Boys Basketball – Holmdel Upsets No. 2 Central, Returns to Shore Conference Semifinals
MIDDLETOWN -- Ben Kipnis and James Vallillo can both still remember watching the Holmdel boys basketball team take a No. 1 seed Manasquan down to the wire in the 2020 Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.
The two were in eighth grade at the time and both envisioned joining a Holmdel program that went 23-5 in 2019-20 with four losses to Manasquan and playing for championships -- perhaps even beating Manasquan along the way.
Four years later, both are seniors and after their efforts on Saturday at Middletown South High School and the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, they will have their chance to make their eighth-grade dreams a senior reality.
Vallillo and Kipnis led a well-rounded Holmdel attack that was just enough to pull off a 53-52 upset over Central Regional -- the No. 2 seed in the SCT -- and send Holmdel to the conference tournament semifinals to play No. 3 Manasquan Wednesday at Red Bank Regional High School.
"I have been a Holmdel person," Kipnis said. "I love Holmdel and loved watching them. Coach (Sean) Devaney, I know the resume. I knew when our class was coming in after eighth grade, it was going to be special, and now we're here."
The loss not only snapped the longest active winning streak in the Shore Conference -- Central entered the game on a 15-game winning streak; it also made Holmdel's 10-game winning streak the longest active run in the conference and gives the Hornets (19-2) the second best overall record in the Shore behind only St. Rose (23-2).
All this for a team that failed to make the Shore Conference Tournament a year ago, with a foot injury to Vallillo that kept him out for almost the entired year serving as the primary culprit.
"Ever since we were freshmen, we used to talk about how good we could be once we hit our peak," Vallillo said. "We thought it would come earlier, but we are finally here and it feels amazing."
Vallillo led Holmdel with 14 points, including the go-ahead drive to the basket with a minute to go that proved to be the game-winner. The 6-foot-3 senior forward also grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out five assists and blocked three shots, while Kipnis went for 13 points and seven assists.
Junior Daxx Corneiro also came through with 10 points and seven rebounds as Holmdel's third scoring threat on the day.
The largest lead of the second half belonged to Central at 48-43, but the Hornets hit back with a three-pointer by sophomore Jack Vallillo and a three-point play by James Vallillo to give Holmdel a 49-48 lead.
"Coach (Devaney) always says we get punched in the face, but how do we respond," Kipnis said. "Last year, we were missing (Vallillo) and we didn't have his leadership to help us. This year, we have him back. You can see, we take punches, but we give them back. We stay with it and that's the most important part."
Central senior Miles Chevalier answered with a basket in the paint to put the Golden Eagles back in front, 50-49, to which Kipnis responded with a layup off a feed from James Vallillo for a 51-50 lead.
"Me and Ben have always had a create connection with one another, whether it's him passing to me or me dishing out for a three or even a backdoor cut," Vallillo said. "We have had that since we were little."
Chevalier again counted with a midrange jumper and a 52-51 Central lead with just over a minute to go. Vallillo came right back with a strong take to the rim, which put Holmdel ahead, 53-52, with exactly a minute to go.
"I have 100 percent trust in (Vallillo)," Kipnis said. "I love seeing the ball in his hands. He works hard and he deserved everything he has gotten."
Central ran the clock down, but turned the ball over underneath its own basket. Junior Jayson King kept the Golden Eagles alive by stealing an inbound pass and getting a timeout with 2.4 seconds left.
On the game's final play, King looked for junior Jaycen Santucci in the pain, but Holmdel senior Nick Seeloch broke up the pass and time expired.
Santucci led Central with 16 points and Chevalier added 14 in the loss.
Chevalier and Santucci each hit shots to beat a quarter-ending buzzer -- Chevalier to tied the game, 34-34, at halftime and Santucci to give Central a 47-43 lead through three.
The two teams played a fast-paced first-half, followed by a more modestly-paced third quarter. The four quarter proved to have a far more deliberate tempo, with Holmdel outscoring Central, 10-5, over the final eight minutes.
"I remember watching Holmdel the year before he got here, when they were in the (SCT) semifinals," Vallillo said. "They were a big defensive team. They got in the other team's face. Last year, we were nothing like that at all. This year, we started to appreciate that and listen to our coaches, coach Devaney and (assistant) coach (John) Byrd and we have been playing much better defense and we are a much tougher team."
Central had been playing in its second straight Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal round and seeking its first ever trip to the SCT semifinals. Last year, the Golden Eagles made it to the final eight as a No. 12 seed; this year's run was more expected and it drew the full attention and respect of the Holmdel squad.
"Hats off to Central," Kipnis said. "They are one of the better teams we played this year. We fight every game, but they are a good team. They really lock it up defensively. But we just stayed with it. Our coach liked to say '32 minutes.' Just play as hard as you can and that's what we did."
After Saturday's bitter disappointment, Central will turn its attention to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Playoffs, in which the Golden Eagles project to be the No. 3 seed behind No. 1 Lenape and No. 2 Eastern.
Saturday's result carried state tournament implications as well, with Central falling behind Eastern by one power point, while Holmdel jumped Rumson-Fair Haven Saturday for the No. 2 seed in the Central Group II section behind projected No. 1 seed Manasquan.
Before that, though, Holmdel will play in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals for the third time in program history and second time in five years Wednesday, when the Hornets take on a Manasquan team that beat Holmdel, 59-37, at Manasquan in December.
The Hornets played without senior guard Nick Seeloch in that first meeting -- the first of five games Seeloch missed after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. After scoring seven points on Saturday, Seeloch is only two points away from 1,000 for his career.
"That's how it is this time of year: since that game, they have gotten better and we have gotten better," Kipnis said. "It's 32 minutes of basketball. Whoever can play the hardest is what matters the most."