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LITTLE SILVER -- When head coach Scott Martin and his Red Bank boys basketball players learned they would be without senior leader Patrick Murray for the start of the 2021-22 season and later found out a re-aggravation of his hamstring injury would likely keep him out for the entire year, there was understandable frustration.

Martin, however, has been through far worse during his 21-year tenure as head coach of the Bucs, which he made public Tuesday would be coming to an end at the conclusion of this season. Just last year, with Martin's son, Bodhi, as one of the seniors on the team, Red Bank played only 12 games during the COVID-shortened season and finished 4-8 after opening with six straight losses.

"Last year was supposed to be it," Martin said. "It was my son's senior year, it was my 20th year, and it just seemed like the right way to go out. But then last year was stolen from him and all those guys. He and I sat down and I asked him how he'd feel if I continued for one more year. He just laughed and was like, 'Dad, I have been playing high school basketball for four years. You have been doing this for like a hundred. Do it as long as you want.'"

Missing out on a chance to coach his son for a full senior season stung, but it paled in comparison the loss Martin and the team suffered in the preseason prior to the 2012-13 season. During a scrimmage in December, Albert Martin, who was not related to Scott, collapsed coming out of a team huddle and died after unsuccessful efforts to revive him.

Understandably, the loss of Albert Martin had a profound impact on Scott Martin and the program and it has been a source of perspective that has been particularly important for Scott Martin over the past two seasons.

Martin wasn't sure how this year was going to go with Murray -- the team's top returning scorer from a year ago at 11.9 points per game -- sidelined but his general calm and coaching gave the rest of the team a chance to grow.

Red Bank junior Nick Valentino. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank junior Nick Valentino. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"When Patty got hurt, literally the day before opening night, we realized it's not going to be easy, but we can do it," junior Nick Valentino said. "He has been so great. All I ever wanted to do was to play with that kid and I never got the chance to. He has been great supporting us and the rest of us have really come together as a team."

Following a 1-4 start to the season, Red Bank rallied to win a share of the Shore Conference Class B North public division championship and on Tuesday, the Bucs gave their departing head coach one more thrill with a 54-47 win over Middletown North in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Playoffs.

"We poured a lot into this summer and fall," Martin said. "We thought we were going to be pretty good. And then Patty goes down the practice before opening night. We had a really good set of scrimmages and felt like were right there or better than a lot of that competition and then we got punched in the gut with Patty going down."

With the eighth-seeded Bucs the highest-numbered seed to advance in the bracket on Tuesday, the game is guaranteed to be the last one Martin coaches at the Red Bank Regional Field House and between his team's play on the court and the many former players and Red Bank figures who showed up for the game, it was a memorable one for Martin.

"After starting the year 1-4 and then going on that run of whatever it was and winning the share of the B North public school co-championship, I'll take it," Martin said. "After all the trials and tribulations of the last few years, I'll gladly take it. I just turned 50 and when we won that game here against Middletown North, I was dancing around this court like a three-year old. It was just such a fun year."

Valentino -- who has emerged as the team's top scorer in Murray's absence -- led the way with 18 points and senior Brian Tobin and junior Collin Teter pitched in 13 points apiece for Red Bank.

Red Bank senior Brian Tobin. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank senior Brian Tobin. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"They are a really tough team," said Valentino, whose team split the regular-season series with Middletown North, its Class B North rival. "They have a lot more size than us, but we just came to play. We're all very close and we have great team chemistry. I'm very close with all the seniors and we just knew we couldn't lose this game. We had to win for them."

The Bucs took the lead for good with a 10-2 run to close the second half and make it 27-21 heading to the third quarter. Middletown North, however, mounted an 11-3 run late in the fourth that cut Red Bank's lead to 46-45 with under three minutes to play.

After a timeout with 2:31 left, Red Bank got the ball to Valentino, who created space inside the arc at the top of the key and hit a jumper for a 48-45 lead.

The Bucs got a stop on the other end and senior Tobin found Teter for a layup with a drive-and-dish to make it a five-point game and begin the march to the free-throw line that put the game on ice.

"We just stayed together," Valentino said. "All the seniors -- Brian Tobin, Tommy Keegan, Joe Caruso, Donovan Bradley, all those guys -- they have been our leaders, encouraging us, helping me get better all year and keep my head straight. They helped us keep our composure down the stretch."

The free-throw line was a problem for Middletown North, which started 3-for-12 before hitting seven in a row to get to a more respectable 10-for-19 for the game. Red Bank shot 19-for-27 from the line, including 15-for-19 after starting the game 4-for-8.

Sophomore Braydon Kirkpatrick led the foul-shooting effort by going 7-for-7, part of a nine-point game off the bench for the Bucs.

Red Bank sophomore Braydon Kirkpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank sophomore Braydon Kirkpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Senior Matt Kenny scored a game-high 20 points to lead Middletown North, which welcomed senior Tommy Giannone (six points) back to the starting lineup for the first time following an 11-game absence. Senior Lucas Cerbo also chipped in 11 points in the loss.

Red Bank opened the season 1-4 and has since gone 14-6 in its run to the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals. The Bucs will now have to deal with top-seeded Manasquan on the road and while Martin and his team were happy to win their last home game and reach the 15-win mark, they want to make a serious bid to shock the Shore on Thursday night.

"House money," Martin said of the trip to Manasquan. "I really wanted this one tonight and on Thursday night, we'll take out best shot."

"We have nothing to lose and they have everything to lose," Valentino said. "Nobody is expecting us to even be in that game. We're just going to try to play them well."

Regardless of what happens on Thursday, Martin is happy with the sendoff he got on Tuesday night in the gym he has called home for more than two decades. His tenure started with two trips to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in 2004 and 2007 and an appearance in a Central Jersey Group III final in 2008. By the end of it, after 271 wins, his 21 years were defined by how his teams responded in the face of not only adversity, but straight-up tragedy.

"There were moments early in my career when I thought this might be easy," Martin said. "As we got right out of the gate, I was like 'Man, Red Bank Regional is a quarterfinalist every year and a semifinalist or better when we catch a break.' Then it got tougher."

On Tuesday night, he saved his longest postgame embrace for Tracy Dixon, the mother of Albert Martin. As Albert's former coach, Scott Martin has made sure to keep Tracy's son's name prominent in the program by retiring his number and naming the long-standing Buc Holiday Classic Tournament after Albert.

It was not what Martin expected the job to be when he was challenging for championships in his first 10 years, but it was the job he was called to do.

"It's the friendships," Martin said. "I know it's corny and cliché, but it's true. Each and every team, whether we have been great, near great or not even close, it's the guys. It's the kids and their willingness to come to the gym every day, regardless of our record or whether our goals were realistic or unrealistic, big or small, they bought in and we had fun. I hope my players all continue to love the game as much as I love it."

Red Bank junior Collin Teter. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Red Bank junior Collin Teter. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Middletown North senior Matt Kenny. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Middletown North senior Matt Kenny. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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