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With seven of its top eight players back from last year’s Class B North and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship team, Wall appears to be the heavy favorite within the Class B North field. That assertion, however, comes with a caveat: B North remains, arguably, the most balanced division from top-to-bottom in the entire conference.

Just go back to last season. The Crimson Knights were not considered to be head and shoulders above the field going into the year but played their way to the top of the standings during a banner, 21-win season. Wall’s high expectations call for the same this year but could a new version of Wall – an up-and-coming team that made great improvements over the offseason – spoil the coronation?

With a deep field filled with varsity experience from top-to-bottom, B North is the Shore Conference division that could come up with an upset on any given night and that means Wall will be on notice each night with everyone in the division coming for the defending champs.

In predicted order of finish

Wall

Head Coach: Bob Klatt, second season
2018-19 Record: 21-9 (12-2, first in B North)
Returners: Quinn Calabrese (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Pat Lacey (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Tom Palluzzi (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Colin Ackerman (So., 5-11, Guard), Michael Caputo (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Ian Ackerman (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Logan Peters (Jr., 6-1, Forward)
Key Losses: Trey Dombroski (6-5, Forward)
Newcomers: Nick De La Cruz (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Luke McGill (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Brad Mahoney (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Chad Mahoney (Sr., 5-10, Forward)

Wall senior Quinn Calabrese throws down a dun. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Not only did Wall author a historic season for its program in 2018-19 – the Crimson Knights emerged as one of the Shore’s emergent programs with little warning. They had graduated the Shore’s second-leading scorer off a team that finished around .500 the year before and yet the team improved dramatically with a more balanced, experienced roster from top-to-bottom. It all added up to a Class B North championship and the Crimson Knights’ first sectional championship in 46 years.

As it turned out, Wall still had a star player in the fold last year. Quinn Calabrese enjoyed a breakout junior season and returns as one of the Shore’s top seniors after putting up 18 points per game for the 21-win Crimson Knights. Wall’s other top producers back from last year are from the junior and sophomore class, which gives Wall a chance to be even better this season and suggests this run may be far from over. Junior Pat Lacey averaged better than 10 points and two assists per game as the team’s second option on offense, while junior Tom Palluzzi and sophomore Colin Ackerman emerged as scoring options on the perimeter as well.

Wall’s back court is as deep and talented as any in the Shore Conference heading into the season but its inside play is more of an unknown after the graduation of top rebounder and secondary scoring option Trey Dombroski. Seniors Mike Caputo and Ian Ackerman bring plenty of toughness, as does junior Logan Peters – the standout quarterback for Wall’s 12-1, sectional championship football team. The new bench players are also seniors and profile more as guards as well so there will be some mixing and matching for second-year coach Bob Klatt to figure out as Wall attempts to build on its surprising campaign from a year ago.

Neptune

Head Coach: Joe Fagan, sixth season
2018-19 Record: 18-10 (10-4, second in B North)
Returners: Sam Fagan (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Sean Young (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Sadiq Armstead (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Everett Cheavers (Jr., 6-4, Center), Malik Fields (So., 6-4, Forward), Sahmad Armstead (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Jett Tinik (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Makai Suit (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Dwaine Jones (6-3, Guard), Brian Roberts (6-1, Guard), Mekhi Moore (6-9, Center)
Newcomers: Nyron Mitchell (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Jase Hoffman (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Azmere Wilson (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Michael Daniels (Fr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Bryson Bird (Jr., 5-5, Guard)

Neptune sophomore Sam Fagan. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Neptune overcame some serious adversity last season to reach the Central Jersey Group III semifinals for the second straight season while winning 18 games. After graduating a First-Team All-Shore big man in Jared Kimbrough, the Scarlet Fliers lost sophomore point guard Sam Fagan to a gruesome leg injury in December and had to ride guard Dwaine Jones and a mostly inexperienced supporting cast the rest the way.

