Coach Lubreski and Darren Smith Should Have Been Nominated
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ–Earlier this week, the results of NJ.com’s South Plainfield Athletics Mount Rushmore poll were revealed. In addition, NJ.com came out with their own SPHS Mount Rushmore. Over the last 40 years, wrestling has become a very popular fixture in South Plainfield, which is why it is not surprising that two people: Anthony Ashnault and current AD Kevin McCann were selected in NJ.com’s own list.
Surprisingly, Ashnault, who in my opinion is the face of South Plainfield wrestling program’s recent dominance and success, and has even gone further by making Rutgers much more competitive in the rugged Big Ten, was not one of the fans picks. However, I’m a bit more disturbed by the fact that there were two people that weren’t even nominated, former long time head coach, Jeff Lubreski, and Darren Smith, an 1,100 point scorer, and key player in the Tigers GMCT Championship run from 2003 to 2007.
Both Lubreski and Smith should have been at least nominated. Both played integral parts during that historic South Plainfield boys basketball run from 2003 to 2005. During those three years, SPHS won three consecutive GMC White Division titles, reached the GMCT Final Four in each of those years, and won two GMCT Championships, which never previously happened in the school’s history. During those three years, the Tigers were a combined 63-13.
Smith, who went on to play at the University of Pennsylvania after leaving SPHS, was an 1,100 point scorer in three years for the Tigers. He is kind of an unsung hero of those GMCT Championship teams at South Plainfield. However, Smith often came up big in important games for the Tigers. First example, opening weekend of the 2003-04 season when South Plainfield took on Elizabeth at the 2003 Hoop Group Tip-Off Classic at Caldwell College.
While Marquis Jones, who was nominated for SPHS Athletics Mount Rushmore and received 381 votes, was saddled in foul trouble for three periods, it was Smith who kept the Tigers in the game, and helped them get the upset win with his performance of 24 points. Exhibit No. 2, was a little over a year later when the Tigers went through a bit of struggle over a span of a few games including a triple overtime loss at Woodbridge in a game broadcasted on WCTC. Smith was huge in that game was as well even though it was in a losing cause. Then, the last and most important example, the 2005 GMCT Championship.
In that game, which in my opinion, ranks as the 2nd best GMCT Final ever, a 66-65 last second victory by the Tigers over a St. Joseph’s team that was led by NBA lottery pick, Andrew Bynum and FDU’s Sean Baptiste, Smith had a memorable performance with 31 points and a record tying 6 three pointers. Without all of that, Marquis Jones would have likely not had the opportunity he had to knock down his pull-up jumper from the right elbow over Kevin Joyce as time was running out to seal the win. For all of that, Smith should have been recognized.
Then there’s Lubreski, who coached 20 years at the school, the longest tenure of any boys basketball head coach at South Plainfield. Over those years, the Tigers averaged about 12 wins per season, which is quite significant considering the following things: 1.) Lubreski was the third coach in three years, and the fourth coach in about six years at SPHS, 2.) South Plainfield competed in the GMC White (with Group 3 and 4 schools) for nearly all of that time, and mostly as a Group 2 school, 3.) Won two sectional championships, appeared in 3 sectional finals, appeared in 4 GMCT Final Fours, won 4 GMC Divisional titles, and won two GMCT Championships, and 4.) Managed to make boys basketball respectable and competitive again in an atmosphere where wrestling became increasingly popular in South Plainfield.
True, Anthony Cotoia is the father of South Plainfield boys basketball, and in many cases, SPHS athletics. He built the boys hoops programs from the ground up in the late 1950s to the point that the Tigers won their only state championship in boys basketball in 1964, and reached the state final in 1965 before losing to then Newark South-Side, which is now today, Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark. Cotoia coached one of the best athletes in South Plainfield HS history in Wally Cirafesi, who earned over 2,100 votes in the NJ.com poll. Cirafesi, who led the Tigers to the 1964 Group 3 State Championship over Sterling in Atlantic City, and got them back to the Group 3 title game in 1965, was also the all time leading scorer at the school until Joe Thompson broke his record on February 22, 1986 at St. Mary’s of South Amboy, which is now today, the former Cardinal McCarrick.
