For the first time in my three years calling games for GMC Hoops, our preseason #1 team won the GMC championship.
This in itself was no surprise on the surface. St. Joseph came in with what was clearly the most talented roster in the county, returning all but one player from their title run last season. They came in having won eight of the previous nine titles, and had only lost seven Red division games in the previous nine seasons combined. And most importantly, they had proved their doubters (myself included) wrong after two different mass exoduses in each of the previous two years, as well as the departure of the greatest coach in GMC history. Coming into the season, it was almost a shoe-in that the Falcons would finish the season on top once more.
But a funny thing happened along the way: The Falcons lost. And lost again. And lost again. And then again. They fell to the Piscataway Chiefs, the preseason #1 team the previous year who had lost all but two varsity contributors, by 15 points. They lost to J.P. Stevens for the first time in 11 seasons. They lost to South Brunswick for the first time in 12 seasons. And then they fell to Old Bridge, which had emerged as the county’s best team with arguably its best player (more on that later) and coach. At that point, on January 15, Joes was 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the Red. They had lost back to back division games for the first time since 2006-07 when they lost to South Brunswick and Edison (in the Red at the time) in December before coming back strong to earn a #2 seed. But this was a team that did not look like itself, and was not playing to its potential. Their loss to South Brunswick, which came without Tyree Ford, led me to tweet this:
End of an era https://t.co/QBaOeJEjST
— James Corrigan (@RealCorrigan) January 11, 2019
Despite my telling myself to never doubt the Falcons again, there I am doing so. But then…. it clicked. After January 15, Joes won its last seven Red division games, including avenging the defeats to Piscataway, Stevens, and South Brunswick all by double digits before beating #1 Old Bridge by two points on the final day of the regular season. Mike Thompson’s team began to do what they do best, which was get out in transition and destroy teams from the outside. They led Stevens 44-15 at half thanks to six(!) first half threes from Matt Cruz. They knocked down eight more threes in the 16 point win over Piscataway, and held Antonio Chandler to nine points on two field goals in the process.
Joes wound up with the #3 seed, but ran into some old friends in the GMCT. The Carteret Ramblers gave them all they could handle once again in the quarters, and in the semifinal they squeaked by a fantastic Colonia side in an instant classic. Their opponent in the final may have been a surprise (much more on that later), but #5 Piscataway came in with the mindset that they knew they could win, and in the end, they probably would have if not for costly turnovers at the end. But I don’t think Mike Thompson and his staff received nearly enough credit for the cool and calm nature with which their team played in the pressure situations.
A key example of this was in the semi, when their fiery senior Ryan Granito fouled out of the game on a technical foul after committing a shooting foul to send the Pats to the line. Colonia, which was winning at the time, received four free throws and the ball as a result, and the crowd for both teams got into the game as a result. Normally this would lead to a dramatic momentum shift in the game. In this case it did just that, but not for who you would think. This fired the Falcons up and led to their run which helped take them to their twelfth straight GMC final appearance. In both the semifinal and final, they made every play that needed to be made, and avoided any mistake that would have done them in, despite facing two teams who, on the day, seemed destined to win.
Much is said by fans and participants alike about the advantages St. Joseph has as a non public school and the talent that they have brought in in the past, but one thing is clear: The Falcons needed the heart of a champion to win the title this year, just as they did last year when the won both the semifinal and final at the buzzer. No one individual stood out for them this year, but they came together as a collective unit even when their backs were firmly against the wall. This year more than any other, they earned their championship victory, and should be commended for their efforts.
PERSONAL FINAL GMC RANKINGS
1. St. Joseph
4. Old Bridge
5. Bishop Ahr
7. New Brunswick
9. South Brunswick
10. J.P. Stevens
Yes, I am well aware that Old Bridge lost to New Brunswick and Monroe in postseason play. This does not take away from their best season in school history, their first ever Red division title, and the best overall season of any team in the county. Which, of course, is a great segue to this…..
