Conference Rule Punishing Member Schools that Won’t Move Up Unjust
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—This past season, the Dunellen Destroyers finished first in the Greater Middlesex Conference’s Gold Division. The Destroyers, which finished 20-7 overall, went 15-1 in the GMC Gold in 2018-19. It beat the second place team, Perth Amboy Tech, both times the two teams met in the regular season.
The only divisional blemish on the Destroyers record was a 55-52 loss to a Sergio Rodriguez led Piscataway Tech team on January 28th at the Faber in Dunellen. In the game, the Raiders only had four different players score, but got 25 points from Rodriguez and another 16 from Sean Deuffi. However, when the 2018-19 season ended, Dunellen ended up not being recognized as the Gold Division champion by the GMC.
Instead, Perth Amboy Tech was recognized as division champions. The reason: A recently introduced rule that basically now punishes teams for not moving up a division based upon enrollment when the GMC tried to re-align this prior past season. A number of other schools were also going to be affected by this re-alignment: South Plainfield was supposed to move up to the White, New Brunswick was being moved up to the Red, and of course, Dunellen was supposed to move up to the Blue.
To be fair to the GMC, the Gold Division never really has had the number of teams it has now in boys basketball. When GMC Hoops was launched in the 2000-01 season, there were only 6 teams in the GMC Gold: Cardinal McCarrick, Dunellen, East Brunswick Tech, Perth Amboy Tech, Piscataway Tech, and South Amboy. Two years later, McCarrick moved up to the Blue while St. Peter’s came down to the Gold from the White.
After St. Peter’s closed in 2007, the Gold got even smaller until the 2010-11 season when Timothy Christian and Wardlaw-Hartridge joined the GMC. South River also moved down from the Blue. Suddenly, there were 8 teams. A few years later, Highland Park moved down. There were 9 now. South River eventually moved back into the Blue Division after the 2015-16 season, but this past season, Calvary Christian of Old Bridge joined the conference, and landed in the Gold Division, which brought the total back up to 9.
The recent additions to the GMC Gold: Calvary Christian, Timothy Christian, and Wardlaw are even smaller schools than Dunellen in terms of enrollment. So, Dunellen looks like a big fish in a smaller pond. Other teams around the area have also kicked the tires sort of speak to join the GMC in the past several years. Koinonia and the Academy of Urban Leadership have discussed the idea, and in the case of Koinonia, their AD at the time, Bob Gomulka contacted me about it. These schools are also as small.
With all of that being said, Dunellen should not be punished for not being willing to move up, especially in light of the fact that one of the main reasons the Destroyers didn’t want to make the move was because St. Thomas Aquinas is presently in the Blue. Aquinas, formerly known as Bishop Ahr, which had been STA back in its early days until the mid 1980s, has been in the Blue Division since the 2002-03 season, when its present coach, Bob Turco became an assistant to his younger brother Dave, who was in his first year as head coach in South Brunswick.
In 2002-03, Aquinas’ move down to the Blue was warranted. Two years earlier, the Trojans were struggling in the White Division with a 2-20 overall record in the inaugural year of GMC Hoops. The following season, 2001-02, the Trojans were not much better although they did get a solid opening weekend win over South Plainfield, and a win over Marist of Bayonne in the consolation game of the 2001 Roselle Catholic Tournament. After the program showed signs of improvement in its first season in the Blue, Aquinas gradually began to build up a contending program in the GMC.
By the 2004-05 season, the seeds were planted for a solid run in both the division and the conference. Corey Francisco, a Woodbridge Township native, was now a sophomore playing in his 2nd year of varsity at the school, and eventually became the school’s all time leading scorer. In addition, the Freshmen team made up of the likes of Billy Rooney, Mike Williamson, Kevin Uszenski, Derek Figueredo, and Martese Street won the GMC Blue title at the freshmen level, and received the top seed in the 2005 Perth Amboy/GMC Freshmen Tourney before being upset by J.P. Stevens.
The following year, with the likes of Matt Fiorino and Matt Sheehy, Aquinas was one of the top freshmen teams again in the GMC, and reached the Championship Game of the 2006 Perth Amboy/GMC Freshmen Tourney before losing to top seeded J.P. Stevens, which had the likes of 1,000 point scorer Kenny Bland, Myles Reuben, who went on to play college ball, Nick Pol, Tahir Swinton, and Herb Smith. A year later, Aquinas freshmen with the likes of Justin Peeples, DJ Griffin, and Manny Kroggmann reached the Amboy Frosh Tourney Final Four, but lost in the semifinals, and then again in the consolation game to Spotswood.
