Boys Basketball – Ranney Embarks on Historic Season at the Shore
Four years ago, plenty of basketball aficionados in New Jersey had never heard of the Ranney School, much less knew any of its players. It was more likely a fan of Bruce Springsteen – who sent his children to the prestigious Monmouth County private school – knew the name than a fan of the New York Knicks, a Rutgers alumnus or a North Jersey basketball junkie would.
Now, the 2018-19 season is set to open on Friday night and the hot ticket in New Jersey is not in Jersey City or in Union County or Camden. All eyes will be fixed on the cozy confines of Gerhard Pavilion on the campus of the Ranney School, the home of the defending Shore Conference Tournament champions, a nationally-ranked boys basketball program, the highest-ranked team in New Jersey by multiple outlets and two of the top senior guards in the country.
With a resume like that, it is safe to say people have heard of Ranney basketball by now. Now it’s time to see if all the hype is warranted. That means that, as much as fans will come for the SportsCenter-worthy dunks and the possibility of catching a pair of future NBA players early in their journey, they will also come to find out with their own eyes: are these guys the real deal?
That pressure to live up to outside expectations isn’t a huge concern to Ranney’s players and fourth-year head coach Tahj Holden – a stickler, like so many of his modern coaching brethren, for locking in on process rather than the results. But senior Scottie Lewis did not run and hide from the ultimate goal for his team and the ramifications of falling short of it.
"It's T.O.C. or bust at this point," Lewis said, referencing the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, which will ultimately decide the No. 1 team in the state with its championship game on March 17, 2019, at the RAC in Piscataway.
A program that had never won a state playoff game before Lewis and his classmates were freshmen will view this season as a disappointment if it does not finish as the No. 1 team in a basketball factory of a state. A harsh reality, for sure, for Lewis and his fellow five-star back-court mate, Bryan Antoine. The two coveted prospects could have played their high school ball anywhere in the country after their sophomore season, but they set out to play with the same group of players for four years and to do it at an unexpected venue.
"We're always changing and doing something different and making our own names for ourselves,” Lewis said. “That's definitely something we wanted to carry out on the next level and I think that's what we are doing."
Lewis often isn’t shy about showing his artistic side, and for him and his friends Antoine, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino, Ranney represented a blank canvas. The Tournament of Champions title would be the last brush-stroke of a masterpiece four years in the making. As you might expect, Lewis is paying attention to every detail to make sure the job gets finished.
"If you aren't coming to practice every day with that love and passion for the game, we're going to get on you,'' he said. "We're going to make sure we all have that mindset that we're here to play basketball and we're here to win."
Last year, Ranney almost completed its Tournament of Champions journey a year early and was ever-so-close to entering this season as the defending T of C champion. The Panthers pushed eventual champion Roselle Catholic to the brink before losing, 63-61, in the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game. Letting what might have been the first of two consecutive titles slip away in the final seconds is additional motivation to finish the job this year.
The Future is Now
Plenty of local fans would be content to pay to watch a great team play, but Lewis and Antoine are the kind of attraction that will draw NBA and college basketball fans who might otherwise look past the high school game. Antoine is signed to play at Villanova next year while Lewis is committed to Florida. Both are considered top 20 players in their class nationally and early projections have both as potential first-round picks in the 2020 NBA Draft, perhaps even in the lottery.
"Having people like Coach K (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) and all the big coaches reaching out to me during the recruiting process – I had people like Brian Klatsky, Coach Tahj and Mike Rice telling me to stay calm and don't get too caught up in it," Antoine said. "Then people started texting me screenshots of my commitment on ESPN and stuff like that and for a couple seconds, I was like, 'That's cool,' but for the most part, I was at a loss of words."
How rare is it for two N.J. players from the same high school team to be selected in the first round? It has happened five times since 1980 and only one time have those teammates been selected in the first round in the same year. In 1993, St. Anthony teammates Bobby Hurley and Terry Dehere were taken seventh and 13th overall, respectively, and former St. Anthony teammate Luther Wright – who finished his high school career at Elizabeth and played with Dehere at Seton Hall – was also selected in the 1993 first-round at No. 18.
