It’s Time to Give a Hoot for the Owls!

Highland Park Enjoying Best Start to Season in 21 Years

HIGHLAND PARK, NJ – On Saturday, Highland Park defeated J.F. Kennedy in a GMC crossover, 55-50 to improve to 12-3 overall on the season.  The victory equaled the Owls highest season win total in 17 years.  It also represented the school’s best start in 21 years.  The last time Highland Park won a state playoff game was versus Academy Charter on February 28, 2006.  It’s time to give a hoot for the Owls!

Twenty-one years ago, Highland Park was in the midst of completing back to back sectional championships.  Those Owls, which consisted of the likes of Amir White, Tarell Greene, Devren Hunt, Anthony Bey, Al-Tariq Stephenson, and Tim Stark defeated Spotswood in the 2002 Central Jersey Group 1 Championship (66-62) at Piscataway High School on March 5th of that year.

Since then, Highland Park, a school with a very rich history in boys basketball, has pulled a Rip Van Winkle by going into a slumber for the better part of the past two decades.  The last time the Owls had a non-losing season was back in the 2005-06 season when they finished 12-12 overall, and lost to Metuchen in the CJ Group 1 Quarterfinals (68-61).

Last year, Highland Park showed signs of improvement despite finishing 7-18 overall.  The Owls won their first GMCT boys game since defeating Perth Amboy in overtime (54-52) in the 2012 GMCT Play-In round.  The team actually showed some promise a year ago despite competing in the GMC Blue.  The Owls surprised a veteran Middlesex team twice during the regular season, and won three games to finish the season.

However, the Owls lost four players from its starting five including its two top scorers in Ewan Haley-Lock and Matt Brzozowski.  The only returning starter from a year ago was big man Daniel Starcevic, who suffered an injury, and didn’t return to play in 2021-22.  Starcevic played very well for HPHS during the off-season, and his solid play has continued into the 2022-23 season.

Through Saturday, Starcevic leads the Owls in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots with 234 total points, 161 rebounds, and 58 blocks, and is averaging 15.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game.  Sophomores Jayden Guadalupe and Marcos Hantsoulis have been steady contributors with Guadalupe leading the team in steals and both averaging 11.1 and 7.4 points per game.  Hantsoulis is also 2nd on the team in rebounds (8.7 rpg).

Highland Park’s roster also has a very talented group of freshmen that have had an immediate impact.  Cooper Ballentine, Evan Brzozowski, Kyaire Carreker, Kostatinos Hantsoulis, Evangelos E Kambitsis, and Jared Matos have all seen some sort of action this year, and have contributed.  Ballentine has played in all 15 games for the Owls, leads the team in threes, and is averaging 4.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steals per contest.

Junior forward Jowan Keyes is 3rd on the team in scoring behind Starcevic and Guadalupe with 8.4 points per game, and is 3rd on the team in rebounds with an average of 5.0 per contest.  Sophomore Ethan Chen is another youngster that has been contributing as of late.  In 12 games, Chen is averaging 3.5 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.

Most recently, Chen collected 13 points, 3 rebounds, and a steal in a 63-55 win over Somerset Tech on January 20th, and 12 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a block in an 85-49 win over East Brunswick Magnet on January 23rd.  Seniors Philip Wilson (3.7 ppg and 1.2 spg in 10 games) and Evangelos Kambitsis (3.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, and 1.0 apg in 6 games) also returned from a year ago, and provide experience.

One key to the Owls resurgence is their improvement in scoring defense.  A year ago, Highland Park gave up an average of 51.8 points per game to rank 9th in the GMC.  So far this season, HPHS ranks 4th in the conference by giving up only 48.2 points per game.  The Owls have also benefited from the new conference realignment, which placed them in the GMC Gold this season.

The last time Highland Park won a GMC division title in boys basketball was the 1998-99 season when both White and Greene were freshmen.  Currently, the Owls are not only 12-3 overall, but are also 9-1 in Gold Division play, a game behind Calvary Christian.  The Owls only division loss came at the hands of the Lions (54-50) on January 11th at the Immaculate Conception Youth Center in Spotswood.

Highland Park has another match-up with Calvary Christian this week in Highland Park, but the Owls must win two other games before then.  First, HPHS hosts an improving Dunellen team on Monday night in Highland Park.  Then, the Owls travel to South Amboy on Wednesday to face off against a South Amboy squad that has won 9 of its last 13 games since starting the season 0-2.

It is about time to give a hoot about the Highland Park Owls, a program that is back on the right track after two decades in the wilderness.  So for those of you living in Highland Park, who haven’t seen this team play.  Now, might be a good time to head over the HPHS, and check out this improved team.