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If the mark of a great team is that it rarely loses, the mark of a team ready to be great is one that responds to its toughest setbacks. Marlboro’s 2021 season ended with a loss that the Mustangs are still trying to digest but if their recent history is any indication, they will return in November primed for the best season in the history of Marlboro basketball.

Head coach Mike Nausedas said his team “will be back” next season, referring to his plans on leading Marlboro back to the brink of a championship after coming painfully close each of the last two years. The 2021 Shore Sports Network Boys Basketball Coach of the Year has reason to be confident, too. Under his direction, this group of mostly seniors-to-be in 2022 has shown time and time again it knows how to bounce back.

After some early struggles in 2021, the Mustangs closed the season strong, reaching the de facto Shore Conference championship game for the second time in five seasons and finishing higher in both the Shore Sports Network Top 10 (No. 3) and the NJ.com Top 20 (No. 20) than the program ever has to end a season.

Marlboro’s year-long saga began on March 10, 2020, when the Mustangs hosted the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game for the first time in program history. Leading by one point in the final seconds against South Brunswick, Marlboro needed one stop to secure the first sectional title in program history but Yathin Vemula scored as time expired to give visiting South Brunswick a 72-71 win.

With just one senior graduating from the 2019-20 team, Marlboro had reason to be optimistic about 2021, but that optimism barely had time to set in. Two days after the loss to South Brunswick, the entire basketball season in N.J. was shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak and not only would Marlboro have to wait until the next season for redemption; they also had to cope with the uncertainty that there would be a season at all.

Marlboro boys basketball coach Mike Nausedas. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Like just about every coach in New Jersey and around the country, Nausedas spent less time with his team this past offseason than in any other calendar year leading up to a season. Ultimately, though, there would be high school basketball in 2021, but Marlboro’s return to the court for practice would not come until Jan. 11 and it would be short-lived.

Within days of starting practice, Marlboro was forced to shut its varsity program down for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocol. The stoppage would force the Mustangs to postpone their first two games of what was already a shortened season – a home-and-home with rival and perennial Shore Conference contender Christian Brothers Academy.

When Marlboro could practice, the conditions still put Nausedas and his staff to the test. Used to practicing with junior varsity and varsity in the same gym during Nausedas's first eight seasons, Marlboro was forced to run separate practices for each team as a matter of school policy and Nausedas was unable to work with the jayvee and freshman-team players, nor was he able to interact in-person with his sub-varsity coaches.

To make things even more challenging, Nausedas was informed right before the first day of practice that senior guard Aleksy Friedman – a starter on the Central Jersey Group IV runner-up in 2020 – decided not to play basketball in his senior year. Marlboro still had plenty of talent returning, but the Mustangs were now going from four returning starters to three, with the lone returning senior starter opting out of the season.

Even through all of the early-season challenges, Nausedas and his team kept as sharp as they could to be ready to play when the time came. It finally did on Feb. 4 against St. Peter’s Prep, which entered as the No. 5 team in N.J. and finished in the same spot. Marlboro lost the game, 63-49, but took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter before running out of gas.

Marlboro bounced back with wins over Howell and Colonia – the latter of which was one of the Middlesex County’s best teams – before clashing with Ranney and CBA at home on back-to-back days. A comeback vs. Ranney came up short, 68-62, and the next morning, with Marlboro heavy-legged having just faced a team that climbed as high as No. 8 in the statewide rankings, the Colts ran the Mustangs out of their own gym, 75-42.

The 33-point loss to CBA dropped Marlboro to 2-3 and marked a low point in the Mustangs’ 2021 season. On top of the baggage the Mustangs carried from the 2020 sectional championship game, now they had to find a way to rally just to make it into the eight-team playoff pod that would compete for the Shore Conference championship during the last week of the season – the only championship of any kind Marlboro had a chance to for in 2021.

Marlboro authored double-digit wins over Manalapan and Freehold Boro before heading east on Newman Springs Road to play CBA in a Saturday-afternoon grudge match one week after the Colts had blown out the Mustangs. Marlboro’s defense came to play that day and juniors Jack Seidler and Jon Spatola helped close out a 59-52 win over the Colts to give Marlboro its mojo back for the first time since the buzzer-beater ended their 2020 season.

The regular season closed with Marlboro routing both Middletown South and Neptune to clinch the No. 3 seed in Pod A of the Shore Conference Playoffs. The Mustangs used a 21-6 second-quarter run to eliminate Holmdel in the opening round, setting up the second big rematch of the season for Marlboro.

In the semifinals of the Shore Playoffs, Marlboro would head to play Ranney and the Mustangs set out to do the same thing to the Panthers that they did to CBA. Ranney closed the first half on a 13-2 run to take a six-point lead into the break, but Marlboro shut down the No. 2 seed in the third quarter, outscoring them 22-9.

Marlboro built its lead to 58-45 in the fourth quarter and held off a Ranney comeback to win, 71-65, and advance to the program’s second ever Shore Conference championship game. Four years earlier, Nausedas led the Mustangs to a stunning upset of Ranney in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals that propelled Marlboro to the SCT championship game for the first time in program history.

In 2021, it was Spatola and Seidler who led the way in the upset of Ranney. At the direction of Nausedas, Spatola face-guarded Ranney standout sophomore Isaac Hester and held him without a point for the first 12:30 of the second half. Spatola also scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half to complete one of the better 16-minute stretches played in the state this season. Seidler, meanwhile, poured in 18 points as part of the big win.

Marlboro’s season would close with a trip to unbeaten Manasquan for the unofficial Shore Conference championship game. Manasquan raced out to a 36-26 halftime lead, but keeping with the theme of their season, the Mustangs would bounce back. Within the first four minutes of the third quarter, Marlboro turned a 10-point deficit into a 37-36 lead with a 14-0 run that began with a three-pointer by junior Jay Ratner to end the first-half scoring and ended with a step-back jumper by Spatola.

From that point on, neither team led by more than four points, with both sides playing a fourth quarter that was tense and close-to-the-vest. Nausedas and Marlboro would face one more daunting challenge when Seidler fouled out a minute into overtime on the second offensive foul called on the senior wing in a span of three minutes. To make matters worse, Seidler made both shots that came as he was called for the two fouls, taking four critical points off the board for Marlboro.

Despite that, Spatola hit a clutch, game-tying jumper and followed by one of two foul shots to give Marlboro a 56-55 lead with 49 seconds to go. With Seidler out of the game, though, Marlboro had trouble corralling a defensive rebound on Manasquan’s next possession. A second chance led to a game-tying free-throw by Connor Walsh and an offensive rebound by Jack Collins on Walsh’s miss on the second attempt set Manasquan up with a chance to hold the ball for one shot to win the game. With the extra possession, Manasquan scored the winning basket when Ben Roy found Andrew Solomon with under two seconds to go.

For the second straight year, Marlboro was denied a championship in the final seconds.

Throughout the season, Nausedas talked about this season as it were a tune-up for 2022. Marlboro is due to return four starters – Seidler, Spatola, Ratner and Zach Molod – as seniors, with regular contributor Vinny Spatola also back as a senior. In the process, Marlboro made another memorable run to a championship game and found itself on the wrong end of another memorable finish.

Over the last week of the season, Marlboro showed it could adjust against teams that beat them earlier in the season, went toe-to-toe with some of the best competition the state has to offer and walked off the floor at Manasquan somehow even more motivated for next year. Short of actually winning the championship, Nausedas got exactly what he wanted for his team heading into a huge 2022.