Nearly a year removed from his injury, Fagan – the son of head coach Joe Fagan – is back on the court to lead the Scarlet Fliers and has steadily been getting his conditioning and confidence back. Although Jones has since moved on, Neptune does bring back a roster that has more varsity experience heading into the season than it did a year ago and that should set the Fliers up for success. Seniors Sean Young and Sadiq Armstead emerged as capable scorers last year, with Young serving as a spot-up shooter and Armstead a relentless defender to go with it. Seniors Sahmad Armstead, Jett Tinik and Makai Suit are also back as reliable bench players.

Neptune’s underclass, front-court tandem of junior Everett Cheavers and sophomore Malik Fields will look to take the next step and give the Scarlet Fliers an edge in the paint. Senior Azmere Wilson has worked his way into a key role this season with a chance to start with Fagan, Young and Armstead in a guard-heavy lineup. This lineup should flourish with Fagan back running the point and if the junior guard continues to improve physically, Neptune should be among the contenders to reach the SCT championship game and make noise in the state tournament.

Ocean

Head Coach: John Terlecsky, 12th season
2018-19 Record: 13-14 (5-9, tied sixth in B North)
Returners: Jack Miller (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Sam Meeks (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Corey Miller (So., 6-1, Guard), Cole Kelly (Sr., 6-5, Center), Jack Savare (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Evan Peters (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Matt Shaw (Jr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Michael Cascaes (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Blake Arlington (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Brent Gaber (Sr., 6-0, Forward)
Newcomers: Axel Boonman (Sr., 6-6, Center) – transfer from Mexico; Ishyne Woodard (Sr., Guard, 5-10), Kevin D’Auria (Sr., 5-9, Guard)

Ocean senior Jack Miller elevates for a shot. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ocean’s plan last year was to tread water for the first month of the season and hit its stride upon the arrival of transfers Sam Meeks and Jack Savare. Injuries disrupted those plans late in the season but the good news for the Spartans is those transfers came in expecting to make a multi-year impact and will have a chance to fulfill that promise this year. Meeks and Savare are projected starters for Ocean in their second varsity season and will look to complement a pair of brothers who can score with just about any duo at the Shore.

Jack Miller enters his senior season having already joined the 1,000-point club and after averaging 18.9 points per game as a junior. Sophomore and younger brother, Corey Miller, was the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.7, finishing less than 0.1 ahead of Meeks in per-game average. Corey will run the point, with Jack Miller and Meeks playing off the ball in the back court. Seniors Ishyne Woodard and Kevin D’Auria join the list of guards as well.

Savare is a versatile option in the front court who can play on the wing or down low. As for the more traditional big men, Ocean has 6-5 senior Cole Kelly primed for his best season and 6-6 center Axel Boonman ready to contribute in his first season with the Spartans. With all the firepower on the perimeter, offense might not be a necessity from the big men but if they can score in the paint while doing the job on the glass and on defense, Ocean will have a chance to challenge for the division title and a deep postseason march.

Matawan

Head Coach: John Giraldo, fifth season
2018-19 Record: 14-13 (7-7, third in B North)
Returners: John Buekers (Sr., 6-6, Center), Ethan Okello (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Niles Haliburton (Sr., 6-4, Guard), Zaire Williams (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Andre Wells (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Quincy Wathington (6-0, Guard), Justyn Coleman (6-2, Forward), Trevor Garland (6-0, Guard)
Newcomers: Ian Richardson (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Gio Gallo (Jr., 5-11, Forward), Elijah McKenzie (Sr., 6-5, Center), Carlos Zeno (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Colin Haluska (Fr., 6-2, Guard)

Matawan senior Niles Haliburton. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

A strong start to the season in 2018-19 signaled Matawan might be ready to return to the ranks of Shore teams contending for championships but the Huskies fizzled out down the stretch after suffering a similar fate the prior season. With three starters and a pair of key reserves back, the goal in 2020 is clear: win B North and go deep into the two tournaments.

