With everything he accomplished as an amateur basketball player, Tahj Holden is not one to run away from high expectations. At the high school and college levels, he has played on teams with the highest of goals and went on to meet every one of them.

As a high school senior at Red Bank Regional he hit the game-winning free throws that won his team the 1999 Shore Conference Tournament championship. As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, he was a key contributor for the Terapins’ first team ever to reach the Final Four. One year later, he was playing big minutes off the bench as Maryland captured its first ever National Championship.

After a tour as an assistant coach at the college and high school levels, Holden will try his hand as a head coach for a team that is expecting him to help it reach heights that would have been considered unfathomable three years ago.

In his first season as the head varsity boys basketball coach at the Ranney School, Holden will oversee a varsity program that has gone 18-50 since joining the Shore Conference for the 2012-13 school year, and yet will enter this season high sky-high expectations.

New Ranney head coach Tahj Holden holds court during a timeout at one of the the Panther's preseason scrimmages. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The source of the hype is the freshman duo of Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, a pair of 6-foot-5-inch swingmen who have been cited by multiple online publications as two of the top players in their 2019 graduating class at a national level.

Lewis and Antoine are half of a quartet of freshmen who are slated to crack the starting lineup when the Panthers open the season at home Friday night against St. Rose at 5:45 p.m. Along with fellow high school rookies Alex Klatsky – a 6-2 guard – and 6-6 center Chris Autino, Lewis and Antoine will look to make an unprecedented impact as freshman-dominated starting five.

“They’re both ridiculously talented basketball players and even better kids,” said Holden of Lewis and Antoine. “That’s something that’s a shock for people to see because typically, when you get that level of basketball player, sometimes you assume they have a bit of an edge to them. These guys are genuinely great kids, so that’s the comparison (between the two).

“As far as their play, I don’t think they could be two more different players. Bryan is more of a perimeter-oriented guy and a tremendous passer and shooter, while Scottie is more of a slasher and finisher. I just try to tell them to play to their strengths and I think them working together should make them a dangerous duo in the future.”

The arrival of a class this exciting has overshadowed Holden himself, which is hard to do, both figuratively and literally. At nearly seven-feet tall, Holden is as physically imposing as he is measured in his words, his personality and his expectation for his young group of players. His first order of business as he attempts to build chemistry is to help mesh the incoming freshmen with a large number of returning players from last year’s 5-16 team.

“It’s a great opportunity with a great group of kids at a great school,” Holden said. “I had a chance to look at the guys who were here and the guys who were coming in and assess their character and based on everything I’ve seen and heard from the people in the school, everybody here is a high-character individual, which as a coach is really all you can ask for.”

Ranney freshman Bryan Antoine. (Photo by Matt Manley)

After graduating from Maryland and embarking on a brief professional career overseas, Holden coached on the lower levels of La Jolla Country Day in San Diego before taking a job as Director of Basketball Operations at Monmouth University, which eventually led to a position as an assistant coach with the Hawks. For the past two seasons, Holden was an assistant at Christian Brothers Academy under coach Geoff Billet.

In his two years on the bench at CBA, Holden saw the inner-workings of the program that the administration at Ranney has made no bones about trying to emulate at their campus in Tinton Falls. CBA has enjoyed dominant runs in just about every sport it offers, which, like Ranney, does not include football. In the absence of football, the basketball team has served as CBA’s flagship program and the current set of circumstances gives Holden an opportunity to create something similar at Ranney.

“We’re trying to build sustained success, like a CBA,” Holden said. “Obviously, they have a 30-or-40-year head start on us, but if we can get to the point where we’re in the conversation with them as one of the better private school programs in the Jersey Shore, then I think we’ve done a good job.

“The athletic director, Bobby Malone, and the head of the school, Dr. (John) Griffth, said to me when I interviewed here that they want their athletics to match their academics and obviously that’s a tall task here. But we have a core of kids here who can do that.”

As Holden speaks about what is possible for this year’s team, he does not try to avoid sounding brash on behalf of his players, nor has he talked himself into believing that has the magic touch that turns a group of freshmen into conference champions in a matter of two months or a that the 2018 and 2019 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions banners are already being stitched.

“Realistically, we’d like to do some things we haven’t done,” Holden said. “Make the Shore Conference Tournament is first and foremost in our minds. They’ve been to states, but they haven’t been able to do much, so we’d like to improve on that. The big thing with this group is we’d like to make the Shore Conference (Tournament) and make a run this year. That’s my goal.”

