Morris County Boys Basketball Preview

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball.

It’s on the list of basketball coaches’ worst nightmares. When Todd Hartman got the call about a football injury to Hanover Park’s Jimmy Sivolella from one of his friends, he didn’t take it seriously at first.

“Don’t even joke about a thing like that,’’ he said to his friend over the phone.

“No, really,’’ the voice replied. “They are sending a chopper to pick him up.’’

Sivolella, the Hornets football quarterback, linebacker and kicker was injured when he was knocked down while getting off a punt. The result was a serious knee injury and up to 10 months of rehab. Sivolella averaged 19 points a game for the Hornets last season and was eyeing to move past the 1,000-point mark in three varsity seasons. Hanover Park is considered to be one of the better teams in the county this year. Hartman believes that hasn’t changed in spite of losing Sivolella.

The basketball season starts today. Randolph, Chatham, Mount Olive, Mendham, Mountain Lakes and Whippany Park and a host of other teams are gearing up for highly successful seasons. Hanover Park is also in that group. They were the winners of the Morris Knolls Summer League and many of the players still have the memory of a bitter upset loss to West Essex in state tournament play fresh in their minds. The question remains whether Sivolella’s injury becomes a fatal blow to the season or a rallying cry?

“Losing Jimmy — it’s been tough on us in a lot of ways,’’ Hartman said. “Replacing his statistics and what he brings on the floor is going to be a huge chore. My biggest thing has been to tell the guys early on that we don’t need one person to bring all 19 of those points back. There is not going to be one guy that replaces him. More important it’s the day to day (energy) that he brings in practice.’’

It’s not just points that Sivolella brings to the court. He brought intangibles that only the best athletes bring to the game. He makes everyone better. Everyone was saddened to see him get hurt.

“He’s a throwback,’’ Hartman said. “He was the last of the true 3-sport athletes that is dominant on every sport. He’s not just on the team. … He played shortstop in baseball, two-guard, leading scorer on the basketball team and the middle linebacker and quarterback on the football team. Those are about the most coveted positions a kid can play.

“We had two types of guys on our team. We had guys that either competed harder because they wanted to be as good as him or we had guys that competed harder because they didn’t want to let him down.’’

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                                    Hanover Park’s Jimmy Sivolella (Photo by Mark Kitchin

Word carried fast that Sivolella would not be playing basketball this year. When the team had its first pre-season meeting, Hartman brought everyone together including Sivolella to discuss matters.

“Jimmy was standing by my side the first practice when I addressed the team,’’ Hartman said. “The first thing I said was our goals haven’t changed. We lost a great player. We lost a great leader. In many ways we lost the heart and soul of this team, but he’s not gone. He’s right here next to me. His expectations for you are still the same and it would be a shame if collectively we didn’t do everything in our power to make sure that we all get what we came here for. A testament to the impact he has had on us was to do what we were supposed to do anyway.’’

Hartman had to convince his players that no one athlete was going to step up to fill Sivolella’s sneakers, they all had to do it. Last year’s point guard Brendan Rudolph will probably move to the two-spot and have Nick Burbella, a natural point, fill his role on the court. Hartman has also seen several kids step up their games including Jaquill Scott, an athletic performer with great quickness.

Hanover Park also has four juniors that are fighting for more varsity minutes. As for Sivolella, he was selected one of the captains and he will continue to be involved with the team as much as he likes. His loss to the Hornets meant everything and nothing. Hanover Park is not going to change anything technically because he can’t play and it is going to perform the way it expects to because the athletes are playing with him in mind.

“We are still going to play the way we play,’’ Hartman said. “We are going to press and play up tempo. We always emphasize defense anyway, so we are going to hope that our guys embrace what we want them to do.’’