The Huskies will have a good blend of size, athleticism and shooting, led by 6-4 guard Niles Haliburton. The reigning all-division swingman was a breakout star for Matawan a year ago and should build on his junior campaign. The Huskies also bring back three-year starters John Beukers and Ethan Okello, with Beukers giving Matawan and well-rounded big man at 6-6 and Okello back to run the point for the second straight year. Senior Zaire Williams saw important minutes off the bench last year and junior Andre Wells emerged as a key scoring option down the stretch of his sophomore season and another option at point guard to allow Okello to play off the ball more often.

Matawan is aiming to lean on some more depth this season, with some size coming off the bench in 6-3 junior Ian Richardson and 6-5 senior Elijah McKenzie. McKenzie can give the Huskies depth behind Beukers or share the floor with the four-year letter-winner to give opponents some serious length to counter. Freshman guard Colin Haluska will also be looking to make a varsity impact for a Matawan team that is due for a better start-to-finish with a heavier senior influence on the floor and in the locker room.

St. John Vianney

Head Coach: Ryan Finch, fourth season
2018-19 Record: 12-15 (6-8, tied fourth in B North)
Returners: Kevin Greene (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Nate Williams (So., 6-2, Forward), Jahmal Garraway (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Alex Leiba (Sr., 6-9, Center), Ryan DiPede (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Evan Purdy (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: James Rapley (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Justin Steuerer (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Christian Booker (Sr., 6-3, Guard)
Newcomers: Kyle Verriest (Fr., 6-0, Guard), Brian Stuart (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Omar Calderon (So., 6-2, Guard) – transfer from Marlboro

A previously mentioned, Wall broke out last season despite graduating its top player from the prior season and that could very well be a narrative that St. John Vianney embraces heading into this season. James Rapley was the team’s top scorer and rebounder a year ago but will bring back the majority of its deep rotation from a year ago.

Senior point guard Kevin Greene is an experienced floor general who can also knock down open shots and will be directing a starting five that includes two other key returnees. Senior Jahmal Garraway and sophomore Nate Williams each averaged seven points per game a year ago, with the 6-2 Williams looking poised for a stellar career after making an impact as a freshman. Seniors Alex Leiba, Ryan DiPede and Evan Purdy all saw time as well and at 6-9, Leiba has a chance to make a major impact in his final high school season.

Fourth-year coach Ryan Finch will work in a few newcomers as well. Freshman Kyle Verriest contributed on the football field at the varsity level and is ready to do the same on the hardwood. Junior Brian Stuart will provide some more size at 6-3 and Marlboro transfer Omar Calderon will help out at the two and the three spots on the floor.

Red Bank

Head Coach: Scott Martin, 19th season
2018-19 Record: 10-15 (5-9, tied sixth in B North)
Returners: Matt Weidman (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Drew Valentino (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Nick Ferrogine (Jr., 5-11, Forward), Patrick Murray (So., 6-3, Guard), Erik Christie (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Seth Cousins (Sr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Dean Hottmann (6-7, Center), Liam Joyce (6-0, Guard), Brian Forsman (6-3, Forward), Aidan Gilmartin (6-2, Guard), Gavin Mahoney (6-2, Forward)
Newcomers: Michael Tobin (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Jasir Lewis-Burgess (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Brendan Cashin (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Bodhi Martin (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Enoch Hutchinson (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Keegan (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Owen Laughlin (Jr., 6-2, Guard)

Although we have ventured into the bottom half of the projected standings, this group of teams could best be classified as “under-the-radar contenders”. That might just seem like a nice way to say the “also-rans” but in this year’s B North – as was the case in last year’s B North – whichever teams end up in the wrong half of the standings will be quality teams. That includes Red Bank, which opened its season by squandering a double-digit lead to Wall en route to a 5-9 division record. Had the Bucs closed that game out, the season could have been very different for both teams.

