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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Mar 02, 2021

High School Basketball Teams Fighting for Top Seeds

By: Tim Morris

Holmdel High School boys’ basketball Coach Sean Devaney could name a number of reasons why the Hornets could take a step backward this winter, but he also has one very big reason why they shouldn’t slip: tradition.

First of the hurdles, of course, is dealing with the pandemic and the protocols. With limited practice time and pre-season scrimmages, the impact of COVID-19 can be traced all the way back to the summer with the cancelation of summer basketball league play. The summer games allow coaches to plan ahead for the next season.

Another challenge is the condensed season and a schedule that includes teams the Hornets are not used to playing. Because of NJSIAA travel restrictions, the Shore Conference did away with divisions this year and put teams in pods that would minimize travel.

“We’re playing teams we don’t know anything about and in different gyms,” Devaney noted. “Ability to adapt is going to be important.”

Another test is no fans in the gym. That means no home court advantage for the host school. Another hurdle for coaches is no in-person scouting. Coaches will exchange game films with each other just a day or two before their scheduled games. All of these hurdles would be a challenge enough for any high school team, but Devaney has a team that lost six of its top eight players to graduation. Last year, the team went 23-5 and advanced to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II final. He could really have used summer play and the regular preseason this winter since the Hornets are breaking in so many new varsity players, But Devaney isn’t about to concede that the Hornets are rebuilding. They have developed a winning tradition the last few years that has carried over from year to year, raising the program’s expectations.

“I like the kids we have. They’re enthusiastic,” Devaney said of the 2021 Hornets. “I don’t expect us to drop off the earth.”

Early indications are that they haven’t fallen. Holmdel started the season 4-0 including two convincing wins, 74-41 and 54-25, over a Colts Neck team that is perennially among the Shore’s best.

Alex Baker, a 6-foot-5 center, who averaged a double-double last winter (12.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game) and Ryan Bradley, a 6-foot-5 forward, are the holdovers from last year’s season. The seniors are the cornerstones of this year’s squad and playing like it.

Baker is off to a sensational start, averaging 20 points per game. Besides punishing teams in the paint, Baker has extended his shooting range. Bradley has stepped up his game and is averaging an important 14 points per game. Both Baker and Bradley have been outstanding at getting to the free throw line, putting teams in foul trouble. They’ve combined for 32 made free throws.

Kyle Polivka, a senior guard who saw playing time last year, has added balance to the offensive attack, averaging just under 12 points per game. Senior Nick Spada is the point guard who is in charge of the more up-tempo offense in 2021. His decision making is key to making the offense click. Completing the starting five is freshman guard James Valillo.

“He’s legit,” Devaney said of his freshman, who is the leading three-point shooter.

Guards Anthony Pesce (senior) and Ben Kipnis (freshman) have been chipping in off the bench with valuable points.

Devaney believes that this year’s edition of the Hornets has a chance to be more prolific on offense.

“We may have a little more firepower,” said the Hornets head coach. “We’ll run a little more because we’re a little quicker and more athletic. At the end of the day we’ll see [if the Hornets are more prolific.]”

Defensively, the Hornets will continue their “hard, man-to-man” coverage that has been the program’s forte. The Hornets have held teams under 50 points in all of their games. Wins aside, what matters most to Devaney is that his athletes are playing games.

“I think the players have a new appreciation of practice,” he said. “I’m trying to make [the season] as positive as I can.”

Holmdel is in the Shore Conference’s Pod F with Saint John Vianney, Middletown North, Colts Neck, Raritan and Matawan. Gone are old division rivals Manasquan and Rumson-Fair Haven.

The regular season consists of 12 games, and the campaign will conclude with a Shore Conference Tournament unlike any before. Instead of the 16-team format with teams seeded one through 16, they will be put in eight-team pods. The top eight seeds will play in one pod while nine through 16 compete in another. Teams are guaranteed three games.

Holmdel’s goal is to be seeded in the first pod as one of the eight best teams in the conference.