Few teams, if any, in team sports labor to a 9-0 record and with an average scoring output of 80.3 points per game and an average margin of victory of 28, Ranney is not, in any broad sense, laboring.

For at squad that has ascended to No. 4 in the country, according to USA Today, however, the Panthers have had to sweat out some wins. They had to pull away late to beat both West Nottingham Academy of Maryland and Don Bosco in their first two games and needed a fluke technical foul to advance out of the first round of the John Wall Invitational – a tournament Ranney went on to win.

On one hand, the close calls could be a sign that the first loss of the season is just over the horizon for Ranney (9-0). On the other, it might mean the Panthers have overcome a shorthanded roster, some off nights and quality competition to make it to Saturday’s Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase at Brookdale Community College on a nine-game winning streak to open the season.

At approximately 6:40 p.m. Saturday at Collins Arena, Ranney will faced its biggest test of the season to date in Bergen Catholic. Whether or not the 10-0 Crusaders are actually the most talented team on Ranney’s schedule to date – the Panthers vanquished teams that included Florida State and University of North Carolina recruits in Raleigh over the holiday break – is irrelevant. In Bergen Catholic, Ranney is facing the No. 3 team in the NJ.com Top 20, the favorite to win the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship and, thus, a favorite to reach the Tournament of Champions final.

Ranney senior Bryan Antoine. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

That is where the Panthers hope to finish their season – in the T of C final at the RAC in Piscataway – and as the No. 1 ranked team in the state and a nationally-ranked program, the bulls-eye shines on Ranney's collective chest brightest in the eyes of the other teams in N.J. chasing the mantle. Ranney's players learned that in its hard-fought, 63-51 win over Don Bosco on Dec. 16, when the Ironmen led the Panthers in the third quarter of that game before Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis carried their team to the finish line.

Statistically speaking, Antoine and Lewis have carried the Panthers throughout this early stretch of the season, with the exception of its four overwhelming wins against Shore Conference Class B Central competition. In the five non-conference wins, the senior duo has accounted for 262 of the team’s 350 points, or 75 percent of Ranney’s scoring.

Antoine is in the midst of a dominant season in which he is averaging 27.9 points, 5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 4.9 steals and also passed the 2,000-career-point threshold while the team was at the John Wall in Raleigh. The Villanova signee is well on pace to break the all-time Shore Conference scoring record and could do so by the end of the month if he continues to score at his current clip.

Lewis, meanwhile, is also turning in the best season of his storied career, including 17.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5 assists, 3.1 steals and 2.2 blocks per game.

Ranney senior Scottie Lewis. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Senior Alex Klatsky, freshman Elijah Perkins, senior Chris Autino and senior Mike Dettro all had their moments at times in those five-game stretches, but Antoine and Lewis have had to carry the load for a Ranney squad still waiting on junior Phillip Wheeler and senior Ahmadu Sarnor to become eligible to join the lineup.

Saturday will mark yet another game in which Ranney will have to play without both Wheeler and Sarnor, but it is expected to be the last one as the team is aiming to insert Wheeler into Sunday’s lineup at the Empire Invitational against MacDuffie (Mass.). Before Ranney gets there, however, it will have to survive a battle with Bergen Catholic and its own army of Division-I-level talent. Senior 6-foot-9 center Zach Freemantle is headed to Xavier next year and will pose a major matchup problem for a Ranney squad without a traditional big man beyond the 6-7 Autino.

The Crusaders also boast 6-8 junior Matt Zona to test Ranney’s interior defense while senior St. Peter’s University commit Doug Edert leads the backcourt.

Ranney’s looming back-to-back games against Bergen Catholic and McDuffie could very well represent its toughest stretch of the season considering the Panthers are still playing with just six in the rotation. The competition on the schedule won’t reach its apex until late January, when the Panthers play Roselle Catholic and Montverde Academy within a span of 10 days, but Ranney is expected to have its complete lineup eligible by then.

With Antoine and Lewis leading the way, Ranney will have a chance against any New Jersey opponent that stands opposite Ranney but the thinner lineup gives teams like Bergen Catholic a chance against Ranney. The Panthers will have plenty of time to recover from a potential loss, but a win Saturday would be monumental for the team expected by many to win the Tournament of Champions. If Ranney can handle another top team in N.J. that is after Ranney’s No. 1 spot and can do so while two impact players are on the sideline, it would solidify the Panthers as the state’s top team.

 

In other action at the Boardwalk Showcase:

Christian Brothers Academy (8-1) vs. Gill St. Bernard (10-1), Noon

CBA entered the week hoping to carry an unbeaten mark into its Saturday showdown but Freehold Township had other designs and picked off the Colts on Monday at the Academy. That doesn’t change the fact that the Boardwalk opener will be CBA’s greatest challenge this season – a measure of how close the Colts are to challenging for an NJSIAA Non-Public A title.

