After a three-year run of dominance by Christian Brothers Academy, the Class A North race last year figured to be a wide-open affair. Instead, Freehold Township emerged as the dominant team, going 13-1 en route to the program’s first outright A North title in five years and third during a period of 10 years. The Patriots, however, also lost to A North rival Marlboro in the Shore Conference Tournament, so there was a little bit more parity than the standings would indicate.

While it’s possible a team grabs the A North race by the throat like Freehold Township did last year, this field has the look of one that could have multiple teams go down to the last couple days of the season to decide a champion. In addition, there are at least four that could be major factors come state tournament time in their respective sections. Before that, however, they will all have to settle the battle for A North – perhaps the Shore’s toughest overall division in 2016-2017.

In predicted order of finish

Neptune

Head Coach: Joe Fagan, fourth season
2016-17 Record: 14-12 (9-5, tied fourth in A North)
Key Returnees: Jared Kimbrough (Sr., 6-8, Center), Kobe Blake (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Scott Fields (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Dwaine Jones (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Jawan Crenshaw (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Jules Calhoun (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Seth Harrington (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Dymar Holland (Sr., 6-1, Guard/Forward)
Key Newcomers: Sam Fagan (Fr., 5-10, Guard), Kahlee Riley (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Makai Suit (So., 6-0, Guard), Mekhi Moore (Jr., 6-9, Center), Shawn Young (So., 5-11, Guard/Forward)

Neptune senior Jared Kimbrough. (Photo by Larry Murphy)

Although Neptune did not enjoy much postseason success last year, the Scarlet Fliers had their most consistent season from start to finish during Joe Fagan’s four years as head coach. This team has the look of one that can go to the next level as a potential division-winner, top-five team in the Shore Conference, and Central Jersey Group III contender come state tournament time. LaSalle recruit and 6-foot-8 center Jared Kimbrough took his game to new heights last year (14.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) and is geared up for an even bigger senior season as one of the Shore’s top returning players.

The supporting cast around Kimbrough will look slightly different with the graduation of a pair of starters, but there is some stability in the group that returns along with an interesting newcomer. Junior guard Dwaine Jones was a capable varsity shooter and ball-handler as a sophomore and is taller and stronger this year. Seniors Seth Fields and Kobe Blake return as dependable varsity players, with Fields offering some versatility on both ends. Senior Jawan Mitchell will be see more minutes as a key part of the rotation, giving Neptune four players 6-2 or 6-3 to surround their center.

Fagan’s son, Sam Fagan, will jump into the lineup as the starting point guard, which will give Jones a chance to play off the ball and make better use of his shooting ability. Fagan can also knock down the outside shot and he has an advanced feel for the position, which will make up for the fact that he does not yet have the size of a varsity player. His performance could be an x-factor for Neptune, which is likely to take its losses in a deep A North division, but should still be at or near the top of the standings as the season moves into tournament time.

 

Christian Brothers Academy

Head Coach: Geoff Billet, 11th season
2016-17 Record: 16-10 (8-6, fifth in A North)
Key Returnees: Rob Mahala (Sr., 6-4, Guard/Forward), Josh Cohen (Jr., 6-9, Center), Liam Kennedy (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Stephen Braunstein (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Nolan Madden (Sr., 6-3, Forward), J.P. Harvey (Sr., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Lucas Waraksa (5-11, Guard), Matt Lautato (5-11, Guard), C.J. Lautato (5-11, Guard), Ron Meehan (6-4, Forward)
Key Newcomers: James Huber (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Paul Waraska (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Peyton Boesch (Jr., 6-2, Guard)

CBA junior Josh Cohen. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The expectations at CBA are always lofty and a 16-win season that included a fifth-place finish in A North and only one win each in the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournaments – both against Donovan Catholic – is a mediocre season based on the program’s standards. On the other hand, CBA lost its top six players in the rotation from the previous season and even with a young, inexperienced team heavy on sophomores, the Colts had a winning season and played their best basketball late in the campaign. As a developmental exercise, 2016-17 will be a success if CBA can take the next step this year, which means contending for a division title, making a run at the SCT and South Jersey Non-Public A semifinals.

CBA’s road to a division title and deep postseason runs is size, size and more size. The obvious contributor to that size is 6-9 junior center Josh Cohen, who came up just shy of averaging a double-double (11.6 points, 9.3 rebounds) as a sophomore and returns this season taller and more agile than he was a year ago. In addition to Cohen, CBA will also have front court size with Nolan Madden (6-3), Rob Mahala (6-4), J.P. Harvey (6-4) and James Huber (6-4) all figuring in for significant minutes. Mahala can also play on the wing and guard multiple positions, which gives the Colts a chance to match up against teams that have size on the perimeter.

