A Look Back At The Off-Season of 1987
Sorry for the delay between posts, but I haven’t had much time to work on this particular retrospective. In the first part of this series, I had concluded my writing by saying that the 1987-88 South Plainfield Tigers boys basketball team could have been better, and I gave several examples of close losses we suffered during that year that should have ended differently.
Would SPHS have won the 1988 GMCT? I don’t think so, but I really believe the team could have won about 15 or 16 games, which would have resulted in a higher seed, and a better match-up than top seeded St. Peter’s. The 1988 tournament was a wide open one, which saw 12th seeded Cedar Ridge, 7th seeded Carteret, 6th seeded Metuchen and St. Peter’s reaching the Final Four. So, a few more wins may have put our squad in position to at least make a better showing.
Some of the issues began during the off-season. Late in the spring of 1987, Coach Lubreski called for a team meeting, where he revealed his plans for the upcoming season. One of those plans was to have a smaller roster of JV and Varsity players. The reasoning for that was so that the two teams could do more drills and practice together. So, for me that was going to make things a bit more difficult in making the team.
Lubreski also provided the players at the meeting with some individual analysis and suggestions on what they needed to improve on. For me, the one big thing that stood out was developing a quicker release. But, by that time, my ability to shoot the ball had waned. When I was on the Middle School team in 8th Grade, and through my freshman and sophomore years at SPHS, I was a much smaller player. I was only 5’3” at the beginning of freshman year, and couldn’t even touch the net.
By the summer and fall of 1986, I had grown significantly, and was about 6 feet tall. The change in height altered my perspective toward the basket. I also had trouble putting on weight since I had a very active metabolism. So, my frame wasn’t the kind of frame that allowed me to shoot with everything I had toward the basket when I was younger, and even shoot from further away. I was putting too much arc on the shot, and that was because my release point was too low. Adding to that the added burden of a quicker release didn’t help, and I struggled to adjust.
Lubreski, Gene Mosley, and the coaching staff were also looking at the younger players coming up, particularly our sophomore class at the time (Class of 1990). Newcomers like Joe Campagna, Jimmy Smith, Teddy Tait, Kenny Clarke, David Gilman, Carl Adlassnig, Chad Cirafesi, and Jimmy Dolan were getting more of an opportunity to play because after a 4-18 campaign in 1986-87, SPHS basketball was needing to rebuild. Only Tait would remain from this group by the end of the 1989-90 season, which would bring the first of back to back CJ Group 2 Championships for the Tigers. Lubreski has particularly high on soon to be junior John Tupponce, who I played JV ball with and had a lot of potential since he had great leaping ability and athleticism.
Another issue that may have cost me an opportunity to play during the summer was the fact that the coaching staff had decided to put the team into the Eastern Team Camp at Trenton State College. To play with the team in the camp, players had to pay a certain amount of money. I don’t recall the exact amount. I think it may have been $250 dollars. Regardless, I didn’t have the money for that, and neither did my mother, who was just trying to make ends meet as a single parent with four other children in addition to myself. I also had plans to go on a trip with the Marching Band to California in April 1988, and for me that was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and barely had enough money to pay for that.
As a result, I didn’t get much of an opportunity to play at the Westfield Summer League even though I showed up to nearly every game. Meanwhile, fellow soon to be seniors like Billy Cochrane, Kevin Beegle (sat out junior year), Erik Miller (wouldn’t try out), very rarely showed up to off-season practices and summer league games. Cochrane’s absence was particularly glaring since he was probably our top player returning, but most importantly due to an incident where Lubreski spotted him at a friend’s party when dropping Pete Leonardis at his home after a summer league game.
The incident more than likely cost Cochrane being selected as team captain. Instead it would be Leonardis and Kazzie Taylor that would be chosen as co-captains for the 1987-88 campaign. Taylor, I felt was particularly deserving since he remained dedicated to hoops despite not being able to play at all his sophomore year. Taylor failed English class as a freshman, and was declared ineligible for the 1986-87 season. Nevertheless, he came to practice and worked with the JV every day that season. The dedication, and working through the issue not only sealed the deal for Kaz to be one of our captains, but it also set him up for memorable heroics later in the 1987-88 season.
At the team camp, Cochrane would break his wrist, and that would sit him back the rest of the summer, and for a portion of that fall. He would eventually ready for tryouts and actually played in a number of open gyms prior to the double sessions that opened the season. The team struggled at Westfield against the likes of the home town team, St. Peter’s, St. Joseph’s, and Scotch Plains, which was being coached by former SPHS hoops coach Willie Leonardi and my former freshman coach, Ray Ciewiscz.
The team competed as well as it could at Eastern against the likes of teams such as Lawrence with standout player Chucky McKay, who made the Cardinals a strong favorite to win a very competitive Central Jersey Group 2, which not only included South Plainfield, but also GMC White rivals such as J.F. Kennedy and South Brunswick along with GMC Blue contender Carteret, Gold Division powerhouse, Piscataway Tech, and non-conference foes, Holmdel, Raritan, and Delaware Valley. However, as the school year began, nobody at South Plainfield really thought much of the boys basketball team in terms of having a decent season, or at least something better than the 4-18 showing in 1986-87.