While I was at the St. Rose-Rumson girls basketball game I got the call about Monmouth’s Joe Willman from someone who had talked to a coach who was scouting at the game, and I was hoping that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, but unfortunately it is. Willman broke both wrists while trying to stop his fall after dunking over a Middletown North player on a fast break and then falling facefirst toward the floor, which by all accounts was a clean play. He is most likely done for the season unless Monmouth at least wins its second NJSIAA sectional title in school history and is still alive late into the Group III playoffs. Depending on the exact bones in Willman’s wrist that were broken, it could take anywhere from 4-8 weeks to heal. If one wrist is worse than the other, the doctors could put a splint on one wrist so that he has one operating hand and then put a hard cast on the other one, but either way, his injury sends shockwaves across the Shore Conference.
Willman is not only a tremendous player, but a great kid, so I and many others in the basketball community that I spoke or e-mailed or texted with last night hope for a speedy recovery. He is a quiet kid who did nothing but work hard to improve his game year after year, going from a gangly sophomore with long red hair who hit the occasional 3-pointer and showed flashes of at talent to a dominant force and a Division I recruit. Willman is already committed to Bucknell, which shows the risk players take when they turn down a Division I offer to try to hold out for something better from a more prominent school, which I’ve heard of at least one Shore Conference senior doing right now. Had this happened to Willman and he had not already accepted a scholarship, who knows what may have happened to his future, although this is obviously an injury that can heal up and allow him to return to normal, rather than a knee injury or something that could really affect him. Hopefully he’ll be doing great for Bucknell in no time and this will just be an old, painful memory.
Well, now the Shore Player of the Year race is wide open, because Willman was the front-runner by far. This also adds more intrigue to the Class B North race as undefeated Monmouth still has road games at Neptune and at Freehold left on the schedule. It also elevates Christian Brothers Academy to the clear favorite to win the Shore Conference Tournament, although this seems like one of those years where the SCT title almost should have an asterisk next to it.
If you’re Monmouth, you’ve got to feel a little cursed. You have arguably the best team in school history and a chance to win the school’s first SCT, and your best player and the school’s all-time leading scorer suffers this type of calamity. I’m at least happy for Willman that he had a big scoring week last week to pass 1979 Monmouth graduate Jim Pinkney as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Imagine if he had gotten hurt a few points shy of that milestone.
Monmouth could certainly rally around Willman’s absence and prove those wrong who think they cannot finish the job without him, but this completely changes the way teams will defend the Falcons because pretty much every team short of CBA did not have a player who could match up with him. With Willman, Monmouth could play inside-out, throwing it in the post, waiting for the double team for a kickout behind the arc or letting Willman go to work in the paint. Monmouth does not have a deep rotation, so most likely role player Justin Ruiz will have to fill in for Willman with Matt Quammie also seeing more time. Now the Falcons don’t have a post presence that commands a double team, so opponents can extend their defense to pressure the guards behind the arc and Anthony Gibson, Neil Thompson and Austin Whitehurst will get fewer open looks.
Willman is also a fierce offensive rebounder, always good for a few tip-ins or follow dunks in any game, so the pressure is on Brent Shelton a little more to get points on the offensive boards. We’ll also find out just how good those three guards are and see if they can play off of one another to keep Monmouth winning. I’m sure plenty of teams will now play zone and extend it to the perimeter because they don’t have to worry about Willman catching the ball at the elbow and draining mid-range jumpers or causing trouble all night, which will be a challenge for veteran coach Larry Cirignano to solve. The Falcons also won’t have Willman to bail them out with second-chance points if their shots aren’t falling from the perimeter.
The good news is that there is really no team outside of CBA and maybe St. Rose with Sean McPaul that has a big man who can now exploit Willman’s absence. The Colts have Pat Light and Matt McMullen underneath, but most of the other top teams in the Shore are very guard-oriented, so Monmouth still can make some noise if its guards bring it every night. Thompson and Gibson are capable of averaging 20 points each, and they might have to do it for this team to go far because Willman was a reliable 20-point scorer who shot better than 60 percent from the field. The real question is rebounding, as Willman was one of the Shore’s top rebounders and controlled the glass. Now it needs to be a team effort, and the guards may not be able to leak out for long outlet passes and fast breaks any more because they have to pitch in on the defensive glass.
