GMC Hoops Classics–1994-95 SPHS Tigers–A Look Back

Foreword: Recently, I was rummaging through some stuff in the house, and came across a videotape that I had gotten from Coach Lubreski when I was helping him out as a volunteer assistant coach. The tape is from the 1994-95 season, and it contains two games from that season. They were played on back to back nights. Video clips of these two games will be forthcoming, but in the meantime, here is a look back on a season that wasn’t, the 1994-95 SPHS Tigers.

After playing at South Plainfield High School for four years including one season on the varsity squad, I graduated from the school in June 1988, and headed to college at Drexel University. Despite having some success in the first semester my freshman year, I left school midway through the second semester due to problems I had with anxiety. This episode would be the beginning of a two-year period in my life that was quite tumultuous. Ultimately, I had to be hospitalized for those problems twice in the last four months of 1990, and it wasn’t until the summer of 1992 that I really started feeling like my old self again. In the fall, I took a chance at being a volunteer assistant coach at my alma mater of South Plainfield High School. I wanted to use the position to be one that would give me the chance to share with players my experiences with basketball, and how they helped me battle, and live with the problems that I had encountered in 1989-90.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get the opportunity to accomplish that goal, but the experience was still good in the sense that it got me to be around the game again. Having this job helped give me more background for when I embarked on the journey that would be GMC Hoops during the 1998-99 season. I was a volunteer assistant coach at SPHS from 1992 to 1997. During that time, the Tigers were in a state of transition from the great teams of Eddie Bolton, Craig Kearney, Karim Stokes, Malik Sheppard, and Brian Joiner from 1989 to 1992 to those of Marquis Jones, Darren Smith, Corey Gilmore, Ian Robinson, and Gary Houston of the early 2000s. Over the five years I helped out, South Plainfield compiled an overall record of just 52-59 with three state tournament appearances. The 1992-93 season was the best of the era with the team garnering a mark of 13-12, reaching the semifinal round of the Central Jersey Group II State Tournament, and being the last team to qualify for the 1993 GMCT, which was the last year of a 16 team only field before it became an open tournament.

Symbolic of the mediocrity during this period was the team from the 1994-95 season. Those Tigers were ranked in the Home News-Tribune Pre-Season Top Ten, and had talented veterans as well as solid upcoming youngsters. Players such as Joey Cesaro were returning for their senior year while newcomers such as Nick Prybella and Mike Powell were joining the likes of fellow sophomore Mike Thompson at the varsity level. Over the summer at the J.P. Stevens summer league, the team appeared to be gelling with a fine run in the playoffs including a loss in overtime to one of the top seeds, Rahway. Thompson, who happened to be the nephew of SPHS’s previous all time leading scorer, Joe Thompson, was coming off a solid freshman campaign that was a key contribution to the team’s state tourney berth. Despite having to deal with family problems off the court during his tenure at SPHS including the death of his grandmother (Joe Thompson’s mother) prior to the start of his senior year, Thompson still managed to score over 1,200 points for his career. Over the course of his four years at SPHS, Mike Thompson played in fewer games than his uncle and current all time leading scorer Marquis Jones. Thompson played in only 86 games for his career while Joe Thompson played in 94 and Jones played in 100.

Besides Thompson and Cesaro, the team had other veterans such as seniors Teddy Scott and Ugo Ejiochi. Scott’s defense would turn out to be a great help in late season victories over then 18-1 East Brunswick (65-56 in OT at SPHS on the day the GMCT seeds were determined), and South Brunswick in the preliminary round of the GMCT. In those two games, Scott held current EBHS all time leading scorer, Matt Van Leeuwen to just 9 points, and South Brunswick’s Damon Lumpkin to just 7 points. Ejiochi played splendidly in the GMCT Round of 16 loss to St. Peter’s (80-79) at the Red Tile Palace. In that contest, St. Peter’s broke away from a 37-30 halftime lead with a 10-0 run in the opening minutes of the third only to have South Plainfield pull within four on a number of occasions late before getting a three pointer by Cesaro as time expired that made the score cosmetically better. Scott held the Cardinals forward, David Mosiah Capers, who went on to play at St. Bonaventure to 8 points, but Mars Mellish and Tony Lee picked up their teammate in the win.

