more than 10 points per game and 10 averaging between two and eight points while playing in at least 23 games.
The Bucs lose three players from a team that went 12 deep at times and, thus, return nine players to the rotation. Junior Sadiq Palmer was the lone player to average double-figure scoring after posting 11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and two steals per game as a sophomore. Red Bank will once again be a balanced team around Palmer, highlighted by senior guard Anthony Mitchell, 6-9 junior center Moses Birch, forward Eddie Hendrex and guard Justin Gilson. Junior Jack Navitsky also figures to be a key cog again, now running the point after the graduation of Johnny Dengler. Although the Bucs sit in the No. 4 spot in these preseason B North rankings, they have the firepower to finish at the top. Even if they do finish in the middle of the pack, Red Bank belongs in the top-10 discussion and has already proven to be a dangerous postseason team.
Head Coach: Lou Piccola, 16th season
2013-14 Record: 14-10 (9-5, third in Class A North)
Returning Players: Chris O’Reilly (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Lloyd Daniels (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Kyle Gordon (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Colton LaLima (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Tom O’Reilly (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Mike Lamb (Sr., 6-7, Center), Jordan DeGroot (Jr., 5-11, Guard), James Lee (Jr., 5-7, Guard)
Key Losses: Jake Mullaney
By moving from Class A North to Class B North for this season, it is possible that Colts Neck now has a better chance to win a division AND finish last in a division. With CBA in Class A North, it would have been hard for the Cougars to overcome the Colts to win a Class A North title, while the top four teams in the division might be a shade behind CBA when it comes to overall talent. By the same token, the depth of the B North division, which also includes Ocean and Wall teams that return a lot of talent, could make it likely that a pretty solid team will end up as the last-place finisher in the division.
While that possibility is on the table, it is an unlikely one for this Colts Neck team, which is more likely to win the division than finish in the cellar. Senior guard and four-year letter-winner Chris O’Reilly (16 points per game last year) leads a team loaded with returning talent that held its own in a top-heavy Class A North division last season. Alongside O’Reilly, junior swingman Lloyd Daniels emerged as a capable second scorer and figures to be more of a threat as a junior this season. Juniors Kyle Gordon and Tom O’Reilly both bring some size and mobility to the frontcourt, while fellow juniors Jordan DeGroot and James Lee will also get time in the back court. Senior Colton LaLima will be a primary ball-handler, while fellow senior and 6-7 center Mike Lamb gives opponents some size with which to deal. As a relatively young team last year, the Cougars flew under the radar in A North and with a lot of talent returning to the division’s more accomplished teams from a year ago, the Cougars qualify as a legitimate sleeper in this year's B North race.
Head Coach: Stan Mooney, second season
2013-14 Record: 16-9 (8-4, third in B North)
Returning Players: Jamar Foster (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Raheem Carter (So., 6-2, Guard), Dave Colbert (Sr., 5-8, Guard)
Key Losses: Terrel Cox, Hassan Foster, Myson Pennington, Raphael Williams, Izayah Irizzary, Edward Jones
Newcomers: Fred Reeves Jr. (So., 6-0, Guard), Tyree Morris (Fr., 6-0, Guard), Timothy Fosque (Fr., 6-2, Forward), Cassius Briggs (So., 6-0, Guard), Jashawn Boyton (Jr., 6-2, Forward)
In other divisions, this Long Branch roster would a candidate for a late-season surge into the race for a division title. The Green Wave are looking to replace all five starters from last year’s third-place finisher in B North and the early reviews of Long Branch’s incoming wave of young players are mostly glowing. Unfortunately for Long Branch, it plays in a division with five teams that played at a comparable level and all return more than the Green Wave does this season.
In order for Long Branch to be a factor in the top half of the division this season, its young starters will have to grow up quickly. Junior Jamar Foster was a reliable scorer off the bench as a sophomore last year and will be a primary scoring threat this season. Sophomore Raheem Carter got off to a good start to his high school career and is in position to thrive over the next three years, just as predecessor Terrel Cox did during his four-year varsity run. Senior Dave Colbert was a spark off the bench in spurts last season and will also be the lone senior in the rotation to open the year. Freshmen Tyree Morris and Timothy Fosque will both get a chance to play in their first year in the program, while sophomores Fred Reeves, Jr. and Cassius Briggs will get varsity minutes. The Green Wave will also look to junior forward Jashawn Boyton for some size and toughness in the frontcourt to complement a young group of mostly perimeter players. In a division with so much returning talent, this young Long Branch roster will have to learn on the job this year, but if it all comes together at some point, this group has a chance to be very good over the next three years.
