Boys Basketball – Ben Gamble Steps Down at Mater Dei
Note: This post has been updated with quotes from Mater Dei athletic director Rob Eriksen.
Ben Gamble's stay in the Shore Conference was short but it could not have gone much better.
As the head coach at Mater Dei Prep, Gamble took a struggling Shore Conference program to heights it had never reached. On Thursday, Gamble stepped down as the Seraphs' head coach after three seasons, announcing his resignation in a post on Twitter.
In an interview with Shore Sports Network, Gamble cited differences with administration as the primary reason for his decision.
"I had no intention of leaving Mater Dei; I wanted to stay and keep the program going," Gamble said. "I had some differences of opinion with some of the officials at the school and it got to the point that they had their position, I had mine and it wasn't going to change. I felt like this was the right time to let them know my decision. They have time to find a replacement, I have time to find another opportunity and the players and their families have time to evaluate the situation as well."
When asked the nature of those differences, Gamble said the main issue stemmed around the admissions process. He did not go into specifics, saying only that there were potential players who applied to the school and were not accepted.
"Our main disagreement was over admissions," Gamble said. "I'll just leave it at that."
Mater Dei has made changes in its administration in recent months, including new athletic director Rob Eriksen, who was hired in February.
"Coach Gamble spent three very successful years here and we wish him well going forward," Eriksen said. "Having said that, we follow the rules of the NJSIAA and the Shore Conference and it's our job to ensure that everything is being done the right way. Our admissions process is part of that."
Gamble said he is still in the process of reaching out to his potential returning players, the most notable of which is Class of 2019 guard Alex Rice, the son of Monmouth University head coach King Rice.
Rice is set to be the lone returning starter from last year's team, with four starters graduating and 6-foot-7 Class of 2020 wing Jamir Watkins leaving the program. Watkins will be playing at his third program in three years after spending his freshman year at Trenton Catholic and sophomore season at Mater Dei.
"I want to go through the process of talking to the families and walking them through the process of figuring out what comes next," Gamble said. "My hope is that they will stay and Mater Dei will hire someone they are comfortable with."
"We're going to begin our search as soon as possible," Eriksen said of finding Gamble's replacement. "We're looking for a quality coach to replace coach Gamble, who was obviously very successful. Whoever we end up hiring, I can tell you it will be a quality coach."
In his three years at the helm, Gamble led the Seraphs to a 74-12 record with three consecutive appearances in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game. In 2015-16, he led Mater Dei to its first ever Shore Conference Tournament title and then to a second straight SCT crown in 2016-17.
In his final season with the Seraphs in 2017-18, Mater Dei went 23-6, with four of the losses coming against Shore Conference Class B Central rival Ranney, which finished as the No. 2 team in the state, according to NJ.com.
Speaking of the state rankings, Mater Dei finished in the top 15 in that same poll in each of Gamble's three seasons at the Middletown school while playing a schedule packed with some of the top teams in the New Jersey as opponents. The finished No. 1 in the SSN Top 10 in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and No. 2 last season.
"I thought we did things the right way," Gamble said. "We brought a lot of excitement to the school and the community over the last three years."
The rivalry with Ranney was one of the defining features of Gamble's tenure at Mater Dei, which coincided with the arrival of Ranney's heralded Class of 2019 as freshmen. Gamble's Seraphs beat Ranney four out of five times between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons before the Panthers swept the four-game season-series in 2017-18. Ranney defeated Mater Dei in both the Shore Conference Tournament championship game and the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals this past season.
Prior to his tenure at Mater Dei, Gamble was the head coach at Cardinal McCarrick for one season before the school closed its doors after the 2014-15 school year. That same year, Mater Dei Prep announced it would be closing its doors as well, but a group of students and alumni raised more than $1 million to cover the budget deficit and keep the school open.
With Mater Dei's new lease on life came an overhauled athletic program that included the ousting of longtime coach Bob Klatt - who was just approved as the new Wall High School boys basketball coach - and the hiring of Gamble.
In his first season, Gamble brought with him a group of four players from the previous season's 20-win Cardinal McCarrick team, as well as three transfers from Marist High School in Bayonne, one from Rahway High School and one more from Central Regional. With its team full of transfers, Mater Dei went from 10-15 in 2014-15 to 26-2, including the program's first ever SCT title.
In that 2015-16 final, Mater Dei overcame and 18-point deficit over the final nine-plus minutes to beat Christian Brothers Academy, 50-43.
"When I took the job, I thought I was going to be at Mater Dei for five years and in that time, I wanted to win two Shore Conference titles and win a state championship," Gamble said. "I didn't expect to win two in my first two years and unfortunately, we never got to the level of winning a state championship."
Among the group of newcomers during Gamble's first season were two players who went on to earn Division I scholarships. Elijah Barnes - who began his high school career at Freehold Boro and played his sophomore season at Central - spent his last two years of high school with Gamble and is heading into his sophomore season at Princeton University after getting some minutes off the bench for the Tigers as a freshman.
Kenny Jones was an Shore Sports Network All-Shore guard for Mater Dei this past season and is signed on to play at Loyola University of Maryland this coming season.
Gamble made his name in N.J. basketball at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, which has also since close its doors after dominating high school basketball in the state for more than three decades. He was a point guard under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr. and then served as Hurley's assistant for 15 years, ascending to the position of associate head coach.
Gamble was also briefly the head coach at Hudson Catholic High School and an assistant at Kean University before returning the St. Anthony to coach under his former head coach. He made it clear he expects to begin the next chapter of his coaching career soon.
"Since I left coach Hurley in 2014, it has been an incredible ride," Gamble said. "It was short-lived - shorter than I hoped it would be. It was a great experience. I'm thankful to Mater Dei and I wish them luck.
"Hopefully, they can continue their success and I can duplicate what I did there in my next job."