As for the other games on Thursday, I took in Freehold’s 53-50 win over Freehold Township as the Colonials continue to have the Patriots’ number on Freehold Township’s home floor. It really came down to mistakes, as the Patriots made a lot of bad passes in the fourth quarter on crucial possessions, and it finally killed them even though Freehold missed three free throws in the final two minutes to give the Patriots a chance to win or tie it. Freehold is just more balanced, as Lance McKenzie, Andrew Gerbehy and Will Howarth all had strong games, whereas Township leaned heavily on senior Matt Devine, who dropped in a game-high 30 points, 21 of them in the first half. Devine can post up, hit threes, shoot free throws and knock down the mid-range jumper, all at 6-5, which makes him tough to cover, although Gerbehy did a solid job of really making him work in the second half. After the game Devine was talking with a coach from SUNY-New Paltz, a school in upstate New York that could be a likely collegiate destination for the high-scoring senior.
Freehold Township has also called up several members of its undefeated jayvee team, two of whom started, guard Mike Suricki and forward Steve Asihene, so it’s clear that Patriots coach Brian Golub was not happy with the production he has been getting from some of his starters. Senior Steve Talbott has also been up and down offensively, as he seems to have 25 one night and then single digits the next, including four points in the loss to Freehold.
Howarth has become a key player for Freehold, as he is one of their designated zone busters, setting up shop in the corner and firing away when he gets a look from behind the arc. He hit two important threes in the game against Township’s 1-3-1 zone.
As for the rest of Thursday night’s action, Manasquan picked up a crucial Class A Central win by holding off Red Bank Catholic, 58-56, behind another big game from junior Matt Vadas (26 points). At this point, if Vadas doesn’t get 18+ on a given night against a good team, the Warriors are in trouble, but they also got a lift from junior forward Zach Rodgers, who was in double figures. At this point, any team that gets a win in the parity-ridden Class A Central will take it, no matter how it happens.
The biggest upset of the night belonged to Toms River South, which was close to surprising Brick Memorial earlier this week and finally finished off an upset when it stunned division-leading Toms River North on Thursday night. The Indians played a great defensive game and got their usual scoring production from senior Tyler Gebler (19 points). That must have put smiles on the faces of the squad at Brick Memorial, which was solid in a win over Toms River East and is now tied in the loss column for first place with the Mariners in Class A South. That’s the kind of season it’s been that Toms River North nearly beat No. 3 Freehold on Saturday and then got knocked off by a two-win TR South team on Thursday, although with local rivalries you can always toss out the records.
As for the girls side, I watched a good chunk of the second half of Rumson’s 47-43 win over host St. Rose in a game with Shore Conference Tournament seeding implications. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but it was vintage Rumson. Get defensive stops when you absolutely have to, and get the ball to Kate Miller. The win means that no other teams have yet to crack the top four of St. John Vianney, Colts Neck, Neptune and RFH, although St. Rose certainly came close, so the Purple Roses showed they might have a shot if they see Rumson again. You look at the score and only see four points, but Rumson can make four points seem like 100 because of the way it defends. St. Rose just couldn’t get that go-ahead shot to fall in the final five minutes to put the pressure on Rumson’s offense to come up with a big bucket late in the game.
Rumson starter Amanda Yaccarino also only played a handful of minutes because of a stomach virus that had her pretty much out of commission for most of the night, which hurt the Bulldogs’ interior defense and rebounding against St. Rose standout freshman Samantha Clark. Having seen Clark for the first time, she is more athletic than her sister, Kelly, who was one of the top 15 players in the Shore as a senior last season. Samantha has the makings of a big-time post player if she continues to improve because she also has pretty good shooting range.
Rumson could definitely see St. Rose again in the SCT quarterfinals if they get the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, so the Bulldogs have the psychological edge right now. Neptune will fight RFH for that third seed, and the undefeated Scarlet Fliers head to Tornado Alley and state power Trenton, which is not as stacked as it was last season but still good, on Saturday in search of a win that will get them closer to grabbing that No. 3 seed, which most likely means avoiding St. John Vianney until the SCT final. However, it also most likely means having to beat Colts Neck and possibly SJV back-to-back to win the SCT, which is a tall order for any team in the state. Any team that is going to win it is almost certainly going to have to go through that 1-2 punch to do it, and I don’t know if that team exists.
Freehold picked up its second win of the season over Freehold Township, which can never hurt come SCT seeding time. Freehold might even be able to bargain its way up to the No. 5 seed in the SCT because of its win over RBC. St. Rose isn’t scheduled to play RBC until Feb. 16, which is the day after the SCT is seeded, so the Colonials will boast a win that the Purple Roses didn’t have a chance to get unless that game gets moved up. St. Rose hasn’t stumbled against teams it was favored against, like Freehold did against Ocean, but the Purple Roses also don’t have that signature win to argue for a high seed like Freehold does with its victory over RBC.