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MIDDLETOWN  -- Returning to the site of its only loss during the 2021 season, the Red Bank Catholic boys basketball team walked into Christian Brothers Academy intent on landing the first proverbial blow and, in turn, avoiding an early deficit.

Unfortunately for Caseys senior C.J. Ruoff, he took a literal blow in the form of an elbow to the nose in the first 30 seconds of the game and missed most of the first quarter. Fortunately for his team, the figurative first blow went to the Caseys and by the fourth quarter, RBC landed its biggest knockout in program history.

Red Bank Catholic -- ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 -- jumped on top of No. 1 CBA right away and never gave up the lead en route to a 59-47 win that secures the Caseys the Founders' Cup, the first win over the Colts by any team this season, and the inside track at the No. 1 spot in the new rankings on Monday.

"This was a title fight," Red Bank Catholic coach Tyler Schmelz said. "It was a stand-alone game. Standings don’t matter, power points don’t matter, nothing else matters except the 32 minutes here. They did a great job and had a great performance here today."

Red Bank Catholic sophomore Zach Meeks. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank Catholic sophomore Zach Meeks. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Sophomore Zach Meeks helped lead the RBC scoring and rebounding effort with 14 points and 10 rebounds, with Ruoff adding 12 points and three assists and fellow senior Alex Bauman contributing eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the win.

The start to Saturday's looked much different than the way last year's meeting between the two rivals started. Playing in the first round of the eight-team, 2021 Shore Conference Playoff championship pod, CBA stormed out to an early lead on the way to a 61-48 win over a Caseys team that did not lose another game during their 13-game 2021 season.

"You’ve got to have your best stuff to start the game," Schmelz said. "That game (last year), they were up 10 in the first quarter and we were chasing the whole game. It’s a different game when you’re playing with the lead or playing even."

This time around, Red Bank Catholic (11-1) hit CBA (10-1) with the first six points of the game on three-pointers by seniors Cyril Arvanitis and Alex Brown -- Ruoff's replacement after sustaining a bloody nose -- and orchestrated a 14-4 run out of the gate before CBA freshman Justin Fuerbacher banked in a three-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer to make it 14-7.

Red Bank Catholic senior C.J. Ruoff. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank Catholic senior C.J. Ruoff. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"We had a better gameplan coming in here," Ruoff said. "Last year was a little bit chaotic. We let them make us play their game instead of playing our game. We realized what we had to do and we didn’t let the crowd take over.

"This year, we really know who we are. We know our strength and our weaknesses, we know when to get it to a big man, when to kick it out. We really know how to play together this year."

There was also a significantly larger, louder crowd on hand, with CBA selling out its gym with presale-only tickets.

"We knew it wasn’t going to be easy," Meeks said. "Their student section was going to be a big part of this game and it wasn’t really like that last year. It does get to you a little bit, but you’ve got to block that out and do a job. It was more of a mental game than a physical game today."

The home team clawed its way back to within two points late in the second quarter and again in the third. CBA pulled within 39-37 on a reverse by junior Will Bradley in the final minute of the third quarter, but that was the last time the Colts would get that close.

RBC took a 41-37 edge into the fourth when its bench took over, with a freshman playing the biggest role in a game-clinching run. Ryan Prior first entered the game in the final minute of the third quarter and early in the fourth, he hit senior Alex Brown for a layup, hit the floor for a steal, then buried two three-pointers from the left wing as part of a 12-5 run that pushed RBC's lead to 51-42.

"I know it's a pun, but he’s an ace," Schemlz said of Prior, who is the nephew of former Chicago Cubs phenom and current Los Angels Dodgers pitcher coach Mark Prior and already verbally committed to pitch at the University of Virginia. "You can see it. He’s only a freshman, but he’s just very smart, very heady and not only is he smart and heady, but he’s a knock-down shooter.

"He’s not going to make a mistake, he is going to do the right things defensively, he is one of our best communicators and positional defenders, he is smart with the ball and he makes open shots. He’s got guts. He’s got great guts and I feel very lucky to have him on the team I coach."

With CBA hanging onto hope with a six-point deficit, Meeks put the game away with back-to-back buckets by Meeks off passes from Bauman, the second of which was a two-hand slam dunk that served as the exclamation point on the Caseys' win.

Ruoff was a big player in suppressing CBA's comeback, proving an emotional lift just by returning to the court and then finding his scoring touch with 12 points in the final three quarters.

"It didn’t feel great," Ruoff said of the hit to the nose. "I don’t know, it might have been a little bit of a cheap shot, but whatever. It kind of shook me up, but once I got back in, I had a job to do and I had to find a way to get it done, whatever the atmosphere was. It was tough to play in here. It was very tough."

On top of the strong start to the game, Red Bank Catholic got another major contribution from its bench. Prior scored all six of his points on his two fourth-quarter threes, Brown gave the Caseys five points and tough defense, and 6-foot-6 sophomore Tyler Burnham scored four points and blocked a shot in just three fourth-quarter minutes.

"In my life as a coach, my instinct has always been to stick with the starters, because you know them and you trust them – especially with the guys I have," Schmelz said. "So it’s been hard for me to make moves, but these guys off the bench, they are very good. They have been doing it in practice, they have been earning their chance."

Sophomore Colin Cavanaugh, Red Bank Catholic's top bench scorer and the reigning Shore Sports Network Player of the Week, scored only two points, but those came on a transition layup that capped the 12-5 run and made it 51-42.

Meeks, Bauman and sophomore Gioacchino Panzini led a rebounding effort that overwhelmed CBA and the Caseys went from a more deliberate first-half pace to looking to run in the second half.

RBC also clamped down on CBA's top scorer. Senior Pat Lautato was limited to five points and none after halftime. Sophomore Peter Noble, meanwhile, scored a game-high 15 points and junior Will Bradley added 11 to lead the Colts.

"Defense is a big part of why we won," Meeks said. "We can go from man to 2-3, we have a deep bench and that helps out. We’ve got fresh bodies to come in and dig in on defense when we need a stop."

Saturday's win adds to Red Bank Catholic's revenge tour, which already included a win over a No. 1 team in the SSN Top 10. Marlboro handed the Caseys their only loss of the season in the WOBM Christmas Classic championship on Dec. 30, but RBC came back and beat the Mustangs, 46-40, on Jan. 8 at the Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase.

With wins over both teams that have sat atop the Shore rankings this season, Red Bank Catholic is poised to ascend to the top spot for, what is believed to be, the first time in program history. RBC has appeared in only one Shore Conference Tournament final -- back in 1994 -- and will now try to reach the SCT next month as the No. 1 seed.

While the Caseys cleared two major hurdles over the past two weekend in Marlboro and CBA, the gauntlet continues. Next Saturday, Red Bank Catholic is due to host No. 4 Ranney and the following weekend, the Caseys will take on Rutgers Prep -- the No. 9 team in N.J. -- in the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase at Central Regional.

"It’s pretty special for these kids," Schmelz said. "They deserve it, they have earned it, and now, we’re going to have a target and everyone is going to be looking to beat us. We’ve got some very difficult games coming up, so we’re going to find out how we handle it."

"Everyone is going to give us their best and try to knock us off," Ruoff said. "It’s going to be up to us to deal with that and keep trying to get better. We haven’t won a Shore Conference championship, so we still have a lot we want to accomplish."

Red Bank Catholic sophomore Tyler Burnham. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank Catholic sophomore Tyler Burnham. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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CBA sophomore Peter Noble. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
CBA sophomore Peter Noble. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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CBA junior Joe White. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
CBA junior Joe White. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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