Boys Basketball – Battle-Test Holmdel Seniors Lead Hornets to Shore Conference Tournament Quarterfinals
HOLMDEL -- The Holmdel boys basketball seniors felt they should have been seeded better than No. 7 in the Shore Conference Tournament, but they let other people feel outraged about it.
After what they have been through as a team over the last two seasons, they are excited to be playing and glad to be getting a chance to prove themselves on the court.
The Hornets had their backs against the wall Thursday night against No. 10 Manalapan in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 and the senior trio of Nick Seeloch, James Vallillo and Ben Kipnis played like the four-year varsity players that they are in dragging Holmdel to a 61-59 overtime win.
The victory sends Holmdel to the SCT quarterfinals for the second time in five seasons and the first time for this group of seniors, which also includes starting forward Daxx Corneiro.
"Obviously, we felt like we should have been ahead of Toms River North (in the seeding) because of head-to-head," said Vallillo, referring to a Holmdel win at sixth-seeded Toms River North in January. "But we didn't really pay much attention to it after it came out, especially with coach (Sean) Devaney. We got a little fire to us, but right after that, we were like, 'Okay, we're the seventh seed. It's all good.'"
"We just needed to play with a chip on our shoulder," Seeloch said. "That's what we did today. We just need to keep bringing it back."
As sophomores in 2021-22, Vallillo, Seeloch and Kipnis nearly broke through into the SCT quarterfinals, but lost at Jackson Memorial, 76-72, in double-overtime in the round of 16. That team also had then-freshman Evan Romano, who transferred to St. Rose the following season. Already down Romano, Vallillo missed most of the 2022-23 season with a foot injury and Holmdel finished 10-13.
"It was tough being out last year," Vallillo said. "Sophomore year, we knew we had a good future, but things happen. We had an off-year last year, but this year has been great. We're 18-2. There's not much more you can ask for at this point."
"We had a solid team freshman year, solid team sophomore year," Seeloch said. "We took a bump junior year, but it's great right now. We are playing together as team and hopefully we can keep making some noise."
Holmdel came into this season healthy and primed for a return-to-glory season, but after he scored 24 points in an overtime win over Middletown South to open the season, Seeloch underwent an emergency appendectomy the next day and missed six games.
Over his first nine games following his return to action, Seeloch averaged 11.3 points per game with just three games in double-figures and a 27-point outing vs. Wall accounting for 25 percent of the scoring in that stretch of games. Over the last four games, however, he is averaging 24 per game and has scored at least 20 in each -- including in Thursday's game.
"I lost about 15 pounds," Seeloch said. "I felt like I wasn't playing like myself, so I had to take a step back and figure out how I could help the team every game. Now, I'm getting into again and it's tournament time, so you have to pick it up. I feel great."
Seeloch led Holmdel with a game-high 24 points in the round-of-16 win and accounted for all of Holmdel's scoring in overtime. He hit a pair of free throws to open up the overtime scoring, then scored in transition off a feed from classmate James Vallillo for a 60-56 Hornets lead.
"We rebounded pretty well in the fourth and in overtime," Seeloch said. "We got the ball out quickly and were able to convert on a couple big shots. Ben hit a floater to help us get to overtime, C.J. (Karis) hit a big three to get us closer. Without those rebounds and getting them to take some bad shots, it was big for us."
Manalapan senor Phil Pearlman, who led the Braves with 19 points to go with 10 rebounds, scored on a putback to cut the deficit to 60-58 and Manalapan forced a Holmdel turnover with under a minute to go.
Senior Anthony Leger made one of two free throws to pull Manalapan within 60-59, then Seeloch made the first of two from the line to push the Holmdel lead back to 61-59 with 16.8 seconds left.
Junior Aiden Sosinov and Pearlman each got off layup attempts in the final seconds, but could not get them to go.
Manalapan took its largest lead of the game with 1:39 left in the third quarter, but Holmdel closed out the third with seven straight points, capped by a runner off the glass by Vallillo.
"Ben was out with foul trouble, so we knew it was really important to get him back on the floor, so going on that run really set us up for the fourth quarter once he got back in the game," Vallillo said.
Holmdel finally took its first lead since the first quarter on a three-pointer by senior Ben Kipnis midway through the fourth before Manalapan regained the lead when Leger found Pearlman for a go-ahead layup.
Kipnis hit a cutting Seeloch for a layup that tied the game, 54-54, and Kipnis hit a runner off the glass with 50 seconds left to put Holmdel on top, 56-54. Pearlman again had the answer for Manalapan, this time on a putback as he was fouled with 26 seconds left. Pearlman missed the free throw and after Manalapan corralled the rebound, Leger missed a three-point attempt as time expired.
Vallillo posted 20 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals for Holmdel, while Kipnis pitched in seven points, six rebounds and seven assists in the win.
Sosinov and Leger each added 16 points for Manalapan, with Sosinov grabbing 14 rebounds and Leger handing out five assists. Manalapan was seeking its first SCT quarterfinal berth since 2013.
"It was definitely tough vs. them," Vallillo said. "They crash the boards really hard. When we were switching screens, we weren't getting into too many mismatches, so we had to just try as hard as we could on the boards because were down a bit in size. I think we did pretty good, though."
"We knew we had to limit their threes today, so we just played up on them," Seeloch said. "We made sure everyone was ready to help, because we knew they were going to drive."
Holmdel will face No. 2 Central in Saturday's SCT quarterfinal round, with tipoff scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Middletown South High School. The Hornets will take an 18-2 record into Saturday and their only two losses are to the No. 1 (St. Rose) and No. 3 (Manasquan) seeds in the tournament, with a clash vs. No. 2 on deck.