Before I get to Monday’s hoops action, Neptune senior offensive lineman Rocco Manfre (who also served as the Scarlet Fliers’ punter), has committed to play at Marist, according to Neptune coach John Fiore. Manfre was an All-Federal Division selection by the coaches in the fall. The commitments are coming quickly with national signing day coming up on Wednesday, when a host of athletes will sign their National Letters of Intent to make their college commitments binding and official. Anyone who is signing a letter of intent on Wednesday who can take a digital photo of the signing, please e-mail it to me at email@example.com and I will post it because I would like to recognize all of the athletes who are signing on a proud day for them and their families.
Now, on to Monday night’s hoops action. With four of the six girls basketball divisions a foregone conclusion (Class A North – Colts Neck; Class B North – Neptune; Class B Central – St. Rose; Class B South – Manchester), it has been the boys divisional races that have begun to heat up as we head into the home stretch of the regular season.
I took in Freehold’s 56-47 win over Monmouth, which continues to struggle against top opponents without Joe Willman. It was clear from the beginning that Freehold was going to attack the interior and establish junior forward Christian Garcia. I thought Freehold did a nice job of rotating in time off penetration by Monmouth’s Neil Thompson and Anthony Gibson to challenge any shot in the lane, and Monmouth’s forwards, Justin Ruiz and Brent Shelton, missed a few chippies that hurt the Falcons early on.
Freehold’s Lance McKenzie has become the grim reaper for opposing teams when he gets to the foul line late in the game as he is one of the better clutch free throw shooters in the Shore. The Colonials are hoping that Garcia is OK after spraining his left ankle when he missed a dunk late in the fourth quarter and came down awkwardly, resulting in him limping off the court and wrapping the ankle in ice for the rest of the game.
As for Monmouth, teams are just extending their defenses much farther out on the perimeter because they are not as worried about Willman wreaking havoc in the middle. Ruiz and Shelton just have to be more consistent in finishing around the basket, but the potential is there. Shelton had some nice spin moves inside but just had trouble finishing the play. Gibson kept them in it with five 3-pointers, but I think Freehold would live with that because the big key was keeping him out of the paint where he could create easy baskets for himself and others. I still think Monmouth is capable of making noise in the SCT if Gibson and Thompson play aggressively and their forwards finish inside.
Senior guard D.J. Gutridge and some of his Neptune teammates were there along with head coach Ken O’Donnell in hopes of a Freehold win, which now creates a three-way tie for first in the loss column in Class B North. I would think that Red Bank would be the main team that could potentially throw a monkey wrench into a three-way tie, and that’s who Neptune is schedule to play on Tuesday, weather permitting. I wonder how the three will be seeded in the SCT if none of them lose a game before the seeding meeting on Feb. 15. It really depends if the committee looks at the season as a body of work or if the most recent results carry more weight because Neptune just beat the other two back-to-back on consecutive days, which may help the Fliers potentially grab that No. 2 seed behind Christian Brothers Academy. The fight will be for that third seed because no one wants to get the No. 4 or No. 5 because you don’t want to have to see CBA until the final, rather than the SCT semifinals.
As far as the other games, the big thriller was Point Boro‘s 46-44 overtime win against Lakewood, and those cheers you heard were coming from Monsignor Donovan, which is now right back in the picture as well for the overall Class B South title. (I know there are public and non-public titles and all that, but that means nothing to me. You win the overall title or you don’t.) You can tell by the final score that it was Point Boro’s type of game because Lakewood would much rather get into a 75-70 type of game that is more fast-paced. Senior Pat Hart banked in the winner at the buzzer for the Panthers, plunging Class B South into a 3-way tie as well. Hart has been big for them all season, and we’ll see if he can keep it up when the lights are shining the brightest in the SCT, where All-Shore reputations are made or broken.
Point Boro’s win on Monday means the game to circle on the calendar is Point Boro at Monsignor Donovan on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and then Lakewood at Mon Don on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. The Griffins have both games on their home court, so the opportunity is there to pull out a division title after lurking just out of first place for most of the season. Point Boro cleared a big hurdle on Monday night and now has a chance to get a win over Mon Don and then hope the Griffins go on to take down Lakewood to give the Panthers the title all for itself.
Brick Memorial took a big step toward claiming the Class A South title by playing its best all-around game of the season in a 21-point win on the road over Toms River North, which added injury to insult when it lost senior starter Pat Szukics just two minutes into the game with a possible dislocated or separated shoulder that was so bad it took about 30 minutes to get Szukics off the court and directly to the hospital. Senior Matt O’Brien led the Mustangs with 17 points, and they have now built up a little cushion in A South to put themselves in a great spot to claim the division title. Guard Jose Ramos also helped hold TRN’s leading scorer, senior Steve Nyisztor, to only two points in the victory. Ramos is a huge key for Memorial. He has been playing better lately, and it’s no coincidence that the Mustangs have been as well.
St. Rose took care of Freehold Township, 67-59, which helps add some more credibility to Class B Central come SCT seeding time, and it was a nice bounce back after a loss to Asbury Park on Saturday. If it doesn’t get snowed out, Asbury Park’s big game in the spotlight comes on Tuesday when it travels to Point Beach for a game that looks like it should decide the Class B Central title.
I give a lot of credit to St. John Vianney, which lost sophomore star Michael Balkovic to a season-ending wrist injury in a loss to Manasquan on Friday but has come back to beat Holmdel and Ocean to keep its state playoff hopes alive. A quick update on Balkovic – he will have surgery on Tuesday morning to have pins placed in his left wrist and will be sidelined for 6-8 weeks. Here’s hoping for a swift recovery.
As for the girls side, the Class A South race just got a whole lot more interesting for a very unfortunate reason. As previously reported here, sophomore center Christa Evans is done for the season with a fractured ankle for first-place Jackson Memorial, which had to pull out a last-second win over a sub-.500 Toms River South team on Monday night thanks to a pair of free throws by Dana Costello. The Jaguars are clinging to a one-game lead in the race and now have to go to face a tough Toms River North team on the road on Wednesday night, which will be a big test of Jackson’s mettle without Evans, who was their leading scorer and rebounder. Costello and Caitlyn Testa will be counted on to rise to the occasion if the Jaguars are going to finish the job and not let Southern potentially get a piece of that Class A South title.
Just like with Willman and Monmouth on the boys side, teams can attack Jackson differently without worrying about Evans coming off to alter shots on defense or causing trouble in the paint offensively.
Everything else was basically status quo on the girls side on Monday night, as Ocean picked up a solid nondivisional win over a Holmdel team desperate for victories in its quest to make the state playoffs.
If we aren’t buried under snow on Tuesday, it should be a big night at Rumson-Fair Haven against visiting Manasquan as head coach George Sourlis goes for his 500th career win and senior Kate Miller is just nine points shy of the rare 1,500-point milestone for her brilliant career.