When Ben DiBiase decided to return to his former post as Freehold Boro head boys basketball coach back in 2017-18, it was not because he had visions of leading the Colonials – who he coached for seven seasons from 2006-07 to 2012-13 – to a state championship during his second turn.

He just wanted his team to improve with each day and from season-to-season and considering what he and his young team endured in 2021-22, the bar could not have been any lower.

In that season, coming off a solid 8-7 showing with a talented group during the COVID-shortened 2021 season, Freehold Boro came back with a roster heavy on underclassmen and a schedule that gave them no easy wins.

As it turned out, the schedule did not give them any wins. The Colonials went 0-21 and any designs of contending for a state championship – which, again, DiBiase asserts he did not have – were beyond even a pipe dream.

And yet, two years later, that wild dream became a reality. Freehold Boro climbed from winless in 2021-22 to champions in 2023-24 and the work that the Colonials put in under the direction of their longtime head coach nets DiBiase the 2023-24 Shore Sports Network Boys Basketball Coach of the Year Award.

Removing all context, the 2023-24 season was a special one on its own for Freehold Boro. The Colonials went 24-8, which tied them with Manasquan for the second-most wins in the Shore Conference behind only St. Rose. Those 24 wins included five in the NJSIAA Tournament, which earned them an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship, plus a trip to the overall Group III final on the last day of the season.

The championship trophy Freehold Boro claimed was a long-awaited one and its participation on the final day of the season was unprecedented. The sectional title was the first for the program since 1973 and the appearance in the sectional final was its first since 1994. As for the Group III final, Freehold Boro had never made it to a state final until the Colonials beat a battle-tested Mainland squad in this year’s Group III final to punch their ticket.

"I thought we had the potential to be better than an eight-win team," DiBiase said. "At this school, if we buy-in, we win. Football in 2008, football in 2010, some success in basketball in 2010 -- those teams bought in. If we do that, we listen and we get better, we can win championships. It's just about getting the players to do that and this team one hundred percent did that."

Freehold Boro coach Ben DiBiase. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Freehold Boro coach Ben DiBiase. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Following the 21-loss season, 2022-23 marked a step in the right direction, but still ended with an 8-16 record, a last-place finish in the Class A Central standings and a lop-sided first-round exit vs. top-seeded Ewing in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Tournament.

While Freehold Boro would take huge strides in 2023-24, the Colonials were far from a finished product early in the season. They lost an opening-night rivalry game to Freehold Township, which went on to finish 9-16 overall, and were blown out by Manasquan before the New Year.

Despite those early setbacks, Freehold Boro eventually did show major improvement during the regular season. Wins over Ranney, Southern and Shore Regional bolstered a Shore Conference Tournament résumé that landed the Colonials a home game in the first round. In front of a raucous home crowd – which would become the norm for a team that had the support of its student body and community from opening night – Freehold Boro played a dominant second half in rolling past Ranney for its first SCT victory since 2010.

As the No. 16 seed in the SCT, Freehold Boro had to deal with top-seeded St. Rose in the next round and took a 94-46 beating, but did so while playing the game the way the Colonials would play once the NJSIAA Tournament started. The up-tempo, fearless approach to playing the state’s No. 1 team gave the Colonials little chance to win that particular game, but was a confidence-builder for the games to come.

Freehold Boro’s run to a championship began with a home win over a talented, junior-heavy Matawan squad in which the Colonials again owned the second half in front of their home crowd after the Huskies led by one at the break.

Following the 69-52 win over Matawan, Freehold Boro took to the road for the remainder of the tournament, but did not leave its home crowd behind. The Boro faithful followed the Colonials to Nottingham, where Freehold Boro got off to a 10-point lead in the first quarter, fell behind by nine through the end of three, and came roaring back in the fourth to shock the defending sectional champion, 58-56.

Next up was a trip to Ewing, a perennial sectional championship contender whose gym has been a house of horrors for many a Shore Conference team over the last decade-plus – including Freehold Boro one year earlier. This time around, Freehold stormed out to a 16-point halftime lead and maintained an 11-point advantage heading to the fourth, only to watch Ewing storm in front in the final two minutes. Freehold Boro maintained its composure and regained the lead on a basket by junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk with 45 seconds to go and closed out a 59-56 win over the Blue Devils to reach the sectional final round for the first time in 30 years.

