NJSIAA Non-Public B Championship

Saturday, March 10, 7 p.m.

At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River

Roselle Catholic (26-4) vs. Ranney (28-4)

Roselle Catholic Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 Koinonia, 90-51; No. 9 Christ the King, 101-48; No. 5 Montclair Immaculate, 92-63; No. 2 Gill St. Bernard, 57-40.

Ranney Road to the Final: Defeated No. 15 Wardlaw-Hartridge, 84-31; No. 7 Rutgers Prep, 101-90; No. 3 Mater Dei Prep, 77-60; No. 5 Trenton Catholic, 71-56

Saturday’s Non-Public B championship game will be the biggest high school game in which the Ranney boys basketball players have ever played and perhaps the biggest game a Shore Conference team has played since Neptune was in the Tournament of Champions final in 2002.

On the one hand, it is just a game.

On Wednesday, Ranney coach Tahj Holden learned his 16-month-old son, Maxwell, has neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that affects mostly infants and very young children. The news reached the team the next day and has put Saturday’s championship game in a new context.

On the other hand, it will be more than a game.

Ranney junior Scottie Lewis told ZagsBlog.com that he and his teammates are dedicating their game to Max Holden, the son of the former Red Bank Regional star and center on Maryland's 2002 NCAA national championship team.

One way or another, Saturday will mark the emotional crescendo of Ranney’s climb toward the top of the state during the 2017-18 season. While it’s possible the Panthers will have to wait until next year, when five of the six regulars on this year’s team are seniors, to become the first Shore Conference teams to win Tournament of Champions title, the dream is close to becoming a reality in the here and now.

Ranney coach Tahj Holden. (Photo by Rob Samuels)
Ranney coach Tahj Holden. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

If it seems as though beating the state’s No. 1 team with a McDonald’s All-American forward and an unrelenting stable of skilled athletes at every position is a longshot, that is because it will be. Roselle Catholic has not lost a to a team in N.J. this year and one of its four losses was by one point to the No. 1 team in the nation, Montverde Academy of Florida.

One of Roselle Catholic’s 26 wins came against Ranney, but it was not the same team the Lions will face on Saturday. The Panthers lost to Roselle Catholic, 75-50, with Lewis and fellow junior starter Alex Klatsky out due to injury – an insurmountable handicap for a team that plays only six players in its regular rotation.

“I remember at halftime, I turned to Ahmadu (Sarnor) and I was like, ‘We really can’t do this without Alex and (Lewis),’” junior guard Bryan Antoine said. “It will be a lot different this time with Alex and Scottie on the floor.”

On top of missing Lewis and Klatsky, Antoine shot an uncharacteristic 4-for-16 from the field and 6-foot-9 senior center Savior Akuwovo managed only two points and six rebounds against Roselle Catholic’s imposing front line.

Junior Ahmadu Sarnor was Ranney’s standout in the 25-point loss to the Lions, scoring 18 points. Sarnor has made a habit of stepping up in big games for Ranney: he was named MVP of the Shore Conference Tournament championship game, scored a career-high 31 points in a 101-90 sectional semifinal win over Rutgers Prep and last year, against eventual Tournament of Champions winner the Patrick School, Sarnor scored a team-high 28 points in a competitive, 10-point loss to a loaded Celtics team.

Antoine has been locked in during the NJSIAA Tournament, averaging 25.7 points in the four Ranney wins, including 31 and 30 in the past two wins over Mater Dei Prep and Trenton Catholic. While Antoine has looked for his shot more in the past two games than in the previous games leading up to them, he is still shooting at a robust 69.7 percent clip in the two games (23-for-33).

After a lackluster start against Ranney on Jan. 31, Roselle Catholic came to life behind big performances by senior guard Ithiel Horton (19 points) and junior wing Kahlil Whitney (17). McDonald’s All-American Naz Reid added 14 points and 10 rebounds, including the 1,000th point of his high school career in the game, while 6-9 frontcourt-mate Alanzo Frink posted 10 points and eight rebounds.

Reid is headed to Louisiana State University and Horton to the University of Delaware next year, while Whitley – the son former Seton Hall standout Kelly Whitney – has a number of high-major Division I offers as a player widely regarded as one of the top 100 nationally in the Class of 2019.

Colby Rogers is another athletic 6-4 guard, while Jason Battle and Josh Pierre-Louis are quick junior guards who can handle the ball as well.

While the emotion of the past few days is sure to play a part in Ranney’s performance on Saturday, it is unknown to what degree it will affect the Panthers players and if it will be as much of a distraction as it is a source of inspiration, particularly given that this is a team of high school kids – albeit mature ones.

Late last summer, senior forward Chris Autino organized a three-on-three tournament to raise money for a charity that helps families of people dealing with ALS, which took the life of Autino’s mother in May of 2017.

Lewis and Antoine combined to organize a benefit at the Ranney School to help the homeless in September.

The basketball community and beyond has also stepped up to support the Holden family, with a GoFundMe Page set up on Max’s behalf raising more than $89,000 in a little more than one day.

While this Ranney group has faced real-world problems head-on, this one is still raw and could mean their head coach misses the game to be with his wife, Carrie, his oldest son Cole and, of course, Max. According to a post on social media by family friend Amanda Lefaive, Max had successful surgery Friday to remove a tumor from his kidney.

The outcome of the game is likely a secondary concern for the Ranney players in light of the sobering news they got about their coach and his family, but it’s hard to envision anything less than an inspired effort from the Panthers, who are likely to have plenty of support in Toms River.

No matter who the fans on hand in Toms River are rooting for during the hour-and-a-half of basketball, they will all be rooting for Holden.


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