All of this talent as well as the 2008-09 freshmen team that finished 3rd at the Amboy Tourney, laid the groundwork for Aquinas’ rebirth. In 2007-08, the Trojans stunned rival Cardinal McCarrick two days before Christmas at the start of that season despite losing Francisco to graduation the year before. Aquinas actually earned the 2008 GMCT Tourney’s 3rd seed, but were knocked off by St. Joseph’s, led by Steve Rennard and Nikko Vastola, in the Elite Eight en route to giving Dave Turco his first of 10 straight appearances in the GMCT Championship.
Several years later, with the addition of Dillon Salva to the solid group of talent that finished 3rd at the 2009 Amboy Frosh Tourney that included Roger Kilgore, Rashad Kilgore, and Ryan Blakely, the Trojans reached the 2011 GMCT Semifinals for the first time since winning it all in 1992. Despite this and the fact that Aquinas is a Non-Public A school, i.e. a big fish in a small pond that is the GMC Blue, there was no move up to the White Division. Meanwhile, McCarrick, which ultimately won the 2008 GMCT along with the 2003 GMCT, had moved up to the GMC White for the 2008-09 campaign despite only being a Non-Public B school.
It is true that Aquinas took a turn downward starting in 2012, but has returned to the top of the Blue, and one of the contending teams in the GMC within the past several years. The Trojans have received a seed in the top eight in each of the last three GMCTs including a fourth seed this year. NJ.com had the Trojans ranked number one in the GMC prior to the start of the 2019 GMCT before they were knocked off by eventual finalist, Piscataway in the quarterfinals. Yet, in spite of the uptick, and the new additions of talent in each of those last three years, nobody in the GMC top brass has suggested Aquinas move up? Aquinas will now be a GMC Blue member for the 18th straight year when the 2019-2020 season commences.
Turning back to Dunellen, the Destroyers have been rebuilding the past several years under the guidance of head coach, Howie Horowitz. In Horowitz’s first year, 2015-16, Dunellen was only 4-21. The following year, the Destroyers went 8-17, and in 2017-18 they were 14-12 including a 10-4 mark in the GMC Gold, which was only good enough for a tie with Perth Amboy Tech for third. Finally, this year, the Destroyers went 20-7, the first time they had 20 wins or more in a season since GMC Hoops was launched in 2000-01. During these nearly 20 years that GMC Hoops has been in existence, Dunellen has always played in the Gold Division of the Greater Middlesex Conference. You could counter by saying that Dunellen has won its fair share of Gold Division Titles, but so has Piscataway Tech and Perth Amboy Tech, which aren’t limited to having students exclusively from Piscataway and Perth Amboy.
Some of the Vo-Tech schools such as East Brunswick Tech (Group 2) have a larger enrollment than Dunellen, but due to a special clause in the GMC’s constitution, the Vo-Tech’s are allowed to remain in the Gold Division even though Piscataway Tech moved up to the Blue in each of Karl Towns Sr.’s final two years as head coach of the Raiders. Perth Amboy Tech won three straight Gold Division Championships under previous coach, John Meyer with players from outside Middlesex County. Now with changes beginning to occur in other schools in the Gold such as Wardlaw and Timothy Christian, is it really valid to punish a team like Dunellen for not moving up?
Let’s look at the other two notable schools almost impacted by the most recent realignment that resisted, appealed, and got to stay where they are right now: New Brunswick and South Plainfield. Again, according to this new rule, these two schools are not eligible for winning the title in their respective divisions, the Zebras in the White and the Tigers in the Blue. While everyone has just looked at enrollment at these two schools being the only determinant in moving up or down, both schools have endured numerous changes over the last 15 years or so. Back in 2003-04, both schools were among the Elite Eight in the 2004 GMCT with South Plainfield winning it all for the first time in school history.
The year before, New Brunswick and South Plainfield both reached the 2003 GMCT Final Four at East Brunswick. Both lost in two of the most thrilling semifinals ever in the history of the GMCT. By the end of the 2004–05 season both boys basketball head coaches at NBHS and SPHS, the late Odie Page, and Jeff Lubreski, who now coaches at Rahway, were gone. Both stepped down. South Plainfield would reach the GMCT semifinals again and for the last time in 2007 under the guidance of Bill Schulte, who had previously coached SP girls program for many years. New Brunswick, which had won back to back CJ Group 2 titles in 2001 and 2002, and again in 2004, had not been back to the GMCT semifinals until this past season.