While a first glance at CBA draws attention to its collective size, the Colts starting back court is arguably the best in the division. Junior Liam Kennedy began to take off in the middle of last year before an ankle injury slowed him down at the finish. Meanwhile, junior Stephen Braunstein emerged as a shooting and scoring option over the course of the year and looks like a more complete player on both ends coming into his junior year. The one area in which CBA might not be quite as good as it was last year is three-point shooting, but the defensive end, the glass and the back court are all solid and should keep CBA relevant throughout the year in a competitive division and conference.

 

Colts Neck

Head Coach: Lou Piccola, 19th season
2016-17 Record: 15-9 (9-5, tied third in A North)
Key Returnees: Danny Gaines (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Ben Bosland (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Rob Hill (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Sabour Quddus (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Zach Albom (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Brendan Clarke (6-2, Guard/Forward), Matt Volk (6-2, Guard), Chris Aquinas (6-3, Forward), Liam Abujawdeh (6-0, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Andrew Abujawdeh (Jr., 6-0, Guard), William Barrett (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Michael Bartner (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Michael Federici (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Brian Hill (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Sean Tice (Jr., 6-3, Forward)

Colts Neck was similar to CBA last year in that the Cougars lost a good deal of talent and production from a successful 2015-16 team – one that captured the program’s first ever NJSIAA sectional championship – and still put out a lineup that got solid results. Colts Neck was even a little better than CBA, finishing a game ahead of the Colts in the A North standings with a junior-heavy roster that is mostly back for this season. The difference between Colts Neck and CBA this year is that while CBA is a junior-heavy roster with most of its top scorers back, the Cougars are a senior-laden team that will be looking to replace its second-leading scorer from a year ago, Brendan Clarke.

Top scorer Danny Gaines returns to the back court after averaging better than 16 points per game in his first full varsity season. Point guard Sabbor Qudus joins him after spending most of last year coming off the bench, with some starts mixed in later in the year. At 6-3, senior Ben Bosland is a versatile wing player who can play in the high post and also step out on the perimeter. While Gaines and Clarke led the team in scoring, Bosland filled up the stat sheet with 8.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. Senior forwards Rob Hill and Zach Albom round out the starting lineup, with Hill entering his third year of regular playing time at the varsity level.

Returning those five contributors will give Colts Neck a chance to build its depth coming off the bench and perhaps give some of the newcomers a chance to compete for starting spots. Seniors Will Barrett and Mike Federici and juniors Sean Tice and Brian Hill will provide front court depth, while junior Andrew Abujawdeh and Mike Bartner will spell the starters at guard when needed. With its five experienced, senior starters and some up-and-coming depth, Colts Neck is going to be a very tough team in A North and come postseason time.

 

Howell

Head Coach: Patrick Ramsay, fifth year
2016-17 Record: 11-14 (4-10, sixth in A North)
Key Returnees: Nasiem Brantley (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Alex Morton (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Eddie Morales (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Matt Ganter (Jr., 5-10, Guard), A.J. Yaegel (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Dante Lanzetta (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Dan Cacciatore (5-11, Guard), Tyler Hoops (6-3, Forward), Jordan Jones (5-9, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Brandon Wilson (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward) – Transfer from Mater Dei; Wendell Wright (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Nick Hornung (Jr., 6-6, Center), Jake Vesce (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Cooper Vogel (So., 6-2, Guard), Tommy Talbot (So., 5-9, Guard), Chris Acciampora (So., 6-1, Forward)

Howell senior Nasiem Brantley. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Although Howell is coming off a losing campaign in which the Rebels failed to qualify for either the Shore Conference or NJSIAA Tournaments, the Rebels have a lot to be optimistic about in 2018. Not only does Howell return four experienced guards who can score, but they also bring back an impact player as a senior who spent last year at another school. That should help put the Rebels over the top after they lost 10 games last year by a margin of seven points or fewer.

Senior guards Nasiem Brantley and Eddie Morales give the Rebels a lot of athleticism in the backcourt, as well as plenty of chemistry. Morales and Brantley formed one of the Shore’s most dangerous quarterback-receiver combinations during football season and will now try to translate that to the basketball court. Senior Alex Morton also returns as a point guard, which will allow Morales and Brantley to work off the ball a little more, with Brantley able to work down low as well. Junior Matt Ganter showed off his shooting ability as a sophomore last year and will give the Rebels a chance to stretch the floor, while senior Dante Lanzetta will provide some back court depth as well.