LIBERTY DIVISION

Hanover Park and Whippany Park open up against each other today. They should be the top teams in the reshuffled Liberty. Along with the Hornets talented guards, Matt Williams, Matt Geisser, Nick Marucci and Max Reynolds give Hanover Park a variety of options up front. Whippany Park has four returning starters coming back from last year’s 17-7 squad. The young Wildcats are growing up quick. A. J. Halloran and Jake Waddon can score, rebound and get things done. Ricky Tango fulfills many roles at guard and Ken Jones rebounds well and gets points in the paint. Everything has changed in Madison. Most of the key members of last year’s 20-win team have graduated and guard Justin Goodwin has opted to focus on football and did not come out for hoops. The Dodgers will rally around Sean Haughey and Devin Koep. Last year’s coach Billy Librera has moved on to be the Chatham athletic director. His replacement Mike Radzieski played college ball at Hofstra and was an assistant coach at Randolph last year. Morristown-Beard also lost a lot to graduation and first team All-Morris County athlete Chris Jenkins has transferred to Gill St. Bernard’s. Center Justin Stiles and guards Malik Valentine and Ben O’Connell will be back to help but it is clearly a rebuilding year. Parsippany coach Byron Hamby, in his second season, has a better handle on his team after being able to work with them in the offseason. The Red Hawks are a junior laden squad. Guard Leonard Lee and forwards Lionel Chambers, Tyler Cecere and Doug Finkle are a year older and stronger. Their development could lead to more victories. Dover hasn’t had a winning season in over a decade but it does have the tallest player in Morris County. The Tigers list David Bollok at 7-foot-1. With only one returning starter, the varsity squad will have to overcome its inexperience.

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                                   Whippany Park’s A. J. Halloran (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

INDEPENDENCE  DIVISION

Mountain Lakes seems to be the favorite but teams in Pequannock and Kinnelon aren’t that far behind. The Lakers will miss Ethan Lubowicz, who averaged 21 points and eight rebounds a game. They did graduate nine seniors but there are some returnees they can build upon. Paul Tarnawski is a good inside player and Chris Herring can fire it up from the perimeter. Kinnelon is one of many teams that may start slow but reap the benefits of a successful football season. Sean Robbins, Sean Walsh and Evan Argirou will be a confident trio once they get into basketball shape. Robbins is capable of breaking the 1,000-point mark for his career. Until he got hurt mid-year last season, R.J. Gianetti was a rebounding machine. He had 25 in one game and 20-plus in two others. Pequannock has some tall players up front. Kevin Glynn, Kurt Weinmann and sophomore Ian Campbell are 6-foot-4 or taller and having point guard Nick LaPorta return after a year of varsity experience gives the Golden Panthers an advantage in experience over many teams. Brandon Mefford is the new coach at Butler. The Pope John alum and Bulldogs assistant last season is encouraged by the Bulldogs’ effort. Six-foot-six Billy White has a long wingspan and point guard Nick Ballestreri received valuable experience last year. The rebuilding process at Morris Catholic continues. The Crusaders will use a lot of kids and C.J. Drury and Andre Spruell are athletes that could break out. Boonton was 1-21 last year. The Bombers are young and small but seem to be more basketball savvy and with a little luck could catch teams by surprise late in the season.

FREEDOM DIVISION

This has basically become the SCIL version of the NJAC with Jefferson it’s only Morris County competitor. The Falcons suffered graduating losses but should field a team capable of contending for the division title. Six-foot-four Kevin Silverstein, Bryan Langan and Vinnie Ginefra all had court time on the varsity level last year. It will be fun to watch football quarterback J. R. Reese and see how his athletic abilities on the gridiron translate to the basketball court. Hopatcong is solid in the blocks with Ryan Clarke and Jesse Nelson, the question is who is going to get them the ball? Hackettstown also looks like it has enough returnees to post another 20-win season. Austin Gibbs and Shawn Stone are among their most experienced players. Despite graduating 1,000-point scorer Nate Sammans, Newton is also on the rise. Steven Kelly and Alex Keimel are among the Braves making waves. Kittatinny, Lenape Valley, North Warren and Wallkill Valley are among the group looking to earn respectability.

