Maplewood youth travel basketball teams thrive this season

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ – The travel basketball program in Maplewood has been around for some 20-plus years. Historically, the Maplewood teams have always been competitive and produced strong records on both the boys’ and girls’ sides, but this season was one for the ages, not just in Maplewood, but Suburban League history.

The program consists of eight teams – fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade boys, and fifth, sixth and eighth grade girls. This past season, the fifth grade girls, fifth grade boys and seventh grade boys all finished 14-0 and captured their league championships, a first in the history of the Maplewood program.

The fifth grade girls were led by point guard Jamie Levi and Center Madison Stevens, who were a dynamic inside/outside duo. With a rotation of nine players, also including guards Evie Campbell, Skylar Gilliam, Stella Marvel, Sam Stein, as well as forwards Addison Secor, Kenzie Williamson and Lily Westhelle, the girls stormed through the Suburban League, winning 10 of 12 regular season games by double digits. The playoffs were no different, as the girls coasted in the semifinals over Livingston, and then defeated Verona by 12 in the championship. This is the first year the program was able to form a fifth grade team. The team plays in the Fifth Grade Suburban League, but features three fourth grade girls. They will certainly be looking forward to playing together again next season in the sixth grade league and defending their title.

The sixth grade girls made significant strides this season, finishing with a 7-5 record after winning only one game as fifth-graders last season. Zahra Alexander was a force to be reckoned with, often singlehandedly keeping the girls in the game. The real progress was made, however, when Alexander, a fifth-grader would be double- and triple-teamed, and she had to become a distributor for teammates such as Jamie Fardin, Olivia Sasfai and Shana Desir.

Desir was a power inside as the lone center on the team, which often required playing the entire 32 minutes and devoting herself to rebounding and anchoring the inside defense. Fardin and Sasfai were defensive stoppers who would harass the opposing guards and turn their relentless defense into offense. The rotation was rounded out by guards Avery Territo, Ruby Aylward, Forwards Sarah Cerny, Georgie Gassaro, Rian Balyut, Sana’a Johnson and Eleanor VandeVusse.

The eighth grade girls team featured girls from sixth through eighth grades, and again finished with an 8-6 record after winning only one game as seventh-graders in the 2015-2016 season. Corteney Louis and Svea Wickelgren were the leaders, surrounded by strong role players Kaijhe Hall, Ruth Pasteur and Sophia Rounsavill. Sixth-graders Allie Harris and Bella Galatt both started multiple games and played significant minutes that will only benefit them in the years to come. Jenna Payne and Natalia Tava, both new to the team, and both only in seventh grade, also earned valuable minutes throughout the season and should be key contributors to next year’s team.

The boys fourth grade team finished the season with 3 wins and 7 losses in the Hoop Heaven winter league. Despite their final record, there was not a game that the team did not compete in, and give themselves a chance to win. Often competing against AAU and Club teams, the youngest team in the program would very often leave it all on the floor with maximum effort. This gives the coaches much hope and excitement for the future years to come.

The fifth grade boys were led by the dynamic backcourt of Jalen James and Samaaj Long. Accompanied by Noah Roberts, Adler Cleghorn and John Pirone, the team boasted a starting five that won every game by double digits, often having the game in hand by the end of the first half. Off the bench to continue that strong play were Diego Clark, Luke Knezovic, Tyler Williams,  Mardochee Occeas and Elijah Whitley. The team also won its Holiday tournament, and finished the season with an overall record of 17-0. They will look to defend their championship next year when they make the jump to middle school as sixth-graders.

The sixth grade boys featured a strong mix of players led by Mike Pirone. Often playing games with a limited roster due to many injuries, this team always played hard, working together and leaving everything they had out on the floor. Newcomer Nick Williams was a sharpshooter that often left teams scrambling to locate him on defense. This opened things up for guards Nate Northover and Alex Chibbaro to attack the basket. Brandon Ashely and Zekai Wimberly were relentless in their rebounding and defense of the paint, and Brandon Doubek was always in the thick of the action often sacrificing himself in any capacity for the team. Max Masino and Phil Darcelin were solid role players who added more scoring and rebounding when it was needed, and Jayden Hargrove and Germaine Pitre, both newcomers to the team, earned valuable minutes that will contribute to their growth for the seasons to come.

The seventh grade boys lost in the 2015-2016 championship as sixth-graders to Montclair, and from that moment, they knew that would be their motivation for the 2016-2017 season. It started in the summer when they played in an eighth grade summer league and made it to the championship game. The work continued in the fall when they spent time working out with high school freshmen, and prior to the season when they scrimmaged AAU teams and more eighth grade teams. It was all in preparation for the season that they would have, in which they finished 14-0 in the Suburban League, winning the league championship, and solidifying their place in Maplewood Basketball history. Using a stifling and relentless full court defense, and an old school, fast and powerful offense, they won all of their games by an average of 18 points. In eight of their 14 league games, they held opponents to less than 30 points. Nine times they scored over 65, three times over 70.