Down low, 6-3 senior A.J. Yaegal will handle a lot of the rebounding and defensive duties typical of a four or a five. He and the rest of the Rebels will get a boost with the return of senior Brandon Wilson, who played at Mater Dei Prep last year after leading Howell in scoring as a sophomore. Wilson is a natural guard, but he is also a good athlete who can score on offensive rebounds and work in the high post. His versatility should make a big difference for Howell as the Rebels look to make the jump from also-ran to division champion this season with its most talented team in a while.

 

Freehold Township

Head Coach: Brian Golub, 23rd season
2016-17 Record: 25-3 (13-1, first in A North)
Key Returnees: Ja’Zeem Foster (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Greg Billups (Jr., 6-5, Forward)
Key Losses: Steve Staklinski (6-5, Forward), Bobby Wiese (6-2, Guard), Ryan Zyskowski (6-5, Forward), Ryan Cardone (6-2, Guard), Brian White (5-10, Guard), Brandon Hasner (6-2, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Joe Gargiulo (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Cristian Corcione (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Doug Kneipher (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Seth Meisner (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Zack Barilka (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Matt Santangelo (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Max Gluck (Jr., 6-5, Center), Jeremy Thorn (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Ben Tirabassi (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Kenandre Scott-Foye (Jr., 6-4, Guard), Zach Orrico (Fr., 5-8, Guard)

Freehold Twp. junior Greg Billups. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

While the first three teams listed in the A North preview all return a bulk of the talent on hand last season, Freehold Township is on the other end of the spectrum. The Patriots graduated four starters and six rotation players from last year’s Central Jersey Group IV finalist squad and return only two players who saw regular time during said playoff run. Those players are senior Ja’Zeem Foster and junior Greg Billups, the latter of whom was a starter when healthy last season. Billups got off to a strong start in his first varsity season before an ankle injury knocked him out of action for a little more than three weeks, during which time Foster stepped in.

Foster and Billups will be driving forces for the Patriots as they try to plug in new players in place of the four graduated starters. Senior Joe Gargiulo is battling a preseason injury but could go a long way in picking up some of the lost production with his play in the back court. The perimeter play should be strong with Billups, Foster and Gargiulo on the floor together, but replace the size, athleticism and overall skill of Steve Staklinski and Ryan Zyskowski in the front court is a much different challenge altogether. Juniors Max Gluck, Jeremy Thorn and Ben Tirabassi are the leading candidates to pick up that slack.

Keeping up in Class A North with so much talent returning to the other teams will be a tall order for Freehold Township, but the Patriots have a history of reloading quickly under veteran coach Brian Golub and this year should be no exception considering he has Billups as a building block. It might not be a first-place finish and there will certainly be some growing pains, but the Patriots should have every opportunity to be in both postseason tournaments again this year.

 

Marlboro

Head Coach: Michael Nausedas, sixth season
2016-17 Record: 18-7 (11-3, second in A North)
Key Returnees: Dylan Kaufman (Jr., 6-6, Forward/Center), Justin Marcus (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Brian Levine (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Andrew Rimland (Sr., 5-6, Guard)
Key Losses: P.J. Ringel (6-1, Guard), Dan Weiss (6-7, Forward), Ryan LaRocca (5-11, Guard), Emir Anda (6-5, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Alex Ratner (So., 5-11, Guard), Eddie Paladino (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Ramon Fontanes (So., 6-0, Guard), Emmanuel Coffy (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Spencer Alamia (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Anthony Brienza (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Kyle LaRocca (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Chris Lesnik (Jr., 6-2, Forward)

Marlboro junior Dylan Kaufman. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Just like Freehold Township, Marlboro has its share of scoring and leadership to replace after a memorable 2016-17 season. The Mustangs reached the Shore Conference Tournament final for the first time in program history by upsetting Ranney in the semifinals en route to a school-record 18 wins. The Mustangs actually return three players with starting experience from that team, although one of them – senior point guard Brian Levine – moved back to the bench once All-Shore guard P.J. Ringel got healthy. Marlboro also lost two potent shooters in Ryan LaRocca and Dan Weiss, with Weiss also providing size that made him a lockdown defender and strong rebounder.

Speaking of rebounds, those should not be a problem this year with the return of junior Dylan Kaufman and senior Justin Marcus to the front court. At 6-6, Kaufman is likely to be one of the Shore’s top rebounders after he helped key Marlboro’s SCT run as a junior, while the 6-5 Marcus again looks to provide some muscle inside. Levine will move into the starting lineup on a permanent basis after a trial run last year and should be more than ready to handle the challenge. Senior guard Andrew Rimland also got a small serving of playing time last year and will take on a larger role this year.

