Four of the six Shore Conference divisional races came down to the end of the final week of play, but Class A Central was not one of them. Rumson-Fair Haven was the first team to clinch a division championship last year and with most of the team back and some key additions, the Bulldogs will once again be the heavy favorite to run away with the division title in 2017-18.

Beyond Rumson, the rest of the teams in the division have some turnover to address, but not nearly as much as a year ago. Matawan has legitimate top-10 aspirations, while Raritan, Holmdel, Shore and St. John Vianney are all looking to build on years that included progress on several fronts. While Rumson appears to be the overwhelming favorite on paper and Matawan looks like a team that could separate itself from the rest of the pack, the rest of the field will have a chance to get their games up playing in a tough division and knock off some unsuspecting teams in the postseason – a staple of Class A Central teams in recent years.

In predicted order of finish

Rumson-Fair Haven

Head Coach: Chris Champeau, ninth season
2016-17 Record: 24-3 (12-0, first in A Central)
Key Returnees: Jack Solano (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Teddy Sourlis (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Elijah McAllister (Sr., 6-7, Center), Ian O’Connor (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Jackson McCarthy (Jr., 6-5, Forward)
Key Losses: Tyler Pierson (6-5, Forward), Tommy Oakes (6-1, Guard), Jack Higgins (6-0, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Devin Cooper (Sr., 5-11, Guard) – Transfer from Red Bank; Phil Wheeler (So., 6-7, Guard/Forward), Ryan McCann (Jr., 6-4, Center), Cali Sloan (Sr., Guard), Drew Frankel (So., Guard), Robbie Smith (Sr., Guard)

Rumson senior Jack Solano fires up a three vs. Manasquan last season. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

Since 2015, Rumson has won a Shore Conference Tournament championship, a Central Jersey Group II title and had the Shore Conference Player of the Year. As high as the program has climbed in recent years under coach Chris Champeau, this year’s Rumson team might be its most talented in his nine seasons at the helm. The Bulldogs graduated two starters and one more rotation member from last year’s sectional championship team, but return senior center Elijah McAllister after an injury-shortened junior year while also adding two more key pieces to the rotation – one internally and another via transfer.

Seniors Teddy Sourlis and Jack Solano were the two leading scorers for the Bulldogs last year and will make up two-fifths of the starting lineup, while junior Ian O’Connor returns after finishing third on the team in scoring as a sophomore. McAllister, who is coming off two major knee surgeries that cost him nearly all of his junior season on the court, is cleared to play without restriction and will start at center. The fifth spot in the lineup could go to any of three players, one of which is 6-5 junior Jackson McCarthy, who became a key contributor off the bench last year as a sophomore. Another is senior point guard Devin Cooper, who led Red Bank in scoring as a junior last year and transferred to Rumson ahead of this school year.

The most intriguing possibility might be sophomore swingman Phil Wheeler, who played sub-varsity for Rumson last year. At 6-7 with guard skills and athleticism, he is a legitimate Division I prospect and can play any position the Bulldogs need him to play, which will help keep McAllister fresh. All seven players are good enough to start on most teams in the Shore Conference and as long as the Bulldogs can stay healthy, they will have a top seven as good as any in the conference. That will make them very tough to beat in A Central and once tournament season comes around, Rumson will be an SCT threat once again and among the favorites in Group II.

 

Matawan

Head Coach: John Giraldo, third season
2016-17 Record: 14-14 (6-6, tied third in A Central)
Key Returnees: Mike Dunne (Sr., 6-4, Guard), Reggie Tawiah (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Ramon Estrada (Sr., 5-11, Guard), John Buekers (So., 6-6, Center), Quincy Wathington (Jr., 6-0, Guard)
Key Losses: Pat Hennessy (6-0, Guard), Joe Buekers (6-4, Forward), Zaire Jackson (Sr., 5-8, Guard) – Transferred to Sayreville
Key Newcomers: Jonte Quijano (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Ethan Okello (So., 6-2, Guard), Darrell Rogers (So., 6-1, Guard), Niles Haliburton (So., 6-0, Guard), Justyn Coleman (Jr., Forward)

Matawan senior Mike Dunne. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Every A Central team outside of Rumson struggled to hit or stay above the .500 mark last year, but Matawan looks to have a roster that should carry the Huskies to a winning season following an up-and-down 2016-17. With three returning starters and another with starting experience back, Matawan will be an older, more experienced team this season than the one that shook off a 2-6 start to finish .500.

