Boys Basketball – New Year’s Resolutions: Monmouth County
The New Year is upon us and that is a welcome sight for just about everyone everywhere. With the announcement from Governor Phil Murphy Wednesday clearing indoor sports to resume on Sunday, the 2021 basketball season remains on as scheduled for a Jan. 26 opening night.
The Shore Conference figured out its schedule for the shortened 2021 season and at the moment, it appears teams will be playing for positioning in eight-team, pod-based tournaments in the final week of the season - similar to the way the Shore Conference football season ended with four-team playoff pods.
That gives teams something fairly substantial to play for, so the wheels are already turning for programs throughout the area about how to make the most of their season. In the spirit of the new year, let's take a look at a New Year's resolution for every Shore Conference team. We'll start with the 30 teams from Monmouth County, listed alphabetically.
Asbury Park: Steady the ship
There has been a lot of turnover in the Asbury Park program in recent years, starting at head coach and permeating throughout the rest of the team. It has been almost a decade now since the Blue Bishops were serious Group I title contenders and getting back to that level will be a process that takes beyond this year. With Maurice Hart on board for his second season as head coach, Asbury Park is likely to be a more confident team that will look to expand its game after a challenging 2020.
CBA: Welcome the Underdog Role
Since last winning the Shore Conference Tournament in 2010, CBA has been both a Shore Conference favorite and an underdog against teams with more talent but except for a sectional championship in 2015 (when CBA had lots of talent while facing a dynamic St. Augustine team), neither condition has been ripe enough for a CBA postseason championship. This year’s Colts team is loaded with senior talent and yet might not even be the favorite in its own pod, with Marlboro bringing back a lot from a team that finished ahead of the Colts in the A North standings. With Manasquan, Ranney, Marlboro and Wall all coming back with more recent success, CBA ought to embrace flying under the radar and with a really promising roster, the underdog mentality could really pay off this year.
Colts Neck: Leave 2020 Behind
Well, duh. There are around seven billion people with a resolution that sounds something like this, so in that regard, Colts Neck has a very common resolution for 2021. In this context, though, it refers to the Cougars simply writing off 2019-20 as an anomaly and getting back to its place as one of the Shore’s most consistent programs under coach Lou Piccola. Colts Neck had one of its more inexperienced teams in going 5-17 last year and played enough close games with some returning players that the Cougars should feel much better about their prospects in 2021.
Freehold Boro: Make “A North” Pay
The rebuilding Colonials have taken their lumps in a rugged Class A North division over the past several seasons and were due to get a little bit of a break this season by switching over Class B North – a deep division but without the top-of-the-table juggernauts that A North has typically boasted. Instead, the Shore Conference realignment for the shortened 2021 season has dragged Freehold Boro back into a pod with the likes of CBA, Marlboro, Freehold Township, Middletown South and Manalapan. The difference this year, however, is the Colonials have some experience and some chemistry that they have built over the last two seasons and are now more equipped to handle the rigors of that kind of schedule. Maybe they can even make a few of their fellow pod members wish they didn’t have to see the Colonials again.
Freehold Township: Go out on a high note
In 2017-18, Freehold Township followed up a 25-win season and a sectional final appearance with an inexperienced team that went 9-13. One year later, the Patriots won their first ever NJSIAA sectional championship and reached the Group IV final. This year’s team is coming off an 11-16 year with an inexperienced roster and is due to bring back just about everybody, so the vibe is similar to 2018-19. The Patriots are loaded with seniors who experienced the turnaround as sophomores and would like to end their careers with a similar flair.
Henry Hudson: Find a new program identity
As the smallest school in the Shore Conference, Henry Hudson has to make the most out of the athletes it has and that makes it hard to carve out a year-to-year identity as a program. The Admirals had some senior leadership last year but it still only amounted to a 2-23 record. With a new coach in Brian Kelly and some capable underclassmen ascending in the program, Henry Hudson has a chance to set a new direction and develop a personality within a small-school pod that has a few teams on the rise and a few more that could be beatable.
