Diary of a Season—The Story of the 1987-88 South Plainfield Tigers—Part IV

Opportunity Lost

The seeds for any success I would have in boys basketball were blighted by my failure to take advantage of an opportunity that presented itself to me in my freshman year. The 1984-85 South Plainfield boys basketball freshmen team was a far cry from the success of the 1983-84 South Plainfield Middle School team. In one year, a team that went 17-4 in 8th grade would finish only 5-14 in 9th grade.

Primary reasons for that were the losses of Dave Koenig and Tommy Weimer. Koenig, who was our center on that 1983-84 South Plainfield Middle School team, decided to attend St. Joseph’s, where he would play basketball for three years, and be a standout pitcher on the Falcons baseball team by our senior years. Koenig and I were childhood friends that grew up just a few blocks from each other in South Plainfield.

Meanwhile, Weimer, our 6th man, moved with his family to Ohio after graduating in 8th grade. Weimer and I knew each other since 6th grade, our first year in middle school. In addition, Lamar Hall, another solid player that came off the bench for us in 8th grade, would be ruled academically ineligible for the winter sports season. Hall would also be ineligible for our JV season in 10th grade. In my mind, losing those two years really hurt Lamar, who ended up being a standout football player at SPHS my senior year.

Billy Cochrane, Erik Miller, and Mike Carlucci would return for freshman year. All three were starters on that 1983-84 SPMS team that went 17-4 and won the Dunellen March of Dimes Tournament over Readington. Along with them, Greg Block, Kevin Beegle, Eulas Hairston, and myself also returned. Jay Zazzara, who played for the Falcons went I was in 6th grade, came out for the team along with childhood friend, Rob Stomber.

Stomber, who was my friend since 6th Grade, was only the step cousin of Tony Crisafulli, who played hoops in middle school when we were both in 6th and 7th Grade. Crisafulli, an intense player and leader, was point guard when I played JV my sophomore year. Two more kids came out for the team: Dan Ferguson and Kwame Walker. Walker, who was from Plainfield, and came to South Plainfield when I was in 8th Grade, was known for betting against us when the middle school team played Maxon of Plainfield.

Walker, a tall and lanky young man, had made a couple bets with other students on the game. He had been a student at Maxon before coming to South Plainfield, and still contended that we really didn’t beat Maxon. But we did. Besides defeating Somerville by 25 points at home early in the season, the win over Maxon was perhaps the biggest win of the 1983-84 South Plainfield Middle School campaign. It was a come from behind 58-53 victory in the Middle School gym that perhaps was destined to happen when a bizzare after school fire drill occurred prior to game.

Another omen, and a much better one, perhaps occurred in the locker room before the game when Carlucci said that the team should dedicate the game to someone named Malcolm. I didn’t really know what he meant, but later I learned that the Malcolm he was referring to would be Malcolm Hammond, a point guard on the South Plainfield High School team at the team, who was injured and subsequently hospitalized around the time we had played Maxon. Hammond would be on the SPHS 1984-85 varsity team along with Joe Thompson, Chris Smith, Shawn Cisson, and Jeff Missimer my freshman year that finished 14-11.

Returning to Walker, while he was not a Dave Koenig, he could give us a bit of an inside presence and some athletic ability while being able to block shots. Unfortunately, like his friend, Lamar Hall, Walker would be declared academically ineligible prior to the start of the regular season. Meanwhile, Ferguson quit the team to compete for the South Plainfield wrestling team. South Plainfield would open its last season in the Mid-State Conference on the road at Somerville, the very same school we split four games with in middle school.

Prior to the opening day game at Somerville, the freshmen, JV, and varsity teams participated in a pre-season open house that had become a tradition under varsity head coach, Willie Leonardi, and a pep rally the day of our first game. In the open house, our team, which was coached by Ray Ciewiscz, who later coached baseball at South Plainfield, was introduced to parents, friends, family, and fans along with the JV and varsity. We performed drills in the open house, and all I can remember was looking in the stands after doing our drills and seeing some people just shaking their heads.

Afterwards, there was a reception in the cafeteria. It was an opportunity for the parents including my mother to meet the coaching staff. My mother had the opportunity to speak with Coach Ciewiscz as well as Coach Mosca, the JV coach, and Coach Leonardi. It was there that Leonardi took me to the side, and said, “Mach, I’m going to take you to camp next year.” He was going to try to help make me a better player. Unfortunately, that chance never came as Leonardi stepped down following the 1984-85 season. I have to admit though, freshman year was only my second year playing organized basketball.

Other guys on the team, especially starters like Billy Cochrane, Erik Miller, and Mike Carlucci, played on the South Plainfield Falcons when we were all in 6th Grade. They also played recreation ball at the South Plainfield PAL. Miller had already established himself as a very good free throw shooter by winning the Elks Hoopshoot Championship at his Grade Level in 1982. He won the local, regional, and state competitions before placing 7th in the nationals, which took place at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis if I recall correctly.

Cochrane was the MVP of the 1984 Dunellen March of Times Tournament. His family was prominent in athletics in South Plainfield. His father, Bill Cochrane Sr., is still the voice of Tiger football and basketball as well as the President of South Plainfield Recreation. When I played in 8th Grade, I didn’t really even understand the concept of a zone defense. One practice in particular, I continued to cover Miller man to man while the rest of the team played in a 2-3 zone. All I had really done prior to 8th grade was playing on the playground at school, and at my friends basketball nets.

What I could do though was shoot, and during the pre-season, and through much of the regular season, I performed very well in practice as far as shooting the basketball. There I was mostly comfortable. I was familiar with playing against Cochrane, Miller, and Carlucci to some extent by then. Cochrane also had a way of getting you involved even though you might not be the best guy on the floor. He tried to boost your confidence. As a matter of fact, Cochrane had handed out the assist on my first ever basket in organized ball when I sank a jumper from the left wing on the road against Warren Middle School in December 1983.