The other Jersey duos include some eye-catching names: Al Harrington (1998, 18th overall) and Samuel Dalembert (2001, 26th overall) of St. Patrick’s; Luol Deng (2004, seventh overall) and Charlie Villanueva (2005, seventh overall) of Blair Academy; Kyrie Irving (2011, first overall) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2012, second overall) of St. Patrick’s; and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015, first overall) and Wade Baldwin (2016, 16th overall) of St. Joseph in Metuchen.
Only one graduate of a Shore Conference school has been drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft - Freehold Boro and Temple University alumnus Tim Perry was selected No. 7 overall by Phoenix in 1988 Draft. Current Cleveland Cavalier J.R. Smith played at Lakewood for two seasons but transferred to St. Benedict’s in Newark and entered into the NBA Draft immediately after finishing his career there. Asbury Park native and current Louisiana State freshman Nazreon Reid played four years at Roselle Catholic and remains a projected lottery pick whenever he chooses to enter the Draft.
The 2020 Draft is only about 18 months away, but the two Ranney stars have a long way to go and some NBA front offices to depend on to make that dream a reality. The dream of bringing a Tournament of Champions title back to the Jersey Shore, which no team from the Shore Conference has ever done in the 30-year history of the Tournament of Champions, is within their control and is just over the horizon. The decision whether to enter the draft will come sooner than they think, but the time for Lewis and Antoine to finalize their high school legacy is at hand and begins with Friday’s opener at home vs. West Nottingham Academy of Maryland.
“With the college decision done, it’s all about ending our high school career with a championship,” Lewis said. “Everything else is secondary. Right now, it’s about coming to practice every day and trying to get better as a team one day at a time because we know that’s the formula to get to where we want to go.”
Rewriting the Record Books
It has been 27 years since a player from the Shore Conference reached the 2,000-point milestone for his career and that drought is likely to end thanks to Antoine. Not only is the 6-5 guard within striking distance of 2,000; he is on pace to break the Shore Conference all-time scoring record of 2,302, currently held by Norm Caldwell of now-defunct Croydon Hall and set in 1973.
Antoine enters Friday’s opener with 1,811 career points, leaving him 492 away from becoming the Shore’s all-time leading scorer. Antoine has eclipsed the 500-point mark in each of his three high school seasons and after scoring more than 700 points in 33 games last year, 2,500 points is a distinct possibility.
“Bryan might not average 20 because he plays within the offense and we are going to have four other guys on the floor who can put the ball in the basket,” said Holden, who starred at Red Bank Regional and was a center and a key contributor on Maryland’s 2002 NCAA championship team. “At the same time, Bryan is Bryan – he’s the kind of player where you think he had a decent game and you look at the book and he scored 35. He finds a way to get his 20 points and he did it last year without ever really finding his shot. He has look pretty locked in so far so I don’t want to put a number on what he could do. I just know he is going to be good for us.”
As for Lewis, the all-time scoring record is all but out of reach, but a career year would give the explosive senior a shot to join Antoine in the 2,000-point club. If Ranney reaches both the Shore Conference Tournament and the Tournament of Champions finals and does not have a first-round bye in the NJSIAA Tournament, the Panthers will play 34 games. If Lewis plays in all 34, he would need to average just under 20.7 points per game to hit the 2,000-point plateau before the final buzzer of his final game.
Lewis has not averaged more than 16.3 points per game in a season but has improved his offensive game each year. On top of averaging those 16 points last year, Lewis grabbed 6.5 rebounds and handed out 4.7 assists per game.
“Scottie’s skill-set has really caught up to his athleticism and he has looked really good offensively,” Holden said. “Defensively, you know you are getting the effort and the versatility on that end. Offensively, he keeps adding to his game and improving on the things he already does well, so I think it’s going to be exciting to watch how he plays this year. Again, I don’t know if it shows up in the scoring because of our depth, but I would expect he will be a much better player.”
