TINTON FALLS - Four years ago, the talk was all about the future for a special group of eighth-graders who were eager to transform Ranney from a basketball backwater into a national power.

Buzz about capturing Shore Conference and state titles, maybe even winning the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, was all just a far-off dream back then.

Those dreams are now real, with the trophies to prove it. The potential of 2015 has become the reality of 2019, and now the Panthers are four wins from something else: immortality.

Ranney senior Scottie Lewis and his teammates are looking for one last piece of Shore Conference history. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The senior class, headlined by McDonald’s All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, is four wins away from becoming the first Shore Conference boys team to win a TOC title, completing a historic run at a program that was an afterthought for its entire existence until they arrived.

“It’s amazing that for these guys it’s almost over,’’ head coach Tahj Holden said following a first-round state playoff romp over Timothy Christian. “To have an opportunity to win a state championship with this core group of guys and hopefully get to the Tournament of Champions would be special this year.”

“The last four years have gone by fast,’’ Lewis said. “We try to cherish as many moments as we possibly can.”

The Panthers will take on Wildwood Catholic at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Jackson Liberty in a bid to add their second straight South Jersey Non-Public B title to their consecutive Shore Conference Tournament championships and continue their march into the record books.

It’s been an incredible journey for the core four of Antoine, Lewis, guard Alex Klatsky and forward Chris Autino since they first became close as members of Team Rio, an AAU team run by Klatsky’s father, Brian, when they were middle schoolers. They were joined as sophomores by another Team Rio teammate, standout senior guard Ahmadu Sarnor.

“Our first year nobody knew who we were, and now I feel like we’re in every single newspaper, every single website, all over social media,’’ Antoine said. “It’s kind of crazy to see.”

Chris Autino (32), Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine (1) celebrate their second straight Shore Conference Tournament championship. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

All four of them started as freshmen at Ranney, which was revolutionary in that no Shore Conference team in memory had ever regularly started four freshmen before. Now they have a chance to become the rare group in the history of the Shore to have amassed more than 100 total wins in their four seasons.

Lewis and Antoine, the eighth-graders profiled by Shore Sports Network in 2015, are now bona fide national stars. Lewis has signed with the University of Florida, where he will be joined by Klatsky, who will be a walk-on for the Gators. Antoine is headed to join defending national champion Villanova next season.

The explosive duo have learned to deal with the particular fame that comes with being a top 15 national recruit in 2019. It’s a little different than the days when Holden was a superstar at Red Bank Regional in the late 1990s before becoming a starter on the 2002 national championship team at the University of Maryland.

While Holden was known across New Jersey, he didn’t have more than 100,000 Instagram followers like Lewis. His highlight clips were not watched across the world on YouTube like Antoine. There weren’t whole companies devoted to capturing a viral video from a show-stopping dunk by Lewis.

“Even though you have the social media platform and there’s YouTube and the Overtime era, it’s still pretty basic,’’ Holden said. “You still have to make sure you’re doing the right things on and off the court. The unfortunate thing about today is if you don’t do the right thing, it gets magnified because everyone sees it.”

The accelerated era of fame in the age of viral dunks and endless hype on social media meant the star duo were used to the attention before they even reached high school.

“For me it started in seventh grade,’’ Lewis said. “I was dunking in seventh grade so that was always a big deal for everyone. I gradually just kind of got used to it.”

“It wasn’t overwhelming,’’ Antoine said. “I wasn’t trying to make a big deal about it.”

Ranney senior Bryan Antoine. has put himself among the Shore's all-time greats. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

While the two had plenty of potential as eighth-graders, they didn’t become the first McDonald’s All-Americans from the Shore Conference since Christian Brothers Academy’s John Crotty in 1987 due to residual hype from their middle school days. They had to put in the work to develop their games to the point where they would be considered two of the top 20 players in the country.

Lewis added substance to his sizzle by becoming the rare acrobatic offensive player who also takes pride in being a defensive stopper who can guard five positions. That takes effort and practice rather than just purely coasting on ability.

“Myself and everything other top player, we sacrifice so much of our childhood and our teenage years of growing up and being normal for the love of the game,’’ Lewis said. “There’s a lot of sacrifice and there’s things we have to allow to trump other things as far as hanging out with our friends.”

Antoine became a ruthlessly efficient scorer who can do damage off the dribble, in the midrange, from behind the arc and at the free-throw line. He became the Shore Conference’s all-time leading scorer earlier this season despite never having attempted 20 shots or cracked 40 points in a game in his career.

“My past four years, I’ve worked extremely hard,’’ he said. “When people had parties or something to do, I was headed to my trainer, lifting and getting in the gym and all that.”

Many 2020 NBA mock drafts list Antoine and Lewis as both being first-round picks. That means if they continue on their current trajectory, they will both be getting ready to be multi-millionaires a year from now, which Lewis admitted he thinks about.

“All the time,’’ he said. “That’s the ultimate goal, so that’s something that definitely lingers in your mind. It’s taking those steps that need to be taken to play at that level. I’m on the right track, and obviously it’s something that’s going to take time and a lot of work that’s being put in.”

