Boys Basketball – Boardwalk Preview: Retooled Long Branch Takes on Upstart Vianney in Finale
It took an entire season for a young, inexperienced and injury-stricken Long Branch boys basketball team to win three games in 2014-15, a campaign that will go down as one of the most forgettable in the proud history of the Green Wave program.
This season, it took just three games to match last year’s win total and the Green Wave have already blown past that mark heading into Saturday’s Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase finale against St. John Vianney on the Green Wave’s home court.
Long Branch is off to a 5-2 start to the 2015-16 season and after a brief two-game skid to cap its week at the Neptune Holiday Jubilee, the Green Wave has won its first two games since the return from winter break, knocking off both Red Bank Catholic and Wall.
The two wins to open 2016 are a welcome return to form for Long Branch, but the Green Wave did its most eye-opening work prior to the New Year. Long Branch opened its season at home with a win over Colts Neck – the No. 7 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – and then handled Matawan at home. The Huskies have since gone on to reach the championship game of the Husky Holiday Classic and also beat Red Bank Regional, all after beating Neptune on opening night.
Coach Stan Mooney expected Long Branch to endure some growing pains last year on the way to brighter days ahead, but the return to relevance in the Shore Conference has not necessarily followed the script. A major source of Long Branch’s struggles last year stemmed from an early-season injury to sophomore Raheem Carter that kept him out for nearly half the season. With Carter out, sophomore Fred Reeves emerged as a top scoring threat for the Green Wave and once Carter returned, Long Branch had a solid duo from the same class that would make the Wave solid for each of the next two years.
Instead, both Carter and Reeves left the program for their junior seasons – Carter for Roselle Catholic and Reeves out to California. Although Long Branch lost two of its more talented players from a year ago, it didn’t lose everyone. Senior Jamar Foster returned as a starter and sophomore Tyree Morris has followed up a strong showing as a freshman with a leap forward as a sophomore.
Fellow sophomore T.J. Fosque has also made strides in his game and freshman point guard Marc Dennis has brought stability to the lineup despite the fact that he’s in just his first year as a high school player.
“I feel like there is much more of a team vibe this year,” Morris said. “Last year, a lot of guys were doing their own thing and there just wasn’t a feeling like everyone was on the same page. This year, guys made it a point of approaching everybody from day one and making sure we all knew that we had to play together and start working as one team.”
While the development of players that have come up through the ranks in Long Branch has helped push the Green Wave from rebuilding mode back into the ranks of contenders in the Shore Conference Class B North division, no single player has made a greater impact in Long Branch’s transformation than senior Anthony Velazquez. A transfer from Puerto Rico who initially planned to play at Lakewood before moving to Long Branch before the school year, Velazquez is a legitimate all-around guard who has both scored and shared the ball, making Long Branch far more potent in the halfcourt.
“We can do a lot more driving and kicking because now that we have Ant, he’s a shooter who can handle the ball,” Morris said. “(The offense) is a lot more versatile. We can shoot more open shots, we can spread the floor and get more one-on-one situations and dump it off to a big man. We’re just doing a lot more stuff to get good shots off.”
The Wave will host St. John Vianney, which is hoping for a breakout season of its own in light of a 5-3 start. The Lancers boast a senior-laden lineup that features two of the Shore top returning scorers from a year ago – seniors Zach Howarth and Grant Goode. Both are among the Shore scoring leaders again in the early going again this season and got some help to the lineup with the transfer of 6-foot-6 center Marcque Ellington from Neptune. Seniors Matt DeBrizzi and Kevin Callari have also been key contributors in the early part of the season.
While the Lancers enter Saturday coming off a loss Friday night, it was a three-point defeat at the hands of unbeaten Manasquan, which edged Vianney 61-58 to improve to 8-0. Saturday’s Boardwalk finale will feature two teams trying to continue breakout years and perhaps jockey for a spot in the next top 10.
After CBA wraps up its game against St. Anthony, Long Branch will take the court and look to show the Shore Conference that its time on the sidelines is over and the Green Wave are back in the thick of the division title hunt.
“We have a much better idea of how to play together and how to prepare and execute in the game,” Morris said. “Last year was a tough year and I think the guys that came back have learned a lot.”