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Last year’s outgoing Manalapan senior glass made a long climb back to the top-half of the Class A North standings, getting to the No. 4 spot in a rugged division behind only top-10 teams Middletown South, Marlboro and Christian Brothers Academy. While the divisions are not the same during this COVID-altered season, Manalapan will again have to go up against those three teams, plus quality teams from Freehold Township and Freehold Boro – all while trying to trying to put together a new core following the graduation of five players who started in 2020.

Senior guard Chris Fontera is the lone returning starter from 2020 and after serving as the team’s best spot-up shooter, his role on the team will either have to expand or he will need a playmaking guard to play alongside him. Senior Tanner Szatkowski will have a chance to be that guard by moving into the starting lineup for the first time. James Bruno and Michael Bimonte are two other junior guards to watch for the rotation.

Manalapan will sport a big, physical group in the front court, led by 6-foot-5 junior Gabe Blackwell. On a senior-heavy team, Blackwell provided a lift off the bench and showed he is talented enough to be a focal point as a junior. Senior Anthony Mezzina is moving into the starting five this season and classmate Jake Feinerman is also making that jump. Junior Dante Baron is an impressive athlete who is playing his first varsity basketball season and will be a factor off the bench. Coach Rick Garretson will have some experimenting to do with so many new pieces, but the Braves have a roster that should offer some answers to their questions.

Manalapan senior Chris Frontera. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Head Coach: Rick Garretson, 27th season
2019-20 Record: 15-10 (8-6, fourth in Class A North)
2020 Postseason Performance: Reached Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 (lost to Marlboro); reached NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals (lost to Middletown South)

Disclaimer: Projected lineups listed in the 2021 Shore Sports Network Preview are not necessarily directly from coaches. Some are, while others are projections from Shore Sports Network staff. In either case, the projected lineup is fluid and could change leading up to the start of the season and beyond. Check back for periodic updates to every team's projected starting lineup on shoresportsnetwork.com.

Projected Lineup

Chris Frontera, Sr., 6-1, Guard (RS)

Tanner Szatkowski, Sr., 5-11, Guard

Gabe Blackwell, Jr., 6-5, Forward (R)

Anthony Mezzina, Sr., 6-2, Forward (R)

Jake Feinerman, Sr., 6-2, Forward

Key Losses

Ryan Knorr, 5-10, Guard

Blake Henis, 6-6, Center

Jason Junquet, 5-10, Guard

Ryan Szatkowski, 6-4, Forward

Dan Kamen, 6-1, Forward

Off the Bench

James Bruno, Jr., 6-0, Guard

Michael Bimonte, Jr., 6-1, Guard (R)

Dante Barone, Jr., 6-3, Forward

A.J. Mancusi, Sr., 6-0, Guard

Will Servetah, Sr., 6-3, Forward

Anthony Conforth, Jr., 5-10, Guard

Michael Heckel, Jr., 6-2, Guard

John Teixeira, Sr., 6-2, Forward

Nick Arthurs, Jr., 6-0, Guard

RS – Returning Starter

R – Returning Varsity Player

 

Player to Watch: Gabe Blackwell

Although he was just the second or third player off the bench last year, Blackwell flashed his potential as a standout forward in the de factor Class A North pod-slash-division. His two best offensive games last year came against Marlboro, which finished No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. How Blackwell fares as a featured player remains to be seen, but his good games against a good team are an encouraging sign as he emerges within the program.

Big Shoes to Fill: Chris Frontera

Frontera is the most established returning player on Manalapan and for that reason, he’ll have the biggest role to play on this year’s team. A spot-up shooter last year, Frontera averaged 6.6 points per game with 47 threes and seven of his nine games with nine points or more came over the final 12 games of the season. There will be more focus given to Frontera this season, both from his own team and from opponents, and if Frontera can handle that role as a senior scorer and leader, Manalapan should again be competitive.

Impact Newcomer: Dante Barone

When it comes to Manalapan, you know there are going to be football players making an impact (Anthony Firkser, anyone?). While Barone is not Firkser, he is talented defensive end and tight end for the Braves on the gridiron and will try to bring some of that toughness to the basketball court. Manalapan has some depth in the front court and Barone has already showed he can be a big part of it.

X-Factor: Point guard

Ryan Knorr was one of the best players in the Shore Conference last season, not only finishing second in the Shore Conference in scoring at 21.6 points but also seventh in assists at 4.8. That’s a lot of production and while the Braves won’t be able to plug in one player to provide it, they will need to be able to get into their offense and create scoring opportunities for Blackwell and Frontera.

Schedule

Jan. 27 at Freehold Twp., 5:30 p.m.

Jan. 29 vs. Freehold Twp., 3:45 p.m.

Feb. 2 at Marlboro, 4 p.m.

Feb. 4 vs. Marlboro, 3:45 p.m.

Feb. 5 at Neptune, 6:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 at Freehold Boro, 5 p.m.

Feb. 10 vs. Freehold Boro, 3:45 p.m.

Feb. 16 vs. Middletown South, 3:45 p.m.

Feb. 18 at Middletown South, 6:30 p.m.

Feb. 22 vs. CBA, 3:45 p.m.

Feb. 24 at CBA, 6:45 p.m.

Feb. 26 at Matawan, 6:45 p.m.