CONTROVERSIAL MOMENT OF THE YEAR
— GMC Hoops (@gmchoops) February 18, 2019
I would be remiss if this recap did not include arguably the biggest controversy in GMC tournament history, with top seeded Old Bridge getting robbed of a hard fought victory over the pesky #9 seed New Brunswick in the GMCT quarterfinals. The Zebras are more than of no fault, as their persistence directly led to this break. Ahyan Brown-Miller’s three down four points cut it to one with 2.2 (allegedly) seconds left, leading to the play above. Regardless of the amount of time left, their effort in stealing the pass and putting the shot off was tremendous. They never stopped playing, and as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But still………
Please tell me this isn’t real pic.twitter.com/I9xWZbXcrr
— James Corrigan (@RealCorrigan) February 18, 2019
GAME OF THE YEAR
There were many great choices for this, including both the semifinal and final of the GMCT, Monroe’s win over Old Bridge in the states, Old Bridge’s win over Piscataway in a GMC Hoops GOTW in December, and many more. But the one true choice is a game near and dear to my heart: the clash for the City of Light Trophy between J.P. Stevens and Edison.
Per usual, this was the most intense game of the year played in front of a sold out crowd. The #4 Hawks staged a late comeback to grab the lead, but Thomas Johnson answered with the shot of his life for the Eagles to defeat their arch rival Stevens for the first time since 2014 to take the City of Light Trophy.
The four division winners were a group old and new. While Colonia won its 12th White crown, Bishop Ahr its 7th overall (six in the Blue, one in the White), and Dunellen its 9th in the Gold, it was Old Bridge which crashed the party, winning its first Red division title in school history, and the first division title in its history even including its previous incarnations (Madison Central and Cedar Ridge).
Colonia did not stop in the division, however, as they romped to their third state section championship in school history, winning the North 2 Group 3 crown. Without the services of Luke Valeriano, the Pats blew out top seeded Rahway, who had beaten them earlier in the year, by the score of 58-30, before winning the title in similar fashion 57-33 in a hostile environment at West Morris. They then gave Ramapo, ranked in the top 20 in New Jersey, all they could handle in the Group 3 semifinal. Postseason magic almost seems like a given for Colonia.
Old Bridge 13-1
St. Joseph 10-4
South Brunswick 7-7
J.P. Stevens 6-8
East Brunswick 4-10
Perth Amboy 0-14
New Brunswick 8-4
North Brunswick 4-8
Iselin Kennedy 4-8
Bishop Ahr 12-0
South River 7-5
South Plainfield 3-9
Piscataway Tech 12-3
Perth Amboy Tech 12-4
South Amboy 7-9
Highland Park 7-9
Calvary Christian 5-11
Timothy Christian 5-11
EB Tech 4-12
The White division standings remain inexplicable to this day.
The top 15 scorers in each division are as follows, courtesy of NJ.com.
St. Joseph (Met.)
St. Joseph (Met.)
Brien Dunphy II
Perth Amboy Tech
East Brunswick Tech
MY ALL GMC TEAM
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Chad Baker (Colonia)
Julius Belton (Old Bridge)
Antonio Chandler (Piscataway)
Howard McBurnie (St. Joseph)
Luke Valeriano (Colonia)
Quadry Adams (Bishop Ahr)
Joshua Daniels (Monroe)
Tahjay Moore (New Brunswick)
Jahlil Nix (Carteret)
Derrick Whitaker (South River)
Ahyan Brown-Miller (New Brunswick)
Travis Cumber (East Brunswick)
Tyree Ford (St. Joseph)
Luke Fresco (St. Joseph)
Jared Meyer (Old Bridge)
DAVE TURCO COACH OF THE YEAR
Per usual, there is no shortage of great choices. Samir Sanu has turned a once dormant New Brunswick program into a contender. Bob Turco turned Bishop Ahr into a powerhouse overnight. Jeff Warner took tremendous strides with Monroe in just his second season, as did Chris Garcia of J.P. Stevens. Mugsy White lost one of his top two players early in the season, but still managed to earn a #6 seed with his Carteret Ramblers. Mike Thompson of St. Joseph has batted 1.000, winning the GMC title in each of his first two seasons. And of course, there is last year’s winner in Jim Macomber of Old Bridge.
