Class A Central has some pretty impressive credentials thanks to some great performances by its member teams in recent years. In 2015, Rumson-Fair Haven won the Shore Conference Tournament, Manasquan won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II title and Shore Regional won the Central Jersey Group I championship. A Central was also the only division with two SCT champions from 2011 to 2015, with Raritan winning the title in 2011 over division rival Rumson. Even last year, Manasquan and Rumson both won more than 20 games and the Warriors reached the Central Group II final.

This year, the division has a much different look thanks to realignment and graduation. Manasquan is now in Class B Central and even with new teams Red Bank Regional and Matawan in the mix, lots of talent walked out the door. Other than Shore – which underwent a total overhaul last year – every team in A Central graduated its leading scorer, with Rumson, Red Bank, St. John Vianney, Holmdel and Raritan all losing their top two scorers.

The exodus of talent makes the A Central race arguably the most wide-open one heading into the season. It may only take eight or nine wins to hang a division title banner, but whichever team wins that banner should be a formidable postseason opponent by season’s end.

 

Rumson-Fair Haven

Head Coach: Chris Champeau, eighth season
2015-16 Record: 21-6 (10-2, second in A Central)
Key Returners: Tyler Pierson (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Jack Solano (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Mike O’Conner (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Teddy Sourlis (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Elijah McAllister (Jr., 6-7, Center)
Key Losses: Brendan Barry (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Mickey Schluter (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Colin McDevitt (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Ian O’Connor (So., 6-3, Forward), Tommy Oakes (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Jack Higgins (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Pat Russo (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Phillip Wheeler (Fr., 6-5, Guard), Jackson McCarthy (So., 6-3, Forward), Ryan McCann (So., 6-4, Forward), Drew Frankel (Fr., 6-1, Guard), Dee Speckles (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Timmy Leonard (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Connor Dupree (Sr., 6-2)

The first year of the post-Brendan-Barry Era was bound to have its pitfalls for the Bulldogs, but the challenge of meeting the high program expectations established over the last three years will be even harder than coach Chris Champeau was hoping it would be. Junior center Elijah McAllister and senior guard Mike O’Connor were slated to be two of the three returning starters for Rumson this year and both will be on the shelf until sometime in 2017. McAllister – who led the Shore Conference last year with 5.6 blocks per game – torn the ACL in his left knee in April while O’Connor is battling turf toe that he sustained while playing quarterback on Rumson’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship football team. According to Champeau, McAllister will be cleared by his doctor at the end of December, but will likely need some more time to prepare himself to play a varsity game.

Despite missing two impact players, the Bulldogs will still be in position to win an elusive outright division title, which they did not do while Barry was on the team. Senior forward Tyler Pierson is the lone returning starter who will suit up for Rumson in the Dec. 20 opener against Matawan, while juniors Jack Solano and Teddy Sourlis both return after contributing off the bench. Sourlis is a streaky shooter who can break open a game. Solano, meanwhile emerged as a legitimate scoring threat off the bench last year and is a good bet to lead the Bulldogs in scoring this year. Sophomore Ian O’Connor and senior guards Tommy Oakes, Jack Higgins and Pat Russo played sparingly last year and will step into larger roles this year. Ian O’Connor is ready to make an impact in the front court while Oakes will run the point until Mike O’Connor is ready to return.

Freshman Phillip Wheeler leads an influx of young talent that will have to help out at some point this year for Rumson to make noise again in late February. Wheeler's great uncle is Clinton Wheeler, the former Long Branch and William Paterson standout who enjoyed a three-year stint in the NBA, and his father, Phillip, was on Long Branch's 1997 NJSIAA Group II championship team. At 6-foot-5, Wheeler has plenty of long-term potential and should help out the varsity team this season. Sophomores Jackson McCarthy and Ryan McCann will also contribute in the front court, particularly while the Bulldogs get healthy. If McAllister can come back and dominate the paint again and O’Connor returns as a steady hand on both ends of the floor, Rumson can again be a threat in the postseason, even without Barry.

