It didn’t take a narrative for Tahj Holden to earn his first Coach of the Year Award from the Shore Conference Basketball Coaches, but the third-year boys basketball head coach at the Ranney School found himself entrenched in one that he would much rather have avoided.

In most instances, Holden prefers to avoid the spotlight – not an easy task for a man who slowly paces the sidelines at nearly seven-feet tall. He prefers the attention be on his players, which makes Ranney the perfect job for the former University of Maryland center and Red Bank Regional star. The Panthers boast Division I talent throughout their starting five, including high-flying, five-star juniors Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine.

Everything went according to plan for Holden and Ranney through the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B championship game. Ranney won the outright Class B Central championship, captured its first Shore Conference Tournament championship and took home its first-ever NJSIAA Sectional title – all of which earned Holden Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year honors.

"Taking a program that wasn't in the Shore Conference until six years ago and pretty rapidly could compete in the state and the Shore Conference and even nationally is a pretty impressive thing,” Holden said following his team’s Shore Conference Tournament championship victory on Feb. 24. “And it's all been done by a great group of guys. The guys I have had in the program for the last three years are not only good basketball players - they are good people."

After beating Trenton Catholic to win the South Non-Public B crown, however, Holden found out his youngest son, Max, had a form of cancer called Neuroblastoma. The aftermath of the news took Holden away from his team while it prepared to play Roselle Catholic – the eventual Tournament of Champions winner and No. 1 team in N.J. – to be with his wife, Max and older son, Cole. Max underwent successful surgery to remove a tumor from his liver the day before Ranney was to take on Roselle Catholic and Holden finally made it back to be with his team in time to take on the Lions in Toms River on March 10.

Ranney boys basketball coach Tahj Holden. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Ranney boys basketball coach Tahj Holden. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Despite missing the entire three days of preparation, the Roselle Catholic game was as good of an example as any to show Holden’s impact on the talented Panthers roster. Ranney absorbed a number of blows from Roselle Catholic before getting on a roll that paced the Panthers to a seven-point lead inside of three minutes to go.

LSU-bound forward Naz Reid took over in the final 2:45 to carry the Lions to a thrilling 63-61 win that sealed the Non-Public B title and a trip to the Tournament of Champions. Despite coming up short, Ranney was just as much the talk of the state after the game as Roselle Catholic was after cementing its place among the state’s elite and setting the stage for 2018-19, when the Panthers will likely be the favorite to win the T of C.

A “Coach of the Year” in any context can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s more about exceeding expectations. For others it is about the absolute results. And for others still, there is a level of sportsmanship and a style of play that should come with a well-coached team. Despite entering the season with sky-high expectations, Holden and Ranney checked off all three boxes during their banner 2017-18 campaign.

Ranney finished the season 28-5 with no losses within the Shore Conference and just three to teams in N.J. – two of which came against Roselle Catholic. Two of their losses came with at least one starter missing, including a 25-point loss to Roselle Catholic in which Lewis and fellow junior Alex Klatsky did not play due to injury.

Although Ranney was the overwhelming favorite to win the Shore Conference Tournament, it still managed to do so in impressive fashion by winning four games by an average of a little more than 24 points per game. In the championship game, Ranney held two-time defending champion Mater Dei Prep to 28 points in a 52-28 win at Monmouth University. Mater Dei finished No. 2 at the Shore and among the top 20 in the state.

While Ranney’s elite talent is undeniable, a staple of the Panthers in Holden’s three seasons has been their team-oriented play. While Antoine and Lewis are the marquee names on the team, it was junior guard Ahmadu Sarnor who led Ranney in scoring in the SCT final against Mater Dei and in the Non-Public B final against Roselle Catholic. Sarnor took a back seat his two junior teammates to run the point throughout the season and both Lewis and Antoine were unselfish enough to turn the offense over to Sarnor when he got going in two of the biggest games of the season.

In consecutive games during the NJSIAA Tournament, two different players led Ranney in scoring. Lewis (35 points) and Sarnor (31) both scored career-highs in a 101-90 win over Rutgers Prep and in the next game, Bryan Antoine put up 31 while Klatsky poured in 17 in the team’s fourth win of the season over Mater Dei.

Speaking of the rival Seraphs, Ranney entered the season 4-1 against Mater Dei over the past two seasons – which mirror the tenures of both Holden and 2016 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year Ben Gamble. After a clean sweep of the Seraphs – including three wins by 14 points or more – Ranney now owns a 5-4 edge during this successful three-year stretch for both programs.

Holden faced plenty of pressure as a first-time head coach taking on this talented team with high-expectations and his calm disposition has had a steadying effect on his players as they have matured. He brought on Shore Conference coaching veteran Rich Sherman as his assistant for his first year and added longtime Pinelands head coach John Tierney to the fold last season. The mix has worked for Ranney’s players with Holden the calming voice leading the huddle.

The off-the-court challenge that Holden and his family are set to take on provides further perspective for a Ranney roster with no shortage of it. The group has participated in fundraisers to combat both ALS and homelessness and Antoine and Lewis spend time after games taking photos with young fans hoping to get a chance to meet a future NBA player.

They have also been supportive of their head coach – a demonstration that the bond is more than just a player and a head coach.

"The fact that (Holden) showed up (for the Roselle Catholic game) is just incredible," Lewis said. "Having to drive an hour-and-a-half after being in the hospital all week just to coach us - dealing with his wife and his family and Cole - I have nothing but respect and love for Tahj. He has been a father figure for me for the last three years and he has taught me nothing but good things. He has taught me to have the willpower to fight through things and watching him go through this, he is doing everything he has taught me."


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