Sophomore Alex Ratner also got a couple games at the varsity level as a freshman during Ringel’s absence and will get an extended look this year, potentially as a starter. Senior Eddie Paladino is lined up to be the other guard, but juniors Kyle LaRocca and Anthony Brienza, as well as senior Spencer Alaima and sophomore Ramon Fontanes, could win significant time. Senior Emmanuel Coffy and Chris Lesnik will back up Kaufman and Marcus. The depth and guard play have something to prove from the outset, but this is an opportunity for Marlboro to show that its program can carry over success from one year to the next, even when the principle contributors to that success graduate.

 

Freehold Boro

Head Coach: Ben DiBiase, first season (eighth overall)
2016-17 Record: 2-19 (2-12, seventh in A North)
Key Returnees: Ashante Worthy (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Quincy Davis (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Lucas Bruckman (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: 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 Newcomers: Liam Feuster (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Jiasion Carpenter (Fr., 6-5, Forward), Jack Bisaha (Jr., 5-11, Guard/Forward), Makhi Theosmy (Jr., 6-0, Guard/Forward)

Freehold Boro is hoping to overhaul a two-win team from a season ago and the man tasked with leading the way is the coach who led the Colonials through their last successful run. Ben DiBiase spent seven seasons at the helm from 2004 to 2011 and took Freehold Boro to back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in 2009 and 2010. This roster is likely a long way off from a run like that, but the pieces should be in place to perform better outside of Class A North and perhaps even knock off one of the six team ahead of the Colonials in the preseason ranking.

Fresh off one of the greatest statistical seasons any quarterback has ever had in N.J. history, Ashante Worthy will try to bring his magic to the basketball court. Although it hasn’t translated to this point, Worthy has still had his moments as a scorer and a point guard for Freehold Boro and he will be the on-floor leader as a senior this year. His top target on the gridiron – 6-4 forward Quincy Davis – has performed well in his first two high school seasons and is in line to take another step this season. Fellow junior Lucas Bruckman is also back from last year and will play a significant role for Freehold.

The junior trio of Liam Feuster, Jack Bisaha and Makhi Theosmy will jump into the rotation, as will 6-5 freshman Jiasion Carpenter. With Worthy and Davis in place as proven varsity players, a strong showing from that quartet would go a long way in helping Freehold Boro become a surprise team in A North

 

Manalapan

Head Coach: Rick Garretson, 24th season
2016-17 Record: 4-17 (0-14, eighth in A North)
Key Returnees: Justin Lynch (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Brian Broderick (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Ryan Knorr (So., 5-9, Guard), Alex Purzynski (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Colby Howard (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Tomas Bublis (So., 6-0, Guard), Andrew Longovich (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Nick Sinagra (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Blake Henis (So., 6-5, Forward), Ryan Szatkowski (So., 6-1, Guard/Forward)
Key Losses: John Lugo (6-0, Guard), Rocky Garretson (5-11, Guard), Matan Zucker (6-4, Forward – transferred to Lawrenceville Prep)
Key Newcomers: Michael Baez (Sr., 6-0, Guard), John Kushner (Sr., 6-0, Guard/Forward)

Coming off a four-win season, the objective for Manalapan in 2017-18 is clear: get in the win column in divisional play. The Braves went winless against Class A North last year, but did manage those four wins with a fairly young roster. They also took a hit when leading scorer Matan Zucker (19.7 points per game in 13 games) transferred to Lawrenceville Prep in advance of his senior season, but Manalapan still has a deep stable of players with varsity experience who also spent some time playing without Zucker while he was hurt for a stretch of games early in the season.

Seniors Justin Lynch and Brian Broderick lead the returnees heading into this season for Manalapan, with Lynch providing perimeter scoring and Broderick working more on the interior. Sophomores Ryan Knorr and Tomas Bublis also pitched in in the back court last year as a freshman, while 6-3 guard Colby Howard got some time and will look to expand his impact this year as a perimeter threat with size. Sophomore Blake Henis also provides size at 6-5, while seniors Nick Sinagra and Andrew Longovich also give the Braves some depth as senior guards.

Manalapan’s highlight last season actually came in a loss, when the Braves had Freehold Township on the ropes before losing, 45-44, on a shot at the buzzer by Ryan Cardone. That game, coupled with wins over Jackson Liberty and Middletown South to cap the campaign sent the Braves into the offseason with some optimism and with a long list of players back, they should be an improved team, albeit in a very difficult division.

