Mike Clemente, Jr. considers himself a high-energy person and from the time he took the Central Regional boys basketball head coaching job – his first heading coaching position and the one his father, Mike Sr., held for three decades – he wanted that energy to rub off on his team.

Over the last two weeks, the Golden Eagles have taken on the personality of their head coach by undergoing a transformation born of resilience and relentlessness that has only a little to do with basketball.

Clemente, Jr. is currently in remission after undergoing a harrowing bout with Mediastinal Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a relatively rare form of cancer that Clemente was diagnosed with late in the summer of 2017. He got the good news that he was cancer-free just prior to Christmas and only last week, he found himself feeling like his old self again.

Photo by Steve Meyer.

“About a week or so ago, I got home from practice and I said to my wife (Allison Clemente), ‘I finally feel like myself again,’” Clemente said. “I like to have really high-energy practices and when I was going through treatment, it was hard to be the same guy that I usually am at practice. I’m still not all the way back, but it’s much better than it was in November.”

Central’s resurgence last week is about a lot more than basketball and their selection as the Jersey Mike’s Team of the Week is as well. After starting the season 2-9 and struggling to find its identity with an entirely new lineup and a head coach who could only give so much time and energy while enduring his own fight away from the court, the Golden Eagles began to take flight last week with a win over Lacey and a double-overtime loss to a 10-win Brick squad before its biggest win on Saturday.

In a tie game with 19 seconds left at Saturday’s Coaches vs. Cancer Event at the Bayville High School, Central went from having to stop Point Pleasant Beach – the No. 6 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 at the time – from scoring the winning basket to racing down court for their own game-winner just before the buzzer.

Like their coach, the Golden Eagles players picked up a big win with a little extra determination and good fortune, with junior Walter Maldonado playing the starring role on the last play. The junior guard picked off a pass in the back court and scored the winning basket with one second left on the clock.

“The thing that’s really stood out to me about this group is they have refused to feel sorry for themselves,” Clemente said. “They practice tough, they have a great attitude and now, you can start to see them coming together as a team.

“It’s a different mindset. At the beginning of the year, they didn’t expect to win games. Now, they are going into every game knowing how we want to play and with the confidence that they’ll be able to compete and win."

As great as that win was for Clemente and his program, it paled in comparison to the outpouring of support the community showed for the Coaches vs. Cancer event and the fundraising numbers at the end of the night carried even more weight than the 46-44 final score.

Clemente said his mother, Maureen Clemente, told him she wanted the even to bring in $10,000, a goal her son thought was overly ambitious. According to Clemente, by the end of the night, the event had rained more than $18,000, nearly doubling the target.

“The only word that I think can describe the support we had for the event is overwhelming,” Clemente said. “So many different people from the community offered their support, whether it was volunteers, businesses or just people coming out to watch the games. We had individual people making donations of $50, $100 – it was incredible to see how much people were willing to help.”

Saturday’s five-game lineup marked the second time Central has hosted a boys basketball benefit showcase and the first time it was affiliated with Coaches vs. Cancer. Last year, the money raised at the event went directly toward a local family dealing with pediatric cancer, but with more time to develop the fundraiser over the summer, Clemente and athletic director John Scran broadened the scope.

“My family and my college coach really instilled in me that what you do away from the court is more important than what you do on it,” said Clemente, who played for coach Jim Walker at Moravian College after scoring 1,098 points during his career at Central. “Right after I got hired, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to really plan out the event last year and it still turned out to be pretty successful. This last summer, I sat down with John Scran and we decided to go with Coaches vs. Cancer, which has done great work over the years. About a month later, I got my diagnosis.”

The $18,000 raised will go to the Monmouth Medical Center Cancer Services Program, which helped Clemente during his fight with the disease.

“I was in the hospital almost every day and one thing that stuck out to me was just how many sick people there are and how many different kinds of people are affected,” Clemente said. “There are people of all ages and all backgrounds going through their own fight and the people who work at Monmouth and other places like it do an incredible job of providing help and support to so many people who need it.”

On the court, Central has gone from an inexperienced team with no starters and very little scoring back from a 22-win team a year ago in Clemente’s first season to one that has been competitive over the last week with a handful of emerging offensive threats. Junior Darius Martorano has taken on the role of leading scorer and threat on the wing, while senior Tom Ruscitti has continued his progression from a non-entity offensively to a consistent double-double threat.

“There was a moment at a practice when Tommy caught the ball in the high post and was looking around for somebody to pass it to,” said Clemente of Ruscitti – a three-sport athlete who is committed to play baseball at Fairleigh Dickinson University and was also an All-Shore goalkeeper in soccer. “I stopped everything and said, ‘Tommy, look around. All those guys you were passing it to last year – they are gone. It’s time to start looking at the basket.’

“The great thing about Tommy and Darius and a lot of the guys on the team is they have made themselves into basketball players. Basketball is probably Tommy’s third sport and Darius has football, but they have put the work in to become better basketball players, which says a lot about their character and how competitive they are.”

In addition to Martorano, Ruscitti and Maldonado, senior Xavier Jackson, junior Nick Altieri and freshman Marvin Goodwine, Jr. have all had their moments during Central’s development early in the season. With only Ruscitti and Jackson graduating after this year and 6-foot-7 freshman Kyle Rhoden transferring to Central after spending the first part of this year at Rutgers Prep, the Golden Eagles are shaping up to be a program on the rise. Rhoden's older brother, Jaden, was a first-team All-Shore guard for Toms River North as a senior last year.

Just like Clemente’s team, there is work to be done in making sure the coach stays cancer-free, but the outlook at the moment is positive. According to Clemente, he has to undergo a full body scan every three months – a proactive plan to not only make sure the cancer does not return but to catch anything early enough that Clemente does not have to undergo radiation treatment. His first ordeal involved the removal of a large tumor near his heart and the goal of his doctors is to avoid such treatment when the potential of a tumor located near the heart exists.

Clemente’s life is more complicated now than it was a year ago, but it has given him a simpler day-to-day outlook. If his team’s performance last week is any indication, they are, like their coach, ready to take on the road ahead as well.

“Whatever it takes to bring attention to the disease and the people affected by it, I want to be a part of it,” Clemente said. “It’s been a really tough stretch for me and my family, but seeing all the support from everyone has kept me going forward. My goal from the beginning was to get back to coaching the team and I couldn’t have done it without all of that support from my family and all the people from the school and the community that supported me as well.”

 

Past 2018 Team of the Week Winners

Week 1: Manasquan

Week 2: Rumson-Fair Haven

Week 3: CBA

 

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