Head Coach: Matt Kukoda, first season (third overall)
2013-14 Record: 10-16 (1-11, seventh in B North)
Returning Players: Brendan Barcas (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Ryan Janeczek (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Trent Mitchell (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Joe Tashjy (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Matt Andrejco (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Eddie Palluzzi (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Jack O’Leary (Sr., 6-1, Forward)
Key Losses: Naiquan Smith-Gilliam
Newcomers: Shaun Scott (Jr., 6-7, Forward), Mike Andrejco (So., 6-4, Forward), R.J. Janeczek (So., 6-0, Guard)
Coming off a disappointing year, expectations at Wall are a little more guarded this season. The Crimson Knights were hoping for their junior trio of Trent Mitchell, Ryan Janeczek and Brendan Barcas to lead them in a push for a division title, but instead, Wall went just 1-11 in the division and needed a strong finish in non-division games to get to 10-16 for the year. While last year’s shortcomings suggest that this group is not ready to contend with the likes of Matawan, Red Bank Catholic, Neptune and Red Bank, Wall was competitive in this division going back two years, when the current trio of seniors were all playing key roles as sophomores while leading Wall to an 8-4 division record.
Janeczek, Mitchell and Barcas will again hold the key to Wall’s season in Class B North. This time, they will be leading under the direction of new head coach Matt Kukoda, who coached for two seasons at New Egypt after serving as an assistant at St. Rose. Wall also brings back a number of senior role players in Joe Tashjy, Matt Andrejco, Eddie Palluzzi and Jack O’Leary to help fill in around the top three scorers. The Crimson Knights also hope 6-7 junior Shaun Scott can affect games with his size and that sophomores Mike Andrejco and R.J. Janeczek can help out during their first years on the varsity level. Based on last year’s results, the Crimson Knights don’t have much to look forward to this year, but going back two years should give Wall some hope that they can shock some of the top teams in the division and earn some postseason opportunities.
Head Coach: John Terlecsky, seventh season
2013-14 Record: 7-16 (3-9, sixth in B North)
Returning Players: Taj Shomo (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Jake Talarico (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Ru’Quan Dean (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Jon Zimmerman (Sr., 6-3, Center), Yanni Kavarakas (Jr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Chris Seager, Lucas Snow, Zaire Henderson, Royal Moore (Transferred to Neptune)
Newcomers: Scott Bradley (Jr., 6-4, Center), Manny Padron (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Jefferson Daniel (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Erik Rant (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Nasir Williams (So., 6-0, Guard)
The Spartans labored through a rebuilding year last season and still managed to win three games in a difficult division. Although Ocean lost some key pieces to graduation and Royal Moore to Neptune, the Spartans got an early look at some of the returning talent when the injury bug struck and after Moore was dismissed from the team. Senior guard Taj Shomo stepped up and averaged 11 points a game as a junior and Ru’Quan Dean came on as the season progressed and finished his sophomore season averaging eight per game. Those two guards figure to lead the Ocean scoring effort, while junior Jake Talarico returns as a dangerous three-point shooter to complement the two slashing guards.
Center Jon Zimmerman joins Shomo as one of the two seniors on the roster for Ocean and junior Yanni Kavarakas returns with some frontcourt playing experience as well. Junior newcomers Scott Bradley (6-4) and Jefferson Daniel (6-3) give Ocean some more size to go with Zimmerman, while sophomore Nasir Williams looks to make an impact along with juniors Manny Padron and Erik Rant. With some better fortune, Ocean will be back to being competitive in this tough B North division. Although the Spartans or the Crimson Knights are likely to finish at the bottom, they are both good enough to beat a top team or two. An old adage suggests that a team is only as strong as its weakest link and if that is true of the Shore Conference’s six divisions, B North is probably the best.
