TOMS RIVER -- Dave Boff won more NJSIAA Tournament of Champions than any other coach in New Jersey outside of Hall-of-Famer Bob Hurley Sr. and current Montverde Academy coach Kevin Boyle, so the standard for his teams has typically been to finish as the No. 1 team in New Jersey.

That will not happen this season, but in his first year as head coach of first-year varsity program College Achieve Preparatory School in Neptune, the former Roselle Catholic head coach and his new team sent the message the Monmouth County Charter School will be a force to be reckoned with over the next several seasons and beyond.

College Achieve competed with some of the top teams in the state at the end of the regular season, setting the stage for a dominant run to the NJSIAA Group I championship that concluded with an 85-59 win over Newark Tech in the state final at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.

Photo: Matt Manley
Photo: Matt Manley

"It’s hard when you have this many (new) guys show up," Boff said. "You have to convince them to sacrifice a little bit of themselves for the betterment of the team and if most of the guys are doing that, then everybody else falls in line.

"When push comes to shove, they put themselves second and the team first."

The Knights will not get a chance to prove themselves against the other group champions now that the Tournament of Champions is defunct. While they played the likes of the Patrick School National Team, Manasquan, Middle Township, St. Peter's Prep, Ramapo, Montgomery, St. Benedict's and Newark Collegiate, the Knights faced no such challenge in Group I, which Boff laments.

"I think everybody sees the situation and wants there to be competitive balance in all the different groups," Boff said. "Myself and everyone at College Achieve certainly supports that and hopes for that and I think those are discussions that will happen fairly quickly."

College Achieve won their six NJSIAA Tournament games by an average margin of 39.8 points and Sunday's 26-point win over Newark Tech matched the smallest margin of victory of the tournament. Shore Regional was within 32-26 in the third quarter against the Knights in the Central Jersey Group I semifinals before College Achieve rattled off an 18-0 run to take control of the game.

Newark Tech was never that close that late vs. College Achieve, but the Terriers managed to pull within 45-34 early in the third quarter thanks to an 11-1 run that spanned the end of the second quarter and the early part of the third.

Senior Deuce Jones turned the tide for College Achieve with a pair of baskets -- one on a putback and another on a scoop shot -- to end a six-minute field-goal drought for the Knights. Freshman Anthony Mauro then followed with three-pointers on back-to-back possessions and hit Jones for a layup that made it a 14-1 College Achieve run and a 59-35 lead.

Jones finished with 28 points, six rebounds, eight assists and three steals to lead the Knights. The big statistical performance by the 6-foot-2 Trenton native and LaSalle commit included a collecting of highlight reel dunks.

As a first-year program consisting of mostly transfers and freshmen, College Achieve had to wait 30 days from opening night for Jones to become eligible. College Achieve is the third high-school team for Jones, who started his career at Trenton Catholic and played for St. Thomas Aquinas in Edison last year. Second-time transfers are required to sit out for the first 30 days of the season per the new NJSIAA transfer rule that was adopted for this season.

"I coached against him a couple of times and to be honest, he is more talented than I thought when he first arrived," Boff said. "He is as good of a defensive player as I have seen. He is just so disruptive defensively. He can make a lot of plays on the offensive end, but the defense is something that is really, really special, the way he just locked guys up."

"He did everything for us," Mauro said. "He came back, he helped us get a bunch of wins. We only lost one game in our last 14 games, so he has done a lot for us."

While College Achieve was waiting for Jones and 6-10 senior center and Payne Tech transfer Eunique Rink to become eligible, the Knights ran out a young team that figures to be the core of next year's team. The starting trio of Mauro and juniors Nas Hart and David Munro all scored in double-figures, with Mauro posting 16 points, four assists and six steals in the final game of a freshman season in which he started for a group champion and state-ranked team.

"At the beginning of the season, we didn’t even know everyone’s name," Mauro said. "We came from really far away to get to this moment right now. I think this group has a really bright future."

Munro battled a hard-nosed Newark Tech team on the glass and finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. The 6-8 forward played at Bergen Catholic last season before returning to his hometown of Neptune to play for Boff's start-up program.

Hart was the other double-figure scorer for College Achieve, finishing with 13 points while dishing out three assists. The 6-8 Hart also threw down four dunks as part of his afternoon.

"I just wanted to send the seniors off on a good note," Hart said. "I got one more year left, so I really wanted to prove a point to everybody that I’m still here and that I still got some work to do over the summer and I’m ready to make that transition."

During his first two high-school seasons, Hart was a promising underclassman at Keyport High School, where he was a freshman starter for a Red Raiders team that lost in the Central Jersey Group I final at Burlington City in March of 2022. Last year, Hart's Keyport squad lost to another charter school -- Eagle Academy of Newark -- in the Central Group I semifinals.

"Me personally, when I played at Keyport, we wouldn’t have looked at it and went crazy," Hart said, relaying what he and his Keyport teammates would have thought about playing a team as talented as College Achieve and constructed the way College Achieve was. "We would have looked at it as a good opportunity to play another good team in the state. That’s how I look at it, that’s why I like playing here."

College Achieve's classification as a Group I school has been a source of frustration around New Jersey, including for College Achieve's coaches and administration. In a story by NJ Advance Media, the NJSIAA claimed that five days before the start of the NJSIAA Tournament, College Achieve appealed to the state's governing interscholastic body to be moved to a different group.

The state declined to make the change, although has indicated it will reconsider College Achieve's status for next season.

"This is not all what this was supposed to be about," Boff said of College Achieve's Group I classification and subsequent dominance. "It’s not anything that us, myself, the kids the administration wanted. It’s just kind of the way things broke this year with how fast everything came together, but I think everybody understands that a better plan next year is best for everybody involved."

While most charter schools are limited to accepting students within their designated sending districts, there is a provision that requires charter schools to accept any applicants  from anywhere in New Jersey unless there is a waiting list.

According to College Achieve principal Tim McInerney, the school has waiting lists for its sixth and seventh grade classes, but not yet at the high-school grades. Once the number of applicants exceeds its maximum enrollment, the school must create a wait list. Once there is a wait list, only students from Asbury Park and Neptune sending districts will be permitted to attend the school and the students will then be selected by a lottery, per N.J. charter school law.

That wait-list loophole has allowed players from around the state -- Rink and sophomore point guard Jamir Westry are transfers from Payne Tech in Bloomfield, Mauro is from Manalapan and sophomore starter Jebron Harris is from New Brunswick -- to flock to the school to play for Boff, who turned Roselle Catholic's program into a Division I scholarship factory. College Achieve also has a pair of Shore Conference transfers on the bench in Ron Richardson (Ocean) and Andrew Petry (Neptune).

Even with Jones and Rink graduating, the Knights are not likely to fall off next season and could be even better if other players from around the state take advantage of the new transfer rule and the wait-list loophole. Non-senior transfers who are transferring for the first time are immediately eligible to play, regardless of the student's address. Seniors who are first-time transfers are required to sit 22 days.

As a first-year program coached by a coach with Boff's track record and that attracted talent from all over the state, College Achieve was under scrutiny in year one and will likely face as much in the next several years. Boff understands that and has tried to absorb as much of the unrest as is possible while shielding his talented, young team.

"They’re kids who love basketball and they have played hard the whole year and I want them to be seen as that," Boff said. "All the other stuff is for the adults to deal with and handle and that’s fine. For today, I want the emphasis to be on the 17 kids in there that worked hard all year and during the summer a really good game today against a good basketball team and won a state championship."

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