The Class A North division may or may not have a team in the field that will reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals or win an NJSIAA sectional title, but is has at least seven teams that have a reasonable amount of hope to challenge for either. It’s possible that one of the top two or three teams in this preview will pull away from the field, but the more likely scenario is all of these teams beating up on one another for two months and some team(s) with three or four divisional losses claiming the crown.

There are a lot of players back on teams that don’t annually challenge for division titles and some retooling going on at the traditional powers, which could make for the perfect storm of parity in what appears to be the Shore’s most competitive division.

 

Freehold Township

Head Coach: Brian Golub, 22nd season
2015-16 Record: 20-10 (10-4, tied second in A North)
Key Returners: Steve Staklinski (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Bobby Wiese (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Ryan Zyskowski (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Ryan Cardone (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Jazeem Foster (Jr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Nick Facendo (5-10, Guard), John Carroll (6-4, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Brian White (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Greg Billups (So., 6-5, Forward), Brandon Hasner (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Joe Gargiulo (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Mike Pirrotta (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Cristian Corcione (So., 5-9, Guard)

Few seasons end with a celebration for high school basketball teams, but Freehold Township enters 2016-17 after last year ended in especially rough ending. One year after losing a hard-fought Central Jersey Group IV final at home to Hillsborough, the Patriots lost at the buzzer to Colts Neck on the road in last year’s sectional final. This year’s team will try to wash the bitter taste out of its collective mouth this year behind a lineup that returns three starters, a pair of bench players and some promising new talent.

Seniors Steve Staklinski, Ryan Zyskowski and Bobby Weise are back after starting as juniors last year. Staklinski was the team’s second leading scorer at 12 points per game and also pulled in seven boards per game while providing a handful of highlight-reel dunks along the way. Weise – who will play golf at the University of Rhode Island – was a three-point ace who also demonstrated good passing ability that will come in handy now that All-Shore point guard Nick Facendo has graduated. Zyskowski didn’t put up the stats that Facendo, Staklinski, Weise or graduated forward John Carroll did, but he was one of the team’s better overall defenders and another plus rebounder who will is more than capable of upping his scoring and rebounding output as a returning player.

Senior Ryan Cardone and junior Jazeem Foster are also back after contributing last year, with Foster serving as one of the team’s best ball-handlers. Sophomore Greg Billups has also made a strong push to win a starting spot as a sophomore who has skill to go with a 6-foot-5 frame. Senior guard Brian White is also a solid option at the point guard spot off the bench, while senior Brandon Hasner can lend some toughness to the lineup and guard multiple positions. Senior Mike Pirrotta and junior Joe Gargiulo also have a chance to contribute to a rotation that boasts plenty of size and length that will serve the Patriots well as the team grows together.

Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography.

Marlboro

Head Coach: Michael Nausedus, fifth season
2015-16 Record: 16-10 (9-5, fourth in A North)
Key Returners: P.J. Ringel (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Dan Weiss (Sr., 6-7, Forward), Ryan LaRocca (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Dylan Kaufman (So., 6-5, Center), Emir Anda (Sr., 6-5, Guard), Ethan Sherman (Sr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Matt Dean (6-8, Center), Michael Jastrzebski (6-3, Guard), Noah Kiczales (6-1, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Matt Cabrejos (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Noah Turner (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Andrew Rimland (Jr., 5-5, Guard), Justin Marcus (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Sam Udell (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Brian Levine (Jr., 5-9, Guard)

Full disclosure: Marlboro was set to be the A North favorite in this piece before starting point guard P.J. Ringel broke a bone in his left hand that will keep him out of action until at least the first week of January. While it’s a frustrating way to start the season, the injury shouldn’t doom either Ringel or the Mustangs in their pursuit of the best season in program history. Not only do the Mustangs have the senior leadership and pieces to patch things together for the first three weeks of the season, but the schedule is also relatively cooperative. Marlboro does not play Freehold Township or Christian Brothers Academy until Jan. 10 (Freehold Township), which marks the five-week mark of a four-to-six week timeframe during which the injury is expected to heal.

