WEST LONG BRANCH – The first golden era of Point Pleasant Beach boys basketball ended in the mid-1960’s, and the last several years have seen the resurrection of Beach Ball, culminated by a 49-41 win over Christian Brothers Academy in the Shore Conference Tournament final Saturday at the Multipurpose Activities Center on the campus of Monmouth University.

Where the new era of Garnet Gulls basketball began is as fascinating as where it has ended up - with a first ever SCT championship to go with the program's first NJSIAA championship last season.

There are any number of potential moments when the spark became the fire that is this roll the Garnet Gulls have been on over the last five years. If you are a skeptic or the naysaying type, the transfers from bordering towns and the German imports taking advantage of Point Beach’s status as a tuition school district might come to mind. A more positive spin is that head coach Nick Catania has created a basketball attraction for anyone with high aspirations and a tendency for vagrancy, but whose bedrock has been four-year leaders like senior Matt Farrell.

In a program that has become notorious for its impact transfers, the face of Point Beach basketball is four-year varsity player Matt Farrell. (Photo by Bill Normile)
In a program that has become notorious for its impact transfers, the face of Point Beach basketball is four-year varsity player Matt Farrell. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Regardless of who or what started this era of Point Beach basketball, the moment it all became real is fairly well-defined as far as Catania and some of his current and former players are concerned.

A year after coming up just short of knocking off a powerhouse CBA team in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals in 2010, the Garnet Gulls got a second chance to take down the two-time defending champion the following season. This time, they landed the knockout blow: a 56-55 win over CBA that put Point Beach in the SCT semifinals for the first time in nearly half a century.

“I still tell people I got the game-winning rebound in that game,” said Farrell, who was once again brilliant Saturday with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting in the championship game. “That was maybe the biggest game in the history of the program, certainly at the time, and being a freshman who got to play in that game, it kind of set the foundation for what was to come.”

That’s where the Point Beach story becomes unique. The Garnett Gulls spent only a matter of moments as the “little team that could” following a huge SCT win before reality and newfound expectations set in. Over the ensuing weeks and subsequent seasons, Point Beach transformed into a Shore Conference favorite, and while that word has two meanings within the context of sports, it has only one in this instance.

“We know people don’t like us and we’re fine with that,” Farrell said. “We like that. We’re very stubborn. We knew it was us against the world today. We knew CBA was coming with a crap-load of fans. We knew people from other schools were going to come here hoping to see us lose, and we like that.”

The only thing that Point Beach lacked that most Goliaths carry is a history of domination. Point Beach had the resume of the Chicago Cubs and the reputation of the New York Yankees. It’s a double-edged sword that is the byproduct of a long, ambitious build by Catania, who had this vision from the time he took over nine years ago.

“Even when we weren’t good, our three goals were to win our division, win Shore Conference and win the state tournament,” Catania said. “My idea when I first came to Beach was, ‘We aren’t going to sell ourselves short of anything.’ Those were all long-term goals, and we had different short-term goals for the time being, but we were going to do all of the things that top programs do.

“I still get texts from some of the older players, and they probably thought I was nuts then. They are shocked at where we are, but those guys in that locker room, they did it.”

The seeds of the struggle were planted in 2010, which was Point Beach’s first real chance at a championship. The Gulls were routed in their own packed gym by Woodstown in the South Jersey Group I final in 2010, a rude awakening after nearly beating CBA and running through a surprisingly deep SJ I bracket.

With returning senior Jarelle Reischel, the first of two German imports along with current senior Dom Uhl (10 points in Saturday’s win), Point Beach was then the favorite to win its division and make another run at SCT and Group I titles the next year.

Despite the win over CBA in the SCT quarters, the Gulls lost to a 13th-seeded Rumson-Fair Have team in the SCT semifinals, did not win their division outright and lost to Asbury Park in the sectional playoffs.

After a so-so year with Farrell as a sophomore, Point Beach reloaded last year only to come up short against Lakewood after taking the next step by reaching the championship game.

Some of his team’s shortcomings might have prompted other coaches to change, but Catania had no such designs. Not after coming from where he started the program nine years ago. Even a life-threatening heart arrhythmia suffered two months before the start of the season did not change anything about Catania.

“I think there is some perception that I’ve changed, but I think I’m pretty much the same as I’ve always been,” Catania said. “Nothing I've done this year is any different than I’ve done it in other years. I’m the same guy with the same level of intensity, especially in practice.”

“He’s the same guy,” Farrell said. “A couple practices ago, he ripped into us, and he joked with us, ‘Don’t you guys know my heart can’t take this?’ That’s coach. He’s been the same guy no matter what, and that’s why we love him.”

The recent history of Point Beach also includes the reputation as a team of transfers. Four of the seven players to play on Saturday – Uhl (Germany), Jeff Bryant (Monsignor Donovan) and Mike Frauenheim (Immaculata) – came to the program after attending other high schools (Yates was born in Point Pleasant and moved to North Carolina for two-and-a-half years before his family moved back on because of a job opportunity). Although one of last year’s top seniors was a four-year varsity player (P.J. Kineavy), the other (Riley Calzonetti) was a CBA transfer who started his Point Beach career as a sophomore. The 2010 team had Jordan Wejnert, a transfer from North Jersey, and Mike Rotando, a transfer from St. John Vianney.

While this should surely be a testament to the basketball environment Catania has created, it has also created a predictable stigma of which Catania and his players are aware.

If love and admiration have been slow to trickle in, the championships have finally come. Last season the Garnet Gulls finished off the program's first ever NJSIAA Group I championship and played a competitive Tournament of Champions game against Group IV champion Atlantic City. Last year was also the first time Point Beach won an outright division championship after finishing tied with Asbury Park in the previous season.

“We accomplished a lot of the goals we set out to accomplish, but this was the last box we had to check,” Catania said of the SCT title

While the state championship is the apple of every coach’s and player’s eye, the Shore Conference Tournament is a bigger deal for a Group I School like Point Beach, which is why it wound up last on Catania’s to-do list.

The last time a Group I school won the Shore Conference Tournament was Asbury Park in 1986, which is reflective of the difficulty to overcome a non-public power like CBA and tradition-rich programs like Neptune, Lakewood, Red Bank and Long Branch. There are not many unique names on the list of past champions and as hard as it is for a large school to break the mold like Freehold Township in 2007, it is even harder for a small school to pull it off.

This is also the first time Point Beach has finished the season as the best team in the Shore Conference in any sport, whether it was by virtue of a tournament or just being ranked No. 1 by some media outlet(s).

It all culminated, fittingly enough, against CBA, the team it had seen in three straight SCTs from 2010 to 2012 and the team the Garnet Gulls beat to announce that they had arrived on the Shore Conference scene. Here were the Colts – a non-public, tuition school with 16 SCT championships under their belt – drawing the backing of the neutral fans at the MAC against a Group I school that had never won a conference championship, because they were the underdog. That, in and of itself, could be considered an accomplishment for Point Beach.

So forgive Farrell, Catania and the rest of the Garnet Gulls if they choose to ignore the outcry and the jokes about how many different buses it takes to transport the team to school in the morning and how many German-to-English dictionaries in the high school library had to be dusted off since 2009. This journey was one that carried with it colossal expectations from the outside over the last four years and even greater expectations from Catania beginning nine years ago.

Admiration was not on Catania’s to-do list, but he has earned it as much as anyone can. Maybe that part comes now that everything else on the list is checked off.

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