Boys Basketball – NJSIAA Sectional Final Previews
The three Shore Conference boys basketball teams still playing for a state championship banner all entered the NJSIAA Tournament as No. 1 seeds in their respective brackets and have all held serve at home to reach Tuesday’s sectional finals.
Freehold Township, Rumson-Fair Haven and Toms River North have all had some of the best seasons in the history of their respective programs, and in the case of Toms River North, there is little doubt this is the best season in program history. All three also enter play on Tuesday with only two losses.
There is also one more thing all three Shore Conference programs remaining have in common: none have ever won a sectional championship. Freehold Township has been painfully close in each of the past two years and four times in the last decade, while Rumson reached a sectional final in 2014 before coming up short of the final each of the past two years despite the presence of Brendan Barry.
Toms River North is the new kid on the block, having never been to a sectional final, let alone hosted one. If any or all three win on Tuesday, there will be a home crowd on hand to storm the court and participate in an unprecedented celebration.
Here is a look at what all three Shore schools are up against on Tuesday night.
Central Jersey Group IV
No. 2 Hunterdon Central (25-3) at No. 1 Freehold Township (25-2), 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday night in Freehold Township, one team will win its first NJSIAA sectional championship while the other endures another heartbreaking end to the season. It will mark the third straight year in which a team wins its first NJSIAA sectional championship in this bracket.
For Freehold Township, the Patriots are just hoping it will not be three first-time champions at their expense. Monday will mark Freehold Township’s third straight trip to the Central Jersey Group IV final, and the Patriots hope the third time will be the charm. Last year, they were seconds and inches away from winning their first championship before Colts Neck’s Brendan Clarke hit a short jumper at the buzzer to give Colts Neck its first sectional title.
Two years back, Freehold Township was the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey IV and hosted No. 13 Hillsborough in the sectional final – a matchup that suggested the Patriots would win their first sectional title in front of their home crowd. The Raiders, however, showed why they made that run as a No. 13 seed and knocked off the Patriots for their first sectional title in program history.
Freehold Township also reached the sectional final three other times, including in 2007 – when the Patriots won the Shore Conference Tournament title – and again in 2009.
This year’s Patriots team has dropped just two games all season – one to Christian Brothers Academy during the regular season and another to Marlboro in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. After beating Marlboro to clinch the outright Class A North title on Feb. 7, Freehold Township had to grind to win games against Manalapan (at the buzzer) and Ocean before losing to Marlboro, then edged Long Branch in a tune-up game heading into the state tournament.
They beat Middletown South handily in the opening round but again had to scratch and claw to get past a traditionally strong Trenton squad. The Patriots put together one of their best efforts of the season Thursday, when they beat No. 5 Sayreville, 76-66, to earn another trip to the sectional final and head into the championship game on a high note. Seniors Steve Staklinski, Ryan Zyskowski and Bobby Weise have led the way, and all three got heavy experience in last year’s postseason run.
While Freehold Township is venturing to its sixth trip to a sectional final and third straight, Hunterdon Central is primed to make its first appearance in a sectional championship on Tuesday. The Red Devils have already set a school record for wins in a season with 25, won the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament, and have won 12 straight entering Tuesday. That matches Hunterdon Central’s longest winning streak of the season, which ended with a loss to Sayreville – the team Freehold Township beat to reach Tuesday’s game.
Senior Tucker Richardson leads Hunterdon Central with 18.4 points per game this season and is coming off his fifth 30-plus-point game of the season. The 6-3 swingman poured in 31 in a 61-28 rout of Old Bridge on Thursday.
Freehold Township spoiled Hunterdon Central’s plans to win its first sectional crown last year, when the Red Devils were a No. 1 seed and lost to the Patriots in Flemington in the semifinals. The winner will take on the winner of the South Jersey Group IV final between Toms River North and Shawnee on Thursday, 5:30 p.m. at Egg Harbor Township High School.
Central Jersey Group II
No. 3 A.L. Johnson (22-4) at No. 1 Rumson-Fair Haven (23-2), 7 p.m.
