BLOOMFIELD, NJ – The Bloomfield High School boys’ basketball program has always had a great tradition, from legendary head coach George Cella in the 1950s to star players like Kelly Tripucka (Class of 1977) and Alaa Abdelnaby (Class of 1986), who both later played in the NBA.
The Bengals went through a bit of dry spell over the years until Pat Brunner took over as head coach for the 2005-06 season.
Brunner eventually put the Bengals back on the proverbial map, especially in the last two seasons.
Indeed, BHS will miss Brunner, who recently stepped down as Bengals head coach to take over as the athletic director at Mountain Lakes HS.
In the 2016-2017 season, the top-seeded Bengals defeated No. 6 seed Ridgewood, 39-34, in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association North Jersey Section 1, Group 4 state tournament final at BHS, marking their first state sectional title since 1977, when Tripucka was a senior. BHS lost in the next game, falling to Linden, 56-50, in the Group 4 state semifinal to finish with a 24-6 record.
This past season, Brunner, who previously coached at Verona and Elizabeth, notched his 300th career win when the Bengals defeated West Caldwell Tech, 79-42, in the second game of the season on Dec. 16 at home. The Bengals went on to have another stellar season, despite falling short of a sectional repeat title. BHS, seeded ninth, lost to fourth-seeded North Bergen, 74-60, in the North 1, Group 4 semifinals to finish with a solid 22-7 record.
Overall at BHS, Brunner fashioned a 208-141 record. The Bengals had winning records in 10 of the 13 seasons. In each of those winning seasons, they qualified for the state tournament.
After finishing 9-14 in his first year at the helm, the Bengals enjoyed a strong turnaround the following season as they finished 18-9 and reached the North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals.
Under Brunner, the Bengals had three seasons of 20 wins or more; two 18-win seasons and four 16-win seasons.
Brunner also guided the Bengals to a nice run in 2013. As the No. 6 seed, the Bengals advanced to the North 1, Group 4 championship game and traveled to top-seeded Hackensack. In front a packed Hackensack gym, the Bengals lost, 74-65, in the final to finish 16-13.
Mike Passero, Brunner’s longtime assistant coach, will succeed Brunner as the Bengals’ new coach.
The Bengals lost several key players to graduation this year, including guards Kyle Barrow and Richie Guillaume, center Mayowa Akindebe, and forward Aaron Henry. Barrow and Guillaume made Second Team and Akindebe made Honorable Mention on the All-Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division this past season.
But the team is expected to return a good senior class, led by point guard Michael Ramos, one of the top players in the area. Ramos scored his 1,000th career point this past season and made First Team on the All-SEC-Liberty Division. Other returning rising seniors are forward Will Robinson; and guards Kevin Mitchell and Isiah McCallam. Robinson, a returning starter, was an All-SEC-LIberty Division Honorable Mention selection this season.
BHS athletic director Steve Jenkins praised Brunner for leading the Bengals basketball program.
“Pat Brunner returned Bengal Basketball to a place of prominence it had not attained in many years,” wrote Jenkins in an email to The Independent Press. “He did so while never making compromises concerning the integrity of the program and the well-being of the athletes in his care.”
While Bloomfield will miss Brunner, the program will be in good hands with Passero.
“Mike Passero has demonstrated in his significant role alongside Coach Brunner, that he is ready to lead the program,” Jenkins said. “He is hard-working, enthusiastic and technically astute. I am confident he will be a successful coach on the high school level for many years to come.”
NOTE: The Bengals are hosting their annual High School Boys Basketball Summer League, which also includes Glen Ridge High School. The league runs until July 26.