MARLBORO - Marc Dennis has gotten very used to winning on the football field over the last two years as a prominent member on both of Long Branch's back-to-back NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship teams.

On the basketball court, winning has not come as easy but Dennis has been no less a leader. His Green Wave are in the midst of a second straight losing season on the hardwood but his passion for playing, competing and leading an otherwise inexperienced group have been the defining characteristic of the program in the last two years.

On Tuesday at Marlboro, Dennis and his team had to once again swallow a tough, 72-67, loss but win or lose, Tuesday was an evening for Dennis and Long Branch to celebrate a memorable two-sport career.

With 7:09 left in the first quarter, Dennis scored the 1,000th point of his four-year varsity career and went on to score a career-high 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a losing cause.

Senior Marc Dennis celebrates his 1,000th career point with his family. (Photo by Matt Manley)

 

Long Branch has not been able to recover from a 0-5 start to the season and Tuesday's game was a microcosm of that: the Green Wave fell into an early hole and fought their way back into contention on Dennis's lead, only to come up a little short.

"You hate to lose," Dennis said. "We got off to a slow start and really, we were probably a little tense. Regardless of what the final score was, I'm happy with the way my guys fought. Even going back to football season, this team is always fighting through tough situations. That's really what Long Branch is all about - we kept our heads up and kept fighting."

Dennis scored 25 of his points in the second half and Long Branch cut a 15-point third-quarter deficit to four midway through the fourth, but the Mustangs had enough left in their tank to hold off the Green Wave.

Dennis was the starting quarterback on this year's state championship football team and a starting defensive back on both state championship teams while playing wide receiver and taking some snaps under center as a junior. He played a more conventional point guard role as a freshman and sophomore and while he has still played the position over the past two seasons, he has had to serve as Long Branch's top scoring option as well.

 

"As a point guard scoring a thousand, it means my teammates are selfless," Dennis said. "My job is to get them the ball and they are getting it right back to me in position to score and the credit goes to them for that. Without them, it doesn't happen."

After Tuesday's performance, Dennis is averaging 18 points and has scored 30-plus points in each of Long Branch's past two games. He said he is currently weighing playing football at either Delaware Valley or Kings College or playing basketball at St. Peter's University.

Long Branch actually defeated Marlboro in the first meeting between the teams and that win came before Marlboro lost junior Alex Ratner to an ankle sprain two games later. Ratner suited up for the first time since injuring the ankle on Jan. 7, but did not play.

Senior Dylan Kaufman stole Dennis's thunder with 32 points of his own to go with 13 rebounds. The 6-foot-6 senior joined the 1,000-point club earlier this month and after his 32-point outburst on Tuesday, he is now nine points away from becoming Marlboro's all-time leading scorer.

"The main goal is to win and my main goal coming here was to win a state championship," Kaufman said. "Breaking the record, scoring my thousandth - those are things I'll look back on and enjoy a few years from now. For now, though, I really want that state championship."

Marlboro senior Dylan Kaufman gets up a shot in traffic. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Marlboro began the season in promising fashion, reaching the WOBM Christmas Classic championship game only to lose on a buzzer-beater to Red Bank Catholic, which dropped the Mustangs to 5-2. That loss marked the beginning of a 1-8 stretch for Marlboro that included a six-game losing streak that coincided with Ratner's injury.

"It really is like coaching three different teams in three different seasons," Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas said. "We got off to the pretty good start, then it was trying to figure out how we going to play without our best player, or at least our best perimeter scorer. Now he is close to coming back and there are going to be some new challenges as far as guys going back to previous roles. It will be a little bit of an adjustment, but getting Alex back is going to be huge for us."

After losing to Rumson-Fair Haven and falling to 6-9, the schedule eased up last week and the Mustangs took advantage by winning three straight to get back to .500 before making it a fourth on Tuesday. With Ratner close to returning and games coming up against Middletown South and Freehold Township, Marlboro has a chance to prove it still belongs in the conversation as one of the Shore's 10 best teams.

"Ever since the loss to Long Branch, our season really took a downturn," Kaufman said. "There has been a lot of adversity on and off the court - we have had some injuries, guys quit, some personal stuff and on top of that, we lost some close games. A lot of adversity, but I think it shows how hard we work and how much of a family we are that we have been able to experience that adversity and still be in position to play in the Shore Conference and State Tournaments."

One positive development during Ratner's absence has been the development of freshman Jonathan Spatola, who scored 18 points on Tuesday, including nine in the first quarter.

"Spatola wasn't playing as much and Alex getting hurt really forced him into more minutes and he has really stepped up for us," Nausedas said. "The way he is playing, he has to stay in the starting lineup, so we are going to have him and Alex on the floor with a very guard-heavy lineup around Dylan."

Kaufman has been a part of a special four-year run for Marlboro that includes a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game in 2017, when Kaufman was a sophomore starter. With Ratner on the way back, Spatola emerging and guards Kyle LaRocca and Ramon Fontanes adding to the scoring attack as well, Kaufman and the rest of this Marlboro squad hope to peak in early March and make a run in the wide-open, competitive Central Jersey Group IV bracket.

"I try to tell the guys you never know when it's going to be your last game or your last opportunity to do something special," Kaufman said. "It doesn't matter whether you are a senior or a freshman - one day it's going to end and you want to be able to look back and say you gave it your all. I think over the last couple games, we have started to play like it's our last game."

 

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