One late addition to the team was Kevin Clarke, a transfer from Montclair Kimberley, who was teammates with North Brunswick’s Tim Howard, a member of the 1997 GMCT Championship team, and a one time goaltender for Manchester United. Clarke is the younger brother of Kenny Clarke, who graduated from SPHS in 1990, and was in the basketball program when I played. While the younger Clarke was much more talented than his brother, he wasn’t able to live up to the promise that he had. South Plainfield represented the third and final stop in Clarke’s four year journey through high school. He was previously at St. Benedict’s and Montclair Kimberley, but things didn’t work out at either school. The addition of Clarke was supposed to make the team a solid contender, but it didn’t. The team didn’t come to play night in and night out. There were flashes of the brilliance that helped earn the team its pre-season fanfare, but there were moments where the Tigers played down to the level of its opponent, which resulted in embarrassing defeats to the likes of Edison, Bishop Ahr, and North Plainfield.

The latter two losses have been captured on video by GMC Hoops. Well, actually the site had the video in its possession for many years. These losses to Bishop Ahr and North Plainfield came after the Tigers won the infamous “Shattered Backboard” game. Coming into the game against New Brunswick, the Tigers were facing a must win situation needing to win out to get into the state playoffs with the NJSIAA State Cutoff looming. Against the Zebras of NBHS, the Tigers lived up to their potential by putting together perhaps the best ten minutes of basketball it had played all season to that point. By the middle of the second quarter, SPHS was leading a New Brunswick team that had been highly regarded by a score of 21-2 when 6’5” forward, Ismael Burgess (I’m not 100% sure on the first name) leaped up, gave one big yell, and threw one down for a dunk that shattered the backboard, and put a halt to the game. Much to the relief of the Tiger players, who were distraught by the turn of events, the game was rescheduled for the following Monday afternoon at the South Plainfield Middle School. When the game resumed, the Tigers ultimately came up victorious with a much needed big win.

On the following night though, SPHS traveled over to crosstown rival, Bishop Ahr, which had a history of making mayhem for the Tigers up and until it moved down to the GMC Blue Division for the start of the 2002-03 season. On opening night of the inaugural season of the GMC in December 1985, Ahr, led by Mike Doctor, who eventually transferred to St. Peter’s his junior year, and was a member of the Cardinal team that lost to Metuchen in the 1987-88 final, led the Trojans to a 61-58 upset of SPHS. The following season, the Tigers took a 12-0 lead after one quarter only to be outscored by BGA, 67-43 the rest of the way for a 67-55 victory. Then, on the night that the SPHS Gymnasium was dedicated in honor of former boys coach, and administrator, Anthony Cotoia in 1993, Bishop Ahr rallied from a 43-34 deficit with an 18-0 rampage to defeat the Tigers, 52-43. Finally, on the opening weekend of the 2001-02 season, which was Marquis Jones’ freshman campaign, the Tigers were defeated by a BGA team that had only won two games the previous year.

The Tigers should have come in full of energy and enthusiasm. With a big win in their belt over a quality opponent that not only bolstered its state tourney chances, but also its upcoming GMCT fortunes, SPHS now had a good chance to run the table, and qualify for the CJ Group II Tourney with two mediocre or lesser opponents in the way. However, the kids on South Plainfield came out flat and lethargic in both cases. Bishop Ahr got off to a fast start with a 7-0 lead, and a 12-5 first quarter advantage. The Tigers clawed their way back with a 12-8 showing in the second, and held even in the third to be within four at 33-29 entering the fourth. Over the first 1:50 of the fourth, South Plainfield came out firing with an 8-0 run, and momentum swinging its way with a 37-33 lead at the 6:10 mark. Unfortunately though, the Tigers then went 0 of 9 from the floor, and committed a turnover in the final 6:10 while Ahr closed with an 11-1 tear for the 44-38 win. The next night against North Plainfield, the Tigers had the lead, and the ball late, but the officials turned over the ball on a questionable alternate possession call that drew the ire of long time head coach, and newly hired Plainfield coach, Jeff Lubreski. The rival Canucks then put in an off balanced shot as time expired for a 36-35 win.

These three games were a microcosm of the season that was for SPHS in 1994-95. It was quite disappointing, and I took it quite hard. Trying to get used to a new job, and also dealing with classes at Rutgers, I really didn’t like the idea of coming to basketball practices, or a game, and have to deal with unnecessary stress, especially when I had dealt with enough of that in life, and was a volunteer that didn’t get paid. This season was the fault line in my coaching career. Several days after the season ended, I told Coach Lubreski that I wanted to quit. He asked me to reconsider, and I did. I then decided to return for another season, but I wasn’t into it much anymore, and by the 1996-97 season I had decided to call it quits whenever the season concluded. However, my departure was accelerated in early January of 1997. A week after New Year’s, a childhood friend of mine was killed in a car accident, and I stopped going to games several days later. It was one of those times, where I stepped back, and evaluated where I had been, and where I was going. I then decided to put more of a full effort into school for the time being.

The exile would last for only a few short years, and then the road to what would become GMC Hoops began.