Rumson hopes to get a lift from Elijah McAllister (1) when the junior center returns from knee surgery. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

Matawan

Head Coach: John Giraldo, second season
2015-16 Record: 12-14 (7-7, tied third in B North)
Key Returners: Michael Dunne (Jr., 6-4, Guard), Reggie Tawiah (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Pat Hennessy (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Zaire Jackson (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Joe Buekers (Sr., Forward), Alan Russel (Sr., Forward), Jesse Haber (Sr., Center)
Key Losses: Mergim Gyjriqi (6-3, Guard/Forward), Randy Meyers (6-3, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Ramon Estrada (Jr., Guard), Mateo Del Moral (Jr., Forward), Jonte Quijano (Jr., Guard), Quincy Walthington (So., Guard), Tyrese Bryant (So., Guard), John Buekers (Fr., Center), Ethan Okelo (Fr., Guard)

Of all the teams in Class A Central, Matawan returns the most scoring from a year ago. The Huskies still graduated two of their top three scorers, including leading scorer Mergim Gyjriqi (16.5 points per game), and will be relying on a group of juniors to step in as the core of the team this year. Junior Michael Dunne posted 11.5 points per game as a sophomore and will look to continue to follow in the footsteps of older brother, Jason, by leading Matawan to a division crown and a deep run in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II playoffs.

Fellow junior Reggie Tawiah also had an older brother on the 2014 Central Jersey Group II championship team and returns as one of Matawan’s top offensive players. Junior Zaire Jackson is the other junior who played big minutes last year and will be a key cog in the lineup at point guard. All three juniors are back court players, but Dunne’s 6-4 frame also plays down low if an inviting matchup comes along.

The seniors will also have a say in Matawan’s season, led by guard Patrick Hennessy. After breaking into the rotation as a sophomore, Hennessy settled in as a knock-down shooter as a junior last year. Joe Biekers, Alan Russel and Jesse Haber comprise Matawan’s front court and all three saw some varsity time as juniors last season. The three juniors and four seniors made up the bulk of Matawan’s rotation last year, so while there are some young players who can help out this year, the Huskies will go as far as the juniors and seniors can carry them.

 

Red Bank

Head Coach: Scott Martin, 16th season
2015-16 Record: 12-13 (7-7, third in B North)
Key Returners: Devin Cooper (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Connor McLoone (Sr., 6-0, Guard)
Key Losses: Sadiq Palmer (6-2, Forward), Matt Reardon (6-1, Guard), Ben Sprauer (6-3, Forward), Jack Navitsky (5-10, Guard), Jack Anderson (6-2, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Will Gavin (Sr., 6-1), Steve Ansell (Sr., 6-3), Jake McIntyre (Sr., 5-11), Dean Hottman (So., 6-6), Liam Joyce (So., 6-1), Luke Sprauer (So., 5-10), Nasir Williams (Sr., 6-2) – Transfer from Ocean

Like most of the teams in the division, Red Bank lost its top two scorers from a year ago in Matt Reardon and Sadiq Palmer. Palmer and Jack Navitsky were the only two returnees on last year’s team, so the Bucs have already been down this road before. Although Red Bank finished a game under .500 with a lot of new pieces last year, many of those players played well in their first real taste of varsity action.

One of those players who seized the opportunity was Devin Cooper, who averaged 11.1 points as sophomore. Now a junior and the lone returning starter, Cooper will have the ball in his hands more this year, serving as a point guard who will also get off plenty of shots. Senior Connor McLoone also returns after pushing his way into the rotation with his shooting ability. In addition to those two returnees, senior Nasir Williams joins the roster with varsity experience after playing at Ocean last year.

Seniors Will Galvan and Steve Ansell are ready to contribute as varsity newcomers and a trio of sophomores will also have a chance to play with plenty of rotation spots open. Dean Hottman brings some size to the fold at 6-6, while Liam Joyce and Luke Sprauer look to chip in at guard spots. Red Bank was hoping it could rally around Palmer last year and it didn’t quite work out the way the Bucs had hoped. This year, Cooper is that centerpiece player and there are some quality pieces that can complement him and make Red Bank an A Central contender.

Red Bank junior Devin Cooper. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

St. John Vianney

Head Coach: Ryan Finch, first season
2015-16 Record: 16-10 (8-4, third in A Central)
Key Returners: Ryan Simmonds (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Donato (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Dan Dinneny (Sr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Grant Goode (6-5, Forward), Zach Howarth (6-2, Guard), Kevin Callari (6-4, Forward), Matt DeBrizzi (6-3, Guard), Marcque Ellington (6-6, Forward/Center), Jake Guempel (6-4, Forward)
Key Newcomers: A.J. McGimpsey (So., 6-4, Forward), Justin Streuer (So., 5-11, Guard), Zach Moran (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Chris Mikos (Jr., Guard)

Sticking with the theme of graduation losses, St. John Vianney took the biggest hit of any team in the division. The Lancers said goodbye to five significant contributors, including four starters and two 1,000-point scorers. Zach Howarth and Grant Goode were big scorers for Vianney for three seasons and the team will look much different now that both have graduated. Marque Ellington was also a significant presence last year and Kevin Callari and Matt DeBrizzi were both versatile players who could shoot.

