South River’s Harris Steps Down as Boys Basketball Coach

Harris to be Replaced by Brandon Walsh After Coaching Rams for 10 Years

South River boys basketball head coach, Rodney Harris pictured at the far right, commemorates Derrick Whitaker’s 1,000th point during Whitaker’s sophomore year with his family during a game at Piscataway Tech in February 2017.  Harris stepped down as Rams boys hoops coach after 10 seasons.  Photo credit to Stephanie Martinez-Shereef.

SOUTH RIVER, NJ—On Tuesday evening, GMC Hoops learned through TV-35 in South River that head boys basketball coach, Rodney Harris, is stepping down after coaching the Rams for the past 10 seasons.

From the beginning of the GMC Hoops era in 2000, the Rams had suffered many ups and downs although they did manage to reach the Central Jersey Group I Semifinals after starting the season 8-0 in 2004-05 under then first year head coach, Mike DelAversano.

When Harris came in during the summer of 2009, he made an immediate impact by leading the Rams then consisting of the likes of Shawn Fenton and newly hired head coach Brandon Walsh to the Middlesex County College Summer League Championship before falling to neighborhood rival, East Brunswick, 60-48.

It would be the first of many big moments for Harris at South River as he led the Rams back to respectability even in Blue Division play the past three seasons. Harris, who was a former standout for the Rams in High School before graduating in 1987, coached at SRHS for 10 seasons and amassed an overall record of 147-125.

Harris implemented a style of play that was unusual for the Rams at first, but became its hallmark, the 94 feet of heat. The Rams up and down style was more reminiscent of Middlesex County Basketball of the mid to late 1960s than it was of the physical defensive style of play that the county and the GMC has become more known for.

The style worked though. Harris’ run and gun offense brought many memorable moments during his 10 seasons. During his tenure, South River reached the Central Jersey Group 1 Semifinals twice in 2014 before losing to Shore Regional, and in 2016 before losing to Florence. Harris’ Rams also reached the CJ Group 1 Quarterfinals in 2010, 2013, and 2015.

South River also experience great success in the GMC-Shore Challenge Holiday Tournament during Harris’ tenure. Over the past 10 years, the Rams reached the Championship Game of the tourney 9 times and winning five titles: 2009, 2010, 2012, 2017, and 2018. Two of the most dramatic holiday tourney wins for the Rams were in 2009 over Henry Hudson (65-57) at South Amboy, and 2012 over defending champion, Keansburg in overtime (73-71) behind the terrific clutch shooting of then sophomore guard, Sean Darrar.

Speaking of Darrar, he was one of four different players to score at least 1,000 points in their career at South River under the tutelage of Harris. These four players, Darrar (2015), Matt Martinez (2014), Tyler Harris (2013), and Derrick Whitaker (2019) all scored at least 1,100 points for the Rams, and finished in the top 9 all time in school history. Whitaker became the second player in school history to score 2,000 points, and ranks 2nd all time behind 1991 graduate, Deon Jackson. Whitaker also now sits atop the GMC Hoops Grand Club scoring list with 2,105 points.

Under Harris guidance, South River gained more success against its neighborhood arch rival, Spotswood. Over the last 20 years of GMC Hoops, Spotswood has grown to be a very successful program under the leadership of Steve Mate, who has coached at the school since 1996. The Chargers dominated its rivalry with South River for a good part of the first decade of GMC Hoops with the exception of the 2004-05 season when the Rams swept the season series.

Since Harris’ arrival, the Rams became much more competitive with Spotswood, and in two of the past three years, swept the Chargers in the season series. Both games this year were donnybrooks that were decided by less than five points, and had over 160 points combined. Spotswood still managed to win 10 of the 14 games between the two schools during Harris’ tenure as the Chargers reached the GMCT Semis in 2010, and the GMCT Elite Eight in 2013, 2014, and 2016.

