By Mark Kitchin
The 2010-11 boys basketball season has long since passed and many of its stars have graduated and moved on, but the finality of it never truly sinks in until the dog days of summer. That’s when the elements of future basketball teams begin to form during the casual leagues and open gyms in and surrounding the Morris County landscape.
Most of the teams that converge to play show little resemblance to the champions that emerge in February and March; the play is raw and mistakes are plentiful. There are times when chaos and disorganization are the norms and everyone is thankful for the running clock more than anything else.
For example, two weeks ago on a court in Hackettstown, Mendham and Roxbury met on a basketball court for the first time since the Morris County Tournament final.
Over the past few years the Hackettstown gym has been the host to twilight games in July with 25-minute running time clocks. Amid the squeaks of sneakers and the whir of electric fans, groups of kids play together and try to develop chemistry before they part for a few months and re-emerge in November when the real fun begins.
There was no sign of Mendham’s determined Tore Vicarisi or Roxbury’s steadfast and dominating Angelo Mangiro. Most of the key players that took the court in the county title game have graduated and are planning futures that have little to do with basketball apart from mindless pick up games or recreation leagues.
However, Roxbury’s Ryan Kelly and Mendham’s Drew Jacobs were there. Dueling point guards, both of them are guaranteed to see major minutes this year while trying to lead their teams.
Mendham was the victor once again by a 35-20 score that nearly rivaled last year’s low scoring tournament final with minutes to spare. At games’ end no titles were won and both teams moved on and realized that they had a long way to go if they wanted to return to that showcase.
“The gym is really hot but we don’t make excuses,’’ Kelly said. We just have to keep playing harder.’’
Roxbury’s Ryan Kelly
Mendham and Roxbury are mainstays on Hackettstown Wednesday’s although a variety of teams come through by invitation.Hopatcong, Immaculata and of course Hackettstown also compete during the summer. The site has become popular and may open up for Monday games in the future, too.
“We played Immaculata last week and they weren’t as good as Mendham,’’ Kelly said. “We stepped up and played hard. We’ve got a lot to work on … on offense and on defense
“We work hard for each other. When I was younger I played a lot with a lot of these guys, so we work well together. We practice a lot. We have to work on our game inside out. Even though we don’t have a big man we have to work on getting the ball inside on dribble drives and hit a small guy posting up or kicking it out.’’
Kelly, going into his junior year, missed a section of last season due to injury, when he returned, head coach Jon Deeb had so much confidence in him that he put him on the court for long and important stretches during the Morris County Tournament and their satisfying run in the states with positive results. He was more of an off-guard then, now he will be involved in running much of the offense.
Roxbury does work offensively from the inside-out, but there’s no Angelo Mangiro or Ike Eloh, to score on the inside or pass it back out for open perimeter shots. The Gaels are young, inexperienced and much smaller but they can’t just take the year off until their players get bigger. They will have to find a way to compete with a smaller lineup, but Kelly is confident he and his teammates will figure it out eventually.
“It’s going to be tough but a lot of guys are coming around,’’ Kelly said. “When we work on our games, we will be alright.’’
On the surface, it doesn’t look like it will be that much easier for Mendham either. Vicarisi became so much of a go-to guy down the stretch of Mendham’s MCT and state tournament runs that it became difficult to imagine how the Minutemen could have ever gone that far without him. Three other starters and some of their bench have also moved on. However, Mendham has won four consecutive county titles and have lost legions of talented players in the past. Jacobs, who is headed for his senior year, is upbeat about the team’s progress and its future.
“I don’t have any expectations,’’ Jacobs said. “We’re going to come in as underdogs. We will assume that role and everyone will assume we lost a bunch of guys. We will be happy to fly under the radar and do whatever it takes.
“We really don’t pay attention to what other people are saying. We go out and play our game and play Mendham basketball and hopefully the results will come after that. If we put in all the hard work in practice and put trust in our coaches and trust in the fans and trust in each other, than there is nothing more that you can ask.’’
Mendham’s Drew Jacobs
Mendham keeps the basketball bouncing during the summer. The Minutemen bring a gang of 12 or 13 hearty souls to one-day camps in places like Bucknell and Dickinson and a larger group is spending a week of scrimmaging at Susquehanna University. Their open gym sessions have occasionally been alumni affairs and former standouts like Robbie Berish or Jeff Schiffner still stop by for a chance to test out the new kids and relive old times.
Although newcomers like Will Gibbs, who did get some time off the bench, and Nick Maguire may not have the scoring ability of Vicarisi, they are capable of pulling down rebounds, taking charges, getting free for backdoor layups and throwing their bodies into any scrap. Jacobs stands out as one of the team’s better long distance shooters but Mendham always seems to find a few more perimeter specialists. Than they will tailor their gameplans to best suit what their group of players can do and by late February people will wonder why anyone ever doubted Jim Baglin’s bunch.
However, there will be plenty of time for that. In the summer, the focus of the players is just scrambling around, learning from each other and having some fun playing basketball in whatever sweaty gym they happen to be playing in at the time.
“You build chemistry on a team and you build on the friendships,’’ Jacobs said. “You can’t quantify the effect that has during the season when you can trust the next guy and you know where the next guy is going to be. You know you can pass the ball to that guy and no one is going to be mad if you take the shot or someone else takes the shot. That’s definitely a big part of what were trying to do here.’’