By Mark Kitchin
DENVILLE – All good teams like to be challenged but there aren’t many teams that will go out of the way to take the type of challenge that Morris Knolls did last week when it played nationally ranked St. Anthony (Jersey City) on Dec. 23.
As expected the Golden Eagles lost but otherwise emerged no worse for wear and perhaps learned a little bit about themselves in the process which could help as the season progresses. Morris Knolls opened up its holiday tournament with a 74-39 triumph over Warren Hills on Tuesday. The Golden Eagles will play Jefferson – a 59-45 winner over Parsippany Hills – on Wednesday in the final of the two-day tournament.
Morris Knolls led from beginning to end on Tuesday. The Golden Eagles created turnovers with full-court pressure and took advantage of the height of Kevin Miller (6-foot-7) and Niko Kotoulas (6-foot-5) around the basket. Morris Knolls guard Esaun Mobley finished with 20 points and Kotoulas with 18 for the Golden Eagles (3-1).Warren Hills, which made the state tournament and was eliminated by Mendham last year, dropped to 0-4.
Morris Knolls Esaun Mobley pressures a Warren Hils guard during Tuesday’s holiday tournament action.
The most remarkable thing about Morris Knolls’ game with nationally ranked St. Anthony of Jersey City is that the game was initiated by the Golden Eagles’ players. St. Anthony had an open date and usually has difficulty finding local opponents, especially at the public school level that are willing to travel to Jersey Cityto play them. The Friars were more than happy to add them to the schedule.
“We wanted to face the challenge,’’ Mobley said. “We wanted the competition.
“I thought it would help our team in general. It would help us get ready for this county.’’
“We wanted to play the top kids in the nation and see where we stand against them,’’ Kotoulas added. “I just thought it was a great experience to play against them and to play against top caliber kids. They are going on full rides to every school in the country.’’
St. Anthony played its home game on the court of a charter school not far from the Jersey City high school. The gym packed about 350 and provided a lively atmosphere. The only difficulty Morris Knolls had in making the date was obtaining the 100 tickets promised to the school in order to give them to the fans. However, even that was a minor problem. Morris Knolls coach Ken Ferrare was thrilled for his players to be able to have such an opportunity.
“As a coach it was a blast,’’ Ferrare said. “My seniors are a mature group and they wanted it and basically out of respect for them you want it. We made the phone call to set up and surprisingly they had an opening and it worked. I’ve seen Bob Hurley many times, always as a clinic speaker. You are talking about one of the best high school coaches of all time. You are talking about four big, strong, Division I scholarship athletes. It was another level of basketball. This particular year — even though they hammered us — I think it worked out well. The kids learned a lot.’’
Morris Knoll’s Kevin Miller puts up a shot against Warren Hills’ Ryan Callahan. Miller scored eight points and also helped on the boards in the Golden Eagles triumph.
The Morris Knolls players knew a win would be difficult if not impossible (the final score was 91-38) but they found that in some circumstances that they could compete with the St. Anthony players.
“Our top three seniors could play with them,’’ Mobley said. “It’s nothing new, you just have to play. … Their 10th man could come to Morris County, play anywhere and be a superstar.’’
The Morris Knolls players also gained some confidence and learned a little bit about competing against opponents on the storied basketball program.
“It didn’t feel like we were getting blown out,’’ Kotoulas said. “It was just that they were so big. … Every kid playing there wants to play basketball. Every kid they have wanted to go to the next level.’’
Esaun Mobley scored 20 points to lead all scorers in the Morris Knolls victory over Warren Hills in holiday tournament play.
The lessons learned certainly didn’t hurt on Tuesday against the Blue Streaks of Warren Hills. Morris Knolls took care of business early. The Golden Eagles led 22-8 in the first quarter and built a 42-14 halftime advantage. Morris Knolls substituted liberally and worked on some elements in the second half before emptying their bench.
Much is expected out of this year’s team, considered one of the best amid decades of struggle. The Golden Eagles are determined to find out how good they are and how much they can improve.
“We have Seton Hall Prep coming up,’’ Ferrare said. “We have Passaic County Tech coming up. Mendham is a typical powerhouse in the county. There are plenty of good strong games coming up. We know it’s a long season. It’s so far, so good.’’