Senior guard Mike Dunne leads the returning group after averaging 15.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists and heads into his senior year as one the top offensive players in the conference. For the third straight year, he will team up with classmate Reggie Tawiah in the back court to form one of the more collectively experienced duo’s at the Shore. Tawiah averaged 12.8 points as a junior and can run the point or play off the ball depending on how coach John Giraldo wants to deploy Dunne and senior guard Ramon Estrada. After mixing time as a starter and bench player, Estrada will be a starter in the back court as a senior.

Matawan will lead on a promising group of sophomores to fill out some roles, led by returning starter and 6-5 center John Buekers. By the end of the year, Buekers was a burgeoning force down low, scoring 17 points to go with seven rebounds in a state tournament win over Ocean. Fellow sophomores Ethan Okello, Darrell Rogers and Niles Haliburton will also contribute, with Rogers running the point and Okello proving scoring off the bech. Juniors Justyn Coleman and Quincy Wathington are will also see time, with guard Jonte Quijano looking to contribute as a senior. With an All-Shore candidate like Dunne, a pair of solid guards in Tawiah and Estrada and a developing big man in Buekers, Matawan has the nucleus of a team that can make some postseason noise if the rest of the team pieces fit around those four returnees.

 

Raritan

Head Coach: Denis Caruano, 13th season
2016-17 Record: 10-14 (4-8, tied fifth in A Central)
Key Returnees: Tim Hayes (Jr., 6-3, Forward/Center), Zach Mojica (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Rob Lavilla (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Pat Bowles (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Chris Marten (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Jaylen Smith (So., 6-2, Forward/Center)
Key Losses: Justin Black (Forward), Mark LaVilla (Forward), Rory Sullivan (5-11, Guard)
Key Newcomers: John Diahy (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Chris VanDermark (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Connor Smith (So., 5-9, Guard), Tyrese Bryant (Jr., 5-11, Guard) – Transfer from Matawan

Raritan battled its way through injuries to get to 10 wins last year and its most significant injury was to its returning junior center Tim Hayes. The 6-3 three-year starter averaged 11.8 points over 12 games before suffering a broken foot, so his healthy return as a junior alone is reason for optimism for the Rockets. Senior Zach Mojica will pair with Hayes in the front court to give Raritan some size and scoring ability in the starting lineup. Junior Rob LaVilla is the other returning major contributor from a year ago, when he scored six points per game as a junior.

Juniors Pat Bowels and Chris Marten, as well as sophomore Jaylen Smith, are also returning varsity letterwinners for the Rockets, with Smith offering some depth at center beyond Hayes. Junior guard Tyrese Bryant will be a key piece to the backcourt puzzle after transferring in from Matawan. Sophomore Connor Smith will also get a varsity look, as will senior newcomers John Diahy and Chris VanDermark.

It has been six years since Raritan has been at the top of A Central, but the Rockets have been consistently competitive during that hiatus. With Rumson as loaded as it is, this will not be the year Raritan gets back to the top of the heap, but the Rockets are a Shore Conference Tournament-caliber team that could also be a tough out in the Central Jersey Group II playoffs.

 

Holmdel

Head Coach: Sean Devaney, 12th season
2016-17 Record: 12-10 (8-4, second in A Central)
Key Returnees: Tim Zhou (Sr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Eric Celenti (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Connor LaMountain (Sr., 6-1, Center), Johnny Christian (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Sean Dolan (Sr., 5-11, Forward), Alex Rubano (Jr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Nick Harris (5-11, Guard), Mike Simurro (6-3, Guard), Joe Sciacca (6-1, Guard), Joe Sardo (6-2, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Christian Hsu (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Nick Giannotte (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Eric Cheah (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Jack Murray (Jr., 5-10, Guard/Forward), Pete Cannizzo (So., 5-10, Guard), Jack Giamanco (So., 5-9, Guard), Derek Chan (So., 5-11, Guard), Doug Chan (So., 5-11, Guard)

Holmdel entered last year with some serious upheaval after the transfer of standout guard Kyle Cardaci to Mater Dei Prep, but the remaining Hornets rallied together and authored their customary competitive season in A Central under veteran coach Sean Devaney. With very little scoring from the previous year and without any real size, Holmdel finished second in A Central behind a Rumson team that ran the table and wound up winning the Central Jersey Group II championship.

