Pinelands Regional Boys Hoops Team Cruises Into Shore Conference Tournament

Feb 14, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

It may be fair to say last week was the Pinelands Regional boys basketball team’s biggest in its history to date. But it wasn’t because the Wildcats won three consecutive games; they’d already done that this season. What set apart last week was the fact head coach Fred Johnson’s crew won three straight contests at the most crucial time of the season – right before the Shore Conference Tournament qualification cutoff.

But not only did Pinelands earn its second-ever trip to the SCT, it qualified well above the .500 mark for the first time ever. Oh, and the Wildcats’ three wins last week pushed their undefeated streak at home to 10 victories. Not bad for a team that had three wins a year ago.

“We’re pumped up,” said senior Caden Sundermann, who buried a three-point field goal for the first points of the game on Feb. 8, as Pinelands never looked back in a 37-20 bruising of Shore Conference Class B South foe Manchester. “It’s definitely been an exciting and historic season, to say the least. The past couple of years, and especially last year, things were tough. We lost 12 of our games last season by a few points or less, and that showed our immaturity. But this season, our maturity has been the biggest factor.”

No doubt the Wildcats have relied a lot on their experience. But they’ve also utilized strong defensive efforts to stay in most games and ultimately win 13 of them.

“We’re working really hard on defense,” said junior Anthony Diaz, who led the Wildcats with 14 points against the Hawks. “Our shots may not travel with us, but our defense does. And that’s what has been a focus of ours the entire season, playing tough defense each game.”

Such air-tight defense was the catalyst against the Hawks, as Pinelands (13-8) used a 7-0 run to start the game and took a 7-2 lead into the second quarter. Diaz dropped in a pair of foul shots with 3:45 to go in the first half before Garrett Brown added a putback with 51 seconds left to push the Wildcats’ lead to 15-4, and Manchester simply never recovered.

Diaz added another six points during the third quarter as Pinelands increased the margin to 13 points, 25-12, then tallied six more during the first three minutes of the fourth quarter as the Wildcats made it an 18-point contest, 35-17.

“Everyone’s playing an important role,” Diaz said. “From the guys on the bench to the guys who play a lot, everybody’s on board for 32 minutes every game. And if you have a program where everyone buys in to what you’re doing, there’s going to be success.”

Two days later, on Feb. 10, junior Andrew Schulz tallied 14 points, sophomore Ryan Skeie added 11 points and six rebounds, and Diaz hit for 10 points and gave out four assists as the success continued in a big way – with the Wildcats knocking off Point Pleasant Borough, 42-40. But beyond denying the Panthers an outright B South division title, the win pushed Pinelands five games over .500 heading into the Shore Conference Tournament, a position it’s never been in before.

“Three years ago, we made the conference tournament, but we had to win on the last day to get in,” Johnson said. “This is only the second time we’ve qualified for it, so it’s nice for these guys to be able to enjoy what they’ve accomplished so far.

“We have a lot of high-character guys on this team, and they’ve been through a lot. Last year was frustrating, losing so many close games, including a bunch at the buzzer. And this year, with not being able to play in our gym for half the season (because the high school building was closed), hasn’t been easy. But at no time have these guys gotten down on themselves. They haven’t pointed fingers at each other. They haven’t let any of the outside stuff become a distraction. They just focus on getting better today and playing their best when they’re on the court.”

Obviously, plenty of big games remain. The Wildcats, who were awarded the 22nd seed by the SCT seeding committee, not only were scheduled to take on 11th-seeded Point Pleasant Beach in an SCT preliminary-round matchup on Tuesday, Feb. 13, they also were given a fifth seed and first-round home game for the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III tourney – slated for Monday, Feb. 26, against 12th-seeded Gloucester Tech.

“We’re confident in ourselves, but we really focus on one game at a time,” Sundermann said. “We believe we can go out and play with anybody. And we’re going to do everything we can, work as hard as we can, to try to win. We have a lot of pride in our school, and we put it all out there – whether that’s against the first seed or the 15th seed.”

Southern Boys Qualify
For Conference Tourney

Following a 55-49 loss to Brick on Feb. 6, the Southern Regional boys hoops squad needed two victories before the Feb. 10 Shore Conference Tournament qualification cutoff to make the tournament. The Rams pulled off the feat.

With a 71-54 victory over Lacey on Feb. 9, which followed a 65-38 drubbing of Toms River South, head coach Eric Fierro’s Rams earned the 27th seed in SCT and headed into Tuesday’s preliminary-round contest against sixth-seeded Colts Neck with an 11-11 record.

Against the Lions, Southern used a 19-5, second-quarter spurt to create separation,after a 16-16 first quarter, and cruised from there. Thomas Foster led the way with 23 points and eight rebounds, while Vinnie Deck tallied 18 points and Jake Dubois added 13. Against the Indians on Feb. 8, the Rams used an 18-8, second-quarter outburst and then a 31-14, third-quarter onslaught to seal their 10th victory. Dubois led all scorers with 27 points, while Deck contributed 11 points.

— David Biggy

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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