Beyond Ringel, Marlboro returns senior Dan Weiss, senior Ryan LaRocca and sophomore Dylan Kaufman to the starting lineup. Weiss has grown to 6-foot-7 and has a complete offensive game that will make him a threat to put up some big numbers – with or without Ringel on the floor. LaRocca is a knock-down shooter with and edge to him on defense and Kaufman is coming off an impressive freshman season during which he more than held his own as a varsity center. Marlboro also gets a big lift with the return of Emir Anda, who missed all of last season with a knee injury and is another guard with good size at 6-5. Ethan Sherman, Matt Cabrejos and Noah Turner round out a deep group of seniors.

Last year, Brendan Barry broke his left hand during the scrimmage period and returned at the end of December to have an All-Shore season for a 20-win Rumson team. This Marlboro team has a more established, experienced foundation around Ringel and should be able to survive over a longer period of time while its top player heals. Once Ringel returns and finds his rhythm, the Mustangs have a chance to achieve a whole lot of firsts and rarities: win an outright Class A North title, reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and compete for a Central Jersey Group IV title.

Marlboro senior P.J. Ringel (5). (Photo by Matt Manley)

Christian Brothers Academy

Head Coach: Geoff Billet, 10th season
2015-16 Record: 22-6 (13-1, first in A North)
Key Returners: Rob Mahala (Jr., 6-4, Guard/Forward)
Key Losses: Pat Andree (6-8, Forward), Jack McGuire (6-7, Forward), John Salcedo (5-11, Guard), Sam Houston (6-3, Guard), Jack Boyan (6-1, Guard), Nick Mugavero (6-2, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Lucas Waraksa (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Josh Cohen (So., 6-8, Center), Liam Kennedy (So., 6-0, Guard), C.J. Lautato (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Stephen Braunstein (So., 6-2, Guard), Ron Meehan (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Matt Lautato (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Nolan Madden (Jr., 6-3, Forward/Guard), Luke Valentino (Jr., 6-0, Guard), J.P. Harvey (Jr., 6-5, Forward)

This CBA team might not be the A North juggernaut of the past three years, but the Colts will not fade into the ether just because they graduated Player of the Year Pat Andree, four other starters and the sixth man. With a pair of promising sophomores, some varsity-ready juniors and a handful of seniors competing for time, CBA has a chance to restock its talent reserves and again compete for an A North championship and a top-five position in the Shore Conference.

Junior Rob Mahala is the only returning player from last year’s regular rotation and as a sophomore, he played mostly to give the starters a rest or to cover for foul trouble. Now a year better, Mahala will be CBA’s most experienced and possibly its best all-around player now that he is a starter, but the Colts should be a more balanced team this year after four years of Andree carrying a large chunk of the scoring. Senior Lucas Waraksa saw the court on occasion last year as well and he’ll move into the starting lineup along with fellow senior guard C.J. Lautato.

The other two starters are sophomores Liam Kennedy and Josh Cohen. Kennedy’s older brother, Rob, started for CBA three years ago and Liam Kennedy will also work in at point guard in his first varsity season. Cohen, meanwhile, is a 6-8 center with an advanced feel for scoring on the low block. The rest of the roster has a mix of size and guard play that should be able to fill in for the starters when the situation dictates. Watching CBA walk off the floor following a lopsided, season-ending loss to St. Augustine last year raised some serious questions about how the Colts would manage in the immediate future, but the well is far from dry this year and going forward.

 

Neptune

Head Coach: Joe Fagan, third season
2015-16 Record: 10-15 (4-10, seventh in B North)
Key Returners: Jared Kimbrough (Jr., 6-7, Center), Jules Calhoun (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Seth Harrington (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Kobe Blake (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Scott Fields (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Dwaine Jones (So., 6-0, Guard), Dymar Holland (Sr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Fabrice Bumbatta (Sr., 6-4, Center), Tamar Wright (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Jawan Crenshaw (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Dre Johnson (Jr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Barry Brown (Sr., 6-0, Guard) – Transferred to Roselle Catholic; Tyreek Montgomery (5-11, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Darrien Jones (So., 5-9, Guard), Mekhi Moore (So., 6-8, Center)

While Neptune struggled during the early part of the 2015-16 season, it was almost assumed by anyone who follows Shore Conference basketball that the Scarlet Fliers would regroup after a 2-8 start, qualify for both postseason tournaments, and win a few games in each. After all, that was the refrain in coach Joe Fagan’s first season in 2014-15, when Neptune started 3-7 before rallying to reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. There would be no resurgence, however, as Neptune fell short of qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in recent memory and lost in the opening round of the NSJIAA Central Jersey Group III tournament.

