GMC Hoops Looks Back at the Last Public School GMCT Final
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—This time next spring, it will be the 15 year anniversary of the 2006 GMCT Final, which is a Championship Game that has a lot of meaning in more ways than one. First and foremost, it was the last ever public school Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament Championship. Second, it was the last GMCT Final that had a Group I school compete for a county/conference championship. Finally, it was the last GMCT Final for Colonia head coach, Ken Pace, who was one of only two coaches to win GMC boys titles at two different schools.
On February 23, 2006, second seeded Colonia, a team that had reached the GMCT Final Four each of the previous two seasons, took on top seeded Metuchen, which was playing in its first GMCT Championship Game since 1988 when Larry Spigner rallied the sixth seeded Bulldogs past top seeded St. Peter’s of New Brunswick (55-53) to win the title in overtime. Both teams had their share of obstacles to overcome to get to this moment.
First, Metuchen, which was the top seed, had to overtake three time defending GMC Blue Champion, 2003 GMCT Champ, and 2003 and 2005 Non-Public B South Champion, Cardinal McCarrick in the Blue Division. Then, the Bulldogs had to overcome the likes of big schools such as Woodbridge in the Round of 16, East Brunswick in the Elite Eight, and an upstart Monroe squad in overtime in the Final Four before getting the opportunity to play Colonia.
The Bulldogs, which had begun to rebuild under the guidance of Lenny Reyes in 2003 and 2004, and shocked 2003 Central Jersey Group I champ, 2003 and 2004 GMC Gold winner, and then 8th seeded Piscataway Tech as the 25th seed in the 2004 GMCT Preliminary Round, made a storied run to the 2005 Central Jersey Group I Final as the 3rd seed before losing to Florence (64-50) at Piscataway High School under new head coach Rich Stoner.
Coached by Stoner, now in his second year at the school, Metuchen had a young and talented squad that included the likes of juniors Lamar Nichols and Jon Brown, sophomore Dejuan Miller, and seniors Nick Starts, Steven Thomas and Marqus Blakely. Miller, who was also a football standout, who went on to play NCAA D1 football at Oklahoma, eventually ended up third in the school’s all time boys basketball scoring list with 1,390 points while Blakely emerged as a star over his last two seasons, especially when he grew between his junior and senior years.
Blakely, who eventually played D1 basketball at the University of Vermont of the American East Conference, signed with the L.A. Clippers as an un-drafted free agent, played in what is now the NBA G-League before making himself an international basketball star in the Philippines as well as playing in South Korea, Japan, and Germany, came into his senior year listed as 6’3” after being under 6 feet the year before. The growth spurt, coupled with his tremendous athleticism and ability, made Blakely a player to watch in 2005-06.
Meanwhile, Colonia was going through a bit of a transition. After losing to South Plainfield in the 2005 GMCT Final Four at Middlesex County College, and falling to Newark Shabazz in the 2005 North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship at Woodbridge High School, the Patriots lost all time leading scorer, Nick Smith (1,672 points) to graduation. In addition, dynamic junior point guard, Zach Rosen, transferred to St. Benedict’s to play his last two years there before playing four years at Penn, and then professionally in Israel. The Pats still had plenty of talent though to contend.
Colonia still had veterans like seniors Nick Allan, Vinnie Darpino (Union County College and Kean before playing professionally in France and Italy), Chineme Usuwa, Stephen Brown (Rowan College of Burlington County), and a very talented and athletic Nick Totin returning along with South River transfer, Joe LaSala, the son of then football coach, and now Colonia AD, Ben LaSala, joining the team while athletic juniors Kevin Edmonds and Sal McClain were coming up.
The younger LaSala, who is now the head football coach at Woodbridge, was a key figure on the 2004-05 South River team that lost to Metuchen in the CJ Group 1 semifinals. Stepping in for Rosen at the point guard position was sophomore Brandon Hall, who had been waiting in the wings, and been on the GMC Hoops radar since seeing him play at the Raritan Bay Summer League in 2004.
Hall, who eventually played Division I at St. Peter’s University, came back to be an assistant coach at Woodbridge before returning to Colona as a head coach and guiding the Patriots to the 2018 GMCT Final as the first school to ever make it there as a 7th seed before losing in heartbreaking fashion to top seeded and defending champion, St. Joseph’s, endured some struggles early on, but improved as the 2005-06 season moved along, and was a big reason for Colonia’s title run.
Despite having their share of moments, Metuchen was still a fun team to watch, and brought an up-tempo style and entertaining brand of basketball. The Bulldogs opened the season with 8 straight wins including victories at Bishop Ahr (75-54), and over A.L. Johnson (72-58) and Hanover Park (68-59) to win the Roselle Park Holiday Tourney Championship. Capping the early season run, Blakely had a plethora of dunks and the Bulldogs dominated arch rival, Highland Park in the first half to take a 20 plus point lead before defeating the Owls (70-64) on January 9th in Metuchen.
After losing to South Jersey Group 4 powerhouse, Atlantic City (74-56), which eventually lost to Linden in the 2006 Group 4 State Championship at Rutgers, in a high school basketball showcase at CBA on January 14th, Metuchen faced its first GMC test as it hosted Cardinal McCarrick in a mid-season Blue Division showdown at the Dog Pound in Metuchen. In a roller coaster, back and forth, and thrilling battle, McCarrick led late before Lamar Nichols sank a 35 foot buzzer beater to lift the Bulldogs past the Eagles, 67-65.
