Boys Basketball – Boardwalk Preview: Mater Dei Prep Ready for Boardwalk Stage vs. Neptune
When Ben Gamble accepted an offer to become the Mater Dei Prep head boys basketball coach in June, he brought a lot with him to the program – more than a decade of experience as an assistant under Bob Hurley at St. Anthony, a one-year turnaround of the Cardinal McCarrick program, and nine transfers who wanted to play for Gamble and be part of a Seraphs turnaround.
One other perk of Gamble’s tenure has been his showcase tie-ins, which will give the Seraphs a chance to see some of the top competition in the state. After a narrow loss to defending NJSIAA Non-Public A champion Pope John in Sunday’s New Year’s Jump-off in Paterson, Mater Dei will take the floor for the Shore’s premiere showcase event when the Seraphs play Neptune in the first game of the Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase at noon on Saturday.
“I’m excited about playing in the Boardwalk,” Gamble said. “It’s a feature event in this area and in the state and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it for a number of years while I was at St Anthony. To be invited in my first year is a great opportunity for our program and our kids.”
While coaching at Cardinal McCarrick last season, Gamble lined up spots in a number of showcases for the Eagles, but the school was forced to close due to financial hardship at the end of the 2014-15 school year. With a number of commitments already in place, Gamble transferred three showcase commitments over to Mater Dei and added Saturday’s game against Neptune.
Mater Dei opened Gamble’s tenure by beating Point Pleasant Beach 57-38 on opening night in front of a packed home gym and now the Seraphs will take the stage at Long Branch with a more wide-ranging, Shore audience looking on at what Mater Dei has become under their new coach as the Seraphs take on one of the most tradition-rich Shore programs.
"I remember some of the battles with Neptune in the early 2000's when they had some of their best teams," Gamble said. "It's a great place to come play a basketball game because they have great, passionate crowds who have a really good knowledge of the game."
In many ways, Mater Dei will be taking on a team that resembles itself. The Seraphs have a defensive-minded collection of athletes who make up a balanced offense – all traits of the vintage Neptune teams over the years. Seniors NyQuan McCombs and Kyle Elliot and juniors Elijah Barnes and Elijah Mitchell are all averaging at least 10 points per game and all four are part of the collection of nine transfers.
The two coaches also have plenty in common. Gamble and second-year Neptune head coach Joe Fagan were college teammates at Pace University in the mid 80’s and were even co-captains together before Gamble decided to leave school when his first child was born.
“I watched Joe when he was (coaching) at Jackson (Memorial) and he did a marvelous job there,” Gamble said. “He always had a very high basketball I.Q. He wasn’t one of the biggest guys or the most athletic guys, but he always used his knowledge of the game and that was very effective for him.
“So far, he’s been able to teach that knowledge to his players so that they aren’t just relying on athleticism. I have a lot of respect for him.”
For the second straight year, Neptune will be looking to shake off a rocky start to the season in order to beat a top-five ranked opponent at the Boardwalk Showcase. The Scarlet Fliers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit Thursday to beat Red Bank Catholic and climb to within a game of a .500 record.
While junior Barry Brown has been the top scoring threat for the Scarlet Fliers from game-to-game, the freshman duo of Alex Harbor and Dwaine Jones came off the bench to contribute to the win and may begin to factor into a Neptune rotation searching for an offensive identity. The x-factor for Neptune has been sophomore Jared Kimbrough, who at 6-foot-6 has been a defensive and rebounding presence on the interior.
“A lot of what they do centers a lot around Brown,” Gamble said. "They key for us is to get back in transition and not let them get so open. They are athletic, versatile and have some shooters. (Kimbrough) in the middle is a talented young man who is still growing. They are having some growing pains but Joe Fagan very good coach, so he’ll get them going.”
Last year, Neptune upended Lakewood at the showcase for just its third win of the season and went on to reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals after a 3-7 start.
“They have some of the qualities that we have,” Gamble said. “This is a dangerous game for us. We definitely want to be prepared.”
While Neptune hopes to hit its stride, the Seraphs are looking to build up steam for a big upcoming stretch. After the showcase setting on Saturday, Mater Dei will travel to play unbeaten Ranney Tuesday in a showdown between the top two teams in the Shore Conference Class B Central standings. A week later, the Seraphs will welcome three more transfers who become eligible – juniors Marvin Pierre and Maleek McKnight and sophomore Kenny Jones – but not before facing St. Peter’s Prep at the Dan Finn Classic next weekend.
“I’m excited because I want to see what we’ve got,” Gamble said. “I tried to prepare them for weeks like this by scheduling some back-to-backs in the preseason. I want them to be used to playing with limitations so when weeks like this come along, we’ll be ready. If we can get everybody eligible and healthy, I think we’ll be pretty good.”