Players to Watch
Jason Dunne, Matawan – Was one of the top all-around players in the conference as a junior and could stand to see an uptick in his shooting percentage (40 percent last year). If that happens, he’s a likely favorite for Player of the Year.
Joe Piscopo, Matawan – The engine that drives the Matawan train, Piscopo is a big-game player who might be the one guy in the whole conference you want taking the shot on a do-or-die possession. Matawan might have the top two guys in that regard.
Chris O’Reilly, Colts Neck – The Cougars had a down year by their standards, so O’Reilly’s strong year flew under the radar somewhat. With a year to get acclimated as the team’s top scoring option, O’Reilly should thrive as a senior on a team with a lot more experience.
Sadiq Palmer, Red Bank – Although balance is what makes Red Bank a unique team, Palmer is the player who does a little bit of everything at the very least, and a lot of everything on most nights. He also is a Division I prospect as a wide receiver/safety in football.
Royal Moore, Neptune – Moore had a tumultuous start to his basketball career at Ocean, but if he can meet the demands of his – and Neptune’s – new head coach, he will be one of the Shore’s top players again.
Eddie Hahn, Red Bank Catholic – If Hahn is half as good in hi-tops as he was in football cleats this fall, the Caseys are going to be a force. Even before a breakout season as a quarterback, Hahn was one of the Shore’s most promising basketball players in the 2016 class.
Breakout Players to Watch
Jared Kimbrough, Neptune – At 6-6 with length and some projectable tools, the sky is the limit for Neptune’s latest freshman phenom, who will make as much impact as any freshman at the Shore.
Ru’Quan Dean, Ocean – Came on at the end of last season and has a chance to combine with Taj Shomo as a high-scoring guard-combo.
Raheem Carter, Long Branch – Last year was an up-and-down freshman season, but all of the ingredients are there for Carter to emerge as Long Branch’s next standout swingman.
Neptune: The Post-O’Donnell Era or the Joe Fagan Era?
It’s going to be strange for a lot of Neptune faithful to look toward the bench and see someone other than Ken O’Donnell on the sideline, and for many of those faithful, it probably won’t ever be the same. Despite that, Neptune is run by a coach who completely turned around a dormant Jackson Memorial program and coached four Division I players in his six years with the Jaguars. Whatever the politics that went into the ousting of O’Donnell, there are not many candidates with a better track record to take over for the Neptune legend than Fagan. It will take some getting used to, but there are not many coaches in the Shore area better equipped to handle taking the place of Ken O’Donnell, even if you believe that place should not have been open for the taking just yet.
Can Matawan’s dynamic duo duplicate their junior dominance in B North?
During the last season-and-a-half, Matawan has lived a charmed life for a school with limited basketball history. The Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournament losses notwithstanding, Huskies finished the 2012-13 season on a roll and carried that into last year, when they won their first division title since 1965, reached the SCT semifinals for the first time since 1964 and won their first NJSIAA sectional title since 1957. While last year carried a level of expectation that was relatively novel to Matawan, this year’s expectations are even grander considering what it would take to improve upon last year. The Shore Conference figures to be no less competitive, but Matawan has a right to feel like an SCT title is more likely now than it has ever been. The magic of the last couple of year is hard to bottle up for this long, but if any team is going to do it, the Dunne-and-Piscopo-led Huskies look like a good bet.
How many B North teams could realistically end up in the SCT quarterfinals? The semifinals? Win it?
There are five Class B North teams whose rosters profile as worthy of preseason top-10 consideration, which would make those five teams all roughly part of the unofficial top 16 in the Shore Conference to open the year. Matawan, Red Bank Catholic, Neptune and Red Bank all won first-round games and Colts Neck lost to Red Bank in their first-round game. Matawan, Neptune and Long Branch all made the quarterfinals last year and Matawan made it all the way to the semifinals. The Huskies remain a favorite to return to the semifinals this season, while Red Bank Catholic, Neptune and Red Bank all appear primed for a quarterfinal appearance, at the very least. Colts Neck, meanwhile, has the returning roster to be dangerous by the end of the year. With pretty solid rosters at Long Branch, Ocean and Wall, it’s a decent bet that five B North teams will be among the final 16 standing in the round of 16. Then again, it’s December.