By Mark Kitchin
Jefferson boys basketball coach Joe DiGennaro has grown a beard to start the regular season, but don’t expect it to grow to ZZ Top or Duck Dynasty proportions if the Falcons keep winning.
“When my wife says to shave it, it comes off,” DiGennaro said.
There is little chance that Jefferson is going to start the season with a monumental 21-game winning streak like it did last year, but the 3-0 Falcons should win more games than they lose. This year’s Jefferson team has a different look than the team that advanced to the semifinal round of the Morris County Tournament last year.
They have lost measures of experience and athleticism since Ryan Langan, J. R. Reese and Tyler Jones have moved on. However, this year’s Falcons are more along the lines of the traditional style of play that DiGennaro is comfortable in instructing.
“We are doing all the intangibles,” DiGennaro said. “They defend — they rebound — they are so coachable. They have waited their whole lives for this moment. They have played behind last year’s senior class and didn’t really see time. Now they are relishing it.”
Brendan Gill (33) is one of many Jefferson players showing what he can do on the varsity level. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
It showed in the team’s 65-49 win over Scotch Plains in the Morris Knolls Tournament final on Wednesday. Conor Asay scored 14 points and Jared Schuster earned MVP honors with his play over the two-day tournament in which the Falcons earned a win against host Morris Knolls in the opening game.
“Last year’s team did work hard but they were more athletically gifted — more gifted with basketball skills,” Schuster said. “This team isn’t as gifted but we work harder than anyone out there. That is probably the difference. There are no egos or anything. It’s a good team atmosphere.”
Schuster, a junior, might best represent what the Falcons are all about this year. He has been sidelined most of the last two seasons because of a torn labrum in his shoulder. His dedication to the game and to his team are part of what the close knit team uses to its advantage.
“Jared is a pure shooter,” DiGennaro said. “He is a very good passer. He has our highest basketball IQ. That helps us. We share the ball so much better than we did last year. We had a lot of really good opportunities at the basket. We just have to do a better job of finishing. We are thrilled to have Jared back and healthy.”
They have also been playing well despite some setbacks to key personnel. Six-foot-four power forward Griffin Reilly and 6-3 small forward Anthony Anderson haven’t seen the court because of various injuries. The one player returning from last year’s team that saw significant time last year — six-foot-five Joe Rossi — rarely practices because of back trouble.
Jefferson has persevered because of depth and desire. Young players like Connor Brown are making an impact.
“He missed a ton of layups today but nobody works harder than that kid,” DiGennaro said. “He does so many things for us and he’s only a sophomore.”
Joe Rossi (23) is one of the few returning Falcons who saw major minutes on the varsity level last season. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
Versatility might be the Falcons best quality. In the opening game of the tournament against Morris Knolls. Jefferson fell behind 37-24 at the half. The Falcons switched from zone defense to man-to-man, pressured their opponent to force turnovers and were ahead 44-43 by the fourth quarter. Jefferson won the game 57-51.
“The comeback against Morris Knolls was huge,” Schuster said. “We were down but we knew we weren’t out and we came back. That’s what we can do when we play to our potential.
“We play whatever defense coach throws at us. We practice it a lot. We work very hard and it shows in the games. It shows that we are deep. If guys get in foul trouble when our starters get back, we have guys with experience that can step up for us.”
Time will tell on that, what is a certainty is that even though this year’s Falcons are very different from last season, they should still end up on the winning end most of the time. If anyone is overlooking Jefferson, it will only work to the Falcons’ favor.
“Nobody expects anything from this group,” DiGennaro said. “They are waiting to show themselves. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”