Last season, I basically split this award between the regular season and postseason with Macomber and current Seton Hall grad assistant Brandon Hall of Colonia. I am tempted to do it again this season with Colonia’s Jose Rodriguez, who lost Luke Valeriano in the sectional quarterfinals and still managed to destroy top seeded Rahway in the semis and third seeded West Morris in the final, both on the road, to capture the North 2 Group 3 championship. These performances by the Pats were otherworldly in their ruthless efficiency, and showcased the true depth of the team as well as its mettle in playing in heated state tournament environments.
But to me, this award has to go to Darius Griffin of Piscataway. His Chiefs last season were our preseason #1 team mainly due to their veteran presence. Coming into this season, PWay sported only two players, Tyree Barba-Bey and Antonio Chandler, who had any significant varsity contribution. Despite this, the Chiefs surpassed their success from last season, reaching the GMC final and scoring upsets over Linden and Somerset County finalist Watchung Hills in the state tournament.
Much of this is due to Griffin, who three years ago inherited a mess of a program which had gone just 11-37 in the Red in the four years prior. He has turned that into a program with depth at all three levels with players who have bought in, and feed off his intensity. To me, a coach of the year should maximize his or her team’s potential, and I believe Darius Griffin did that to the fullest extent.
ALL GMCT TEAM
This team was selected by the great Greg Machos with some help from myself.
Tyree Ford—-St. Joseph*
Luke Fresco—-St. Joseph
K-Shawn Schulters-—St. Joseph
Ahyan Brown-Miller—-New Brunswick
While some disagreed with the county’s selection of Ford as MVP, I believe it was well deserved. Ford made two plays in the final which St. Joes would not have won without: the steal off a Cruz miss that led to two free throws, and his rebound and putback on the last play off of Fresco’s missed FT which sealed the title. He may not have had the level of season he had last year when he was named first team all county, but he always seemed to deliver when called upon. He was consistently clutch in the GMCT, and thus was the tournament MVP.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The one everyone has been waiting for.
This really came down to two players, both of whom were phenomenal this year. I came into the season referring to Colonia’s Chad Baker as the GMC’s best kept secret. This was not a secret that was kept for very long into the year. Baker is simply the most physically gifted player in the county, and one of the most physically gifted players we have seen in some time. At 6’7, he handles the ball like a guard and can drain shots from downtown. Not one team could guard him this year, especially our champion St. Joes, who saw Baker drop 18 second half points, nearly leading the Pats to victory. Without his fellow first team compatriot Valeriano in the states, Baker was unstoppable, averaging over 22 per game in his four sectional games. A simply remarkable player is he, and his career SHOULD (a message to college coaches) continue at the Division 1 level.
But this award has to go to a player whose immense talent and physical gifts were matched and even surpassed by his savviness and leadership ability. A player with both a flair for the dramatic and the ability to control the tempo of a game. A player who proved to be unguardable one on one, and a surefire bet for a basket. And a player whose rise to prominence coincided with the rise of his school from an afterthought to a perennial, and who became, without a doubt, the best player in his school’s history.
I am talking, of course, about Julius Belton of Old Bridge. A first team all county guard last season, Belton and his Knights were primed to contend for a championship coming in, as they were returning All-County sharpshooter Mike Oliva, the previously injured Jared Meyer, and the deadly Ryan Delacuesta, to go along with the extremely talented St. Joseph transfer Sean Williams. But even the most optimistic of observers could not have seen the Knights start 13-0 in the Red, defeat St. Joseph handily, and earn the #1 seed in the GMCT.
Belton was the straw that stirred the drink for the Knights. He exploded out of the gate with a 30 point performance in an OT win over Piscataway and never looked back. While his scoring numbers do not jump off of the page, they are more of an indication of the plethora of shooters he had around him. His assist numbers were not always tracked, but had they been, it would have told much more of the complete story.
But even then it would not have done him justice. Old Bridge was able to stifle teams this year who may have been a bit faster and more athletic by controlling the pace of the game through their methodic offense. Belton was the key to this, as he could not be pressured one on one, and a double team would have been like taking candy from a baby. For example, Belton only scored 7 points in a game against Woodbridge in which the Barrons tried to double team him, which left Delacuesta open to knock down seven 3’s and Meyer to drop 18 points of his own. But he always had the ability to explode, which he did in the first round of the state tournament against East Brunswick where he put up a career high 38 points in an effort to reach his 1000th point.