More Depth = New Heights
Antoine and Lewis make Ranney a must-see team but it will be the supporting cast that holds the key to Ranney’s championship aspirations. Klatsky will join Lewis at Florida as a preferred walk-on and has been part of the project from day one. He is a knock-down shooter who can break a game open and is an improved athlete who is now fully ready to go toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the country. Autino is also entering his fourth year in the program and as the only true “big man” on the roster at 6-foot-7, he will be integral to Ranney’s success.
“As captains now, we always remind the team of what we were freshmen year,” Lewis said. “We were young guys and everyone still wanted to attack us, but we were the hunters. Now, we’re the hunted.”
When those four started together as freshmen, there was very little in place and a thin bench behind them. Ranney has mostly gone only six, sometimes seven deep, in big games over the last two years and now Holden will finally have a weapon or two more to deploy once the roster is whole.
Senior guard Ahmadu Sarnor joined Ranney as a sophomore but will miss the team’s first 16 games of the season, during which he has been ruled ineligible by the NJSIAA. Sarnor played varsity basketball as an eighth-grader at Collegian Prep in Pennsylvania and, according to Holden, is required by the NJSIAA to sit as many games as he played in that season, which was 16. Sarnor was named MVP of Ranney’s Shore Conference Tournament championship win over Mater Dei Prep last year and was a Shore Sports Network All-Shore Second Team member. If the schedule holds true to form, he will be eligible to debut in a Jan. 27 game at Kean University vs. Gill St. Bernard.
“Ever since he came here, he has fit in really well because he does whatever you need him to do,” Holden said of Sarnor. “He handles the ball, he can get to the rim, shoot it, he’s our best on-ball defender other than Scottie and he has no problem doing whatever helps the team win. He is a team-first guy, so I don’t worry too much about him fitting in when he gets back. We just have to make sure we keep him game-ready.”
The returning five will welcome two newcomers to the rotation as well. Junior Phillip Wheeler transferred to Ranney from Rumson-Fair Haven after playing as the Bulldogs’ sixth man as a sophomore. Wheeler is a 6-7 wing who already has an offer from Seton Hall University and is another high-flying wing player who offers Holden plenty of versatility.
Ranney’s other noteworthy newcomer is 6-3 freshman guard Elijah Perkins. With Sarnor out for most of the regular season, Perkins will get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do on a grand stage while learning from and playing with two of the country’s best players.
“Elijah Perkins is very different,” Antoine said. “He knows he is good, but he’s not the type to say ‘I’m a good player and I don’t need anybody else telling me what to do.’ He wants to absorb everything that we have to tell him. Me, Scottie and Alex have been through this for four years and we know what it’s like and he listens because he wants to be great.”
If Ranney needs an eighth man, senior Mike Dettro proved to be a capable fill-in last year before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
The Panthers will lean on Autino as their only conventional post player but the lineup will still feature plenty of size and versatility. Lewis proved each of the last two years he can defend all five positions and will be part of a swarming, turnover-obsessed team on that end of the floor.
“I’m usually not a big fan of switching man-to-man but the personnel we have is conducive to playing that way,” Holden said. “We are going to get up in the passing lanes and try to force teams into mistakes and it’s going to lead to more points for us and for the other team. We know we are going to give up more points (than last year) but the idea is going to be to create turnovers and create more possessions, which we feel like is going to favor us.”
On offense, the Holden is hoping his squad stylistically resembles another star-studded championship squad.
“I hate to draw this kind of comparison, but the model for us is the Golden State Warriors,” Holden said. “They have Steph (Curry), Klay (Thompson), Draymond Green out there with (Kevin) Durant playing the four and either Jordan Bell or Andre Iguodala as the fifth guy and when you run through that offense, you basically end up with a seven-footer stepping out and playing like a guard. When we have a lineup with Scottie, Bryan, Alex, Wheeler and either Ahmadu or Elijah, that’s kind of the dynamic we’re going for because all five guys can pretty much do everything offensively.”
“If you saw the fall league games and you saw everybody out there,” Antoine said before stopping mid-sentence and smiling. “It’s going to be a fun year.”
