Boys Basketball – 2016 Coach of the Year: Ben Gamble, Mater Dei Prep
The 2015-16 boys basketball season at Mater Dei Prep was as much a choice as it was an accomplishment and the decision to go for a Shore Conference Tournament championship was officially made on June 10, 2015.
It was on that day that the newly-formed Board of Trustees at the school – created in the wake of a fundraising effort that pulled the school off life support after St. Mary’s Parish announced its pending closing in February of that same year – decided it wanted to be a destination for basketball players.
The board and Athletic Director Dennis Tobin relieved incumbent Bob Klatt – and his resume of Shore Conference quarterfinal trips in 2001 and 2002 and a division title in 2005 – of his head coaching duties and brought in Ben Gamble, whose subsequent efforts earned him the 2015-16 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.
Gamble spent 15 seasons as an assistant at St. Anthony under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and previously spent brief stints as the head coach at Hudson Catholic and as an assistant at Kean University. After finishing his run at St. Anthony as associate head coach, Gamble took the head coaching job at Cardinal McCarrick and quickly turned the Eagles into a 20-win team in 2014-15 after some lean recent years in South Amboy.
While Mater Dei Prep was in the final stages of staving off its own closing, the Diocese of Metuchen announced Cardinal McCarrick’s closing at the end of the year and there would be no equivalent to the “Save Our Seraphs” movement for the South Amboy school.
That left Gamble and five noteworthy players on his McCarrick squad without a team to play for in 2015-16 and while Mater Dei already had a coach, the powers that be at the school decided an opportunity to hire someone with Gamble’s background and reputation was too good to pass up, especially with the school now seeking anyway it could to keep its doors open.
Gamble took over a program that had not had a winning season in the previous six campaigns and had not won a division title since 2005. While Gamble was set on changing that, he had plenty of help in the form of the players that followed him to Mater Dei. Four of his Cardinal McCarrick players came with him to Middletown, with only Gilberto Cue veering off to attend Roselle Catholic.
That McCarrick core of All-Shore point guard NyQuan McCombs, fellow seniors Bryan Harris Josh Green and junior Elijah Mitchell were instrumental during Mater Dei’s march to the program’s first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship. The influx of new players at Mater Dei was not, however, limited to Cardinal McCarrick transfers. Junior Elijah Barnes enrolled at Mater Dei after beginning his high school career at Freehold Borough and spending his sophomore year at Central Regional, giving Gamble and Co. a 6-foot-7 rim protector and second-team All-Shore player.
A trio of players from Marist High School in Bayonne also made the move south, beginning with senior guard and All-Shore third-teamer Kyle Elliot, followed by junior forward Maleek McKnight and sophomore combo guard Kenny Jones. Rahway transfer Marvin Pierre also joined the team 30 days into the season, giving Mater Dei a regular rotation of nine transfers.
While Gamble’s team of transfers had its skeptics and critics, they also blended relatively quickly while rallying around the strong personality of their head coach. Mater Dei lost its first game of the season on Jan. 3 – a 38-35 loss to defending NJSIAA Non-Public champion Pope John – and did not lose again until March 5.
That two month unbeaten stretch featured a 23-game winning streak that spanned most of the Class B Central season, a healthy slate of showcase games and the Shore Conference Tournament. Mater Dei went into the SCT as the No. 1 seed and rolled through its first three tournament games by an average margin of 12.3 points before facing its toughest challenge of the season in the final.
In front of a capacity crowd at Monmouth University, Mater Dei labored through nearly three full quarters against Christian Brothers Academy and trailed the Colts 36-18 with a little more than a minute remaining in the third quarter. At that point, the Seraphs began one of the great comebacks in SCT history, outscoring CBA 32-7 over the final nine-plus minutes and beating the 16-time champions 50-43 for their first ever tournament title.
"We never give up," Harris said after scoring a game-high 14 points off the bench in Mater Dei’s win over CBA. "No matter what happens, we don't give up, that's just how it is. Coach Gamble has a very big effect in that way. He sets the guidelines and we follow them because we know if we listen and stick to the way we do things, great things will happen."
Mater Dei’s season ended on the road at Gill St. Bernard, 54-51, in the South Jersey Non-Public B quarterfinals – a state tournament run that included an overtime win at Trenton Catholic one round earlier – and capped a 26-2 season that exceeded the already-high expectations for the new-look program.
Although anyone paying attention to Gamble’s history and the talent that flocked to play for him expected big things in year one, a 23-game winning streak and a Shore Conference Tournament title in year one went above and beyond for a program that almost disappeared for good one year earlier.