Old Rivals Come Together To Help Central Jersey Youngsters Become All-State Basketball Players
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Earlier this week, GMC Hoops was contacted by former St. Peter’s standout, Mars Mellish, who is joining forces with former Piscataway standout, and NBA player, John Celestand in a new endeavor to help boys and girls across Central Jersey reach the high levels of success in high school basketball that they both had back in the 1990s.
Celestand and Mellish were key fixtures in Middlesex County basketball during the mid 1990s. While at Piscataway, Celestand, who now works as a basketball analyst for ESPN and Comcast, became the school’s all time leading scorer, and along with the likes of Justin Bailey, Dewey Ferguson, Sean Shumate, and others led a Paul Schoeb coached team to heights of New Jersey basketball never seen since by any public school in the Greater Middlesex Conference. Not only did they win the 1994 GMCT as the number two seed, but they also knocked off a top flight program in Shawnee from South Jersey with the likes of Penn State bound, Danny Earl, in the state semifinal before defeating Teaneck for the Group IV state championship. Then, in the Tournament of Champions, the Chiefs had to contain the likes of Florida State bound, Lamarr Greer to advance in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals before losing to Tim Thomas and Paterson Catholic in the semis.
Meanwhile, Mellish, who now works in the Elizabeth public school system as an accountant, came up with Perth Amboy native Tony Lee as freshman at St. Peter’s in the 1993-94 season. Despite losing to P-Way in the 1993 GMCT Elite Eight as the number two seed, and the fact that the Chiefs only had one loss coming into the final, the undefeated Cards were the favorite in the 1994 GMCT Championship. In the title game, Piscataway defeated a St. Peter’s squad that also included the likes of Dave Capers, who went on to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10, Marcus Wilson, and Kenya Merritt. The following year, the Chiefs and Cardinals would square off again in the 1995 GMCT Semifinals, and early on, it looked like Piscataway would roll to an easy victory by scoring the game’s first 19 points, and taking a 25-3 lead, but behind Mellish, St. Peter’s stormed back, and ended up only losing by four points.
With Mellish and Lee leading the way, the Cardinals appeared in four straight GMCT Final Fours. In addition to losing to Piscataway in the 1994 final and the 1995 semis, the Cardinals fell to eventual 1996 champion, East Brunswick led by the Bears all time leading scorer, Matt Van Leeuwen. Then, in 1997, despite adding sophomore transfer and future NBA player Rodney White to the roster, the Cards fell to eventual GMCT champ, and White Division rival, North Brunswick in the semis. Those Cardinal teams had a tendency to play with fire, but almost always found a way to come out on top. Coached by Bob Greene, St. Peter’s had some memorable escapes in GMCT play. During the 1995 Final Four run, the Cardinals played South Plainfield in the Round of 16.
The first half saw plenty of scoring with 20th seeded South Plainfield, coming off a preliminary round win over Jason Womble, and 13th seeded South Brunswick, giving the Cards all they could handle only trailing by a 37-30 margin at the half. However, fourth seeded St. Peter’s put together a key 10-0 run to open the third quarter to take a 47-30 lead, and then held off several rallies by the Tigers that closed the gap to four and six points before Joey Cesaro hit a three from the top of the key as the buzzer sounded to finish off a 80-79 Cardinal victory at the Red Tile Palace. The following year, St. Peter’s encountered a similar struggle with Blue Division squad, Monroe. The Falcons, which made their best tournament run in school history until the recent successes under former coach, Bob Turco, had the lead against St. Peter’s late, but the Cards used their pressure to come up with a comeback win in the GMCT Quarterfinals at Middlesex County College.
Piscataway, which has enjoyed great success in both the Middlesex County Tournament, and GMC Tournament over the years including the past five seasons, never had the success they accumulated during the mid-1990s. In the 1994-95 season, the Chiefs followed up their state title run with another GMCT championship over Red Division rival East Brunswick, and a Central Jersey Group IV sectional championship with the likes of Celestand, Bailey, Anson Ferguson, Delvon McMillan, Derek Clapps, Rocco Matrisciano, and Eddie Simmons. The 1994-95 Chiefs also defeated up and coming national power St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth led by Seton Hall bound Shaheen Holloway in front of a packed house at Piscataway High. However, their run ended with a loss to Malik Allen and Shawnee in the Group IV state semis in Atlantic City.
In recent years, there have been some teams in this area that have come close to reaching those heights reached by the Chiefs in the mid 1990s. Tim Ortelli had some Bridgewater-Raritan teams that made solid post-season runs, Immaculata had back to back Tournament of Champions appearances in 2008 and 2009, and GMC teams such as South Brunswick (2007), P-Way (2008), and Cardinal McCarrick (2003, 2005, and 2011) managed to get to the state finals, but never won. However, sectional titles and state titles for Central Jersey teams, especially those in the GMC have been hard to come by. The talent rich public schools in Union County and Essex County, especially those in the former Watchung Conference have dominated in recent years with the likes of Linden, Plainfield, Newark Science, Newark Central, Newark University, and Shabazz along with the usual non-public school powers such as St. Anthony’s, St. Patrick’s, Seton Hall Prep, CBA, and Trenton Catholic.
If there are any teams and players from Central Jersey that have done really well, they are those in the Shore Conference. Always underrated and underestimated, the teams from the Shore, especially Monmouth County are well coached and play solid basketball. Individually, the talent in New Jersey has mostly been found in Northern and Southern Jersey with Central Jersey being looked over. As a promoter of the Greater Middlesex Conference, I have seen many of the elite teams in the GMC compete better with some of the state’s elite. They have bridged the gap. However, when you go to events such as the GMCBCA Senior All-Star Game, you often hear people saying how the players aren’t as good as they used to be. I have some hopes for this current junior class, which could be even better than the 2005-06 class. So, I’m looking forward to the 2011-12 season.
With that said, I have a great deal of pride in the basketball played in Middlesex County. There has been a great deal of history and tradition represented by the schools that compete in the GMC. Going back to the days when I was a kid, and even early on in college, I always looked forward to the GMCT Tournament, and either taking a trip to the RAC for the finals, or listening to it on WCTC. That is why I’m always very hard on GMC teams when it comes to non-conference, and state tournament play. Players in this area have to strive even harder to compete with the state’s top talent. I take it very hard when people make posts in forums saying that the GMC is weak. Celestand and Mellish have this in mind with All-State Basketball.
The concept of All-State Basketball is simple. Cultivate young basketball talent from around the Central Jersey area from the ground up. The organization is creating clinics, camps, and one on one training with a stress on fundamentals to help each basketball player become one of the best in the Garden State. In addition, they are looking to develop other elements such as character while instilling the importance of teamwork, discipline, dedication, and sportsmanship. The work begins for both Celestand and Mellish on July 30th and 31st at New Brunswick Middle School when they plan to run a clinic for players ages 10 to 14 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM. Cost is $95.00, but if you register by June 15th, you’ll get a $15 discount. For more details, check the events page at http://all-statebasketball.com.