Holmdel: Find some guards and feed the bigs
Coming off its best season in 20 years, Holmdel has a lot of work to do ahead of the shortened 2021 campaign. The Hornets graduated all but two players from the regular rotation and both returnees – Alex Baker and Alex Bradley – are 6-foot-4 forwards. Both have enough skill and athleticism to provide some shooting and handling on offense as well as some defensive versatility, but the key for Holmdel will be quickly developing at the guard spots and leaning on Baker and Bradley. Their pod is not overwhelmingly tough, so Holmdel should have a chance to win some games while breaking in a lot of new players.
Howell: Represent Monmouth County
To balance out the pods, it turned out one team from Monmouth County had to shack up with some Ocean County pod-mates and that team is Howell. There have been times over the years in which coaches (and a few media members, to be honest) have claimed middling Team A from Monmouth County could compete for a division title if only they played in Class A South or B South because of the relative strength of Monmouth County. Well, now Howell gets a chance to be that team. The Rebels went through a bit of a rebuild last year and came out with some promising players who are back this year and will try to beat out a field of teams that includes Lakewood, Central, Jackson Memorial, Brick Memorial and Brick.
Keansburg: Follow Davon Jackson and the seniors
Jackson – a 5-10 guard – has been an all-division performer and Keansburg’s best player since he was a sophomore and for the Titans to challenge Keyport and Point Beach (not to mention Mater Dei) he will have to step up as the best player on the team and be the best player on the court on most nights. Keansburg also has some senior experience alongside Jackson and will need those guys to play off of their top scoring threat.
Keyport: It’s time to strike
Keyport has boasted a young team in each of the past two seasons and now they have a chance to boast an experienced, talented lineup that is ready to challenge the top of the Shore’s small-school pod. This year, that means taking on Point Beach as the top public school team in the field and competing with Mater Dei to try to knock off the non-public giant in the field. Roselle Park and Koinonia Academy don’t represent major non-conference tests, but Keyport can set their eyes on winning a bunch of games, getting into a competitive postseason pod, performing well to end the season and set themselves up for an even better 2022.
Long Branch: Learn to love basketball again
I can’t say, for sure, that Long Branch’s players did not like basketball last year but how many people would enjoy anything about participating in a 1-21 season, especially when the one win came in December? Long Branch is a proud program with a proud history and will be led by a new coach who has greatly contributed to that history as a player and coach in the community. Darnell Tyler – the former standout center on a state championship team and new head coach – will try to fire up the returning talent and get the Green Wave back into contention right away.
Manalapan: Find the next core to build around
The Braves were back in the mix last year with a solid senior class that put in the work and took their lumps as a group over the prior two seasons. This year’s Manalapan team might be in for some similar growing pains, but the return of key contributors Chris Frontera and Gabe Blackwell will help ease that transition – even playing in a pod with teams like Marlboro, CBA and Freehold Township that return a ton of talent.
Manasquan: Find the new bigs, win big
When 6-7 Alex Galvan got hurt last year, Manasquan showed it could go down a star player and still play at a high level. That was a nice tune-up for this season, when the Warriors won’t have Galvan or 6-8 center Tim McEneny to battle the biggest front lines in the state. Ben Roy is back as a junior and there is plenty of talent and experience in the backcourt and on the wings, but there won’t be much experienced frontcourt size on the roster. The good news is Manasquan can win with its guard play and length on the wings and there will be some size on the roster again. For the Warriors to win big – and with two games each against Ranney, Wall and Neptune and a game each vs. the Patrick School and Bergen Catholic, they are going to try – they will need to be able to rely on a “big” lineup at some point.
Marlboro: Finish the job
After losing the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final in heartbreaking fashion, Marlboro will be motivated to win as much as possible in 2021. With six of seven rotation players back, the Mustangs have the horses to do it and even with teams like Manasquan, Ranney, Wall and CBA returning lots of talent from good 2019-20 teams, Marlboro need not take a back seat to anyone. There won’t be a state tournament to offer the Mustangs a form of redemption, but if they can make it to the de facto championship pod in the final week of the season, Marlboro will have a chance to close out the championship they just barely missed out on last year.
Matawan: Welcome the clean slate
Graduating a talented senior class is part of running a high school program of any kind and the Huskies bid farewell to a special group that had been through a lot together by the end of last season. For all the talent on the team, Matawan could never quite get off the ground come playoff time and will now have to restart with a group that will lean heavily on senior point guard Andre Wells. Few teams have had as much to think about beyond basketball as Matawan has the last two seasons, so they may be better suited to handle all of the virtual noise that comes with this season.