Gill St. Bernard enters as one of the top teams in New Jersey – No. 4 according to NJ.com. The Knights are led by Rutgers commit Paul Mulcahy, who is in the midst of a remarkable individual season. Mulcahy is currently averaging a triple-double with 19.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game for the 10-1 Knights. Against a quality Trenton Catholic team, Mulcahy dished out a whopping 18 assists.

The junior duo of Will Soucie and Zach Martini have provided a strong complement to Mulcahy so far this year. Soucie is a 6-foot-5 wing averaging 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists while Martini is a 6-7 forward posting 16.8 points and 13 rebounds per game. Freshman Denver Anglin has also made his presence felt during Gill’s start to the season with a team-high 24 three-pointers and 13.4 points per game.

CBA senior center Josh Cohen. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Saturday will be a challenge across the board for CBA, particularly for who draws the assignment against Mulcahy when CBA is in man-to-man. The Colts, however, can create some potential concerns as well, particularly with 6-11 senior center and St. Francis commit Josh Cohen. Through nine games, Cohen is averaging 23.9 points and 15 rebounds.

Senior Stephen Braunstein is CBA’s other major scoring threat at 18.6 points per game and adds a perimeter threat to play off of Cohen. Senior guard Liam Kennedy is CBA’s other senior in the starting lineup and fellow senior Peyton Boesch provides some flexibility and experience off the bench.

CBA has leaned on a trio of underclassmen during the early part of the season, most notably freshman point guard Ryan Mabrey. A freshman starter at CBA has been a rare thing throughout CBA’s history and Mabrey has delivered so far by averaging 8.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and five assists. Sophomore Mike White is the fifth starter and is coming off a 15-point performance vs. Manalapan on Thursday and sophomore Colin Farrell also sees time off the bench.

The last time Gill St. Bernard participated in the Boardwalk Showcase, Rumson-Fair Haven dominated the Knights in stunning fashion, 66-49, back in 2016 – Mulcahy’s freshman season. CBA lost to Rumson-Fair Haven at last year’s Boardwalk Showcase and has not won at the event in more than a decade.

There is a good chance CBA can get a look at a potential state championship opponent by sticking around for Ranney vs. Bergen Catholic, with the No. 3 Crusaders currently the Non-Public A favorite. CBA still has more than a month to refine itself to make a run through the wide-open South side of the Non-Public A playoffs, but a good showing on Saturday would wake up the possibility of even more.

 

Rumson-Fair Haven (7-1) vs. Middletown North (6-5), 1:40 p.m.

The second game during Saturday’s lineup is a rematch of a wild Shore Conference Tournament round-of-16 game from a year ago. As the No. 14 seed, Middletown North appeared poised for an upset in that one, but No. 3 Rumson rallied to edge the Lions after trailing most of the game.

The rosters, as a whole, are much different for both teams than they were a year ago but the principle players are mostly the same. Middletown North graduated four of five starters but returns two-time defending Shore Conference scoring leader Rob Higgins. The 6-1 guard is making a run at both a third straight scoring title at 27.7 points per game through 10 games played and is also creeping closer to 2,000 career points. In Middletown North’s win over Ocean on Thursday, Higgins passed Rumson’s all-time leading scorer, Brendan Barry, for 13th on the all-time Shore Conference scoring list and enters Saturday with 1,821 career points.

Rumson senior Ian O'Connor drives on Middletown North senior Rob Higgins during the 2018 Shore Conference Tournament. (Photo by Robert Samuels)

Rumson, meanwhile, returns its top two scorers from its talented seven-man rotation of 2017-18. Seniors Ian O’Connor and Jackson McCarthy have both taken their games to the next level this season, particularly O’Connor. The bruising 6-4 guard is averaging 21.7 points and 14 rebounds for the Bulldogs and flirted with a triple-double Thursday in a win over Shore in which O’Connor posted 30 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists.

O’Connor carries 990 career points into Saturday’s game so it is likely that sometime during Satursday’s showdown, he will join the 1,000-point club for his career.

McCarthy has been right there with O’Connor in production, giving Rumson one of the most potent duos in the Shore. The 6-5 senior swingman is averaging 17.2 points and 11.2 rebounds for Rumson.

Both teams appeared at last year’s Boardwalk Showcase, with Rumson rallying to beat CBA and Middletown North nearly erasing a 19-point deficit in losing to Point Pleasant Beach.

 

Manasquan (9-2) vs. Neptune (5-4), 3:20 p.m.

The showcase’s third game lost a little of its juice when Neptune guard Sam Fagan sustained a season-ending leg injury. With Fagan sidelined, Neptune has gone 1-2 with losses to Wall and St. John Vianney and has put a lot on the plate of senior guard Dwaine Jones to run the offense, lead the scoring attack and captain the defense.