Over the past several years, the Rams became known for their tremendous come from behind wins. Against Metuchen and Piscataway Tech in 2018, the Rams trailed by double digits in the second half only to rally to win. Versus Middlesex at home this season, the Rams battled back from a 61-48 deficit with under five minutes to go to tie the game at 67-67 on a three by Derrick Whitaker with 12 seconds left in regulation, and then won in overtime, 80-77. South River also defeated South Plainfield at the buzzer on a three by Jayvon Taylor (77-74).

Harris perhaps enjoyed his greatest success with this graduating senior class. Over the past four seasons, South River has compiled an overall record of 65-44 including a divisional mark of 29-24. This group consisting of Whitaker along with Mike DeSantis, Zac Rafano, Joey Nigro, Silvio Cruz, Davine Mayes, Shivam Arya, Chris Barberio, and Mark Lu were perhaps the best group of talent at South River in the near 20 year history of GMC Hoops.

This group of Rams finished up with a 17-10 record overall this past season before losing in the opening round of the Central Jersey Group 2 state tournament to Holmdel. South River also finished third in the GMC Blue with a 7-5 record to go along with nice crossover victories over White Division schools such as Sayreville, North Brunswick, and J.F. Kennedy to earn the 13th seed in the 2019 GMCT. It was the highest seed for South River in the near 20 year history of GMC Hoops coverage.

Each year under Harris, South River won at least 10 games with 2009-10 and 2011-12 being the only seasons below .500 at 10-15 and 10-16 respectively. South River was also just .500 at 13-13 twice during the Harris era in 2010-11 and 2016-17. Harris won at least 16 games in a season five times including 2012-13 (17-10), 2013-14 (16-12), 2015-16 (18-11), 2017-18 and this past season (17-10). The Rams averaged just under 15 victories per season during Harris’ reign.

Memorable moments during the Harris era include an upset win on the road at South Hunterdon in the 2014 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 1 Quarterfinals behind a memorable performance from Martinez, who overcame early struggles with his perimeter shot to finish up with 33 points including 5 threes, 5 field goals, and 8 free throws along with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. Darrar added 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals while Richie LeoGrande had a double-double of 10 points and 15 boards.

The win at South Hunterdon punched Harris and the Rams first ticket to the CJ Group 1 Final Four since 2005. In 2016, the Rams avenged a holiday tourney final loss by defeating Henry Hudson in the Central Jersey Group 1 Quarterfinals in South River (64-62). The win gave Harris his highest win total of his varsity coaching career. Whitaker led the charge with a team high 26 points while DeSantis chipped in with 12, and Mario Nigro added 13. Big man Matthew Pietryzk pulled down 15 rebounds as well.

The 2016 Central Jersey Group 1 State Tourney run may have been much more unthinkable then the state playoff run in 2014 since the Rams had a much younger team in 2016 with three freshmen in the starting line-up, and had lost 7 of 11 games over a span of just 22 days to go from 11-2 to 15-9 by February 18th. The Rams then won 3 of 4 including its first two playoff games to reach the semifinals for the second time in three seasons. South River also had a huge win over a 26-3 Burlington City squad (63-62) in the 2012-13 season.

In a 2013 state tourney tune-up, the Rams had three players scorer in double figures including Tyler Harris, who collected a double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds along with 3 assists and 3 steals while Martinez chipped in with 13 points, 8 assists, and 4 steals, and Tim Darrar added 12 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and an assist. The Blue Devils of the Burlington County Scholastic League had entered that game with a 24-1 overall record.

Harris has had a number of players move on to the next level including Fenton, who ended up at Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire, Sean Darrar, who went on to play football at Albright, Tyler Harris, who played at Centenary College, and Martinez, who played at Brookdale Community College. However, this group of seniors is already made big noise with three players: Whitaker, Nigro, and Rafano all moving on to play college hoops while DeSantis is likely to land somewhere for football.

Whitaker and Nigro will be joining former Piscataway standout, and recent Middlesex County College graduate, Cameron Saintil at FDU-Florham while Rafano will be attending Curry College. Harris had recently purchased a home in Jackson Township close to where he works, and would like to see more of his daughter Gabrielle play women’s college hoops at St. Peter’s University. Harris and his family have been a fixture in South River for many years, and will be missed. Thanks for all the memories Rodney, and best of luck in future endeavors.