Over the last 15 plus seasons since Page stepped down, the Zebras have been through six different coaches including current head coach Samir Sanu, who has turned the program around in short order. New Brunswick has also had several different athletic directors during that time. Before Sanu’s arrival, New Brunswick had fallen on very hard times. Not only did the program compile an 8-81 overall record including a 5-51 record in divisional play in the four seasons combined prior to Sanu’s arrival, the Zebras have even struggled to put together a freshmen team in some of the recent years. This is the same program that has had the likes of Gary Brokaw, Dwayne Jarrett, Dishone Taylor, Lorenzo Williams, Dave Ricketts, and Eric Young.
Also during that same period, New Brunswick’s enrollment has grown significantly. NBHS was a Group 2 school at the end of the Odie Page era. The following year, the Zebras moved up to Group 3. Now, New Brunswick is a Group 4 school, and Group 5 in football. So, now the Zebras have to move up to the Red, which they have already done in football in recent years before moving back down to the White last season. Meanwhile, things have become almost as barren at South Plainfield. Since Lubreski’s departure in 2005, the Tigers have had five different coaching changes as well as several changes in ADs. SPHS has also moved back and forth between the White and the Blue several times.
The irony of South Plainfield vacillating between the Blue and White Divisions now is that during Lubreski’s time as coach in Tigertown from 1986-2005, the boys basketball team, competed mostly in the GMC White competing against bigger schools such as Madison Central, Cedar Ridge, Colonia, Kennedy, Sayreville, South Brunswick, and Bishop Ahr, and in most of those years, SPHS was a Group 2 school. The only time, South Plainfield was in the GMC Blue during the Lubreski era was during the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons. This only occurred after the Tigers went 2-18 in 1996-97, the worst record Lubreski ever had at the school, worse than his first year, my junior year, in 1986-87, which was 4-18. So now, South Plainfield has to move up to the White, and Aquinas and Carteret stay in the Blue???
The GMC began implementing this rule when Aquinas needed to rebuild its football program, and moved down to the Blue several years ago. The Trojans have continued to struggle on the gridiron since coming into this season, where they began last week by losing to Delaware Valley 41-0. Although I did not agree with the idea of penalizing a team for moving down, it is nothing compared to what is going on now. The conference then took it a step further last football season by trying to move Spotswood from the Gold to the Blue in the new four division alignment. Again, this was understandable since there were only five teams in that division: Carteret, Colonia, J.F. Kennedy, South Plainfield, and St. Joseph’s.
Unfortunately, Spotswood was in no position to move up. They had just lost a number of solid players to graduation, and despite playing South Plainfield competitively in the season opener at Jost Field thanks to five turnovers by the Tigers, the Chargers still struggled despite remaining down in the Gold with a 1-9 overall record including a 1-4 mark in divisional play. The only win was against a Metuchen (21-6) program that was winless, and struggled with having enough players throughout the season. Woodbridge moved down from the White to the Blue for the 2019 Football season. Does that mean the Barrons are ineligible for winning the division title even though they made a big step toward accomplishing that by knocking off St. Joseph’s this past Saturday to open the season?
Here’s another thing to consider: Enforcing this rule on the member schools in football is not as big a deal as it could be in basketball, baseball, or other sports that have a post-season conference tournament. Football does not have any such tournament to worry about. But for basketball, especially a Gold Division school that is usually the 8th seeded team when the tourney is seeded according to current conference by-laws, it is a significant deal. The GMC by-laws declares all division winners are automatically seeded in the Top 8 for boys basketball. This is the very seed that Dunellen got when the 2019 tourney was seeded. So, in effect the GMC, despite enforcing this new rule by saying Dunellen was not officially recognized as the Gold Division champion, rewarded the Destroyers anyway as essentially the division winner by giving it the 8th seed! Perth Amboy Tech, the declared division winner by this new edict, was seeded 20th instead. So why not give Dunellen the official recognition as division champ when it was implicitly rewarded with it anyway by receiving the 8th seed?
If you’re going to declare a team ineligible to win a division title for either moving down or refusing to move up, why not just let them play a non-conference schedule, and not let them participate in the GMCT for those sports that have a conference tourney? The fact of the matter is that all this does is cause confusion and unnecessary problems for the member schools. And, people may not like me saying this, but I honestly believe that if this rule continues to be enforced by the GMC, it could lead to a situation that may end up in future litigation between the conference and a member school affected. And, especially, if the rules aren’t applied evenly to other member schools that have been granted more leeway in moving up or down, and allowed to stay in lower divisions when they should be playing up. As a result, GMC Hoops has decided to declare Dunellen the 2019 GMC Gold Division winner for boys basketball.