Cotoia compiled a tremendous record of 177-63 in his short time coaching at South Plainfield HS before becoming athletic director. His record is perhaps the best among all SPHS boys basketball coaches with a .737 winning percentage. Breaking that down over the time he was there, Cotoia had about 20 wins per season. He won three sectional championships at SPHS, and had an undefeated South Plainfield team in 1959. While Lubreski didn’t have the build the SPHS boys basketball program from scratch, the cupboard was pretty bare when he arrived on the scene in the summer of 1986, and he had to also deal with something that Cotoia didn’t, a wrestling program, a competing winter sport in the town that was on the rise.
To give you an idea of how bad things were for boys basketball at South Plainfield were when Lubreski arrived, the team was at the bottom of the standings in the 1986 Old Bridge Summer League ran by the late Lenny Stepanak, then the head coach at Cedar Ridge High School at Madison Central High School, which is now Carl Sandburg Middle School. About a week before Lubreski officially took over, the Tigers played neighborhood rival, Piscataway, and was defeated 68-9. Yours truly scored for SP in that game with a layup underneath with about 20 seconds to go in the first half. It was the only time, I accounted for 20 percent or more of the Tigers’ scoring in a basketball game in my career.
While he did make us more competitive for the rest of that summer including a much better performance in a 46-24 loss to Piscataway in the playoffs, Lubreski would go on to struggle in his first year. The Tigers, which opened the season by scoring the first 12 points of the game against Bishop Ahr, and shutting the Trojans out in the first quarter, not only ended up losing to BGA by 12 points (67-55), but would lose 13 more games in a row before defeating Madison Central at home to get their first win of the season. Things got so bad that after SPHS lost to South River at home to go 0-9 near the midpoint of the 1986-87 season, the then principal, Leroy Seitz, called for a pep rally on the Friday of that week.
The pep rally wasn’t quite the tonic either. Playing Perth Amboy later that evening, South Plainfield trailed 45-14 at the half before losing to the Panthers, 77-61. The Tigers would split their last 8 games of the season to finish at 4-18. In addition, the JV which included the likes of myself, finished at 6-17. The following year, 1987-88, the Tigers would turn things around with an 11-13 overall record including a 5-7 mark in the GMC White. South Plainfield would qualify for the state tournament, which was much more difficult than it is now, and for the GMCT when it was only a 16 team field rather than the open tourney format that it is today.
South Plainfield opened the season by defeating Colonia for the first time since joining the GMC for its inaugural season in 1985-86. In addition, the Tigers win over the Patriots ended the fabled 56 game home winning streak by the likes of Gary Battle, Fred Herzog, and W.A. Payne under the direction of legendary coach, Bob Tisdale. SPHS would win three more games in a row including two wins and the title in the Bound Brook Tournament to end 1987 with a 4-0 record and earn a spot in the Star-Ledger Middlesex County Top Ten.
The 1987-88 Tigers would lose 13 of their last 20 games to finish the year, but came up with huge wins over Donnell Lumpkin led South Plainfield on January 25, 1988 (69-67) and J.F. Kennedy, the GMC White champ that year (60-51). Those wins coupled with a crossover win over a decent St. Pius team from the Gold Division, helped the Tigers get the 16th and final seed in the 1988 GMCT. The Tigers also went on to win its opening round game over Piscataway Tech (67-66) on a last second shot by Kazzy Taylor with time running out in the 1988 Central Jersey Group 2 State Playoffs.
