Biggest Game at J.P. Stevens Since December 2007 as No. 5 Hawks Host Fourth Ranked St. Joseph’s
|Solomon Smith, the GMC Hoops Player of the Week for the first full week of the 2018-19 season puts up a floater along the baseline against Bishop Ahr in the first half of the Hawks 57-46 upset win over the Trojans on December 22nd.|
NORTH EDISON, NJ—For J.P. Stevens boys basketball, this is an historic moment, a rare opportunity. For the past several seasons dating back to the 2016-17 campaign, the Hawks have been knocking on the door, and trying to climb the ladder of success in the Greater Middlesex Conference, and now they have a chance to finally show that they are for real and do belong among the elite boys basketball teams in the GMC.
The fifth ranked Hawks have not been ranked this high since the beginning of the 2008-09 season, the last time Stevens reached the GMCT Elite Eight. On top of that, JPS has not started a season at 6-0 since the beginning of the 2007-08 campaign. It was also the last time the Hawks defeated St. Joe’s in North Edison. Those Hawks were led by the nucleus of Kenny Bland, Myles Reuben, Nick Pol, Tahir Swinton, and Herb Smith.
Those J.P. Stevens teams, which were coached then by James Cardillo, made back to back appearances in the GMCT Quarterfinals in 2008 and 2009. The group of Bland, Reuben, Pol, Swinton, and Smith were on a Hawks Freshmen team that rolled through the regular season to earn the top seed in the 2006 Perth Amboy Freshmen Tourney, and win the championship by defeating a Bishop Ahr squad (60-36) with the likes of Matt Fiorino and Matt Sheehy, and were coached by Ahr’s current JV coach, Rocky Prodoscimo.
It was early in the 2007-08 season that, J.P. Stevens, which was ranked 7th in that year’s GMC Hoops Pre-Season Poll, made an early statement by defeating a St. Joseph’s team that was led by sophomore Steve Rennard and junior Nikko Vastola, and ultimately reached the 2008 GMCT Championship as the 6th seed before losing to top seeded Cardinal McCarrick, which was led by the likes of Mike Burwell and Julio Rosario.
On December 20, 2007, Stevens made believers out of many around Central Jersey with a 53-40 victory over Joes. Reuben led the way for the Hawks with a team high 16 points on 7 of 12 shooting from the floor including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc while also collecting 7 rebounding, handing out an assist, and picking up a steal. Rennard led all scorers with a game high 19 points on 7 of 16 shooting including 4 of 8 from downtown. Paul Konopacki, who was also a standout volleyball player for the Falcons, chipped in with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals.
One big difference between the 2007-08 Hawks and the 2008-09 Hawks was its bench and its seniors like Alex Cacoilo and Darnell Sorrell. Sorrell, the older brother of Jalen Sorrell, who played for Stevens a few years later, was an intense individual, who could have trouble keeping his emotions in check, but he not only managed to stay in control, he ended up being perfect by going 6 of 6 from the floor to notch 12 points along with 4 rebounds, a block, and a steal for the Hawks.
Some didn’t expect this year’s Hawks to be in this position this early in the season. However, many of the players on this year’s Stevens squad played on the JPS JV team two years ago that reached the 2017 East Brunswick/GMC JV Tournament Final Four before losing to eventual champion, Piscataway. So, while they lost the likes of the backcourt tandem of Tyrese Conover (College of St. Elizabeth) and Elisha Smith, the North Edison school still had plenty of firepower back with players such as Solomon Smith, Naysean Burch, Kasi Hazzard, and Jamar Williamson.
This year’s group began gathering momentum for this season back in the summer when it ran the table at the 2018 Rahway Summer League with a perfect 13-0 record that included victories over Scotch Plains and Rahway for the league championship. At the start of this season, the Hawks were not too far behind the 2007-08 Hawks in terms of pre-season ranking. Stevens began in the No. 8 spot behind the likes of East Brunswick, Carteret, Piscataway, and Bishop Ahr.
The Hawks opened the season without Hazzard in the lineup, but still managed to come away with a hard fought 36-34 road win at now 10th ranked Monroe. Then, in its second game of the season, Stevens defeated East Brunswick for the first time since the 2009 GMCT Round of 16 when an 11th seeded Hawks team consisting of that core group of Bland, Reuben, Pol, Swinton, and Smith defeated 6th seeded East Brunswick to earn a second straight trip to Middlesex County College and the GMCT Quarterfinals. Prior to 2007-08 and 2008-09, Stevens had only been to the GMCT Elite Eight since 1987, 1989, 1994, and 2004.
The 49-27 win over No. 7 East Brunswick was dominant. The Hawks jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, and kept the Bears, led by the likes of Travis Cumber and Xavier Fitzgerald out of rhythm for the entire contest. Stevens had some struggles with South Brunswick two nights later, but after being tied at the half, the Hawks got going in the final two periods to pull away from the younger Vikings. Perhaps, JPS was thinking ahead to its huge early season matchup against then No. 3 Bishop Ahr because in the game against the Trojans, the Hawks came to play.
Once again, Stevens, behind the play of both Smith and Burch, jumped out to a 14-4 first period lead, and held off several rallies during the course of the rest of the game by Ahr to pick up another upset with a 57-46 victory. In a wild early season that has seen numerous upsets and leaving things wide open this year for a GMCT champion, the Hawks of JPS have profited by climbing several notches in the latest GMC Hoops Top Ten to No. 5 coming into Thursday evenings match-up with the fourth ranked Falcons.
St. Joseph’s, which was pre-season ranked No. 1 by GMC Hoops, had an up and down start over the first week of the season with wins over EB and Monroe, but also being knocked off by then 5th ranked Piscataway on the road (83-68) on December 18th, and then losing a heartbreaker to Non-Public A rival, Seton Hall Prep on December 22nd (51-48) in overtime. The Falcons rebounded over the holiday week with two wins over St. Anthony’s of NY (58-55) and Kellenberg Memorial (57-50) of Long Island in the New York Invitational.
The Falcons return a veteran squad including Tyree Ford, Howard McBurnie, K-Shawn Schulters, Luke Fresco, Matt Cruz, and Ryan Granito along with reserves such as Andrew Olden, Jack Hogarty, and Adam Slawinski, and youngsters such as Kody Robinson and Maurice Johnson. A win gives Stevens a chance to move into the GMC Hoops Top 3 while a Falcons victory keeps them on pace with Colonia, Old Bridge, and Piscataway. GMC Hoops will cover this contest as soon as it can get to the gym after work on Thursday.