Mater Dei Prep: Keep proving it
Coming off a dropoff season in 2018-19, Mater Dei had a lot to prove in 2019-20 and ended up proving quite a bit. The Seraphs upset second-seeded Middletown South to reach the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals as a No. 15 seed, then made a run to the South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals. This year, they caught a tough break when Ranney was moved off their schedule in the pod realignment, leaving the Seraphs to play 10 games against teams they dominated in 2019-20. With three experienced players to replace, but some talent in place nonetheless, Mater Dei will try to dominate the division opponents again while making the most of out-of-division opportunities against Trenton Catholic and Don Bosco. The Seraphs are hoping a similar resume will garner some more respect when it comes time to place teams in postseason pods for the final week of the season.
*Edit: Mater Dei has altered its initial schedule and will play Ranney twice to finish the regular season, replacing its two games vs. Asbury Park. Ocean and Asbury Park will instead face each other twice in the regular-season's final week.
Middletown North: Transition from rebuild to breakout
Middletown North changed coaches, with Kevin Spies replacing longtime coach Mike Iasparo – who won an NJSIAA sectional title in Group IV. While Middletown North went 5-18 last year, not a whole lot needs to change given that the Lions return a good deal of talent from a fairly deep roster that just came out on the wrong end of a bunch of close games. With some experienced players who played for a proven coach, Spies steps into a pretty good situation and can just be that fresh voice that often times strikes the perfect tone and gets quick results.
Middletown South: Turn a good team into a good program
Over the past three years, Middletown South returned to the upper tier of Shore Conference public-school programs, culminating in a 26-3 2019-20 campaign. These past three years largely came on the backs of two graduating classes – 2018 and 2020 – and now the Eagles will try to ride that momentum toward consistent contention within the Shore Conference. New coach Jimmy Cranwell will be tasked with putting the pieces together and with returning point guard Luke Albrecht still in the fold, the potential to compete with perennially-strong 2programs like Marlboro and Freehold Township is still there.
Monmouth: Envision RBC jerseys on every opponent
Last season was a rough one for the Falcons but they improved over the course of the year with a young roster and scored a big upset by knocking off a Red Bank Catholic team that ended up reaching the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. With most of last year’s group back and some versatility and scoring ability in the lineup, Monmouth has a chance to be significantly improved if it can bottle the sort of effort it took to upset one of the Shore’s better teams in 2020.
Neptune: Unleash Sam Fagan
Since breaking into the starting lineup for a storied program as a freshman, Fagan has been limited for the majority of his varsity career and with a shorter schedule in 2021, he will be somewhat limited again as a senior. That disheartening fact aside, Fagan another year removed from a gruesome leg injury, committed to Monmouth and his team has some of the Shore’s best competition on the schedule in Ranney, Manasquan, Wall and Marlboro. The team around Fagan will look different thanks to some key graduations but the senior guard is a difference-maker for the Scarlet Fliers against a stacked schedule.
Ocean: Find a go-to scorer or learn how to operate without one
There is a lot of turnover with this year’s Ocean team, with former assistant Ryan Pringle taking over as head coach and both Jack and Corey Miller gone – Jack to graduation and Corey to transfer. The rotation will have to replace five players from last year, including four of the top five scorers, while playing in the Shore’s most loaded pod (Manasquan, Ranney, Wall, Neptune, St. Rose). Even if any of returnees Evan Peters, Jack Savare and Matt Shaw become all-around scorers, the Spartans need all hands on deck to hang with this kind of competition.
Ranney: Return to glory
When Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine rode off into the sunset after leading Ranney to the Tournament of Champions title, there was reasonable doubt whether Ranney would reload enough to become one of the Shore’s best teams. While last year was Ranney’s worst in head coach Tahj Holden’s first five years, it was a promising one for a team that did not rely on any seniors and comes back even stronger this year. There is a large gap to close in order to beat Manasquan, but Ranney has everyone back and is set to add sophomore point guard and Gill St. Bernard transfer Isaac Hester to boot.
