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The 2019-20 boys basketball season started as an opportunity for the rest of the Shore Conference to push Ranney out of middle of the local spotlight and yet on the eve of the Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase, the two-time defending Shore Conference Tournament champions and reigning Tournament of Champions winners are the team to watch heading into Saturday’s festivities at Brookdale Community College.

The Ranney program and coach Tahj Holden have not run away from the scrutiny during his five decorated seasons at the helm, but the importance of Saturday’s game against Middletown South is rooted in a challenge that Holden’s team hasn’t faced in at least four years – if at all.

In order for Ranney to be a top-10 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament next month, then Saturday’s game against the Eagles – ranked No. 3 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – is a virtual must-win game.

Ranney freshman Elijah Perkins. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

For most teams, the regular season is a series of ebbs and flows in which even teams with gaudy records see their play fluctuate. For Ranney, however, the schedule features have and have-nots: as was the case last year, the Class B Central schedule does not provide ample opportunity to build an eye-catching resume, while Ranney’s remaining out-of-division schedule consists of statewide power players like Roselle Catholic and Hudson Catholic.

Saturday’s game might not be so vital for the Panthers if not for their ordinary showing at the Buc Holiday Classic, in which Ranney beat a still-winless Middletown North squad, then dropped games to Burlington Township and Red Bank.

While the 4-3 start to the season – which includes two double-digit losses – might be cause for some concern, there is also plenty of reason for optimism as it pertains to Ranney’s pursuit of a third straight trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final. The Panthers are exceedingly young, with no seniors on the roster and only two juniors – one of whom (Kyle Rhoden) is not eligible until Jan. 20. Rhoden is the last of three players who had to sit for a period of time before debuting this season and Ranney finally has two of those players – sophomore Charles Anyichie and junior Brian Day – in the rotation and contributing.

With the 6-foot-6 Anyichie and Day now in the mix with day-one starters Elijah Perkins, fellow sophomore Brandon Klatsky, sophomore Ryan Zan and freshman Zack Davis, as well as junior Nick Troccoli, sophomore Taheen Braswell-Brown and freshman A.J. Gracia providing significant contributions, Ranney has depth that few other Shore Conference teams can boast.

Middletown South seniors James Anderson and Bobby Pirie challenge Manasquan's Kieran Flanagan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

On the other side of the floor, Middletown South (8-1) will run out a six-man rotation that includes five seniors and there is an interchangeability and balance to the lineup that is unique among the Shore Conference field. James Anderson, Jack Sheridan and junior Luke Albrecht make up the skilled backcourt, 6-4 senior Bobby Pirie has taken a leap forward as Middletown South’s big man and senior Mike Dabas is a 6-1, swiss-army-knife who can battle in the trenches, take his man off the dribble or hit an open shot. Even sixth man Richie Boyko can take over a game, as he did in the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ Saturday win over Matawan.

From the Middletown South perspective, the Eagles could absorb a loss more easily than Ranney can thanks to some marquee wins over Red Bank Catholic, Marlboro and Christian Brothers Academy already on their resume. Instead, Middletown South will be looking to keep its momentum churning heading into Monday’s key Class A North home showdown with Marlboro.

Galvan’s Injury Spoils Saturday’s Main Event

Manasquan was set a heavy underdog in Saturday’s showdown with Roselle Catholic – the No. 2 team in the state according to NJ.com – as it is, even with the Warriors unbeaten and hardly challenged over their first nine games of the season.

Then 6-7 senior Alex Galvan went down with an ankle injury in Tuesday’s 67-40 win over Holmdel, forcing him out of action for an extended period of time that is likely to push into the end of the month. That means the Warriors will now have to play the loaded Lions and their imposing lineup led by 6-10 four-star recruit Cliff Omoruyi with the Shore’s best big man and his 19 points and 11.5 rebounds per game watching from the bench.

