If I had told you at any point from 2010 to 2017 that the 2020s decade would start off with a dominant team ranked in the top ten in the state led by a future ACC player, and that the team would be led by a coach named Turco and be bolstered by Jerry Smith as athletic director, you wouldn’t have bat an eye. “Of course that would happen,” you’d have said. After all, the first eight years of the last decade were defined by just that, with Dave Turco leading the charge at St. Joseph and Jerry Smith at his side.
Through those eight years, the Falcons took home seven GMC tournament titles, won three Non Public A state titles, reached the TOC final twice, and took home Middlesex County’s first ever TOC title in 2014 with arguably the most talented team in state history led by the GMC’s greatest ever player in Karl-Anthony Towns. Turco sent five players to play high major college basketball, and a sixth, in Marques Townes, who would play a starring role on a Final Four team at Loyola of Chicago. His was a run of success that has never been replicated in Middlesex County, and we expected never would be.
During that same period, the school that shares the same street as St. Joseph started the 2010s off with success of its own, just not quite at the same level. The Bishop Ahr Trojans capped off a run of five consecutive Blue division titles in 2012, and were led by the unmistakable Dennis O’Keefe, who saw his side earn a #3 seed in the 2010 GMC tournament, and reach the semifinals in 2011 (both tournaments won, of course, by Joes).
The next four years, however, saw the Trojans in the middle of the county pack, posting winning records in conference and division play, but in the weaker Blue division mustered up seeds of 15th, 13th, 18th, and 16th from 2013-2016. In 2013 and 2016, the first round of the GMC tournament saw the Plainfield Road rivals square off in little more than squash matches, as the scrappy Trojans were no match for teams which both boasted those year’s NJ Gatorade Player of the Year in Towns and Tyus Battle respectively.
A 66-39 loss in 2013 and an unconscionable 72-17 defeat in 2016 were mere formalities. After O’Keefe’s retirement, 2017 saw things start to shift for Bishop Ahr, as they managed to earn a #7 seed in the tournament only to fall victim to a upset defeat at the hands of #10 Kennedy. They too were on the sidelines as St. Joseph captured its seventh title in eight years.
But time has a funny way of playing tricks on us. Jerry Smith and Dave Turco were shockingly let go at Joes leading up to the 2018 season. Mike Thompson stepped in and led the Falcons to two more GMC titles, making it nine out of ten. Joes, however, did not win those titles in the same dominant fashion we had been used to seeing, doing so last year as the three seed, its lowest since 2008.
After a successful 2018 which saw the Trojans produce the county’s player of the year in Alex Santiago, Bishop Ahr, amidst major coaching instability, made what could turn out to be an all-time great hire leading into last season, bringing in Bob Turco, the brother of Dave, and a highly successful coach in his own right, both at Notre Dame of Lawrenceville and previously at Monroe, where he fell to his brother in the 2010 GMC final. Turco brought in a largely brand new group to pair with budding star Quadry Adams, and despite a quarterfinal loss, the future looked ever so bright going forward.
But nobody could have expected what was to come this past offseason. First, the retirement of longtime Bishop Ahr athletic director Mike Wolfthal, and the hiring of, guess who, Jerry Smith to take his place. In July, I reported the shocking news that Mike Thompson had been let go at Joes despite his two GMC titles in his two seasons.
Jan Cocozziello takes over as head coach of a team with a tremendous backcourt in 2019 GMC Tournament MVP Tyree Ford and K-Shawn Schulters, and in a normal year would have the pedigree to win it all again. But this is not a normal year, as Bishop Ahr, which has since reverted back to its original name of St. Thomas Aquinas, has assembled a video game roster of talented prospects. Consider what my preseason All GMC team looks like below.
Preseason All GMC Team (Alphabetical)
Quadry Adams (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Ayhan Brown-Miller (New Brunswick)
Tyree Ford (St. Joseph)
Tahjay Moore (New Brunswick)
Devin Strickland (South Brunswick)
Derrick Grant (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Jaquan Harris (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Kyree Henry (St. Thomas Aquinas)
K-Shawn Schulters (St. Joseph)
Sean Williams (Old Bridge)
Harris is a sophomore transfer from the Patrick School (where his brother Jamir starred) with offers from Rutgers and Auburn. Henry starred last season at Woodbridge, being named the GMC Hoops sophomore of the year in the process. Grant is an excellent athlete and a rebounding machine who played a key role for the Trojans last season.