With what Holmdel overcame last year, picturing another winning season is not so hard despite the loss of leading scorer Nick Harris, who finished 12th in the Shore Conference with 16.5 points per game. Current senior Tim Zhou finished second on the team in scoring with 11 points per game and gives Holmdel some versatility in that he can serve as a perimeter threat on offense and also battle down low for a team that will again lack height on the roster. Seniors Eric Celenti (6-0), Connor LaMountain (6-1) and Sean Dolan (5-11) are the returning forwards for Holmdel, and while all three don’t fit the typical frontcourt profile, they will play bigger than they look.

Johnny Christian and Alex Rubano bring some senior experience to the backcourt, while a stable of sophomore newcomers will provide most of Holmdel’s depth at guard. Senior Nick Giannotte and junior Jack Murray can also help in either the back court or at forward, while seniors Christian Hsu and Eric Cheah angle for time at guard as well. Getting production from the sophomore group could be a key for Holmdel, but with the seniors alone, the Hornets should again be competitive.

 

St. John Vianney

Head Coach: Ryan Finch, second season
2016-17 Record: 7-18 (4-8, tied fifth in A Central)
Key Returnees: Zach Moran (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Chris Mikos (Sr., 6-4, Guard), A.J. McGimpsey (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Kevin Greene (So., 5-9, Guard), Justin Steuerer (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Ryan Simmonds (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Donato (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Dan Dinneny (Sr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Christian Booker (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Cam McCargo (So., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Paul Coburn (Sr., 6-1), Liam Harrison (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Kyle Balcezak (Sr., 5-9, Guard), C.J. Keeling (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Robert Ulrich (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Elia Malara (Sr., 6-4, Forward) – Transfer from Marlboro; James Rapley (Jr., 6-5, Forward) – Transfer from Marlboro; Jahmal Garraway (So., 5-11, Guard) – Transfer from Matawan

While coach Ryan Finch’s first season did not yield a winning record, the Lancers finished off the season starting a core of players who have a chance to turn things around for this year and beyond. Seniors Zach Moran and Chris Mikos emerged as the top offensive threats for St. John Vianney during the second half of the season, while junior A.J. McGimpsey and sophomore Kevin Greene also filled key roles – McGimpsey as a rebounder and shot-blocker and Greene as a point guard.

Junior guard Justin Steuerer is another returning varsity player who could find his way into the starting lineup along with the four returning starters. Varsity newcomers Christian Booker and sophomore Cam McCargo will also push for time, along with senior Liam Harrison, senior Paul Coburn and junior Robert Ulrich – all of whom were varsity lettermen a year ago.

Vianney will also benefit from the addition of three transfers. Senior forward Elia Malara transferred from Marlboro during last season but did not play due to injury. Junior James Rapley also transferred from Marlboro ahead of this season and will give the Lancers size at 6-5. Sophomore Jahmal Garraway spent his freshman year at Matawan and is the third of the three transfers. The new blood will give Vianney some depth and options to plug around the four returning starters and there is a good chance Finch will find a mix that boosts Vianney into the mix for one of the top three spots in the division.

 

Shore

Head Coach: Erik Mazur, first season
2016-17 Record: 7-16 (2-10, seventh in A Central)
Key Returnees: Kyle Koob (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Chris Panduri (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Devin Chartier (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Kevin DuBois (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Jack DuBois (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Ryan Flanagan (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Leo Montesinos (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Ryan Jones (6-2, Guard), Tom Mannino (6-3, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Max Miller (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Noah Carrol (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Nick Crochet (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Ryan Paglia (So., 6-4, Forward), Conor Creighton (So., 5-10, Guard)

Since losing an accomplished class of players following a Central Jersey Group I championship season in 2014-15, Shore has been on a slow climb back to relevance in A Central. The mass graduation following that championship season forced Kyle Koob and Chris Panduri into the starting lineup as freshmen and while that might have put a lot on their plate at the time, both enter their junior season this year as seasoned varsity players who are ready for that experience to translate into more wins.

Panduri and Koob already made progress in the winning department last year with an increase from six wins to seven from 2016 to 2017 and are looking to go well beyond a one-win improvement this year. Panduri averaged a team-best 13.1 points per game last year while Koob put up 11.8, which gives the Blue Devils a good scoring base heading into the year. They also led a Shore team that allowed more than 60 points in a game only twice, so with another year of maturation and some more balanced scoring, the Blue Devils should be even better on the defensive end.