That’s a lot of talent to lose, but first-year coach Ryan Finch hopes to bring together a group that is eager to get its shot to carry the load this year. Junior Ryan Simmonds cracked the starting lineup last year and will run the point this season, while Dan Dinneny and Matt Donato are ready to step into the starting unit and pick up some of the lost production. Dinneny will play the off guard next to Simmonds while Donato anchors the front court.

Sophomores A.J. McGimpsey and Justin Streuer lead the group of newcomers and will be the foundation of the program going forward. McGimpsey will help Donato in the front court, while Streuer will fit in at one of the guard spots. Although Vianney enters the year as an unknown, the Lancers do so in the right division for that role. In a wide-open A Central race, St. John Vianney will have a chance to reload and make a run at the top spot.

 

Raritan

Head Coach: Denis Caruano, 12th season
2015-16 Record: 14-12 (5-7, fifth in A Central)
Key Returners: Tim Hayes (So., 6-3, Center), Rory Sullivan (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Justin Black (Sr., Forward)
Key Losses: Joe Strand (6-3, Guard), Eddie Tynion (6-3, Guard), Jordan Smith (6-4, Forward), Jon Rodriguez (6-0, Guard), John Guccione (5-10, Guard), Zack Johnston (6-1, Guard), Sean Agar (Sr., 6-1, Forward) – Injured (out for season)
Key Newcomers: Zach Mojica (Jr., 6-3, Guard), John Diahy (Jr., Forward), Rob LaVilla (So., Guard), Mark LaVilla (Sr., Forward), Pat Bowels (So., Guard), Chris Marten (So., Forward)

If Vianney lost the most volume of any team in A Central, Raritan is a close second. The Rockets rode the senior trio of Joe Strand, Eddie Tynion and Jordan Smith to winning campaign last year, so this year’s team will have a much different look. The team will also have to deal with losing current senior Sean Agar, who suffered a torn ACL during football and will miss the entire season.

Seniors Rory Sullivan and Justin Black return with some experience from a year ago and, along with Mark LaVilla, are the only seniors that are likely to contribute this season. Sophomore Tim Hayes earned a starting spot over the course of the season and will further establish himself as a big part of the program’s immediate future. Hayes is one of four sophomores whom Raritan needs to quickly emerge as varsity regulars – a group that also includes Rob LaVilla, Pat Bowels and Chris Marten. Juniors Zach Mojica and John Diahy will also look to step in for a Raritan team that will need contributions from a lot of new people in order to make a run at the Central title.

 

Holmdel

Head Coach: Sean Devaney, 11th season
2015-16 Record: 11-13 (6-6, fourth in A Central)
Key Returners: Nick Harris (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Mike Simurro (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Tim Zhou (Jr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: John Miller (5-10, Guard), Kevin Ziznewski (6-6, Forward), Jeff Zhou (5-9, Guard), Max Phillips (6-7, Center), Brian Wischerath (6-0, Guard), Kyle Cardaci (So., 6-1, Guard) – Transferred to Mater Dei Prep
Key Newcomers: Eric Celeuti (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Joe Sciacca (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Joe Sardo (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Connor Lamounlain (Jr., 6-0, Center), Tom Helbock (Sr., 5-11, Forward), Johnny Christian (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Sean Dolan (Jr., 5-10, Forward), Chris Jackson (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Alex Rubano (So., 5-10, Guard)

Holmdel’s situation most resembles that of Rumson, although while Rumson’s unexpected losses stem from injuries, the Hornets took a big transfer hit. The Hornets were already slated to lose five key seniors from last year’s team and replacing them got a lot harder when leading scorer Kyle Cardaci transferred to Mater Dei Prep for his junior season. As a sophomore in 2015-16, Cardaci averaged 17.2 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Hornets and would have been the lone returning starter on this year’s team.

Three senior returnees will lead Holmdel this year: Greg Harris, Mike Simurro and Tim Zhou. Harris was the most significant contributor of the trio and will be one of the team’s top scoring options. Simurro is another potential leading scorer and with a 6-3 frame and shooting ability, he will be a tricky cover for a lot of teams. Zhou also saw some time last year and will take on more responsibility as a senior.

