By Mark Kitchin
MOUNT OLIVE — Okay Morris County, it’s your move.
Before last season, there was still some question as to whether the Mount Olive Marauders could win a county title by playing their crazy brand of breakneck, up-tempo basketball. Now that the program has captured the long awaited championship and have plenty of returning players, it is up to their opponents to find a way to slow down a team that presses all 32 minutes and fires up 3-point shots at will.
Look to Morristown, Mendham, Chatham, Jefferson and many more teams to try to derail the Marauders chances this year. The basketball season begins on Friday. Mount Olive begins the season where it ended last year, on the Sparta High gym floor where their run for a sectional state title fell short.
“I’ve become good friends with (Sparta coach) Brian Brennan,” Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “I said Bri, don’t even bother sending someone down to film. I can tell you what we are going to do right now. We’re going to try and make you play a pace and we are going to gamble that our guys are … ”
It’s not gamesmanship. All the teams in the county know what the Marauders are going to do (Sparta filmed anyway). The trick is to stop a team that comes at you in shifts and goes full speed. A team that focuses on 3-point shots and takes them at any time, making plenty of them. A team that turns opponents over consistently. A team that now has the confidence of being able to win pressure games and determined to push their performances to the next level.
“In practice every day we work these guys as hard as possible to develop a mentality of being relentless,” Moore said. “They came into the season knowing what the expectations are and I can’t ask for guys to work harder than they worked.”
Some of them have worked extra hard and it shows. Ryan Traub and Rashaan Spencer seem destined for strong seasons. Traub, at 6-foot-8, emerged last season with his improved play and ability to knock down threes. He’s added muscle and improved his shooting even more. Spencer, who averaged 19 points a game last year, may be in line to score much more this season and has improved in other areas, too.
“Ryan has turned himself into a scholarship player,” Moore said. “The way he shoots the ball, now is great. Rashaan put in thousands of hours. He can drill shots from everywhere. I’m thrilled with them because they have worked so hard.”
Oh, Zack Heeman is back, too. The 6-foot-8, 280-pound player, forces team to respect the inside. The Morris County Player of the Year last season also rebounds well and makes sure team think twice while driving to the basket. Guards Jason Drury, Chris Grillo and Anthony Verrone are also back for another season.
Newcomers Brandon Hood and transfer Donte Wise are players that opponents will get to know pretty quickly.
“Brandon played jayvee last year,” said Moore of the 6-foot-3 sophomore. “He’s coming along. He’s continuing to build his confidence. He’s put his work on the machine. He has a green light to shoot whenever he is open. He has a great motor.”
Wise, who attended DePaul last year, can get above the rim. He was last seen putting down some dunks in the team’s final scrimmage against Irvington.
“He’s the kind of kid that is new to this,” Moore said. For him this is going to take him a couple of games to get adjusted to this pace. At DePaul, the ball didn’t go flying around up and down the floor. He’s getting used to what is necessary.”
Repeating has never been easy for any team, but the Marauders are not your ordinary team. They approach the off-season like no other. They don’t go to team camps and shrug off summer leagues. Much of their summers are spent working on shooting and train more like track sprinters during the summer and fall if they are not playing other sports. They are also encouraged to play on AAU basketball teams as long as they get their work in.
They seem eager to repeat their Morris County Tournament success but a state title banner would also look nice in the Marauders’ gym.
“They are both goals,” Moore said. “In the long term we really need to take one game at a time and put ourselves in position for those seeding meeting and have those home games, because we shoot the ball exceptionally well here. They understand the importance of one game at a time.”
And they are prepared later in the season when the games get more important.
“I think they are big game ready,” Moore said.