It’s bold enough to expect a program that has averaged six wins per season over the last three years will be a championship team, and even more so to expect a starting lineup with four freshmen at such a program to be able to do it. Then factor in the likelihood that teams of 17 and 18-year-olds will be reserving their best effort to take down a lineup full of 14 and 15 year-olds, and it’s easy to see why Holden would like to be proactive about hitting his team with a dose of reality early on before the schedule does it for him.

“With social media, YouTube, and everything that sites like Shore Sports Network does, we’re not going to sneak up on anybody,” Holden said. “They have got to know that they are going to get everybody’s best shot and those guys they play are going to be two and three years older as well. They are going to be a little bit more physical and more experienced with running their stuff and executing and we’re just going to have to be that much better to beat teams like that.”

With that in mind, Holden has placed the focus on team-building and buying into his program as much as he has been about developing the freshmen. Although he acknowledges the chance to coach high-level talent as a privilege, his message to they are are in his world now.

“Four of the guys played on the same AAU team, so I knew they’d have some familiarity with each other,” Holden said. “The challenge is getting them to understand what I want them to do on the basketball court and they’ve been adjusting really well to what we’ve thrown at them and the different positions and offenses and defenses that we’ve asked them to pick up. So that was a shock how quickly it’s happened.”

With Lewis’s ceiling and Antoine’s advanced skills, both have a chance to reach levels of individual accomplishment that not even Holden could. He was a role player on those great Maryland teams, was not drafted out of college and his professional career consisted of a brief stint in Turkey. In that respect, the first-hand experience he can offer them on matters of a professional career is different than what they might envision for themselves based on their early success.

That is especially the case with Lewis, who has already been heralded as a top player in his class, a potential NBA talent, and perhaps even the label of the “next big thing” – something that Karl-Anthony Towns experienced between his days at St. Joseph’s of Metuchen and draft day this past July and something that Asbury Park native Nazreon Reid is experiencing as a sophomore phenom at Roselle Catholic.

Ranney freshman Scottie Lewis lets a shot fly during a scrimmage as Pinelands senior David Lunn (1) contests. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“Scottie’s had the fortunate and unfortunate situation where everybody knows who he is,” Holden said. “I think he does a really good job of not letting it affect his play, but sometimes it creeps in because everybody expects him to get 30 points a game, especially when somebody six-foot tall is guarding him and he’s got five or six inches on the guy.

“There are going to be games when he has 10 points and Bryan’s going to have 20 and there are going to be games when he has 20 and Bryan has 10. It’s just getting him thinking, ‘It’s okay if I only score 10 points, because we have five or six really good players and I can let the game come to me and still win the game.’”

Holden might lack the first-hand experience that Lewis already has, but he does have vast experience in being an important part of a winning team, whether as a star at Red Bank or as a backup big man tasked with playing key minutes off the bench on a the best college team in the country. As much as Lewis and Antoine will drive the season, returning players like juniors Joe Mahoney, Andy Chu and Sam Metzger, as well as the team’s three returning seniors – James Geraghty, Cory Natofsky and Jerome Cohen – will have to play a role for Ranney to have success right away.

As a backup big man who scored 13 points and grabbed five boards off the bench in a Final Four game against Kansas in 2002, Holden should have little trouble selling the returning players on the importance of mastering their roles.

“I wanted to come in here and impart some knowledge on the kids based on the experiences I’ve had in the past,” Holden said. “I think that I can help a bunch of these guys considering what I’ve gone through at (Red Bank) and at Maryland.

“Obviously, I wasn’t as good as some of these guys are. I like to think I was a little more competitive than these guys are, but it’s a different age. I just want to be able to help guide them through the situations that they’re going through because there’s not going to be a whole bunch that I haven’t seen.”

The future seems bright for the Panthers, but Holden is hoping to see the promise start to pay off for his group this year. After all, Lewis and Antoine are players that any program, including North Jersey powers like Roselle Catholic and St. Anthony, would jump at the chance to add to their stable of talent. While Ranney is closer to home for all three Shore-area natives, the lore of playing at a basketball factory along those lines – and for Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley in the case of St. Anthony – is something that a coach in Holden’s position can’t control.

So as the rest of the Shore basketball community wonders if Ranney is an instant contender and juniors and seniors from other teams in the area prepare to knock the young Panthers off the pedestal of internet hype, the young Panthers will get a dose of reality that Holden hopes hardens them for a postseason run this year and lays the foundation for a program that he can eventually call his own.

“I think in January and February, hopefully we’ll be playing at a much higher level than we are right now, at least if I’m doing my job right,” Holden said. “Looking into the future, I think if these guys stick together, the sky is the limit for all of them and for the program.”