For the previous decade, the Mater Dei Prep boys basketball has been mostly irrelevant in the Shore Conference Tournament landscape, but a long run of mediocre results is not what would have made the Seraphs’ appearance in Saturday’s Shore Conference Tournament final as the favorite against perennial power Christian Brothers Academy so implausible a year ago.

Mater Dei’s ascension back to prominence began not with the program turnover that would actually come to pass, but rather with a near-fatal experience.

At this time last year, members of the student body, faculty and administration were working tirelessly to raise more than $1 million to cover the operating deficit that the Diocese of Trenton and St. Mary’s Parish cited as the reason the school would have to shut down at the end of the school year.

The “Save Our Seraphs” effort turned out to be a success and the Diocese approved a proposal for the school to reopen independent of the Parish and as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose finances would be overseen by a board of trustees.

In light of the tireless effort of those involved and the community collaboration required to keep the school open, a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final one year after the school was on the brink of shutting its doors for good should universally be a feel-good story.

Mater Dei went from the brink of closing to raising more than $1 million to keep the school open. Now, its boys basketball team is seeking its first ever Shore Conference Tournament title.

That has not necessarily been the case, however. In order to survive in a more competitive climate for non-public schools, the board of trustees and the administration set out to revamp the athletic program and as part of that pursuit, declined to rehire 19-year boys basketball head coach and Mater Dei alumni Bob Klatt.

Meanwhile, as the Mater Dei community scrambled to keep the doors to its school open, another Catholic School nearby would not be so lucky. As much as Mater Dei’s good fortune to survive and reopen following a bout with financial hardship was essential to the Seraphs basketball team reaching the cusp of a first ever Shore Conference title, this run by the basketball team would not have happened without the closing of Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy following the 2014-15 school year.

Cardinal McCarrick’s announced closing by the Diocese of Metuchen left Ben Gamble – a longtime St. Anthony assistant under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and head coach at McCarrick for just one year – without a team to coach and his players without team to play for and a school to attend.

With Gamble on the market following a 20-win season at Cardinal McCarrick and the powers that be at Mater Dei seeking to adapt following a near-death experience, Klatt was informed of the board’s decision this past June 10 by Athletic Director Dennis Tobin and Gamble was hired the next day.

Klatt, who teaches at St. John Vianney and landed on coach Matt Kukoda’s staff at Wall High School, is a well-respected coach and a highly-regarded individual among the Shore Conference community and his unceremonious dismissal drew the ire of some Shore coaching confidants.

“First and foremost, I’m thrilled that the school is still open,” said Pinelands boys basketball coach John Tierney, who is a Class of 1997 Mater Dei graduate, a former assistant under Klatt and the uncle of Seraphs sophomore starting quarterback Kyle Devaney, who is on the basketball team as well. “I’m happy for coach Gamble and I’ve been really impressed with how they play and how they carry themselves. So from that perspective, I think for them to be so close to closing and now be in the championship game, it is a great story.

“At the same time, my heart is with coach Klatt and the way they handled his situation was wrong. He is my coaching mentor and a big reason the school is still open is because of the time he put in. I just think the way they handled him was wrong. It’s great to see the atmosphere they had for the game at Brookdale on Sunday, but it’s hard to feel totally good about it because it still hurts me what they did to him.”

Mater Dei Prep coach Ben Gamble. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

Adding to any residual bitterness that Klatt’s dismissal might have caused among the Shore coaches, Mater Dei’s roster turnover did not win opposing coaches and observers over either. Four Cardinal McCarrick players followed Gamble over to Mater Dei and five more transfers from three different schools – Marist, Rahway and Central Regional – followed.

“I don’t want to take away from the individual talent that’s there,” said Henry Hudson coach Vinnie Whitehead, who has been coaching various sports at Henry Hudson for 42 years and is also a recent inductee into the NJSIAA Hall of Fame. “I was upset to find out Klatt was released group and we came to find that they brought in a bunch of kids from an area that’s not the Shore area. I don’t know what the restrictions are on where non-public schools can draw kinds, but there are other non-public schools closer to where these kids are coming from.

“Different schools have different restrictions on where they can draw from and it’s not a level playing field.”

The Class B Central division that Mater Dei won for the first time since 2005 this year is comprised of Group I public schools and lower-enrollment non-public schools. The division was only a short time ago regarded as a less-competitive division has now become one of the top talent pools in the Shore Conference. Henry Hudson is also in that division and while the Admirals made the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in 10 years this season, they did so despite a 4-10 record against teams in the division.

“There are personal things too,” Whitehead said. “We have our kids here from the Atlantic Highlands program and they were looking to be in one of top three positions in the (division) this year and all of a sudden, you have this wave of talent show up out of nowhere in a division of small schools. There is also the issue that kids on my team and others in the division who have worked hard to earn some recognition for themselves, and two or the three Mater Dei kids – who are very talented – come along and take some of those spots for All-Division teams and things like that.”