Despite the improvement during his second year, Lubreski would be only 22-48 over his first three seasons in Tigertown. Meanwhile, South Plainfield wrestling was reaching tremendous heights at that time. The Tigers won the GMCT title in 1987, 1988, and 1989. South Plainfield also reached the Central Jersey Group 2 sectional finals during those years only to lose to Delaware Valley of Hunterdon County. On top of that, South Plainfield had been winning District 12 every year since 1982. Lubreski began to turn things around over the next two seasons though.
With help from the likes of Eddie Bolton, Craig Kearney, Bryan Joiner, Malik Sheppard, and Karim Stokes, South Plainfield boys basketball would go a combined 44-12 over the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons. Those Tigers would defeat Bobby TIminski led Colonia in overtime in the 1990 CJ Group 2 Championship at Piscataway High School, and followed that up with a win over Jason Murdock led Bridgewater-Raritan West in the 1991 CJ Group 2 Championship. Over those two years though, SPHS failed to reach the GMCT Finals thanks to losses to Piscataway in the opening round in 1990, and in the 1991 semifinals. P-Way would defeat SP twice in 1990-91, half of the Tigers losses that year (24-4).
Many thought that South Plainfield would never reach those heights again for a long time after that. Some indicated that it was a time that only comes around every 25 years or so. For a while, you might have thought that those people were right. The Tigers had 14-11 and 13-12 seasons with two CJ Group 2 Final Four berths in 1991-92 and 1992-93 respectively. Then over the next three seasons, SPHS was a combined 22-38 with only one state playoff appearance, and first round loss to Ridge in the 1994 CJ Group 2 playoffs (81-70).
In 1996-97, the Tigers started out the season with some ups and downs in a very tough and competitive GMC White, but got hot, and wound up finishing with a 17-9 overall record that included a win over eventual GMCT Champion, North Brunswick. After that season, the SPHS boys cagers would go a combined 10-29 over the next two seasons including a 2-18 record in 1997-98, and a time in the GMC Blue starting in 1998-99. It would be the only time that South Plainfield spent time in the Blue Division during the Lubreski era.
Within five years of going 2-18 in 1997-98, South Plainfield would win its 2nd GMC White Division title under Lubreski, and reach the 2003 GMCT Semifinals before losing to top seeded and eventual champion, Cardinal McCarrick. It would spark a run of five years where South Plainfield reached the GMCT Final Four four times, which had never been done before, and perhaps never will again. Even the last SP team to reach the GMCT semifinals in 2007 were made up of a number of players such as Shamai Santiago, Opie Muse, Dan Huber, Danny McCreesh, and Bennie Gibson, who were in the program in Lubreski’s final year, and some of them even contributed to the 2005 GMCT championship team.
Lubreski completed his career at South Plainfield with an overall record of 247-202, and had 12 teams qualify for the state playoffs with five sectional final four appearances. He coached one-third of the total history of boys basketball at South Plainfield. Over the last 40 years, Lubreski coached half of that for South Plainfield. Seven others have coached boys basketball at SPHS during the other 20 years, which means that there was one coach every three years or so at South Plainfield. Stability is very important in any sports program, especially football and basketball. There have been four different coaches over the last 12 years at SPHS since Lubreski left, and the school has been in the GMC Blue at least twice during that period.
I understand that wrestling is the sport in South Plainfield, and have no problem with a Mount Rushmore that reflects that. However, the period of South Plainfield boys basketball from 2003 to 2007 could be looked back upon as a golden era in Tigertown for the sport. True South Plainfield didn’t win a state or sectional title during that period, but it did accomplish something no other SPHS boys hoops teams had ever done, and that is win not one, but two GMCT Championships. During this five year run, South Plainfield defeated Middlesex County boys basketball powerhouses Perth Amboy (2003), Piscataway (2004), and St. Joseph’s (2004 and 2005) for the first time ever, and also defeated Colonia four times (2003-04) in a season for the first time ever. It was something that I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime at South Plainfield, and Lubreski and Smith were key figures for SP during that period, and should be recognized for that.