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TINTON FALLS - Nick Troccoli was part of Ranney's 2018-19 varsity boys basketball team that became the first Shore Conference Tournament boys program to ever win the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but with upperclass Division I talent all over the roster, the sophomore experienced most of it from the bench.

That doesn't mean Troccoli was not learning and improving, and now that he has moved into a starting role as a junior, he is showing his time observing was time well spent.

Ranney and Mater Dei Prep renewed their Shore Conference Class B Central rivalry Monday at Ranney and Troccoli made his mark with 23 points on 6-for-9 three-point shooting as the Panthers led wire-to-wire in a convincing 71-55 win over the Seraphs.

Ranney junior Nick Troccoli. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Ranney junior Nick Troccoli. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Monday was a standout night for two of Ranney's returning letter-winners from a year ago, with sophomore Elijah Perkins also keying the win over Mater Dei with 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Ranney stormed out to leads of 12-4, 28-15 and 34-18, with Troccoli and Perkins combining for the team's first 15 points.

"We have had to add some guys over the course of the season and we have asked some guys to play varsity minutes and in roles that they aren't used to playing," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said. "I think I probably tried to rush things a little bit and put a lot of stuff in to get them prepared for what they were going to see, but we have taken a step back to simplify things a little bit. We realized when they made mistakes it's because they were thinking too much, so we have tried to slow down the process a little bit to make sure they are all grasping everything."

As a sophomore last season, Troccoli got work on the junior varsity team with fellow returnee Brandon Klatsky while getting into some late-game action with the varsity team in some of its more lop-sided games against B Central competition. The most meaningful lessons Troccoli, Perkins and Klatsky got, however, were in practicing with McDonald's All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine.

"Knowing what to expect this year, I just wanted to help and be a leader," Troccoli said. "Last year, I was a bench player looking up to those guys and this year, I wanted to bring my leadership to a different level, share my experiences with the new guys and help create a comfortable environment for everyone."

"I would say Nick has been a pleasant surprise," Holden said. "We always knew he was able to shoot the ball. On the defensive end, he has done a better job than I think we expected. When you watch what he does in practice and in our games, he does a good job: he is always in the right spots and a lot of times when the defense breaks down, it's just one guy who is out of position and causes us to scramble. He is rarely, if ever, that guy."

Troccoli's three-point exhibition was part of big night for Ranney from long range as a team. The Panthers shot 9-for-16 (56 percent) from beyond the arc, with sophomore Brandon Klatsky, sophomore Taheen Braswell-Brown and junior Brian Day each hitting one from behind the arc.

"Obviously, we did shoot the ball really well but the really encouraging part was it came within the context of our offense," Holden said. "When it didn't, that's when we missed our shots, which is what we have been explaining to them. Whenever we got into the lane, put down two feet in the lane and kicked it out to our shooters, that's when we shot a high percentage."

Sophomore Ryan Zan - who transferred from Hunterdon Central before the start of the school year - chipped in 13 points, five rebounds and five assists for Ranney to back up the efforts of Perkins and Troccoli.

Monday was also the first game in which Central Regional transfer and 6-foot-9 junior Kyle Rhoden was eligible to play for Ranney, but Rhoden sat out while recovering from foot surgery he underwent in early December. Rhoden is expected to return before the start of the Shore Conference Tournament in mid-February.

After winning the T of C behind Lewis, Antoine, Ahmadu Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Phillip Wheeler, Ranney has been a work-in-progress this year with a roster that has no seniors and is limited to only three juniors - Troccoli, Day and Rhoden.

With Troccoli and Day the lone juniors to play this season, Ranney has taken some early lumps, including four double-digit losses and a seven-point to 5-8 Red Bank Regional. Monday, however, was a step in the right direction as the Panthers eye a significant step-up in competition with upcoming games vs. Hudson Catholic and Roselle Catholic in a span of five days before the calendar shifts to February.

In the meantime, Monday's win over a Mater Dei quad that beat Atlantic City in December and look a lead on Christian Brothers Academy into the fourth quarter before losing on Saturday marks Ranney's most impressive performance to date.

Senior Pete Gorman led the Seraphs with 18 points while classmate Tahaj Parland chipped in 10 in the loss.

The two rivals will meet again on Feb. 13 at Mater Dei in a game that is likely to decide whether Ranney wins the title outright for the third straight year or Mater Dei claims a share of its third title in five years.

"I had those guys last year for four years, so I knew their tendencies and what they were comfortable doing," Holden said. "With this group, I was still figuring it out with this group for the first couple of months. Now, when we go into the game, we know what this group can do. There is not as much guessing. We have more of an idea, we have more of an identity, we just have to do it more to keep getting better."


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