If anything, that experience could pay dividends for a group loaded with players back from last year who had a chance to learn that nothing is given just because you play for the Shore’s most tradition-rich public school program. Perhaps the player that best personifies the new attitude is junior Jared Kimbrough, who played on the varsity team as a freshman and has a chance to take off in his third varsity season. The 6-7 Kimbrough has the tools to be not only a standout shot-blocker and rebounder, but also a great passer out of the post. Outside of Kimbrough, Neptune is guard heavy, with senior Jules Calhoun serving as a forward in the lineup while offering a guard’s skillset. Junior Kobe Blake can also handle the front court and senior Fabrice Bumbatta has a chance to spell Kimbrough in the middle.

Senior Seth Harrington, junior Scott Fields and sophomore Dwaine Jones are the leading candidates to score on the perimeter and help make up for the loss of senior Barry Brown, who transferred to Roselle Catholic. Dymar Holland and Jawan Crenshaw also offer some positional versatility when their on the floor. Neptune will again be guard-heavy, but Kimbrough’s development down low and Calhoun’s experience and versatility have the Fliers poised to make the transition from B North to A North and get back into the postseason hunt.

 

Manalapan

Head Coach: Rick Garretson, 23rd season
2015-16 Record: 11-12 (6-8, fifth in A North)
Key Returners: Matan Zucker (Jr., 6-4, Forward), John Lugo (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Rocky Garretson (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Justin Lynch (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Brian Broderick (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Cody Wiener (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Sean Kinniburgh (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Phil Boldin (Sr., Center), Colby Howard (Jr., Guard)
Key Losses: Anthony Schimbeno (6-2, Guard), Scott Scherer (6-4, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Connor Kelly (Sr., Guard), Nick Sinagra (Jr., Guard), Tomas Bublis (Fr., Forward), Ryan Knorr (Fr., Guard), Andrew Longovich (Jr., Guard)

With a relatively young, inexperienced group last year, Manalapan managed to have its moments and finished right in the middle of the pack in Class A North. After divisional realignment that slightly changed the look of the division, this year’s team looks like it is headed for a similar finish and will certainly have a chance to break into the top half of the standings despite losing nearly 20 points per game with the graduation of Anthony Schimbeno and Scott Scherer.

The Braves return junior Matan Zucker, who enjoyed a breakout year as a sophomore last season. Zucker put up a team-high 14 points per game to go with five rebounds and continues to grow his game. He’ll pair up with senior guard John Lugo, who was the second-leading scorer on the team last year at 10.7 points per game thanks, in large part, to his 52 three-pointers. Senior Rocky Garretson – the son of coach Rick Garretson – is also back with playing experience, as are juniors Brian Broderick and Justin Lynch. Seniors Justin Kinniburgh, Cody Weiner and Phil Bodlin also saw time as juniors and will bring a senior presence to the roster.

The freshman duo of Tomas Bublis and Ryan Knorr will also get a look with the varsity team as the Braves try to load up for a two-year run while Zucker is the main man. Last year was a promising first step with that configuration and there’s reason to believe the Braves can be a factor at the top of the standings this year. With Marlboro boasting a senior-laden team and Freehold Township starting four seniors, next year would provide a reliable rain check if Manalapan can’t get it done this coming season.

 

Colts Neck

Head Coach: Lou Piccola, 18th season
2015-16 Record: 23-5 (12-2, first in B North)
Key Returners: Brendan Clarke (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Rob Hill (Jr., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Lloyd Daniels (6-3, Guard), Tom O’Reilly (6-4, Forward), Kyle Gordon (6-2, Forward), Jordan DeGroot (5-11, Guard), Khalid Mustafa (6-5, Center)
Key Newcomers: Chris Aquinas (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Sabour Quddus (Jr., 6-7, Guard), Daniel Gaines (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Ben Bosland (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Zach Albom (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Ronnie Anderson (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Matt Volk (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Liam Abujawdeh (Sr., 6-0, Guard)

The Cougars finally captured that elusive sectional championship last year and did so in the most exciting way possible. Brendan Clarke’s short jumper at the buzzer as time expired gave Colts Neck a 45-44 win over Freehold Township to set off a massive celebration at Colts Neck High School. It would be hard for any team to top a moment like that the following year and it will be extra tough for Colts Neck to do it considering they will have to replace five senior starters from a year ago, including SSN All-Shore First-Team guard Lloyd Daniels.