Gamble has acknowledged that the summer camps he runs give him exposure to players from different areas and vice versa, but when it comes to the subject of the criticism that comes in today’s sports landscape in which teams rely on transfers to compete, the Mater Dei coach is quick to call out the critics.

“When people say stuff like that, I say ‘The kids had to go somewhere,’” Gamble said. “I don’t understand why they say that. In fact, not only were they looking at this school, but they were looking at a lot of other schools. Cardinal McCarrick closed. What were they supposed to do? After that, some other kids came along and wanted the academic advantage Mater Dei presents and saw the new beginning with the athletics.

“It’s sad that people look at a bunch of kids that way. They had to go somewhere and they and their families are just trying to do what’s in their best interest.”

Senior NyQuan McCombs was one of four players to follow coach Ben Gamble from Cardinal McCarrick to Mater Dei after McCarrick closed last year.. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Gamble is not without his defenders either, both in the process and in the results.

“You hear a lot of the grumbling, but I don’t think everybody understands the situation,” said Tahj Holden, who is also in his first year as boys basketball coach at the Ranney School and has overseen the program’s first 20-win season thanks to a standout freshman class. “Those McCarrick kids didn’t have anywhere to go and there was an opportunity there for Ben to get a job again and for those guys to play with their coach. Once you had that group there, the school becomes a little more attractive now that there is some real talent there and a coach with Ben’s background.”

The more intense scrutiny could also be attributed to the drastic turnaround, which also applies to Holden at Ranney. Other non-public schools like CBA, Red Bank Catholic, St. John Vianney, St. Rose and Donovan Catholic for years have been attracting talent that might have otherwise gone to public schools, but those teams contending for division titles has been more the norm. Even public school teams have benefitted from transfers - Long Branch, Toms River North both reached the SCT semfinals thanks to a key transfer and Point Pleasant Beach has been one of the best teams in Group I and the Shore Conference thanks to its regular influx of transfers from year-to-year.

"Every non-public school is taking kids from public schools if you want to look at it like that. The difference is Mater Dei and us weren't good last year," Holden said. "They brought in a new coach and new players from a school that closed and we had a special group of freshmen in the middle school. Everybody has to start somewhere. At some point, CBA had to start somewhere and I'm sure a lot of people were complaining about it back then."

While Whitehead and Henry Hudson are in one camp, coach Dennis Devaney and St. Rose have gone from perennial favorite to chasing two powerhouse programs in Mater Dei and Ranney. Although St. Rose faces a steep task in overcoming those teams to reach the perch atop the division, Devaney mostly welcomes the challenge.

"I'll take games like (against Ranney and Mater Dei) over a game where we win by 40 and it's over in the first quarter," said Devaney, who is in his 30th season at St. Rose. "You don't play sports to play those games. Athletes want to compete and play good competition and that's what I've been trying to tell (our) guys about the teams we're playing. We're getting better because we have to get better to compete with these kinds of teams."

Mater Dei Prep senior Kyle Elliot came to Mater Dei after attending Marist High School last year. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

The most adversely affected players within the Mater Dei program have been players who played on last year’s team but have lost playing time to the transfers this season. A number of those players left the team after beginning the year on the roster and now, just Tom Hannafin and Sean Kroeger remain. Hannafin has seen some playing time over the course of the season, but did not played in either of Mater Dei’s win over Ranney and Toms River North.

Despite the decreased role, Hannafin maintains that all of the change has been for the better.

“It was an adjustment at first, but when you see how good these guys are and how good the team is playing, it became a lot easier to buy in,” Hannafin said. “To see the school support us like they have makes it all worth it, especially with everything that happened last year. It’s pretty crazy.”

Saturday night at the Multipurpose Activities Center on the campus of Monmouth University, Mater Dei’s student section – self-titled the “Stage Crew” because they spend home games cheering from the stage behind the basket on the far end of the St. Mary’s School gymnasium – will pack a section of the stands and cheer for what they hope will be the first SCT title in school history in its first championship game appearance since losing to CBA in 1984.

There might be some who take exception to that, but those students will be cheering for more than just a group of players who were mostly at different schools last year. They will be celebrating the fact that they are still part of Mater Dei, and that did not look like a possibility one year ago, just like a Shore Conference Tournament title did not look like a possibility a year ago.

The circumstances may not be ideal for everyone involved: Gamble has had to change jobs, his players have jumped from school to school, Mater Dei holdovers have taken decreased roles on the team and opposing coaches who conduct the business of their programs differently may fall behind.

But with everything the Mater Dei community has endured, idealism has had to take a back seat. All that matters to them is that they are still a school community, one that will take another opportunity – win or lose on Saturday – to celebrate that fact, all with the eyes of the Shore watching.