The rest of the team is new this season and the newcomers are mostly comprised of juniors and seniors, outside of sophomore Alex Rubano. Scrambling to make up for the loss of Cardaci is going to be a season-long endeavor, but counting out Holmdel under coach Sean Devaney is usually a foolish proposition.

 

Shore

Head Coach: Frank Carmody, third season
2015-16 Record: 6-20 (1-11, tied sixth in A Central)
Key Returners: Ryan Jones (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Kyle Koob (So., 6-1, Guard), Tom Mannino (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Chris Panduri (So., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Tom Treshock (6-4, Forward), Marco Parrino (5-10, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Kevin DuBois (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Jack DuBois (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Ryan Flanagan (So., 6-2, Forward), Devin Chartier (Jr., Forward), Leo Montesinos (So., 5-10, Guard)

The only team in the conference that returns the lion’s share of its scoring, Shore will hope to take advantage of the other A Central rebuilding ventures by climbing back into the division hunt. The Blue Devils faced the overwhelming task of replacing nearly an entire team from the previous year and the results were less than ideal. Shore did, however, start to find itself late in the year, winning its final four games to close out the rebuilding campaign.

Sophomores Kyle Koob and Chris Panduri both stood out as freshmen last year, with Koob (7.9 points per game) leading the team in scoring during his first high school season. Senior Ryan Jones was the only player on last year’s team to play anything resembling significant minutes on the 2014-15 Central Jersey Group I championship team and he and 6-3 forward Tom Mannino will be the senior leaders on this year’s group. Shore has a long way to climb to get back to the top of A Central, but the experience this group gained last year make them a legitimate sleeper in a division that lost a lot of talent from last year.

 

Players to Watch

Tyler Pierson, Rumson-Fair Haven – Emerged as a third scoring option after Brendan Barry and Mickey Schluter last year and brings a lot of defense and athleticism to the table as well.

Michael Dunne, Matawan – The younger brother of one of the program’s better players, Dunne broke out with 11.5 points per game last year and could make an even bigger leap as a junior.

Devin Cooper, Red Bank – As a sophomore, Cooper was arguably Red Bank’s best all-around player and will run the point this year.

Kyle Koob, Shore – After being thrown into the fire as a freshman, Koob is ready to build on his freshman year, during which he averaged a shade under eight points per game.

Elijah McAllister, Rumson-Fair Haven – He’s not projected to be back until sometime in January or early February, but McAllister is a game-changer with his athleticism and shot-blocking ability.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Jack Solano, Rumson-Fair Haven – Stepped up with some big shots during the postseason last year and is ready to assume the role of go-to guard.

Dan Dinneny, St. John Vianney – With Goode and Howarth gone, Dinneny will help pick up some of the scoring Vianney needs to compete for the division crown.

Tim Hayes, Raritan – With some solid varsity experience from a year ago, Hayes becomes a significant player for Raritan now that the Rockets must replace three impact seniors from last year.

Reggie Tawiah, Matawan – After scoring in spurts last year, Tawiah should continue his growth while helping give Matawan three good scoring guards.

Mike Simurro, Holmdel – A versatile 6-3 player with guard skills will help Holmdel remain competitive despite heavy losses.

 

Burning Questions

Which A Central team can rebuild the fastest?

Every team in A Central is rebuilding to some degree, so there will be seven coaches in this division trying to find the right mix of players that could make the difference in winning a division title. Rumson has a chance to field an experienced lineup once healthy and Matawan is farther along the rebuilding curve than most of the division, but every team will be relying on youth.

Can Elijah McAllister return to form for Rumson?

McAllister may be the x-factor of the Shore Conference basketball season because of how a healthy version of the 6-7 center could transform the Bulldogs. With McAllister, Rumson is a top-10 caliber team despite the loss of Brendan Barry, so if he indeed comes back by February at close to full strength and the Bulldogs tread water in the meantime, Rumson will be a dangerous team when the games mean the most.

Is any A Central team cut out for postseason success?

Fortunately for all of the A Central teams, the postseason does not start for another two months. That should be enough time for at least one of these seven teams to find a groove by the time the NJSIAA Tournament starts. Rumson could be healthy by then and Matawan will have a seasoned group of juniors, which makes those two teams the two most likely candidates to make a run.

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