Belton was neither flashy nor made ESPN top ten plays. Just like current Orlando Magic guard Isaiah Briscoe while he was at Roselle Catholic, his bread and butter move, the head fake hesitation drive, was one of the most unguardable moves I have seen at the HS level. He may not have averaged 20 per game, but there is no one this year who I would rather have on my team.
GMC POY’s THIS DECADE
2010: Steve Rennard (St. Joseph)
2011 and 12: Quenton DeCosey (St. Joseph)
2013 and 14: Karl-Anthony Towns* (St. Joseph)
2015: Breein Tyree (St. Joseph)
2016: Tyus Battle* (St. Joseph)
2017: Letrell West (St. Joseph)
2018: Alex Santiago (Bishop Ahr)
2019: Julius Belton (Old Bridge)
*Towns was named NJ Gatorade POY in 2013 and 14, and also was Gatorade National POY in 14. Battle was NJ Gatorade POY in 2016.
2020 WAY TOO EARLY TOP TEN
1. St. Joseph
2. Bishop Ahr
3. South Brunswick
4. New Brunswick
5. Old Bridge
9. East Brunswick
On paper, the Trojans have the best roster in the county next year, and there is no reason they cannot win it all. Does that mean there is any chance that St. Joes will not be #1? Of course not! The Falcons have earned the benefit of the doubt. The Vikings return each of their top six scorers from this year, and have reloaded off of their one win campaign last season. New Brunswick could be looking at their best season since 2003 as they return nearly every major contributor from their semifinal run. And Old Bridge will be just fine despite losing the POY and four of their top five scorers, as Sean Williams is more than ready to take the reigns.
MOST APPRECIATIVE BROADCASTER
This, of course, is me.
This has been my third year bringing the best that the GMC has to offer to the fans, whether it be through live audio or video, but this is really year number nine for me when it comes to being a part of the GMC Hoops community. From suiting up as a player for J.P. Stevens, to watching with great interest as my brother made his run with the Hawks, and now as a broadcaster, there has never been one day where I have not been excited for a game in Middlesex County. This is because for all these years, I have fed and continue to feed off of the passion and commitment of every player, coach, administrator, and fan that I have come across. I am in awe of this every time I come to a gym, and my only hope is that I have properly relayed this same energy back through the screen.
My time with GMC Hoops has coincided with my three years of calling Division I college hoops, the first two with Fordham and this year in my first season with Saint Peter’s. I can safely say that without the lessons I have learned from calling games in the GMC and in my nine total years as a part of the community, I would not be where I am today. I owe that to the players, coaches, administrators, and fans of GMC Hoops for inspiring me to do what I love.
Another tremendous thanks goes to Ryan DePaul of RDPlex Films, for partnering with GMC Hoops to bring you these games live on video this year for the first time ever. There were blips and technical glitches along the way, but by the end we were firing on all cylinders, and I owe it all to Ryan, who sacrificed a lot and worked tremendously hard this year to help bring you the best of Middlesex County basketball. Along those same lines, I want to thank our sponsors this year as well: Civile Cucina Italiana (civilecucina.com), Garces, Grabler, and LeBrocq (garcesgrabler.com), and The Express Athletic Center (theexpressathleticcenter.com) for all of their support this year.
And of course, there is Mr. GMC Hoops himself, Greg Machos. He has the same passion for GMC basketball today as he did when he first started this site 19 years ago. The players he has covered have become NBA players, Division I heroes, coaches in college, and coaches in the GMC to be covered again by his watchful eye. Much has changed since 2001, but he and his dedication have remained the constant. I could not be more thankful to him for sharing his platform with me and for giving me the opportunity to give back to the community that has already given me so much.
I may possibly be coming out soon with a decade in review piece, but for now, that wraps it up for me. Be sure to follow @gmchoops on Twitter as well as me @RealCorrigan for all the latest in the GMC Hoops world. Until next time.