Fortunately for Colts Neck, the hero from last year’s Central Jersey Group IV final is back after emerging as a reliable scorer by the end of the season. Clarke came off the bench for most of his junior year, but he played starter minutes and looked more and more comfortable on both ends as the season progressed. The same can be said, albeit on a slightly lesser scale, for junior Rob Hill, who worked his way into the rotation as a sophomore and also played important stretches during the state tournament run. Clarke and Hill will be the foundation of this year’s team and will find themselves surrounded by a wealth of varsity newcomers.

While the list of new varsity players is primarily juniors, senior forward Chris Aquinas is likely to make an impact in his first full varsity season. Hill, Clarke and Aquinas will make up the front court, with Clarke giving coach Lou Piccola some versatility as a player who can work at the two or the three. The guards consist of juniors Sabour Quddus, Daniel Gaines and Ben Bosland, with seniors Matt Volk and Liam Abujawdeh also providing some depth. Quddus in an interesting option as a 6-7 wing player who, along with 6-3 junior forward Zach Albom, gives Colts Neck some size among its group of newcomers. Colts Neck’s down years have generally been pretty good, so even though they lost a quality group, the Cougars should still be a competitive team in a deep Class A North field.

 

Howell

Head Coach: Patrick Ramsay, fourth season
2015-16 Record: 11-16 (5-9, sixth in A North)
Key Returners: Nasiem Brantley (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Dan Cacciatore (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Alex Morton (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Tyler Hoops (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jordan Jones (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Eddie Morales (Jr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Connor McCleod (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Matt Morton (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Steve Palumbo (Sr., 5-11, Forward), Brandon Wilson (So., 6-2, Forward) – transferred to Mater Dei Prep
Key Newcomers: A.J. Yaegel (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Dante Lanzetta (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Wendell Wright (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Jason Tango (So., 5-9, Guard), Matt Ganter (So., 5-9, Guard)

This year has a chance to be a breakout season for the Howell program thanks to a junior class that made some noise at different points last season. That class took a hit over the summer, when leading scorer Brandon Wilson transferred to Mater Dei Prep, taking a versatile athlete out of the fold for an up-and-coming team.

On the bright side, Howell will have junior Nasiem Brantley for a full season after he became eligible in late January of this year. Brantley played basketball in the Howell district in middle school before moving to Georgia for two years. Upon returning, Brantley flashed his scoring potential and has drawn some Division II and Ivy League interest based on the work he did over the summer.

Guards Alex Morton and Eddie Morales are also part of this year’s returning group of juniors, with both coming off the bench last year. Howell also has a number of key seniors returning as well, namely Dan Cacciatore, who was a solid all-around contributor last year. Jordan Jones and Tyler Hoops also return as seniors and will look to help steer an otherwise young Rebels team toward the top of a tough division race.

 

Freehold Boro

Head Coach: Jesse Ryan, fourth season
2015-16 Record: 5-17 (3-11, seventh in A North)
Key Returners: Ashante Worthy (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Justice Jubilee (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Jadakiss Thompson (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Markee Gill (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Chris Cassandra (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Dan Mastrianni (Sr., 6-1, Forward)
Key Losses: Chris Hannigan (6-5, Forward), Jake Curry (6-1, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Moore (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Joe Elias (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Quincy Davis (So., 6-4, Center), Jashawn Butts (Sr., Guard)

In a few other Shore Conference divisions, Freehold Boro would look like a sleeper candidate to compete for a division title, and the Colonials might still be that considering they are slotted in the eighth spot in the preseason A North rankings. In this division, though, the Colonials do have to go a long way to get from finishing ahead of only Middletown South – which is no longer in the division – last year to contending with some experienced rosters and deep programs this time around.