Saturday still presents a chance for those around the Shore to catch Roselle Catholic, which has plenty of weapons beyond Omoruyi. Xavier commit C.J. Wilcher and Florida commit Niels Lane are the other top scoring options for the Lions, with senior Richie Greaves and talented sophomore Corey Floyd Jr. also posing a threat on the perimeter.

With Galvan, there is a good chance Manasquan could have given Roselle Catholic a push. In last year’s Shore Conference Tournament championship game, the Warriors were within four of Ranney before ultimately losing, 70-60, in an entertaining final. While the star of that game, Brad McCabe (33 points, 9-for-11 on three-pointers), is no longer on the team, this year’s Warriors squad has been noticeably more explosive on offense and more imposing on the defensive end and with some good shooting, might have been able to hang with one of the state’s top teams.

Manasquan sophomore Ben Roy. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Without Galvan, it is hard to see how Manasquan can rebound and defend the rim to the degree it will need to in order to take the Lions down to the wire. The game is certainly an opportunity for guards Ben Roy and Kieran Flanagan to test themselves against a top-notch opponent and for juniors Casey Mulligan, Jack Collins and Connor Walsh to gain invaluable experience for the postseason, but Galvan’s injury robs both the Warriors and Roselle Catholic of a chance to take a play in a matchup worthy of the Tournament of Champions. In this scenario, there are no winners.

Fagan’s Comeback Story Continues

When junior Sam Fagan took the court on opening night as a starter in Neptune’s 52-39 loss to Matawan, it was a return to high-school action for a point guard who had suffered a gruesome leg injury one year earlier.

Fagan is indeed back, having played in all eight of Neptune’s games to open the season, but his comeback story is still not complete. According to Neptune coach and Fagan’s father, Joe Fagan, Sam has been limited in practice and has trouble practicing the day after a game because of soreness in his surgically-repaired left leg.

Despite his current limitations, Fagan has still been plenty productive for Neptune, averaging 11.5 points and 4.75 assists overall and 11.8 points and 5.8 assists over the last since games since shaking off the rust against Matawan and Elizabeth to open the season.

Neptune junior Sam Fagan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Fagan suffered an aversion of his left tibia bone in a game last December, which halted the game for more than a half-hour while paramedics came, stabilized Fagan’s leg and carted him off the floor. The junior missed the remainder of the season and could not return to the court until late in the summer. He watched from the sideline as his Neptune team reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals for the second straight year, this time losing to Burlington Township one game before the sectional final round.

Although Fagan has trouble practicing the day after games, he said playing back-to-back games is not as challenging because of the adrenaline rush. He won’t truly be 100 percent until he can get his fitness level back up with regular practices, but Fagan is in a good place compared to a year ago.

Neptune will take on Rumson-Fair Haven in the opening game of Saturday’s event. Senior Sean Young has emerged as a top scoring threat for the Fliers, coming off a six-three-pointer, 22-point outing in a loss to Wall on Thursday. Meanwhile, sophomore Malik Fields has embraced his role in the paint as a scorer and rebounder while seniors Saadiq Armstead, Azmere Wilson and Makai Suit have stepped up on the perimeter.

The Scarlet Fliers will take on a 4-1 Rumson squad that is adjusting well to its new-look lineup, which is replacing an All-Shore player in Ian O’Connor. Outside of an ugly, 41-point loss to Manasquan, the Bulldogs are off to an encouraging start, with wins over Monmouth Regional, Princeton, People’s Prep of Newark and most recently Red Bank Catholic.

Sophomore Geoff Schroeder has assumed the role of go-to scorer after averaging 11 points as a sophomore last year and senior Jack Carroll has been the player to raise his game the most, evidenced by a 31-points, 12-rebound showing vs. RBC on Tuesday.

Last year’s Boardwalk Showcase was a coming-out-party for Schroeder, who scored 32 points in a win over Middletown North.

Which CBA Shows Up Saturday?