The last second win over McCarrick gave Metuchen even more confidence, and sparked a 12 game winning streak that brought the Bulldogs to the precipice of a GMC Championship. The streak included a second win over Bishop Ahr (70-55) at home on January 23rd, and a 66-57 win on the road in South Amboy over McCarrick for a season sweep of the Eagles and Metuchen’s first division title since 1987. The win streak continued through the first three rounds of the 2006 GMCT with victories over Woodbridge (71-61), East Brunswick (62-56), and Monroe (69-63) in overtime.
Over in Colonia, the Patriots got off on the wrong foot with losses in two of its first three games. In a game that was covered and featured by GMC Hoops, the Patriots, pre-season ranked 4th fell to Monroe, which came into the season pre-season ranked 9th with new head coach Bob Turco and top player, A.J. Rudowitz. Turco, who had previously served as an assistant to his younger brother Dave at Carteret and South Brunswick, took the Falcons head coaching job while Dave took over at St. Joseph’s.
Rudowitz, who eventually went on to play at NCAA D2 Stonehill College in Massachusetts before playing in Germany for ASC Theresianum Mainz as a rookie, and then finishing his career with SC Rasta Vechta, became the all time leading scorer at Manroe High School with 1,536 and led the Falcons to their first ever GMCT Final Four and sectional final in 2006. Another standout player was back for St. Joseph’s as Sean Baptiste returned for his senior year along with fellow Falcons teammate Kenny Widgeon
Both Baptiste (played D1 hoops at FDU) and Widgeon led a St. Joseph’s team that surpassed the 2004-05 team’s win total, won the GMC Red, and reached the Non-Public A South semifinals after a thrilling four overtime win at 3rd seeded Holy Spirit of Absecon (94-92), but the Falcons would fall short in the 2006 GMCT Semifinals. Both Monroe and St. Joseph’s reached the GMCT Semifinals in 2006, and competed in a riveting Final Four.
Following a 55-43 victory over North Brunswick at home on December 20, 2005, Colonia hosted Cardinal McCarrick at home two days later, and fell to the Eagles (67-64) to give the Patriots a 1-2 record after three games. The Pats wouldn’t lose much after that as they would win 22 of their last 24 games. Colonia would first win 12 straight including a 52-49 victory at St. Joseph’s on January 14th before losing to crosstown rival Woodbridge, 51-48 in overtime at home on January 26th.
After the overtime loss to the Barrons, Colonia rebounded by not losing another conference game the rest of the season. The Patriots reeled off another 10 straight wins that would not only get them the GMCT crown, but also to the 2006 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 semifinals. During the win streak, Colonia won back to back games over Sayreville including the GMCT Round of 16, second and third wins over New Brunswick including the GMCT Quarterfinals, and a second win over St. Joseph’s (59-56) in the GMCT Final Four.
Metuchen had erased all doubt about how good a basketball team it was when it not only defeated 8th seeded and Group IV power, East Brunswick in the GMC Red in the Elite Eight, but also outlasting a determined Group 3 school and White Division co-champ Monroe team in the Final Four. Late in regulation, Monroe forced the extra session on a clutch drive through the middle for a scoop shot layup from Vinny Mahmoud, but Jon Brown came up with a huge charge and made three free throws in the extra session to propel the Bulldogs to the Championship.
In the 2006 GMCT Final, Colonia got a solid game from Tourney MVP Jeff Totin while Hall orchestrated the offense with plays such as a nice baseline drive for a score in the first half, and then a kickoff to Darpino for a clutch second half three. Meanwhile, the Patriots defense made things very difficult for the Bulldogs by limiting them under 50 points although Blakely managed to get a steal for a score while being fouled and Starts got a bucket in the paint in the first half. The Pats limited Miller to just two points, which came on a putback in the second half. As a result, Colonia, which outscored Metuchen in every quarter including a 34-27 showing in the 2nd half, won its second title under Pace, and fourth all time up to that point with a 55-46 victory.
Both teams wouldn’t have much success in terms of sectional titles in the state playoffs. After defeating Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the Quarterfinals (52-43), Colonia would fall in a heartbreaker at home to Newark Westside in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Semifinals to finish the season at 23-4 overall including a 12-2 mark in the GMC White for a share of the division title with Monroe. Meanwhile, Metuchen would reach the Central Jersey Group I Championship Game at Franklin High School.
After defeating Highland Park for the 3rd time that season (68-61) in the Quarterfinals, and avenging the 2005 sectional final loss by defeating defending sectional champ, Florence (58-45) in the Semifinals, Metuchen took on Bordentown of Burlington County in the 2006 CJ Group 1 Final. The Scotties, led by Sam Duffie, and coached by Mark Drew, rallied from a 55-47 third quarter deficit with a 28-18 surge to hand the Bulldogs a heartbreaking, 75-73 defeat. Metuchen finished the season at 22-3 including an unblemished 14-0 record to win the GMC Blue crown as well as the 2006 GMC Hoops Trophy.
Following the 2005-06 season, Pace stepped down as coach at Colonia to take an administrative position in the Woodbridge Township School District. Chris Chiera, who played for Pace when he was a junior and senior at Colonia, and won a Central Jersey Group 3 Championship with him in 1995, became the new head coach, and would lead the Pats to another division crown as well as a 2007 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship. Metuchen never returned to the GMCT Elite Eight after that, and only reached the CJ Group 1 semis in 2007.
There has not been a Group 1 school in the GMCT Championship Game since 2006. As a matter of fact, no public school smaller than Group 3 has since played in the GMCT Final. Meanwhile, at least one of the following Non-Public schools: Bishop Ahr (now St. Thomas Aquinas), Cardinal McCarrick (no longer in existence, and St. Joseph’s) has played in a GMCT Championship Game every year since the 2005-06 season. Believe it or not though, there hasn’t been an All Non-Public GMCT Championship Game since the 2007-08 season, and that will be the next GMC Hoops Backstory.