 

Players to Watch

Jared Kimbrough, Neptune – The 6-7 senior took a big step forward as a junior, averaging 14.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and three blocks for the Scarlet Fliers before officially signing to play at La Salle University last month.

Nasiem Brantley, Howell – Brantley was among the Shore’s top 10 scorers last year at 17.6 points per game and is a dynamic athlete to boot, which he further proved during a standout season as a wide receiver on the Rebels football team.

Josh Cohen, CBA – Cohen returns for his junior season stronger and more agile, which will make him even more dangerous at 6-9. He put up 11.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in his first varsity season last year.

Danny Gaines, Colts Neck – In his first full season at the varsity level, Gaines jumped into the starting lineup and assumed the role of go-to scorer, posting 16.5 points per game for a Cougars team that restocked following its sectional championship in 2015-16 and is set up to improve this year.

Dylan Kaufman, Marlboro – One of the best returning rebounders in the Shore Conference, Kauffman was a key cog in Marlboro’s run to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game and will now assume the role of team leader as a junior.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Brandon Wilson, Howell – He has already proven himself by leading Howell in scoring as a sophomore, but after spending a year coming off the bench for Mater Dei, Wilson is poised to be a go-to scorer for the Rebels this year.

Stephen Braunstein, CBA – Braunstein got better and better as last season went on and coming into his junior year, he has the look of a two-guard who can carry the scoring load when he is on.

Greg Billups, Freehold Twp. – An ankle injury stalled a promising sophomore campaign and now that he is the No. 1 option, Billups should be in for a big statistical season.

Brian Levine, Marlboro – Levine played the game-manager roll while in the game last year, but will have expanded duties as the Mustangs senior point guard – both on offense and in the Mustangs’ press-heavy defense.

Quincy Davis, Freehold Boro – The youth is starting to wear off for Freehold Boro and Davis is among the players who stands to mature the most this year, particularly with football teammate and quarterback Ashante Worthy running the point.

 

Burning Questions

Could Jared Kimbrough be the best player in the Shore Conference?

It might seem like a stretch considering there are two five-star recruits playing at Ranney, but Kimbrough is a year ahead of both Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis, coming off a big statistical season and has been improving dramatically since the end of his sophomore year. He is a naturally unselfish player who is learning how to take over by scoring, which could mean a monster senior year. The two Panthers juniors might be bigger prospects at the moment, but Kimbrough is every bit the Player of the Year candidate heading into the season.

Can Freehold Township and Marlboro stay in the hunt?

Freehold Township and Marlboro both had outstanding seasons last year, but both did so with a lot of senior contribution. There are some holdovers on both teams, however – enough to make both the Patriots and Mustangs intriguing dark-horses in the A North race. Marlboro has a little bit more of a foundation thanks to the return of second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Dylan Kaufmann, but Freehold Township junior Greg Billups looked poised for a big sophomore year before an ankle injury derailed him.

Is Howell ready to make the leap to the top of the division?

Although they finished 11-14 last year, the Rebels lost 10 games by seven points or fewer and return an even deeper stable of talent than they had a year ago. Seniors Nasiem Brantley and Eddie Morales are back after leading the Rebels on the basketball court last year and on the football field this fall as a receiver-quarterback tandem. Howell also gets a major boost with the return of senior guard Brandon Wilson, who spent last year at Mater Dei Prep after leading the Rebels in scoring as a sophomore in 2015-16.

Is CBA on its way back to the top of A North?

With a roster stacked with talented junior players, CBA is set up to be the A North favorite in 2018-19, for sure. This year, however, is not exactly a write-off, as the Colts hope that their improved play over the course of last year is a sign of things to come this year. A North is likely to feature a crowded race for the top spot and CBA has as good a chance as any team. That may not fit the old profile of prohibitive favorite that the Colts carried in recent years, but it’s progress for a team that went through an overhaul last year and is still going to be relatively light on senior influence this year.

Can Ben DiBiase find the magic again at Freehold Boro?

During his first stint as head coach at Freehold Boro, DiBiase led the Colonials to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in consecutive seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, where they lost to CBA and Middletown South, respectively. He takes over a program that has seen better days and is coming off a 2-19 campaign in 2016-17. Fortunately, the Colonials return Ashante Worthy, who played the role of Superman on the football field during the fall, as well as his receiver, 6-4 forward Quincy Davis. The SCT semifinals are a stretch, but Freehold Boro should be a tough out in A North.

 

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