By earning the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey Group II section, Rumson-Fair Haven earned the right to play every one of its sectional playoff games in its own gym. Although the Central Jersey Group II title would go through Rumson the town, the sectional title was thought to go through Bordentown the team – the defending sectional champion. The Scotties beat Manasquan in the sectional final last year after losing to the Warriors in the 2015 championship game.
Both Bordentown and Manasquan were one win away from facing off in the sectional final for a third straight year, but Rumson and its Tuesday opponent played the role of spoiler on Thursday night. The Bulldogs took care of Manasquan in a 70-62 overtime win thanks to a clutch, game-tying three-pointer by senior Tyler Pierson with 23 seconds left and 34 points from junior Jack Solano.
Arthur L. Johnson, meanwhile, upended the defending sectional champs on the road, 80-68, behind a 32-point game by Joe DiProfio, who entered play Thursday averaging 10 points per game. The Crusaders needed a putback in the waning seconds to beat Holmdel in the first round – the second one-possession win over the Hornets this season – and then went on to beat Lincoln before going on the road and beating Bordentown.
The Crusaders opened the season with a nine-game winning streak before losing to Union Catholic, then ripped off eight straight wins to move to 17-1. They then went 2-3 over their next five, but did pick up a win over St. Peter’s Prep – the most noteworthy of Johnson’s wins this season.
By comparison, Rumson beat Holmdel by double-digits in both meetings the two teams played, but the Bulldogs shouldn’t order the rings just yet. They also played tight games against Raritan, Red Bank and Matawan over the course of the season.
With that being said, this is Rumson’s best opportunity to win a sectional championship. The Bulldogs reached the Central Jersey Group II final as a No. 10 seed in 2014 and lost to Matawan in the championship game. The following year, Rumson was the No. 1 seed and coming off of a Shore Conference Tournament title run, but was stunned in the quarterfinal by No. 8 Bordentown.
Rumson’s only losses this season came to Roselle Catholic and Toms River North, and the Roselle Catholic game was decided by only three points. Despite losing junior center Elijah McAllister to a second torn ACL, the Bulldogs have persevered and are one win away from program history.
South Jersey Group IV
No. 2 Shawnee (27-2) at No. 1 Toms River North (28-2), 6:30 p.m.
Like Freehold Township and Rumson-Fair Haven, Toms River North is gunning for its first sectional championship Tuesday and doing so in front of a home crowd. Unlike the other two two-loss Shore teams, however, Toms River North has never been to a sectional final and will have to go through an opponent with championship pedigree.
Shawnee is one of four boys public school programs to win a Tournament of Champions title, which the Renegades did in 1992. During an 11-year stretch from 1992 to 2002, Shawnee won four Group IV championships and appeared in six Group IV title games, but has not been back to a Group IV final since.
This year’s Renegades have a great shot to end the drought as they enter Tuesday’s South Jersey IV final on a 12-game tear and with only two losses on their resume – one to Camden by one point and another to Lenape by four. When it comes to scoring, the junior duo of 6-6 Dylan Deveney (16 points per game) and 6-1 Dean Knoll (15 per game) has led the way for Shawnee this season. In fact, none of Shawnee’s top six scorers this season are seniors.
Toms River North counters with a senior nucleus that has led the Mariners over the last two seasons. Seniors Darrion Carrington and Mike Nyisztor have been varsity contributors since they were freshmen, while senior Jaden Rhoden – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder – transferred in from Central Regional prior to his junior season. With Carrington and Nyisztor, the Mariners have won three straight Class A South titles, won 32 straight divisional games dating back to 2015 and been to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals three straight years. Since adding Rhoden last year, the Mariners have not lost to a Class A South opponent.
Tuesday will mark a first for this group as it has carried Toms River North to its first sectional final appearance, but not without some serious help from the supporting cast. Junior Travis Holland scored 17 points in the semifinal win over Cherokee and junior Holden Petrick and senior Sean O’Donnell have been sharpshooters from beyond the arc all year.
Not only do both teams enter Tuesday on winning runs, but both have been dominant. All 12 of Shawnee’s wins during its win streak have been by double-digits, while Toms River North is 10-1 since the calendar turned to February and all 10 victories were by no fewer than 13 points. The Mariners’ lone loss during the stretch was a 73-68 defeat at the hands of Mater Dei, a top-10 team in the state.