Not even on this list is Tristian Jeffries, a junior transfer from Gill St. Bernards with offers from Bryant, Columbia, and Stony Brook. Jeffries has to sit the first 30 days of the season after transferring, thus the omission. The productive Jalen Jones returns as well, along with a litany of transfers as well as the core of a JV team that was the top seed of the 2019 East Brunswick/GMC JV Tournament last year. And then of course, there’s….
Preseason Player of the Year: Quadry Adams (St. Thomas Aquinas)
It says a lot about someone, especially in this day and age, to stick it out through thick and thin. Adams played for three different head coaches in his first three years in North Edison, and is undoubtedly a player that would have been desired at any of the parochial powers in New Jersey. Instead, he remained at the school which, until last season, had not won a state game since 1981. Everything looks to pay off this year for Adams, who committed to Wake Forest in the offseason, as he will be the catalyst of one of the state’s best sides. At 6-3, he has the size, speed, and strength to dominate on both sides of the ball, and the athleticism to electrify at the rim.
All the pieces are in place for Aquinas to dominate, not just this year, but for the years to come. A matchup between Aquinas and St. Joseph on January 5th at Kean will be one of the most anticipated regular season games in GMC history, and could serve as either a passing of the torch, or a reminder that the king stays the king. Of course, none of that will matter unless the Trojans take home their first GMC crown since 1992. But Bob Turco may also be thinking bigger, and no one could blame him. If things stay true to form, the 2020s could look a lot like the 2010s.
Leading Returning Career Scorers (as put together by Greg Machos)
Tyje’ Kelton Dunellen 1,369
Brien Dunphy Calvary Christian 1,247
Ahyan Brown-Miller New Brunswick 1,167
Tyree Ford St. Joseph’s 935
Drew Johnson Dunellen 811
Quadry Adams St. Thomas Aquinas 739
Jayvon Taylor New Brunswick 603
Kyree Henry Woodbridge 587
Devin Strickland South Brunswick 563
K-Shawn Schulters St. Joseph’s 525
Tahjay Moore New Brunswick 456
Kelvin Maria Perth Amboy Tech 433
Alvari Myha Wardlaw-Hartridge 419
Ryan DeLaCuesta Old Bridge 418
Kelvin Diaz Perth Amboy Tech 413
Donovan Crawford North Brunswick 399
Andrew Turco Monroe 370
Nate Aviles Timothy Christian 369
Ny’dir Harmon New Brunswick 342
Akhil Edekar South Brunswick 341
Jordan Horowitz East Brunswick Tech 325
Justin Carbone South Brunswick 324
Quasim Jackson Perth Amboy 320
Derrick Grant St. Thomas Aquinas 293
My Preseason Top Ten
Before I begin, here is the usual disclaimer that these are just my personal thoughts and not the official GMC Hoops top ten.
10. Dunellen (20-7, 15-1 Gold, #8 seed, 1st Round)
Is this the year where the Gold Division winner can break through and reach the quarterfinal round? The Destroyers may have the best opportunity to do so in some time, returning the 1-2 combo of the 6-5 Tyje Kelton and talented guard Drew Johnson, who together have combined for 2180 career points. Kelton averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds last season, while Johnson as a sophomore averaged 17 points. A challenge for the Gold could come from the likes of Wardlaw-Hartridge and Timothy Christian, but if all breaks right, Dunellen could be the first Gold Division champ since South Amboy in 2008 to reach Super Sunday, and success in North 2 Group 1 could follow.
9. Edison (11-13, 6-6 White, #11 seed, Preliminary Round)
Losing the likes of Christian Wantong and Thomas Johnson stings, but Charlie Mohr’s Eagles will look to replicate the success of their last two seasons, their best in some time, with the tough and talented Emmanuel Davila leading the way. Per usual, all eyes will be on the City of Light Classic between Edison and J.P. Stevens on January 13.
8. Monroe (17-11, 7-7 Red, #7 seed, Quarterfinals)
The rebuilding of the Falcons was complete last season, when 2nd team All GMC Joshua Daniels led them to a solid regular season capped off by a shock state tournament win over Old Bridge. Daniels and running mate Michael Kides are gone, but Andrew Turco should step right into that lead role and shine for a very underrated coach in Jeff Warner.
7. Piscataway (18-11, 9-5 Red, #5 seed, Finals)
The Chiefs’ surprising run to the GMC final last season confirmed what we already knew about Darius Griffin, that he is among the elite coaches in Middlesex County. He graduated twelve seniors from last year, but we’ve heard this story before. The Chiefs don’t rebuild, they reload.
