Brian Lynch remembers the first time he laid eyes on Matt Hodge and he looked nothing like a high-major college basketball player.

That’s because he was an infant.

While transitioning from playing to coaching in Belgium, Lynch had a player on his team in Odell Hodge that would become his close friend. When Odell’s second son, Jayden, was born, he gave Lynch the honor of being the his godfather.

Lynch would move back to New Jersey, where he made a name for himself as a high-school standout at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft before going on to play at Villanova and later professionally in Europe. After settling back into Monmouth County, he took the head coaching job at St. Rose High School in 2021-22.

At the end of his first season as head coach, he got a call from his friend, Odell. His boys were ready to move to the U.S. and Odell wanted them to play for his favorite coach and good friend.

Lynch was excited to see the boys, but he did not know what to expect. He had not seen either in years.

St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

With a father like Odell – a 6-foot-9 center who starred at Old Dominion during his day – Lynch had some idea of what he might be getting. What he saw up close over the next two years exceeded his wildest expectations.

The Hodge brothers made an instant impact in New Jersey High School basketball and as the older brother by two years, Matt was the leader of the St. Rose renaissance of the past two seasons. This past year, Matt Hodge took his game to the next level and his team to new heights, making him the slam-dunk choice as the 2023-24 Shore Sports Network Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

"There are so many ways that he impacts the game outside of just scoring -- the drop-off passes when he hits his brother or (senior teammate) Gio (Panzini) on cuts -- it's unbelievable," Lynch said. "What I love about Matt is he is not your typical high-profile guy, and we've got some great players in this state, like (Don Bosco guard) Dylan Harper. What Matt does differently is he is impacting every aspect of the game on top of the scoring and that's what makes him so special. He is a complete player."

In his first year stateside in 2022-23, Hodge was a First-Team All-Shore selection and put himself on the radar of a long list of Division I basketball programs. In the process, he led St. Rose to its first ever Shore Conference Tournament semifinal and its first NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B championship in 19 years, which landed the Purple Roses at No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network rankings and in the final state top 20.

As great as year one for Hodge at St. Rose was, year two dwarfed it. By the surface-level numbers, Hodge’s two seasons were similar. He increased his scoring average from 14.7 points as a junior to 17 as a senior, but also saw decreases in rebounds (9.6 to 6.7) and assists (4.75 to 3.5) per game.

The reasons for those drops were all, more-or-less, by design. One major reason for Hodge’s lower per-game averages in rebound and assists was a lower per-game average in minutes. St. Rose pummeled Shore Conference opponents to the point that Hodge averaged under three-quarters-worth of minutes in those games.

Another component to the slight change in statistical profile was a concerted effort by Hodge – spurred on by Lynch – to become more aggressive demanding the ball and looking for his shot. That was evident early on in the season, with Hodge scoring 30 or more points in two of St. Rose’s first three non-conference games – including 30 on opening night vs. the Patrick School National team.

St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

“Sometimes, I just need to remind him that nobody else on our team is going to do it as well as you are,” Lynch said of Matt Hodge and his scoring ability. “So just go do it, and he has been stepping up big-time. He is a fun guy to have on your team.”

The last component to Hodges smaller statistical share was the improvement of his team – both at the individual level for each player and for the group as a whole. With classmate Gio Panzini working the glass and junior Evan Romano handling the ball far more often than he did last year, other players played more prominent roles that moved Hodge off the ball more often and with the directive to attack once he did get the ball.

Hodge’s first game of the season was the 30-point performance in a 62-59 loss to the Patrick School and nine days later, he topped that showing with the best offensive performance of his career. Facing Rutgers Prep on the road, Hodge went off for a career-high 38 points in 26 minutes on 15-for-17 shooting from the field, including 7-for-7 from three-point range. Hodge was cruising toward 40 points and might have had a shot at 50, but he landed awkwardly after being fouled on a breakaway attempt and was removed from the one-sided game for precautionary reasons with under six minutes to play.

All but one of St. Rose’s 29 wins came by double-figure margins and in the Purple Roses’ lone close win, Hodge exhibited his crunch-time prowess. After St. Benedict’s rallied to send its Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase game vs. St. Rose into overtime, Hodge took over in the extra session, scoring 10 of his game-high 27 points in the two overtime periods to lead St. Rose to a 52-48 win over the Gray Bees.

Hodge later put up back-to-back 23-point outings in wins over top-10 Shore teams Holmdel and Red Bank Catholic. In a road rout of Holmdel – the No. 4 team in the final Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings – Hodge went 8-for-8 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line while playing less than three quarters of the game.

A season ago, Hodge had some standout shooting performances, but his consistency shooting the ball from all over the court – particularly from beyond the three-point line – noticeably improved and was the result of a concerted effort.

St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

“I feel like that’s something I really worked on over the summer and in the spring from last year,” Hodge said. “I felt that was short in my game last year, not really consistent with it and that’s what I wanted to be this year.”

Come tournament time, St. Rose was even more dominant behind the Hodge-led effort. During the Shore Conference Tournament, he averaged 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and five assists as St. Rose steamrolled four consecutive opponents to win its first ever conference championship.

Hodge missed St. Rose’s first NJSIAA South Non-Public B game due to illness and St. Rose got by with a 57-46 win over Wildwood Catholic. After that, he averaged 20.3 points, eight rebounds, four assists and 1.3 blocks over St. Rose’s final three games and closed out his career with 14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots in the Non-Public B final at Rutgers.

St. Rose’s defense was dominant with Hodge on the floor to protect the rim along with the 6-foot-6 Panzini. Hodge defended players from across the offensive skill spectrum and with the 6-8 senior leading the way, St. Rose limited five opponents to below 40 points during the two postseason tournaments, including two below 30 in the two championship games.

In the Shore Conference final, St. Rose handled Manasquan, 48-27, with Hodge neutralizing Warriors standout and fellow Player of the Year finalist Griffin Linstra. Against Immaculate Conception of Montclair in the final game of the season, St. Rose again held the Lions – a state-ranked opponent – to under 30 points in a 73-29 win.

Hodge will follow in his head coach’s footsteps when he attends Villanova in the fall. He chose the Wildcats this past fall after his recruitment picked up between the end of his junior season and the beginning of the school year.

Although he was born in another country and his time as a varsity player at the Jersey Shore was relatively brief, Hodge left an impact on the Shore Conference that won’t soon be forgotten at St. Rose and all throughout New Jersey.

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