With an experienced group back this season, the Bucs are hoping to storm out of the gate this season. Seniors Matt Weidman and Drew Valentino return as the top scorers from a year ago – Weidman at 10.5 and Valentino at 10.1 points per game. Junior Nick Ferrogine also returns with two years of varsity experience, with sophomore Patrick Murray and seniors Erik Christie and Seth Cousins also back in the rotation.

Cousins and Ferrogine will be the muscle in the front court, while senior Jasir Lewis-Burgess looks to add some depth in his first full varsity season. The rest of the team will provide depth in the back court, with juniors Bodhi Martin, Enoch Hutchinson, Matt Keegan and Owen Laughlin angling for spots in the rotation. They will need some help, but the group of Weidman, Valentino, Ferrogine and Murray should steer the Bucs ship toward a competitive season in B North.

Middletown North

Head Coach: Mike Iasparro, 13th season
2018-19 Record: 11-17 (5-9, tied sixth in B North)
Returners: Matt Spencer (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Ryan Rozinski (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Quentin Soler (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Matt Kenny (So., 5-10, Guard), Mike Frazee (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Vinny Pennino (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Alex Bogues (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Tommy Giannone (So., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Rob Higgins (6-1, Guard), Anthony Soto (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Newcomers: Danny Frontera (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Brendan Kelly (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Malik Solimon (Jr., 6-0, Forward)

Middletown North basketball has been built around Rob Higgins in each of the past three seasons and in each season, Higgins led the Shore Conference in scoring while wracking up more than 2,200 points. That might lead the casual observer to write off Middletown North as a team ticketed for a rebuilding year without their All-Shore scorer but a closer look at the roster gives the Lions some hope heading into the new season.

Outside of Higgins, the lone loss from last year’s team is senior Anthony Soto and that is the result of an injury sustained during the Lions’ football season. Matt Spencer and Ryan Rozinski will be two of the senior leaders, with both standing at 6-2 and Spencer playing on the wing and Rozinski on the interior. Junior Quentin Soler came on over the course of last season at point guard to allow Higgins to play off the ball more often and will have the ball in his hands to start up the offense for the Lions.

Sophomore Matt Kenny, junior Vinny Pennino and senior Mike Frazee also played in last year’s back court and sophomore Tommy Giannone and junior Alex Bogues are back to provide some toughness and size on the interior. Junior Danny Frontera also joins the rotation after missing last season while recovering from elbow surgery. It will take some time to adjust to a new, more balanced offense without Higgins but Middletown North has the pieces to reinvent itself with a host of shooters on the floor.

Colts Neck

Head Coach: Lou Piccola, 21st season
2018-19 Record: 11-13 (6-8, tied fifth in B North)
Returners: Stephen Ciccarone (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Richard Lee (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Ryan Thaler (Sr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Andrew Abujawdeh (6-1, Guard), Brian Hill (6-3, Forward), Sean Tice (6-3, Forward)
Newcomers: Aidan Horan (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Delano Marcelus (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Matteo Piperno (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Tommy Fallon (So., 6-3, Forward), Will Surdez (Fr., 6-1, Guard)

Colts Neck has been one of the Shore’s steadiest programs under veteran coach Lou Piccola and last year was a rare losing season for the Cougars. While that was a disappointing result, it was still an accomplishment of sorts considering how many players Colts Neck had graduated from the previous year’s team, which lost in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final.

For the second straight year, Colts Neck will have a lot of production to replace, most notably standout guard Andrew Abujawdeh and forwards Brian Hill and Sean Tice – the three top offensive threats on the team. With those three graduating in the spring, the team becomes a junior-reliant outfit, led by returning point guard Richard Lee and wing Stephen Ciccarone. Senior Ryan Thaler also comes back with varsity playing experience and will help ease the transition for the Cougars.

Six-foot guard Matteo Piperno and 6-3 forward Delano Marcelus are two more juniors poised to contribute in the new rotation while senior Aidan Horan looks to make his mark as well. Sophomore Tommy Fallon and freshman Will Surdez will aim to make an impact as underclassmen for Colts Neck, which will try to overcome sporting the division’s least experienced roster to keep up with the top teams in the division, as the Cougars so often do.