On the bright side, Freehold Boro has a fairly experienced roster of its own. Coming off a monster football season, junior Ashante Worthy returns as the Colonials’ most dynamic player and point guard. He is joined in the rotation by seniors Justice Jubilee, Jadakiss Thompson, Markee Gill, Chris Cassandra and Dan Mastrianni – all of whom return from last year. Seniors Jermaine Moore, Joe Elias and Jashawn Butts will also look to make an impact this season and 6-4 sophomore Quincy Davis has a chance to be an impact underclassman on a team with a lot of seniors.

 

Players to Watch

P.J. Ringel, Marlboro – Will miss the first 3-to-4 weeks of the season with a broken non-shooting hand, but Ringel returns off a breakout junior year in which he averaged 14.9 points and finished third in the Shore Conference in steals per game (4.1).

Steve Staklinski, Freehold Township – Although he heated up Twitter with some serious dunks last year, Staklinski’s game is much more substance than style after averaging 12 points and seven boards with good defense.

Matan Zucker, Manalapan – Already the leading scorer on the team with 14 points per game as a sophomore, Zucker has a strong all-around game that will make Manalapan tough to beat.

Nasiem Brantley, Howell – Brantley showed flashes of what he could do late in the season but will now have a full year to fit in with the rest of the Rebels and stand out in the Shore.

Dan Weiss, Marlboro – The Carnegie Mellon commit was a good all-around player as a junior when he averaged 8.7 points as a junior and has the kind of tools to shatter that mark this year.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Rob Mahala, CBA – Now a starter, Mahala will get more minutes to show what he can do after waiting his turn behind players like Pat Andree, Jack McGuire and Sam Houston.

Rob Hill, Colts Neck – Held his own as a sophomore against some very good competition and could be ready to make the junior leap.

Jared Kimbrough, Neptune – This looks like the year that Kimbrough will start to play up to the potential that he has flashed at several points during his young high school career.

Josh Cohen, CBA – At a legitimate 6-8 and with a good array of offense at a young age, Cohen is going to be an impossible matchup for some of the smaller teams on the CBA schedule.

Emir Anda, Marlboro – Ringel’s early-season absence will give Anda a chance to stand out, which would be a welcome sight after he missed all of last year due to injury.

Ryan Zyskowski, Freehold Twp. – It would be fair to classify Zyskowski as the No. 5 starter on last year’s team, but his role will be expanded this season and he appears up to the task.

 

Burning Questions

How “down” is CBA?

No matter how anyone slices it, CBA is bound to take a step back from where the Colts were over each of the last three years. In each season, CBA reached the SCT final and the sectional semifinals, including a South Jersey Non-Public A title in 2015. The question is, “To what degree will CBA regress?” and while it may take some time for a number of the Colts players to reach their high school ceilings, it sure doesn’t look like this team will be anybody’s punching bag.

Can Marlboro survive the first three weeks of the season and win A North?

The Mustangs’ aspirations of an A North title and the greatest season in program history hit a snag with the news that P.J. Ringel would miss four-to-six weeks with a broken hand. The good news is more than a week in that timetable has already passed and Marlboro’s A North games prior to the four-week mark (Jan. 3) include Neptune, Colts Neck, and Howell. Not easy, but there is no Freehold Township or CBA in that group.

Will Neptune rebound in a new division?

In this case, rebound is a figurative term, although with a guard-heavy roster, rebounding could be a key to Neptune bouncing back after a disappointing 10-15 campaign a year ago. It’s more likely, however, that the Scarlet Fliers will just need to mature as a unit and develop a defensive intensity similar to the one that the 2014-15 team displayed on its SCT semifinal run and one that Joe Fagan’s teams have consistently had during his time as a head coach in the Shore Conference.

Tradition or experience?

In a division that boasts quality teams from top to bottom, this year’s collection of A North squads is a case study in the value of experienced players vs. the value of winning tradition. Marlboro, Manalapan, Howell and Freehold Boro are all looking to turn heads this year with a lot of key returnees back, while traditionally-strong CBA and Colts Neck have a lot of new faces in a varsity uniform. Freehold Township has a little from column A and column B, while Neptune’s situation is slightly more complicated. The Scarlet Fliers have both a lot of players back and a wealth of tradition, but are coming off an atypically bad season.

Sign Up For The SSN Newsletter

Please fill out this form to sign up for the Shore Sports Network newsletter.