The Scarlet Fliers have started to get regular contributions from the underclass front-court tandem of sophomore Everett Cheavers and freshman Malik Fields. They also have a reliable spot-up shooter in Sean Young, an athletic brother combination in Saddiq and Samad Armstead and a 6-9 big man off the bench in senior Mekhi Moore.

Neptune senior guard Dwaine Jones. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Senior Brian Roberts has also stepped up in Fagan’s absence, so the Fliers have shown some depth following Fagan’s injury, but Jones has certainly carried the load. The 6-3 senior is averaging 15.8 points for the season and just under seven assists over his team’s last four games.

On the other side, Manasquan is coming off a 62-50 loss at Red Bank Catholic and remains one of the many teams scrapping to establish themselves as the No. 2 team at the Shore behind Ranney. The Warriors have looked the part of the second-best team at the Shore at times, led by the duo of junior Alex Galvan and senior Brad McCabe. Galvan – a standout pitcher who is verbally committed to play baseball at Louisville – is averaging 18.3 points and 12.6 rebounds during a breakout junior campaign while McCabe is pitching in 14.7 per night after pouring in 20 in the loss at RBC.

Manasquan senior Brad McCabe. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

While Neptune entered the season with a seasoned backcourt, Manasquan’s backcourt is its less-experienced outfit. Junior Kieran Flanagan has been steady on both ends of the floor and a reliable shooter while freshman Ben Roy and sophomore Casey Mulligan have been impressive in flashes. Senior forward Xander Korolik gives the Warriors the option to play with a bruising front line.

Even with Neptune ailing, this game still represents a high-profile matchup between one of the Shore’s most successful public school programs of the last 10 years and the most decorated public school program in the history of the Shore Conference.

 

Red Bank Catholic (10-1) vs. Middletown South (7-3), 5 p.m.

When the Boardwalk lineup was first released, this game appeared to be not much more than a warm-up act for Ranney and Bergen Catholic. Red Bank Catholic is a team made up of mostly football players and Middletown South lost the first seven players in its 2017-18 rotation to graduation.

As it turns out, this game might be the second-most interesting match-up of the day and the only reason it’s not more intriguing is because the teams have played one another already. RBC enters the game on an eight-game winning streak after handling Manasquan, 62-50, on Thursday. On the flip side, Middletown South has won four straight since the turning of the calendar to 2019, including wins over Matawan and Marlboro.

RBC caught fire from three-point range and downed Middletown South, 75-59, in the semifinals of the WOBM Christmas Classic, so the Eagles will be looking to keep better tabs of John Duffy and Charlie Gordinier (team-leading 16.5 points per game), who combined for 49 points and eight threes in that WOBM game. On Thursday night against RBC, the two combined for 36 points on 10-for-17 shooting from three-point range.

Red Bank Catholic junior Charlie Gordinier. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

In addition to their dangerous shooting tandem, the Caseys throw plenty of athleticism and physicality at opponents – namely football standouts Kevin Bauman, Steve Lubischer and M.J. Wright. Bauman, only a junior, has been a defensive stalwart and an all-around contributor at 6-6 while Lubischer is the team’s slashing guard. Wright has stepped into the starting point guard role and proven capable on both ends of the floor, including with a wild game-winning shot to win the WOBM championship.

All three of Bauman, Lubischer and Wright are committed to play college football – Bauman at Notre Dame, Lubischer at Boston College and Wright at Fordham.

Senior Matt Conley is another knockdown shooter for the Caseys off the bench and Bauman’s younger brother, freshman Alex Bauman, has been a contributor as well.

Middletown South’s strong overall start to the season seemed far-fetched after losing opening night to a 1-9 Manalapan team that has not won since. With only one senior seeing regular minutes and very little varsity experience, Middletown South appeared headed for a season of mixed results as it built up toward next season.

Since the stumble out of the gate, however, the Eagles have won seven of nine with wins over Toms River North on the road and the aforementioned wins over Matawan and Marlboro – all ranked opponents at the time. Their only losses since opening night have come against RBC and Manasquan.

Middletown South does not rely on any one scorer to carry the load - the Eagles have four players averaging between 7.7 and 14.2 points and have had four different players lead the team in scoring in a given game.

Junior James Anderson leads Middletown South with 14.2 points per game and is the foremost shooting threat on the roster. Junio Jack Sheridan is also a weapon from beyond the arc and Is averaging 12.1 points per game. Sophomore point guard Luke Albrecht comes in at 9.1 points and 4.4 assists per game.

Junior Mike Dabas is also putting up 7.7 points per game, junior Richie Boyko has an 18-point performance off the bench to his credit, junior Bobby Pirie has contributed on the interior and starting forward Dan Mitchinson is the senior of the bunch.

Red Bank Catholic will have a chance to extend the Shore’s second-longest active winning streak while solidifying itself as a top-three team in the upcoming Shore Sports Network Top 10. Middletown South will try to deny the Caseys the satisfaction while making its own case as a top-five team heading into a big A North home tilt Tuesday against Freehold Township.

 

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