While warming up for one of the biggest boys basketball games in Marlboro history on Sunday, senior guard P.J. Ringel kept thinking he saw a familiar face in the stands.

Jack Ringel was a basketball guy through and through, a Hall of Fame coach at Grady High School in Brooklyn whose teams won three city championships and a state title in his 24 seasons. On Oct. 30, 2016, Jack was killed in a car accident at 67 years old, meaning he never got to share Marlboro's inspiring run to its first Shore Conference Tournament semifinal berth in history with his son.

Senior guard P.J. Ringel and Marlboro are enjoying one of the program's best seasons ever, four months after P.J. lost his father, Jack, in a car accident. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"In warm-ups, I'm looking around the crowd and I keep thinking I see him when I saw guys with similar builds,'' P.J. said. "I just know that he is watching. I'm playing for him and I'm playing for the team. I have a lot of confidence just knowing something special is going on."

The Mustangs reversed a pair of regular-season losses and knocked off third-seeded Freehold Township 69-59 in their first appearance in the SCT quarterfinals in history on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena. They will face one of the top 10 teams in the state, second-seeded Ranney, at 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday in the semifinals right back on the same court.

"He knows our dad is watching him, so he really wants to win it all because my dad won a lot of championships back in his day,'' said Ringel's older brother, Matt, a 2015 Marlboro graduate who helped the Mustangs in their rise to prominence.

The basketball team has summoned the type of magic that characterized P.J.'s amazing performance for the Mustangs' boys soccer team only a day after his father's death. He scored two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, in a 3-2 win over Colts Neck in the state playoffs. It was an incredibly emotional scene, and one the Marlboro community will not soon forget.

"We've had a lot of firsts this season, just like we did in soccer,'' P.J. said.

Jack's absence is acutely felt during basketball season, giving how much the sport meant to him and their family.

"Before the (Freehold Township) game, I was pumping the guys up saying, 'That man loved basketball and he loved watching us play, and it would mean so much to win this for him,''' said senior guard Ryan LaRocca, who was also one of P.J.'s soccer teammates. "I'm just happy we could do that."

Sophomore forward Dylan Kaufman (22 pts, 14 rebounds) and senior forward Dan Weiss (20 points) were the stars of the historic win over the Patriots, while Ringel played an integral role as well with 10 points and 4 steals.

More importantly, his ability to split traps and protect the ball in the backcourt against the Patriots' relentless pressure was invaluable.

"P.J. has to battle so hard,'' Marlboro head coach Michael Nausedas said. "They're running three or four guys at him constantly. Everything about him is adversity and battling."

He also showed a knack for making little plays that were magnified in hindsight. After the Patriots' roared back into the game and cut the score to 45-41 with a 3-pointer that got their crowd into it late in the third quarter, Ringel drove into the lane and was fouled to silence the fans and slow the momentum. Freehold Township never got closer than four points the rest of the way.

"The kid is everything,'' Kaufman said. "He effects the game every single way - defense, loose balls, and he's a one-man press break. I know I trust him."

The heartbreak of the Ringel family has also bonded an already close-knit team, many of whom can remember soaking up basketball knowledge from Jack when they were growing up.

"I used to be at Jack Ringel's house shooting around all the time,'' said Kaufman, who was with P.J. the day he heard about his father's death. "He mentored me and he was a great guy overall. I miss him."

In five seasons under Nausedas, Marlboro has risen from the ashes of a 1-22 campaign in his first year to achieve unprecedented milestones in its history. It also has often literally been a family affair, as LaRocca's older brother Kenny was part of the teams with Matt Ringel, Justin Markowitz and George Elghoul that helped the Mustangs start their upward trajectory.

"Taking over the program five years ago, there were no expectations from anyone,'' Nausedas said. "It was just, 'Hey let's go to Marlboro and blow them out.' I'm so happy for these guys. I knew from the beginning that this is the group that was going to do it. Every year we've done something more and this is the pinnacle right now."

They had never beaten Class A North standard-bearer Christian Brothers Academy in their history until this season, and they swept both games from the Colts. Now they are in the SCT semifinals for the first time. There also is still the state tournament, where the Mustangs seek their first NJSIAA sectional title in Central Jersey Group IV, where Freehold Township is the top seed.

Marlboro has been on a steady rise under fifth-year head coach Michael Nausedas. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"I guess it's just a statement,'' Ringel said about this season. "Making noise for the school. We haven't been known for this."

"It's just something special,'' LaRocca said. "To think we're the first Marlboro team to do this is a surreal feeling."

Inspiring them along the way is the Hall of Fame coach who would always tell his son to watch all the great college point guards and see how they handle the ball and the type of effort they give on defense. Now P.J. is putting what he's learned into action for a Mustangs' team making school history at every turn.

"He would be proud,'' P.J. said.

Contact: stump@allshoremedia.com; @Scott_Stump

Sign Up For The SSN Newsletter

Please fill out this form to sign up for the Shore Sports Network newsletter.