6. Colonia (24-5, 12-0 White, #2 seed, Semifinals, North 2 Group 3 Champs)
The Patriots lose two first team all county performers in GMC Hoops Player of the Year Chad Baker and Luke Valeriano, but Jose Rodriguez need not worry with the athletic Jimmy Frage leading the way. Keep an eye on sophomore guard Jordan Derkack. He was put in several key varsity situations last year and never flinched, and led the JV Pats to the championship game. He and others will need to step up for Colonia to repeat as White Division champions.
5. Old Bridge (21-5, 13-1 Red, #1 seed, Quarterfinals)
The Knights made history last season, winning its first ever Red Division title and being named the top seed in the GMC tournament. The catalysts for that run in Julius Belton, Jared Meyer, and Mike Oliva are gone, but all-around stud Sean Williams remains along with sharpshooter Ryan Delacuesta. Jim Macomber should have his team contending for championships once more.
4. New Brunswick (17-8, 8-4 White, #9 seed, Semifinals)
Many are going to have the Zebras higher than #4 coming in. Samir Sanu’s side is loaded, returning perhaps the conference’s best guard in Ayhan Brown-Miller, alone with maybe its best big man in Tahjay Moore. Nearly everyone is back from their shocking and controversial run to the GMC tournament semifinals last year. They are the favorites to win their first White Division title since 2002, but if they can put it all together, more can be accomplished perhaps in Central Group 4. But the key question is whether or not they can gel and play within themselves. A December 28 matchup against my #3 team looms incredibly large in answering that question.
3. South Brunswick (12-13, 7-7 Red, #10 seed, 1st Round)
Devin Strickland and Justin Carbone lead the way for a Vikings team that may have been a year ahead of schedule last year, and brings nearly everyone back. Strickland, just a junior, is as good as they come in the GMC, as is head coach Joe Hoehman, who did not have to rebuild for very long after a down 2018. An opening night clash with Old Bridge, and the aforementioned meeting with New Brunswick will show just where the Vikings are in the early going.
2. St. Joseph (19-9, 10-4 Red, #3 seed, GMCT Champion)
“On paper, the Trojans have the best roster in the county next year, and there is no reason they cannot win it all. Quadry Adams is a legitimate star, and their young team this year was loaded with talent. Does that mean there is any chance that St. Joes will not be #1? Of course not! The Falcons have earned the benefit of the doubt despite graduating three starters.” – Me in last year’s season recap.
I once vowed to never doubt the Falcons again. I broke that vow last year and paid for it. In fact, I’ve broken that vow in all three years I’ve been doing this, and paid for it all three times. Simply put, I don’t feel great about putting the winners of nine of the last ten GMC titles at #2. They return the county’s best backcourt in Tyree Ford and K-Shawn Schulters, and have the pedigree to carry the day no matter how many starters they lost from last season. There is more than enough talent currently at the Maglio Gymnasium to take the title in most years. But this is not most years. On January 5th, all arguments will be settled as #1 battles #2 in a possible GMC Final preview at Kean. The Red Division schedule will not be a cakewalk either.
1. St. Thomas Aquinas (21-7, 12-0 Blue, #4 seed, Quarterfinals)
Lost in all the hype surrounding the Trojans is the doomed fate of the rest of the Blue Division. Carteret boasts a promising junior in Starrell Hearns, but the Ramblers were hit hard by graduation. Overall, despite quality new faces coming in at Middlesex and Metuchen, the division is weaker than it was last season, which is scary considering how the Trojans romped through their twelve games, with two four point wins over Carteret being the only near blemishes. Their non conference schedule is beefed considerably, but they should win all of their division games by an average of 30 points or more. Next year should see a promotion to the White, or even dare I say, the Red.
And we must not forget the exploits of the STA girls team, who just might be the favorites to win the Tournament of Champions this season, led by St. Joseph’s commit Emma Boslet and Georgetown commit Kelsey Ransom. The Trojans bring back their entire starting lineup from last season’s dominant 25-4 march to a GMC title.
Enjoy the season everyone! And make sure to tune in Friday night for the traditional season opening clash between #2 St. Joseph and East Brunswick live on YouTube and/or Facebook Live courtesy of RDPlex Films! Stay tuned to @GMCHoops and @RealCorrigan on Twitter for more details. And keep an eye out for a possible best of the 2010s recap….