 

B North Players to Watch

Quinn Calabrese, Wall – After leading Wall to its first sectional championship since 1973 and averaging 18 points per game as a second-team All-Shore selection, Calabrese is among the favorites in what should be a wide-open battle for Player of the Year.

Jack Miller, Ocean – Already a 1,000-point scorer, Miller will now try to help his Spartans reach heights not seen at Ocean in a while. That would include a B North title and runs into the sectional semifinals and Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

Sam Fagan, Neptune – Although he is still recovering from a broken bone in his leg, Fagan’s return to the floor gives Neptune instant credibility as a Shore Conference contender, as well as a savvy floor general.

Pat Lacey, Wall – Now a junior, Lacey could make an even bigger leap than he did from freshman to sophomore year, which would give Wall two dynamic scorers on the perimeter.

Niles Haliburton, Matawan – Last year’s Matawan squad boasted a balanced scoring attack, but Haliburton stood out as the most explosive scorer on the rare occasion that one person took over a game.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Colin Ackerman, Wall – While Lacey is the natural choice to back up Calabrese as the second-leading scorer, Ackerman has similar traits after an impressive freshman season coming off the bench for a sectional-championship winning team.

Everett Cheavers, Neptune – With plenty of guards surrounding him, Cheevers gives Neptune size in the paint – both to rebound and finish plays around the basket.

Nate Williams, St. John Vianney – Williams got his feet wet as a freshman last season and could be ready for a big jump as a member of an experienced Lancers team hoping to put it all together in 2018-19.

Andre Wells, Matawan – Wells came on strong at the end of last season as an option off the bench and with the Huskies looking to replace a pair of starters, the junior looks like a good bet to take some back-court pressure off both Haliburton and Okello.

Quentin Soler, Middletown North – With no more Rob Higgins to run the show, Soler will have the ball in his hands a lot more and with so many shooters surrounding him, high assist totals should be in his immediate future.

 

Burning Questions

How will Wall handle being a defending champion?

Wall came out of nowhere to win its first 10 division games of last season en route to a B North title, then held serve as the No. 1 seed to win the Central Jersey Group III championship. This year, the bulls-eye will be squarely on the Crimson Knights as they try to both repeat while also building on that 21-win season. Although it was a banner year, Wall did not reach the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals and unraveled against Moorestown in the Group III semifinal – two sources of motivation for the many returning Crimson Knights players.

Is Sam Fagan all the way back?

It’s hard to imagine a player being totally recovered less than a year after suffering a compound leg fracture and to that effect, Fagan is still working to develop both strength and confidence in his left leg. The silver lining with Fagan is he is such a cerebral, fundamentally-sound player that even if his body is still adjusting, he still brings plenty to the table as a point guard and leader for the Scarlet Fliers.

Is Ocean primed for a jump into a weekly Top 10 spot?

Ocean was hoping to round into form at the end of last season but it never quite materialized after transfers Sam Meeks and Jack Savare became eligible. The Spartans still had some memorable moments, including a buzzer-beating win over Wall – a sign the Ocean is primed for a major step forward now that just about every key player from last year is back and a year older.

Can Matawan finish strong?

The Huskies stormed out to hots starts in recent years but the postseason has not been as kind to Matawan. This year’s Matawan team has a little more experience and depth than either of the past two Huskies teams have boasted, so there is hope that regardless of how things start, the Huskies will be better prepared to handle the full season and peak at the end.

Are the Higgins-less Lions a B North sleeper?

Losing 28 points per game Rob Higgins averaged last season might seam impossible to replace, but Middletown North has plenty of game experience coming back. The challenge for coach Mike Iasparro will be reconfiguring the offense so that it is a more balanced attack – something he has coached before but that his returning players will have to adjust to somewhat over the season’s first few weeks.