For the second straight year, Ranney will play a national schedule that will include a number of high-profile match-ups that will put the Panthers to the test. Three other nationally-ranked teams will oppose Ranney this season, most notably Montverde (Fla.), which is the No. 1 team in the country, on Feb. 8 at Kean University. Federal Way out of the Tacoma, Wa. area and defending Tournament of Champions winner Roselle Catholic are the other two currently-ranked opponents on tap for Ranney. The Panthers will play Federal Way at the Hoophall Classic at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. on Jan. 21 and Roselle Catholic on Jan. 30 at Brookdale Community College.
In addition to Roselle Catholic, Ranney will play three other New Jersey teams ranked among the Top 20 in the state. The Panthers will play T of C runner-up Don Bosco on Sunday at Dunn Center in Elizabeth, No. 7 Bergen Catholic at Brookdale on Jan. 12 and No. 3 Gill St. Bernard on Jan. 27 at Kean. They will also travel to the Bronx to play McDuffie from Massachusetts and is entered into the John Wall Classic in Raleigh, N.C. against seven of the top programs in North Carolina over the holiday break.
"Our top seven is as good as anybody's in the country," Holden said. "It's when you play these teams that have 10 Division I players and three 6-10 guys where we are really going to get tested."
The most challenging part of the schedule might not be playing other powerhouse teams but rather keeping sharp against its divisional schedule. The Shore Conference Class B Central is comprised of the smallest schools in the area but has been home to some high-level teams over the last three years. Ranney established an intense rivalry with Mater Dei Prep in that time, with the Seraphs winning SCT championships in 2016 and 2017 and reaching the championship game last year. Point Pleasant Beach, meanwhile reached the SCT quarterfinals and won the Central Jersey Group I title in a 21-win season.
The division will not be nearly as competitive for Ranney this year, with Mater Dei losing its entire rotation and coach Ben Gamble, Point Beach graduating five of its top six players and perennial contender St. Rose moving out of the division in the Shore Conference’s latest realignment. The result will be 12 divisional games that are likely to be one-sided by the second quarter, which could affect how sharp the Panthers are going into some of their higher-profile games.
“We certainly won’t take anybody for granted but at the same time, we know we’re dealing with some smaller schools and we’re not trying to run it up on anybody,” Holden said. “We have to put five guys on the floor so with our roster, there are always going to be two or three starters on the floor, but I think other coaches respect us because we haven’t gone out of our way to embarrass anybody like some other past B Central coaches have.”
The 2018-19 season is one of the most anticipated in the recent memory of Shore Conference basketball both because of what Lewis and Antoine will accomplish individually and how far Ranney can go as a team. Only one Shore Conference team has ever been to a Tournament of Championships final: Neptune lost to the gold standard of Jersey high school basketball, St. Anthony, in the 2002 title game and no team has been back since.
The last Shore Conference team to reach the Tournament of Champions was Point Beach in 2013, the last non-Group I team to make it was Neptune in 2009 and the last Shore team to win a T of C game was Raritan in 2004. After beating Haddonfield in the quarterfinals, the Rockets also fell victim to St. Anthony in the semifinals. In addition to Point Beach, Neptune and Raritan, the only other Shore Conference teams to reach the T of C are Asbury Park (twice), Holmdel (twice), Long Branch (twice), Christian Brothers Academy and Red Bank Regional.
From the time word got out that this senior group would attend Ranney and build a program from the ground-up together, this season became the year of Ranney. The only way for Antoine, Lewis and Co. to make sure it is remembered that way is by winning their final game of the season at the RAC on St. Patrick’s Day.
“There is definitely some pressure with being number one,” Holden said. “One thing I have really tried to instill in our guys is to just worry about the process. If you just focus on your preparation and your execution every day, the results will follow because we have a process that works. By just focusing on what’s in front right of them, it takes a little bit of the stress away and if we just worry about today, that should ultimately get us where we want to go.”
Until that day, enjoy the show. It’s all part of the process, one the Shore is unlikely to see again in a long time.
Correction: This post has been edited with correct information about Shore players in the NBA Draft. Tim Perry is the highest draft pick out of the Shore Conference at No. 7 overall in 1988. The post previously stated that no Shore player had ever been selected in the first round.