With a roster of 11 players, it was easy for the coaches to keep the team energized and playing at its capacity. Andrew Rowley and Solimy Quettant were the anchors, as the leading scorers, rebounders and defensive stoppers in the paint. If teams were able to get by the guards, they would often be met by Rowley and Quettant who always made everything inside the paint difficult. Reggie Cosmeus and Dominick Starzynski were exceptional at the wing positions, and often left defenses confused and stumbling, especially if they got hot from the three-point line. Jalen Robinson handled the point guard duties and was a big difference for the team this season as he was able to control the game with a confidence and steadiness that most players at his age don’t possess.

The best part about this team, is that when those five players were having an off-day, or if they just needed a rest, the remaining players were always ready to step in and make an immediate impact. Luke and Sam Nomura played their roles with perfection as they brought toughness, defense, scoring and leadership off the bench that most coaches wish they could have. Xavier Sprosta and Dylan Dalambert would provide the defense, rebounding and scoring that was needed to keep the game in control, and Justin Legurre, the lone newcomer to the team this year, showed much promise as a player who would sub in as a forward and guard, and contribute wherever the team needed him to. Lastly, Charlie Herley was the player that would often come in and guard the opposing teams’ best player, regardless of position, would dive on the floor for loose balls, even if he was diving out of bounds, would box out, even if it was his teammate, and would even come up with a big bucket every so often as he did in the championship game.  Throughout the season, each of these players contributed to the team’s success and left their mark on the team in their own way, And in the championship, they were able to defeat Montclair, avenging the loss as sixth-graders.

The eldest team in the program, the eighth grade boys, finished with an 8-6 record, and a four-year record of 43 wins and 17 losses. While this season they fell short of the playoffs, they left their mark on the program and the league, setting the bar high. As the first team to play as fifth-graders, they advance to the playoffs and league championship as fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders. They won every holiday tournament they played in, and were able to push the three-time, undefeated league champion Montclair team to the brink of their only losses of the last two seasons. Led by Nigel Garcia and Reese Swittenberg, the team had a roster full of talented players such as Elijah Gayle, Perry Reyes, Chris Darcelin, Quentin Mcintosh, Sam Harris. Josiah Lawful, Jahqiel Stcyr, Jared Goodman, Kai Arrington, and Mark Ferguson rounded out the roster, and all are sure to be players you will hear about in the coming years at your local high school.

Always working and improving, the teams will continue to work out and play over the course of the spring and summer. Tryouts for the teams will be held in late September 2017. For more information, please contact the Maplewood Recreation Department.

Photo captions. Photos courtesy of Kevin Bostic.

Fourth Grade Boys: Back row from left: Coach Lenny Grace, Ray Stein, Dwayne Exilus, Coach Evyn Degnan, Taj Jawaad, Sam Cherins, and Coach Eddie Starzynski. Front row: Chris Severe, Dylan Yudko, Kieran Dawkins, Sam Maitlin, and Kristian White.

Fifth Grade Boys: Back row standing from left: Coach Greg Clark, Adler Cleghorn, John Pirone, Elijah Whitley, and Coach Marcellus Long. Front row Kneeling: Diego Clark, Luke Knezovic, Mardochee Occeas, Tyler Williams, Samaaj Long, Jalen James, and Noach Roberts.

Fifth Grade Girls: Back row standing from left: Coach Erin Tuck, Madison Stevens, Addison Secor, Mackenzie Williamson, and Coach Nijah Gibson. Front row kneeling: Skylar Gilliam, Sam Stein, Stella Marvel, Jamie Levi, Evie Cambpell, and Lily Westhelle.

Sixth Grade Boys: Back row standing from left: Coach Joe Doubek, Zekai Wimberly, Phil Darcelin, Mike Pirone, Brandon Ashley, and Brandon Doubek. Front row kneeling: Nick Williams, Alex CHibbaro, Nate Northover, Max Masino. Not Pictured: Coach Rob Chibbaro, Jayden Hargrove, and Germaine Pitre.

Sixth Grade Girls: Standing from left: Olivia Sasfai, Jamie Fardin, Georgie Gassaro, Sarah Cerny, Shana Desir, Eleanor VandeVusse, Zahra Alexander, Rian Balyut, Sana’a Johnson, Avery Territo, and Ruby Aylward.

Seventh Grade Boys: Back row standing from left: Coach Lenny Grace, Dylan Dalambert, Reggie Cosmeus, Solimy Quettent, Andrew Rowley, Justin Legurre, and Coach Eddie Starzynski. Front row kneeling: Xavier Sprosta, Luke Nomura, Charlie HErley, Dominick Starzynski, Sam Nomura, and Jalen Robinson.

Eighth Grade Girls: Standing from left: Jenna Payne, Svea Wickelgren, Allie Harris, Corteney Louis, Kaijhe Hall, Sophia Rounsavill, Ruth Pasteur, and Natalia Tava. Kneeling: Bella Galatt. Not Pictured: Coach Erin Tuck and Coach Nijah Gibson.

Eighth Grade Boys: Back row from left: Jahqiel Stcyr, Nigel Garcia, Mark Ferguson, Jared Goodman, Sam Harris, and Josiah Lawful. Front row kneeling: Chris Darcelin, Perry Reyes, Quentin McIntosh, Elijah Gayle, and Kai Arrington.
Not Pictured: Coach OJ Mebude, Coach Brandon Everson, Coach Jarnell Liburd, and Reese Swittenberg.