Boys Basketball: Polishing Their Sales Pitch
ABERDEEN TWP. - When the bleachers emptied into a raucous celebration at midcourt after host Matawan won its first NJSIAA sectional title since 1957 on Tuesday night, it was not just a historic moment.
It was a sales pitch.
For the first few years of head coach Tom Stead’s seven-year tenure with the Huskies, keeping homegrown talent in Matawan’s hallways was often a challenge. Four years ago, guard Jason Dunne was a talented eighth-grader in town with coaches from rival programs and others questioning his decision to stay at his hometown team.
After all, Matawan had not even won a division title since 1965, let alone a state sectional title. Public school teams with little tradition are often ripe pickings for established programs to convince players to blow off their local school.
Between non-publics, tuition public schools, choice schools and rampant transferring, it's a free-for-all of programs hunting for talent in New Jersey, making it harder for under-the-radar programs to retain top players in their district. It becomes a difficult situation where struggling teams can't break through because they can't keep their talent, but they can't convince the talent to come there because they are struggling.
“People were calling me crazy, telling me I was never going to go anywhere by coming to Matawan,’’ Dunne said. “I said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to get in the gym with these guys, keep working and prove them wrong.’ I knew coach Stead since I was in sixth grade, and there was no doubt I was coming here. I would still get letters from other (non-public schools), but coach Stead really wanted me.
“I said I was going to come here and help make things happen. I didn’t lie.”
Dunne, a junior guard, poured in 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter to help bring home a 67-54 victory over Rumson-Fair Haven in front of a capacity home crowd for the Huskies’ first NJSIAA sectional title.
His effort complemented a 21-point night by fellow junior guard Joe Piscopo, who also had people in his ear years ago saying that Matawan was not the way to go.
“They were like, ‘Why didn’t you go to CBA camp, why didn’t you go to SJV camp, why didn’t you go to this other camp?’’’ Piscopo said. “I’m not worried about programs and their legacies. We made our own legacy right here. I was never going to leave.”
Matawan’s geographic location at the tip of northern Monmouth County also means the Huskies not only have to contend with Shore Conference non-publics eyeing their talent, but also ones north of them like powerhouses St. Joseph’s-Metuchen, Roselle Catholic and more. Top non-public teams are now practically scouring the whole state in search of the best. Just look at Asbury Park eighth-grader Nazrean Reid, a 6-foot-7, once-in-a-generation Shore talent who is going to play all the way up at Roselle Catholic instead of for the Blue Bishops.
“The way this state is set up right now, you’ve got to keep your own kids,’’ Stead said. “I’m big on recruiting our own kids. I just ran a whole presentation with our sports department last week on recruiting our own kids. It’s important because people are getting in their ears.”
Dunne and Piscopo stayed at home, intent on turning around a program that was winless only a few seasons before they arrived. Even they couldn’t initially fathom it would reach the peak that the Huskies hit on Tuesday night. The first sectional title in 57 years now goes on this season’s resume along with their first division title in 49 years and their first trip to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in 50 years.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,’’ Dunne said. “I need someone to pinch me. It’s never happened in our school history. You look up at the banner, and it doesn’t even have a sectional thing up there. We just wanted to do it for the community, and it worked out for us.
“(In the preseason) we weren’t even thinking about something like this. Halfway through the season, we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to go out and get it.’”
“I didn’t really think that we were going to be state champs coming into the season, to be honest, but winning the Christmas tournament and winning B North, we felt like we could do anything,’’ said senior guard Chris Tawiah.
It wasn’t just the scoreboard on Tuesday that showed how much things have changed at Matawan. The Huskies were the No. 1 seed in the bracket, so even though they had never won a state title, they were in the unfamiliar position as the favorite against 10th-seeded Rumson. Forty-five minutes before the 7 p.m. tip-off, officials stopped letting fans into the gym because it was at capacity. Matawan’s rabid “Dawg Pound” student section was at full roar from the opening tip.
“They didn’t used to have a student section at all,’’ said senior forward Nick Tomkins, a success story in his own right who is headed to Dartmouth to play football. “Now there’s a line out the door.”
“I didn’t even know there were this many people in this town,’’ Piscopo said. “I come in here at 4 o’clock with my headphones on, and I hear clapping. There was a whole line already. It’s crazy what this town has done for us.”
A tight-knit group of players has repaid that support with Matawan’s best season ever in a school with a proud athletic tradition. Stead, who led Holmdel to a pair of Group titles in the late 1990s, became the rare Shore Conference coach to lead two different programs to NJSIAA sectional championships.
“It’s special here because four years ago there were 31 people in the bleachers and nobody cared,’’ Stead said. “I could’ve walked away, but I just always felt there was always something here that could be done. These kids are all in. They got through it, they deserve it, and they’re state champions.”
“We knew if we came together as a team, we could show everybody how good we could be,’’ Tawiah said. “We are just here to make history.”
The ride isn’t over yet, as the Huskies have a chance to make more history by reaching their first Group final when they face a storied South Jersey program on Thursday. Matawan will play Camden in the Group II semifinals at 7 p.m. at Perth Amboy High School right up the road from them.
“Probably half the people in this gym think it’s over,’’ Dunne said. “Why stop at a sectional title ring? We want to keep it going. I would play until the summer if I had to.”
“We’ve got nothing to lose now,’’ Stead said. “We’re playing with house money.”
Stead also now has a story to tell up-and-coming youth players in Matawan. It sounds a whole lot better than it did only a few years ago, thanks to a determined group that was hell-bent on bringing their hometown program into the spotlight after so many years in the shadows. They showed Tuesday night that you can stay home and still be a champion.
“Everyone told us we stunk,’’ Dunne said. “It was just proving people wrong. That’s what this town is all about – proving people wrong. You’re not supposed to make it from this town, you’re not supposed to score big, you’re not supposed to win the big games, but we just put all that aside and got it done. It feels incredible.”