“Ever since I was young, I was focused on the next step,’’ Antoine said. “I’m a senior in high school, so the next step for me is freshman year of college, so I’m really only focused on college right now, and hopefully when I’m at college then I can be focused on the NBA.”

Should that scenario come to fruition, it would be yet another piece of history for the Ranney duo. No Shore teammates have ever both been taken in the first round of the NBA Draft, making what is happening now essentially the Shore Conference basketball equivalent of seeing Halley's Comet.

The last player with Shore ties to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft was J.R. Smith, who went No. 18 overall right out of high school to New Orleans in 2002. Smith starred at Lakewood before finishing his scholastic career at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, where he was also selected as a McDonald’s All-American.

As Antoine and Lewis have journeyed to the national stardom predicted for them at a young age, Klatsky and Autino have also embarked on their own paths.

Ranney senior guard Alex Klatsky will join Scottie Lewis at Florida next season. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

Klatsky has become a 3-point specialist who also is an outstanding student. His work as a builder and programmer helped the four-person Ranney robotics team win the New Jersey championship out of 150 competing teams last week.

“I’ve been in the robotics program for five years now,’’ Klatsky said. “Winning this in my senior year means so much to me because of all the time I spent over the course of these five years working to this goal.”

Autino, meanwhile, has taken an unorthodox path to his future. This past fall was the first season of a co-operative program in which students from Ranney, which does not have a football program, could play for the football team at Mater Dei Prep.

Autino came out for the team as a senior and played tight end for a Seraphs team that reached the Non-Public Group III final. He showed enough promise in only one season that he ended up signing to play at the FCS program at Georgetown University.

Autino also has persevered despite the loss of his mother, Theresa, who died at 52 in 2017 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He honored her by running a charity event with his Ranney teammates that year to help raise money to benefit the Joan Dancy & PALS foundation, which helps people diagnosed with ALS and their families in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Those four seniors have helped mentor newcomers like point guard Elijah Perkins, one of the top freshman talents in New Jersey, and junior swingman Phillip Wheeler, a transfer from Rumson-Fair Haven and Division I talent.

They have all come of age under Holden, who became a head coach for the first time when he took the Ranney job. All he was charged with doing was developing Antoine and Lewis into All-Americans and winning conference and state titles at a program that often didn’t even qualify for postseason tournaments, let alone win them.

“I’ve definitely gotten better as a coach by coaching these guys,’’ he said. “One thing having so much talent makes you do is you’ve got to come in prepared every day. These guys know immediately when they’re not prepared.”

Head coach Tahj Holden has guided Ranney to a banner season during a trying time for his family. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Holden has dealt with the pressure of coaching the state’s No. 1 team and the presumptive TOC favorite while also enduring a difficult family situation. His youngest son, Max, 2, is being treated for a type of cancer called neuroblastoma.

Max is in the midst of radiation treatment and has weeks of treatment remaining.

 

“When I was their age, I would go to the gym and it would be my sanctuary,’’ Holden said. “There’s not much difference now. I get the opportunity to come here for two hours to escape the reality of what Max is going through.

“It’s always in the back of my mind. He is so strong. Literally every day the kid’s got a smile on his face going through some tough treatment.”

The players have often worn "Max Strong" T-shirts supporting him, as well as participating in charity games to raise money to defray the cost of his medical treatment.

“We’re just a lot closer,’’ Lewis said. “Max and the Holden family give us another reason to play for besides ourselves and each other. The fact that he comes to practice every day and puts aside his personal life, we can’t take that granted.”

That close bond will help when it comes to running the gauntlet to become the first TOC winner in Shore Conference history.

If the Panthers can take care of Wildwood Catholic, it will mean a rematch in the Non-Public B final with either Roselle Catholic, which they beat during the regular season, or Gill St. Bernard’s, who is the only N.J. squad to hand them a loss this winter.

Roselle Catholic beat the Panthers 63-61 in the Non-Public B final last year on a late bucket by LSU freshman and Asbury Park native Naz Reid.

The Non-Public B final would most likely be their biggest hurdle in their quest to win the TOC, as the Panthers would be strong favorite in the remaining two games after getting a bye into the semifinals.

Should Ranney win it all, it would stamp the Panthers as the best Shore team of the TOC era, which began in 1989. Only the 2002 Neptune team led by Division I talents Taquan Dean, Marques Alston and Terrance Todd has ever reached the TOC final.

A TOC victory would also put them in the discussion as the best Shore Conference team of all time, regardless of era.

The last Shore team to finish No. 1 in the state is the 1983 Red Bank Regional squad that went 31-0, which still stands as the last unbeaten season by any Shore boys team.

The bright lights of major college basketball and the millions in the NBA Draft are all on the horizon, but right now it's about a group of close friends giving themselves four more games to enjoy the ride and cement themselves as legends.

“That would be something,’’ Holden said about taking their place in history. “There’s been some incredible teams. It’s probably the toughest road to get to the Tournament of Champions, but if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”