Seniors Devin Chartier, Jack DuBois and Kevin DuBois also return as potential starters, with Chartier earning some time as a starter a year ago. Junior Ryan Flanagan also played important minutes and gives Shore some decent size in the front court at 6-3. Junior Leonardo Montesinos got a helping of playing time as a sophomore, while classmates Max Miller, Noah Carrol and Nick Crochet will all make a push for time in their first varsity seasons. Ryan Paglia and Conor Creighton are also in the fold as sophomores this season for a Shore team that has taken its lumps and is much closer to breaking through than it was a year ago.

 

Red Bank

Head Coach: Scott Martin, 17th season
2016-17 Record: 9-15 (6-6, tied third in A Central)
Key Returnees: Dean Hottmann (Jr., 6-6, Center), Liam Joyce (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Luke Sprauer (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Connor McLoone (6-0, Guard), Nasir Williams (6-2, Guard), Will Gavin (6-1, Guard), Steve Ansell (Sr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Jake McIntyre (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Devin Cooper (5-11, Guard) – Transferred to Rumson-Fair Haven
Key Newcomers: Jasir Thomas (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Brian Forsman (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Gavin Mahoney (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Aidan Gilmartin (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Jack Niesz (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Matt Weidman (So., 5-11, Guard), Seth Cousins (So., 6-2, Forward), Erik Christie (So., 5-10, Guard)

Red Bank finds itself in a position similar to the one Holmdel was in last year, when the Hornets lost leading scorer Kyle Cardaci to a transfer. Devin Cooper was on track to be a 1,000-point scorer for the Bucs but transferred to division rival Rumson for his senior season, leaving Red Bank with an unproven, inexperienced group heading into the year. Holmdel made it work last year, so coach Scott Martin will paint an optimistic picture for his team while playing up the underdog card the Bucs have been dealt.

A trio of junior returnees will lead Red Bank this year, with center Dean Hottmann and guards Liam Joyce and Luke Sprauer giving the Bucs some experience and potential to improve. Joyce and Sprauer can stretch the floor for Red Bank, while at 6-6, Hottmann gives Red Bank some legitimate size in the middle. The only senior in the mix this year is 6-0 forward Jasir Taylor, who will join junior Brian Forsman, junior Gavin Mahoney and sophomore Seth Cousins as options at forward.

Junior Aidan Gilmartin has a chance to step up as a contributor in the back court with some size at 6-2, while junior Jack Niesz and sophomores Matt Weidman and Erik Christie also compete for time at guard. With only one senior, Red Bank will indeed be younger than any team in the division, but that gives the Bucs plenty of room to grow. With some good size and shooting on hand, they may be able to grow faster than expected in what should be an even division beyond Rumson at No. 1 and Matawan at No. 2.

 

Players to Watch

Mike Dunne, Matawan – At 6-4 with range out beyond the three-point line and point guard skills to boot, Dunne is a multi-dimensional threat on offense who averaged 15.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists as a junior.

Jack Solano, Rumson-Fair Haven – Solano was an integral part of Rumson’s run to the Central Jersey Group II title and turned in a memorable performance in an overtime win over Manasquan in the sectional semifinals. He averaged 13.5 points for a balanced Bulldogs offense.

Ian O’Connor, Rumson-Fair Haven – O’Connor was the breakout performer of the year for Rumson a year ago, joining the starting lineup and becoming a versatile scoring threat who put up 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Teddy Sourlis Rumson-Fair Haven – Best known for his range out to midcourt, Sourlis also led Rumson with 3.3 steals per game to go with a team-best 14.7 points.

Elijah McAllister, Rumson-Fair Haven – When he is on the court, McAllister is a force like no other in the Shore Conference. In four games last year, he averaged 4.75 blocks per game despite playing only one quarter of one of those games and one half of another. He blocked 5.6 shots per game as a sophomore.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Phil Wheeler, Rumson-Fair Haven – Only a sophomore, Wheeler is an impressive-looking prospect who can do a little bit of everything on offense – handle the ball, find the open man, hit a 23 footer or dunk on a defender.

John Buekers, Matawan – Few freshman can make the impact that the 6-5 Beukers made on both ends of the floor last year. This year, he should be even more of a factor, particularly on offense as the team’s top interior scoring threat.

 

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