MARLBORO TWP. - Saying goodbye following a season-ending loss is tough for just about every coach and every senior in every season, but for fifth-year Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas, bidding farewell to this year's group is in a different category.

That's because as far as Marlboro basketball goes, this year's team was in a category all by itself.

Nausedas did not mince words in calling the 2016-17 version of Marlboro boys basketball the best team in program history, which made it that much harder to come to grips with Wednesday's 61-52 loss to fifth-seeded Sayreville in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals.

This year's Marlboro team came up short of winning the program's first ever postseason tournament and first Shore Conference division title since 1971, but reached new heights for the program nonetheless. The 18 wins this season are a single-season record and the trip to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game was the first ever for a program that had never even been to the quarterfinals prior to this season.

Marlboro senior P.J. Ringel leaves the court to a round of applause after fouling out of his final high school game on Wednesday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

That will all be some degree of consolation at some point, but Wednesday marked a somber ending to a near jubilant postseason performance.

"This is tough because we knew this was the team that could do something special and obviously, we showed that," Nausedas said. "It caught up with us though. This is going to sting. This was a really good team."

At several points during Wednesday's loss, it appeared as though Marlboro would have enough to get past a balanced, talented Sayreville roster. The Mustangs took a 28-24 lead into the halftime locker room and after hitting an offensive lull in the third quarter, found themselves trailing by just five with 3:30 to play and the momentum up for grabs.

The senior-heavy Bombers, however, continued to execute down the stretch behind seniors Jayson DeMild and Jahsim Floyd. DeMild finished with a team-high 17 points while the 6-8 Floyd scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and also posted nine rebounds and seven blocked shots.

"They came in (to play Princeton on Monday) and they were sore," Nausedas said of his players. "They're tired. I play five, maybe six guys every game. But you've got to play. You've got to fight through that stuff and when it comes down to your last game, you've got to give everything you've got. We played hard, but they're tired. There wasn't a lot of time to rest and recover."

No player embodied the Mustangs spirit this season more than senior guard P.J. Ringel, who overcame tragedy in late October and an injury in early December to get back on the court and help lead the Marlboro program to new heights. He ended his high-school career with 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and four steals before fouling out with 57 seconds left and leaving to a standing ovation from the Marlboro cheering sections.

Ringel was a Shore Sports Network All-Shore First-Team soccer player in the fall and before he was part of the run to the basketball SCT final, he helped lead the soccer team to its first SCT final appearance in seven years. On the day after losing to Christian Brothers Academy in the championship game, Ringel lost his father, Jack, in an automobile accident.

He somehow played Marlboro's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament opening-round game against Colts Neck the following day and scored two goals - including the game-winner in overtime. One week later, he scored another overtime winner in a win over Manalapan to catapult Marlboro into its first sectional final appearance in 12 years, but the Mustangs would lose to Hunterdon Central on penalty kicks in the championship.

"P.J.'s an amazing person - that's all that needs to be said," Nausedas said. "What he's done, from soccer to basketball, considering the adversity - he's just an amazing person. You're never going to forget about P.J. Ringel, especially at this school.

"It's a great family and I wish them all the best. He's made me a better guy, a better coach and made the school and team better."

Ringel was primed to match his soccer performance on the basketball floor and Marlboro returned one of its most talented rosters ever, but injuries quickly changed the landscape. Ringel broke a bone in his left hand in Marlboro's first scrimmage and did not return until Jan. 10.

On top of Ringel's injury, the Mustangs lost senior Emir Anda in the second game of the season to a torn ACL - his second such injury in a year-and-a-half and this time to the other knee. Anda missed his entire junior season and played just one game this past season, in which he scored 19 of the team's 39 points in a win over Neptune on opening night.

With two projected starters out, Marlboro kept its head above water by going 7-2 before Ringel's return. The Mustangs fell two games short of winning the Class A North division title thanks to two narrow losses to champion Freehold Township and a one-point home loss to Neptune, but the best was still to come for Marlboro.

After a sluggish first half in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 against Lakewood, seniors Dan Weiss and Ryan LaRocca caught fire and sparked a 64-44 win over the Piners to push Marlboro into its first ever SCT quarterfinal round.

In the quarters for the first time, the Mustangs got a third shot at Freehold Township and made the most of it by knocking off the third-seeded Patriots, 69-59. Marlboro had one more historic win in its bag of surprises and it was its biggest of the tournament: the Mustangs knocked off No. 2 Ranney - the No. 6 team in N.J. at the time - 50-47 to reach the program's first ever SCT final, which they did as the No. 6 seed.

Marlboro led top-seeded Mater Dei, 32-29, late in the third quarter, but as Sayreville did on Wednesday, the Seraphs pulled away late to beat the Mustangs, 54-41, and win their second straight SCT crown.

Even in what might have been an otherwise-forgettable first-round win over Princeton on Monday, the Mustangs found a way to make it memorable. With his team up big in the fourth quarter, Nausedas inserted three-year team manager and special needs student Salomon "Shlomo" Nachum into the lineup and the senior rewarded his coach and the adoring student section by sinking midrange shot.

While replacing Ringel, Weiss and LaRocca will be a tall order for Marlboro heading into the 2017-18 season, the accomplishments of those three seniors leaves the program in good position to continue restocking its coffers with talent. The Mustangs already have center Dylan Kafuman - who had 17 points and six rebounds in Wednesday's loss - slated to return as a junior along with seniors-to-be Justin Marcus and Brian Levine and now Nausedas is hopeful this year's SCT run will invigorate the feeder programs.

"We knew when he came here that P.J. was going to be our guy and because he was here, people stayed here to play in the program," Nausedas said. "Now, we're keeping kids and kids are interested in the program. I teach at the middle school and there is a real buzz about the program here that wasn't there before."

The buzz was not enough to win Marlboro a banner or a ring of any kind this year, but it is a necessary ingredient to take a program to the next level. If Marlboro can complete the journey in years to come, it's because this year's players were the trailblazers.

"You look out in the stands today and there are all these young kids," Nausedas said. "I told the guys, 'They are here to see you. They came because they want to see Marlboro basketball and you guys are the reason kids want to come see us play now.' That's pretty special."

 

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