During a 4-5 start to the year, CBA has looked lost at times and at other times have looked on the verge of breaking out with its young, senior-light roster. The Colts opened the season 0-4 with four ugly losses, albeit to quality competition that included Marlboro, Hudson Catholic and a pair of out-of-state opponents.

Since then, however, they have begun to right the ship, winning three straight and dropping a competitive, well-played, double-overtime game against 8-1 Middletown South. CBA may have taken a small step back in struggling to be 1-7 Howell on Thursday, but at the end of the day, the Colts got the win and are now focused on the challenge that awaits them Saturday.

And oh, what a challenge it is. Wildwood Catholic is the No. 5 team in the state and is a legitimate Tournament of Champions contender after nearly taking out Ranney in last year’s South Non-Public B final and returning nearly its whole roster. Senior and 6-6 forward Taj Thweat is headed to West Virginia next year and 6-7 Temple commit Jahlil White is the other half of the dynamic duo for the Crusaders.

CBA junior Mike White. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

CBA can feel better knowing it is healthier than it has been for most of the year, with junior Ryan Mabrey returning from a six-game absence on Tuesday at Middletown South. After an off-night scoring (two points) vs. the Eagles, Mabrey got back into the flow with 11 against Howell on Thursday.

With Mabrey out, several CBA players have emerged as reliable players on both ends of the floor. Juniors Mike White and Colin Farrell continue to develop as frontline players after contributing heavily last year, while juniors Ryan Cremen and Dane Moran have seized roles in the starting lineup. Moran’s emergence as a scoring and rebounding threat at 6-8 has been particularly significant for a CBA squad trying to replace 6-11 center and All-Shore performer Josh Cohen from a year ago.

Wildwood Catholic is farther along on its developmental curve but with a sophomore and four juniors in its starting lineup, CBA can gain a lot from this kind of test on this particular stage.

Wall, RBC Battle for Rankings

Both Wall and Red Bank Catholic are feeling the heat when it comes to rankings, although for different reasons.

Wall has been steady so far this season, starting 6-2 with losses to Marlboro and Irvington. The Crimson Knights are the No. 5 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and climbing another spot is not in the cards as long as Marlboro (5-2), Middletown South (8-1), Toms River North (7-2) and Manasquan (9-0) keep playing good competition.

Wall senior Quinn Calabrese drives against Red Bank Catholic sophomore Alex Bauman. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

That means Wall is just looking to hold its spot in the top five, which will be difficult in a Class B North division that has a deep stable of good teams. On Saturday, Red Bank Catholic represents a tough challenge for the Crimson Knights, who lost to RBC in last year’s Shore Conference Tournament round-of-16.

Wall will turn to senior Quinn Calabrese, junior Pat Lacey and sophomore Colin Ackerman to lead the way and exact some measure of revenge on the Caseys for last year’s defeat. Wall has struggled shooting the ball to a degree and has had third-quarter trouble in its two losses, but has masked some of those shortcomings with stellar defense, athleticism and a willingness to attack the rim.

Red Bank Catholic, meanwhile, is playing for its spot in the top 10 at this point. Since coming in at No. 7 in the last set of rankings, the Caseys dropped a road game at St. Rose by 18 points and lost to another unranked opponent Tuesday against Rumson-Fair Haven. A win over a current top-five opponent could undo those losses, and with sophomores Alex Bauman and Cyril Arvanitis playing well at the moment, the Caseys are capable of pulling it off with big games from seniors Charlie Gordinier and Kevin Bauman.

 

Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase Schedule

Saturday, Jan. 11

At Brookdale Community College

Rumson-Fair Haven vs. Neptune, Noon

Ranney vs. Middletown South, 1:40 p.m.

Manasquan vs. Roselle Catholic, 3:20 p.m.

CBA vs. Wildwood Catholic, 5 p.m.

Red Bank Catholic vs. Wall, 6:40 p.m.

 

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