With one more win to go in order to wrap up its first sectional championship in 51 years, Freehold Boro would have to go through top-seeded Red Bank, which was looking for its first sectional title since 1993. The game was tight into the fourth quarter, at which point Freehold Boro reeled off a 13-2 run that extended its lead to 15 points and proved the deciding blow in a 67-58 win that gave the Colonials their first tournament title in more than half-a-century.

Photo: Matt Manley
Freehold Boro celebrates winning the Central Jersey Group III championship. (Photo: Matt Manley)

Freehold Boro was not satisfied with one celebration. The Colonials played a lights-out first half vs. Mainland in the Group III semifinal at Monroe High School and built up a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter. Things got interesting when Mainland cut the lead to two in the fourth quarter, but Freehold Boro held off a Mustangs rally over the final 12 minutes to secure a 73-68 win and a spot in the Group III final.

The group final also started off in an ideal manner for Freehold Boro, which raced out to a 19-9 lead on defending Group III champion Ramapo. The Raiders, however, closed the half on a 37-9 run to send Freehold Boro reeling into the halftime locker room. Ramapo did not let up in the second half and ran away with a 94-47 win to end Freehold Boro’s ride in the final game of the 2023-24 boys basketball season in New Jersey.

What made Freehold Boro’s resurgence special was that in an era in which quick-fixes via transfers, the Colonials were a team of local players. Seniors Christian DiGiso, Sam Cranwell and Will Hon grew up in the program for four years, with junior Brian Tassey joining them as a freshman during the 21-loss season. All four players earned minutes on that team and grew together amid the losing.

Hamlin-Woolfolk had also been part of the team prior to this season, but an injury sidetracked his progress in 2022-23. He dedicated himself to improving for his junior season and came back with renewed confidence and a wider range of skills.

The lone outside addition to the team was junior Qua’Mir Everett, who grew up in Freehold Boro before moving to Barnegat, where he spent his freshman year and part of his sophomore year. He made a personal decision to move back in with family in Freehold and to join a group with whom he played prior to leaving for Ocean County. Everett proved to be the final piece of the puzzle – a 6-foot-4, standout athlete with a knack for making a big play when Freehold most needed it.

Although Freehold Boro already had two proven guards in Tassey and DiGiso, Everett and Hamlin-Woolfolk took the Colonials to the next level and DiBiase and his staff allowed both to spread their wings after DiBiase initially viewed both in more confined roles. The two forwards eventually earned the green light to shoot the ball and both shot above 40 percent from beyond the arc during the state tournament, with Hamlin-Woolfolk going 5-for-5 in the win over Mainland.

"Coach (Elijah) Barnes, coach (Andrew) Guy and coach (Shakeem) Richardson had to convince me that those guys could go out there and do that," DiBiase said of giving Everett and Hamlin-Woolfolk the green light. "I would scream, 'Get in the paint, get in the paint.' And they would be like, 'Coach, if they hit one or two threes, the defense has to come out and play them.' So I said, 'Okay, let's try it.' All the credit to them, my staff is unbelievable."

Freehold Boro coach Ben DiBiase. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Freehold Boro coach Ben DiBiase. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Barnes is a former Shore Conference star who led Mater Dei Prep to back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament titles in 2016 and 2017 before going on to play at Princeton. He also played his freshman year of high school at Freehold Boro and returned to his hometown school to play an instrumental part in helping to develop Hamlin-Woolfolk and Everett. DiBiase also relied on assistants Shakeem Richardson, Andrew Guy and Lee Cotroneo, who were invaluable in rounding the Colonials into the well-oiled machine they eventually became.

After a breakthrough season in 2023-24, Freehold Boro will enter next season with championship expectations, both internal and external. Tassey, Hamlin-Woolfolk and Everett are all due back as seniors and current sophomore Damier Lester earned key minutes that will serve him well as a likely starter in the backcourt as a junior.

More than a decade ago, DiBiase took over a middling Freehold Boro program and helped guide them to a 21-win season and a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal appearance in 2009-10 – his fourth season on the job. In year seven of his second stint, DiBiase finished what he started the first time around thanks to a group of players that dared to dream of better days and put in the work to get there.

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