AMERICAN DIVISION

Pope John and Sparta are among the favorites this year but several Morris County teams are looking to scuttle their plans. Mount Olive probably has the best chance. The Marauders have tweaked the frenetic Grinnell System in order to take advantage of Zac Heeman’s size. The junior center has put some muscle on his 6-foot-8 frame and he’s a beast to contend with on the block. Talented guard Rashann Spencer is taking over the point and Steve Leonardo is among the wing men returning. Morris Knolls will have an interesting year. The trio of Niko Kotoulas, Eshaun Mobley and Kevin Miller has made the Golden Eagles formidable the last two seasons. Now that they have graduated, a new flock is lifting off. Brian O’Neill takes over point duties while Carroll Rich will also see time at guard, Mike Signer and Chris Stark (both 6-foot-5) and Aaron Arizmandi will all see a significant rise in playing time. This is also their first season in the American. Montville has players to build upon. After missing the first half of last season due to injury, Chris Warech showed promise. The skills and size of 6-foot-6 Danny Weiss will also help. Morris Hills will also look to rebound from a sub .500 season. Brian Walls can generate offense and Greg Szkola is a serious perimeter threat. Six-foot-five Eric Schrader will be counted on inside and a healthy Dillon Washington would really help. Pope John is considered a favorite because of the skills of talented point guard Noah Brown and Bronx transfer Jermaine Lawrence who can block everything in sight and looks unstoppable at times. Sparta has an extremely talented point guard in Zach Frick and Jake Melville is a banger up front. The Spartans will also be tough to stop.

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                                      Mount Olive’s Zach Heeman (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

NATIONAL DIVISION

Randolph and Chatham are favorites but expect this division to be ultra-competitive. The Rams graduated the leading scorer in the state in Julian Aiken but may have a better all-around team this year. Brothers Aaron and Ryan Harris contribute in their own way. Ryan can pick up on some of the scoring left off by Aiken’s departure. Aaron showed throughout the season what a tremendous defensive player he can be. Six-foot-five Patrick Archer could be a beast on the boards and Michael Talbot and Ryan Mahoney will also have an impact. The defending Morris County Tournament champion Chatham Cougars will be without last year’s MVP Jonathan Berntsen, but there are plenty of returnees that gained experience because of the injury glut they suffered during the season. Sam Carson and Garrett McAuliffe, who missed half the season, are back. However, guys that earned valuable varsity time in their place (Scott Baker, Luke Conrad and Robert Raiola) are also returning. Also back is 6-foot-4 standout Joe Timmes and experienced guard Drew Ballard. Leaders will have to step up but expectations continue to be high with good reason. Certainly Mendham will seem a little strange without long time coach Jim Baglin roaming the sidelines. However, the Minutemen, with assistant Kevin Schmid taking the helm won’t tinker too much with what has been successful. Will Gibbs and Alex Jacobs are among the guys with major minutes returning to keep up the tradition. Roxbury has one of the best point guards around in Ryan Kelley and a strong junior forward in Doug Alexander. Morristown is on the rise. Second year coach William Connolly seems to be turning things around. Junior guard Sean Hoehn has been impressive at times in running the show and Ryan Brunnock has a nice touch around the basket. After last year’s struggles, West Morris is set for a rebound year. Pat Barron and Sam McClellan have proven they know what to do with the ball on the offensive end. Sophomore point guard Sean McElwaine will be the one serving it to them. Delbarton should be markedly improved this season. Ryan Curran returns as one of the team’s top scorers and Rob Thoma is tough to move out of the paint. Parsippany Hills also likes its chances to move up in the division. Manny Dance has moved to shooting guard which will make him more of a threat offensively. The trio of Mike DiEdwardo, Connor Clark and Paul Walek are active on the boards.

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About mcvbb

Mark Kitchin is a boys varsity basketball writer for the Morris County New Jersey area

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