My comfort level changed when it came to games my freshman year. There was just a fear of failure that I could not get over. Prior to 9th Grade, I was used to coming into games that were well out of hand. In 8th Grade, I was put into contests when we were up comfortably, and even there I would be nervous. With the likes of Koenig, Weimer, and Hall gone, more would be asked of guys like myself, Greg Block, Kevin Beegle, and Eulas Hairston. Opening game against Somerville, we were flattened by the Pioneers although I got into the game late, and just missed a jumper, and was encouraged.

Then, on the Tuesday of the first full week of the season, South Plainfield hosted Piscataway in a freshman, JV, and varsity tripleheader. In the freshman game, the Chiefs rolled past us and Coach Leonardi even noticed. He came into our meeting after the game, and basically stated that we played scared. So, Coach Ciewiscz felt that he needed to make some changes for the game at Hillsborough two days later. One change he was compelled to make due to a problem with one of our starters, Mike Carlucci.

Carlucci, who Coach Leonardi called a “goldbricker” prior to the team boarding the bus, was upset with his playing time, and decided to quit. So Ciewiscz decided to put me in the starting lineup before the game. Apprehensive about starting, I became very anxious. I wanted to talk to Coach Leonardi about it, but after what he said to the team after the loss to Piscataway two days earlier, I was a bit reluctant to talk to him about it. I was also reluctant to talk to Coach Ciewiscz, who believed way more in me than I did in myself.

I did manage to discuss my anxiety with Eulas Hairston before the game. Eulas, who was perhaps the nicest guy I went to school with, and was voted Class Angel, told me that I could do it, and that i had been playing well in practice. However, even Eulas’ faith in me couldn’t help. My anxiety would be a problem that plagued me throughout high school, and still affects me to this very day. The anxiety adversely affected my performance as expected. In the first half against Hillsborough, I blew a layup and shot an air ball. I ended up not scoring at all. On the bus ride home, I was very upset and cried.

The struggles continued a couple days later in a game at home against Watchung Hills. Late in the game, which we lost by just about two or three points, I had a golden chance to knock down a big shot when I saw Hairston down in the right low post, and called for the ball. Hairston kicked it out to me for a jumper that was on the mark, but went in and out. The miss even drew a noticeable groan from Mr. Cochrane. If I had hit that one shot, perhaps I would have settled down enough to make myself more of a factor in the game. It did not happen though.

Carlucci eventually returned to the team, but I would still get plenty of opportunities to play, and even start. While I still struggled offensively, I did do my best to make up for it on the defensive end and in boxing out and rebounding. I did eventually score in some games. Most notably at home against North Hunterdon, and in the home finale against Bridgewater-Raritan East. We did play better the second time against Somerville by only losing 59-50, and we did notch our first win of the season on the road at North Hunterdon in January 1985.

Overall though, it was a downer of a season for me, and it basically sealed my fate at South Plainfield for the most part. While I did play on JV during my sophomore year in 1985-86, but Coach Mosca was reluctant to play me at times, and rightfully so since he had seen that I did not play well as a freshman. There were moments, however, where I had learned from those bad freshman experiences in my two years playing JV for Mosca. Against St. Peter’s my sophomore year, I came into the game late after struggling when I had started, and made sure that I was not going to let my anxiety get the best of me.

Early in the game, I was fouled, and went to the line, but missed both of my free throws, and although I did not really make any serious mistakes, I was very upset with myself because again I had played the game nervously. I was struggling to play because of my anxiety. I was not really used to playing in front of large crowds. I can remember playing in the 1984 SPMS student faculty game, and I got the ball on a fast break opportunity, and the sold out crowd in the gym went nuts. The screaming startled me, and I ended up traveling instead of scoring.

Returning to the St. Peter’s game my sophomore year, I got another opportunity to get into the game late, and I made the most of it. I knocked down a one jumper from the right wing late, and then scored on a layup right before the buzzer to the delight of the crowd. Then, in my junior year, I knocked down another long jumper from way out on the left wing late in the fourth quarter to help clinch a victory over South River at home. Towards the end of the season, I managed to score four points in the first half at Cedar Ridge to help the JV pull away for the win in that game.

The night after our win at Cedar Ridge, our JV and varsity closed the season out against our crosstown rival Bishop Ahr. On opening night at SPHS in December 1986, Ahr rolled past our JV, and then after trailing 12-0 in the first period, the Trojans varsity outscored the Tigers and their alum Coach Lubreski by a 67-43 margin over the last three periods to come away with a 67-55 win in the first game of the Lubreski Era. In the JV season finale at Ahr, I forgot to pack my socks for the game. So, I needed a substitute. Rodney Harrison was more than willing to oblige, but they were not your usual game playing socks.

Rather, they were dark green socks, but they ended up being lucky. With the game still close in the first half, I was put in, and our team forced a turnover, and I got open on the break for a layup as I was knocked to the ground. Although, no foul was not called, it was perhaps the best basket that I ever scored in high school since I was for the most part, a small and skinny guy my first two years, and remained slim throughout my time in high school. As a matter of fact, I was only 6’1” and 138 pounds my senior year. Scoring on that layup while drawing contact was something I had never done before or since in high school. Unfortunately, Ahr’s JV won the game.

So, while the struggles and missed opportunities I had during my freshman basketball season significantly hindered my chances of having a successful high school career, I did learn from them to some extent, and learned to play a little bit better in close games. My size would also be a hinderance as well as my skinny frame underwent significant changes from the end of my sophomore year to the beginning of my junior year, and I had trouble adapting my jump shot to that. Through it all though, I would endure and keep playing. More on that in the next installment.