Boys Basketball: Memory of Albert Martin Fuels Red Bank’s Strong Start
In his first 11 seasons as head boys basketball coach at Red Bank Regional, Scott Martin can remember shedding a few tears only once when the Bucs lost a sectional championship game.
Last season, it would happen frequently and spontaneously. The tears were always simmering beneath the surface, ready to burst forth with a certain look from his players or a casual mention in a conversation. The loss of Red Bank senior Albert Martin, a talented and fun-loving forward who collapsed and died of unknown causes at 17 years old during a preseason scrimmage on Dec. 3, 2012, was a raw wound that remained open all season in which a proud program suffered 22 losses.
“We’ll just talk about it, they well up, and then my eyes well up,’’ said Martin (no relation to Albert). “It happens. I can’t believe (Martin’s death) sometimes. I can’t believe it’s still true.”
“It was tough because we couldn’t really focus on basketball that much,’’ said senior guard Johnny Dengler.
The loss of the beloved Martin sent many of the players spinning into their own orbits last season, trying to fathom the unfathomable and making basketball seem secondary to real life. This season, Martin’s memory has galvanized the young Bucs, serving as a unifying force for a team that has shot out of the gate at 7-3 after winning only four games all of last season.
“We talk about Albert all the time,’’ Martin said. “It’s easy to want to play for him. I say to them all the time that if we can get through last year, we can get through anything.”
Red Bank is currently in third place in Class B North behind Matawan and Long Branch, a pair of teams ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. They battled both of those teams in close losses and will face them again in divisional play. The Bucs also have an impressive win over a Red Bank Catholic team that is currently on a roll, and they vanquished old rival Neptune for the first time since 2005, beating the Scarlet Fliers on a putback at the regulation buzzer by sophomore Sadiq Palmer.
They have made it a point to keep Martin’s memory alive. Last season, they retired his No. 34 jersey in an emotional pregame ceremony. Their long-time holiday tournament has been re-named the Albert Martin Memorial Buc Classic, and their pregame warm-up shirts bear Martin’s name and the slogan “Buc 4 Life.” Martin’s mother, Tracy Dixon, still attends every Red Bank home game.
“That’s who we’re playing for,’’ Palmer said. “He was more like a brother than a teammate.”
The much-improved Bucs have essentially the same lineup as last season with a few extra wrinkles. Junior Eddie Hendrex, a 6-foot-3 forward with good length and rebounding ability, transferred in from Monmouth Regional. Junior Jake Marcin, another 6-3 forward, came over from Christian Brothers Academy. They are part of a rotation that runs 10 deep most nights and sometimes 12 deep, giving Red Bank the ability to constantly cycle in fresh bodies without any significant drop-off from the starting lineup. Martin will often substitute an entirely new five for his starters.
Their box scores are filled with players scoring eight or nine points rather than one or two of them handling the bulk of the offense. On any given night, it can be someone’s time to shine depending on how teams want to defend them. An example was a 61-36 victory over Wall on Friday in which the Crimson Knights sat in a 2-3 zone to try and slow down the Bucs’ explosiveness off the dribble and force contested threes. Junior Jimmy Ferrogine, a reserve who has a solid mid-range game, had 12 points thanks to his ability to knock down 15-footers after catching passes in the middle of the zone.
Ferrogine was one of four scorers in double digits in the win, with Hendrex leading the way with 13 points.
“We played a lot of guys all summer and then we got Eddie and Jake, and I was like, ‘We’ve got too many guys that we have to play because we don’t know who it’s going to be each night,’’’ Martin said. “I’ve got a 6-9 guy on the bench (junior Moses Birch) who I am trying to find minutes for because we have so many guys who can contribute. That’s like a problem they have at St. Benedict’s (Prep).”
The Bucs are young, with a core of primarily juniors and the sophomore tandem of Palmer and point guard Jack Navitsky. Those two were both called up to the varsity midseason as freshmen last year and gave Red Bank a shot in the arm down the stretch.
Palmer is a rising star in football and basketball, and he leads the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game to go with 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Navitsky leads the team at 4.1 assists per game and has a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Junior guard Anthony Mitchell has chipped in with 6.9 points per game. Senior guard Corey Martin, senior forward Jesse Mack, junior guards Justin Gilson and Connor Kelly, and junior forward Tyler Christie have all been contributors to Red Bank’s early success. Just about any of them are capable of leading the team in scoring on a given night.
“Our goal has been to play as a team and win as a team, and we’ve been doing that,’’ Palmer said.
“We had seven o’clock workouts in the morning all summer, and it made us closer as a team,’’ Dengler said.
Their enviable depth also allows them to play at a frenetic pace, whether it’s pushing the ball offensively, or swarming with full-court pressure on defense. Through 10 games, they have forced an average of 18.7 turnovers per game, creating easy buckets in transition for finishers like Palmer and Hendrex.
“We can grind teams down with our depth,’’ Dengler said.
“We just have fresh legs coming in the game constantly,’’ Palmer said.
The players are also in a much better place mentally. Martin’s death was so overwhelming that it could sometimes leave them confused as to how to act last season.
“I think there isn’t that guilt if we’re having fun,’’ Martin said. “That was there last year, where we’d find ourselves smiling and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh wait.’ It could be a great practice and we would be having fun and then it just resettled.”
Red Bank didn’t set any particularly lofty preseason goals, choosing to focus on getting better every day and becoming closer as a team every day. Those may be clichés, but that approach has translated to wins, keeping the Bucs in the hunt for a division championship on the heels of one of their worst seasons in program history. They may not have one particular star, but in their minds, there is one player who stands above all of them.
“I remember right after Sadiq made the game-winner to beat Neptune earlier this season, I went up to him and said, ‘Great job tonight,’’’ Martin said. “He said, ‘I did it for Albert. I do everything for Albert.’’’