Raritan: Don’t let age hold you back
The Rockets graduated a handful of key seniors from a team that was otherwise comprised of a lot of sophomore and freshman depth. That means this year’s team projects to have a lot of juniors and sophomores stepping into bigger roles, and while that means a lot of younger players being asked to do things they haven’t done, it also means a potentially deep rotation. Just about every other team in Raritan’s pod (Holmdel, Matawan, Colts Neck, Middletown North and St. John Vianney) is in a similar situation, so there is opportunity there.
Red Bank: Be the toughest team in a tough field
Playing in a pod that includes Rumson, Red Bank Catholic and Long Branch – all teams that have been historically physical and roster a bunch of football players – is going to require a team to be willing to battle in order to compete. This year, Red Bank should have that element about it as well and with RBC and Rumson both graduating some bruisers and Long Branch trying to find itself, there is a lane for the Bucs – with football standouts Nick Ferrogine and Owen Laughlin leading the effort alongside promising junior scorer Patrick Murray – to become the division’s toughest team.
Red Bank Catholic: Make the youth movement a winning movement
Ranney, CBA and Mater Dei Prep have been the decorated non-public programs of the Shore Conference over the five-to-10 years but none of those three were the only non-public team to reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. That would be Red Bank Catholic and the Caseys got there with just one senior in the starting lineup at the end of the year. With a core of juniors returning and a promising group of freshmen coming in to help fill some gaps in the roster, RBC has a chance to lay the groundwork for a big run over the next four years.
Rumson-Fair Haven: Learn from the reload
Rumson had more questions surrounding its 2019-20 roster than it had to answer I any of the previous eight years or so and coach Chris Champeau’s approach in the early going was to just play anybody and everybody. The Bulldogs substituted in shifts and played 12 or 13 players every night for the first part of the season but did start to settle on a more conventional, albeit deep, rotation. Graduation opened up some spots to fill, but with a returning group led by proven scoring guard Geoff Schroeder, Rumson is likely to have gained a lot from last year’s 17-win retool.
St. John Vianney: Let the kids run
Despite graduating some standout seniors from 2019-20 and a relatively short list of seniors for this year, St. John Vianney has an optimistic outlook heading into 2021 thanks to some promising young talent – both returning and incoming. It starts with all-division junior guard Nate Williams and with a band of athletic guards throughout the rotation, St. John Vianney could very well be the most dynamic roster in its pod with Holmdel, Colts Neck, Matawan, Middletown North and Raritan. The defensive buy-in will be key and just about every team wants to run, but giving this group a chance to get up and down could pay off for the Lancers.
St. Rose: Think big
Last season, St. Rose had good size across its lineup and started to take advantage of its versatile lineup at the end of the year. With a guard-oriented graduating class, St. Rose’s returning group is heavy on forwards with size to go along with 5-10 guard Morgan Fahy and 6-2 guard Frank DiNatale. It’s going to take some creativity for the Purple Roses to compete in their pod against the likes of Manasquan, Ranney, Wall and Neptune, but St. Rose should have some hope to give at least a couple of those teams a tough game if it can take advantage of some of that size.
Shore: Spread ’em out and light it up
Shore’s two gradations from last year’s 9-16 squad were frontcourt players that provided some inside muscle and the returning players give this year’s Blue Devils roster a guard-heavy base. Tyler Tilton and Chris Kessler are versatile players and good athletes at 6-3 or taller, John Smith is a solid returning point guard and the younger group that saw time had roles off the bench as guards. There are some physical teams in Shore’s pod (Rumson, Red Bank Catholic, Red Bank, Long Branch, Monmouth) but not an excess of size, so the Blue Devils could make a guard-oriented roster work.
Wall: Embrace the Schedule
After rolling through Class B North and winning sectional titles each of the past two seasons, Wall will play in the Shore’s toughest pod during the abbreviated 2021 season, with two games apiece against Manasquan, Ranney and Neptune. While the Crimson Knights had lots of success in the regular season and in the state tournament, Wall has not been quite as good in the Shore Conference Tournament and will have a chance to show it can play with the Shore’s top programs. Wall has a competitive group back this year and a lot of big games in its recent history, so the returning seniors are sure to relish the opportunity.