First, a disclaimer. For as long as I have been doing this, traditionally, the No. 1 team at the end of any sports season is the team of the year. And usually, the stars align, where that team wins a state championship, goes undefeated, etc.
But one team was so compelling this year, almost from the opening tip-off of the entire season. They captivated the Greater Middlesex Conference – and of course, their community – packing their tiny gym with loud fans that left your ears ringing after you left the joint.
That team was the South River Rams. And while St. Thomas Aquinas was clearly and without dispute the No. 1 team in the final Bellamy & Son Paving Top Ten – they dominated all year, won the GMC Tournament, and it wasn’t their fault they ran into the state’s No. 1 team, Roselle Catholic, in the sectional semifinals of Non-Public South B – South River was the team of the year.
Part of it was because those teams don’t come around very often. There were some titles in the ’40s and ’50s. There was the era of Kenny Jackson in the late ’70s, even though he would me more widely known for his football exploits, and the 79-80 Group 2 champions. There was the 1990-91 team, the last to win a title, in Central Jersey Group 1.
This team was on a par with them until they ran into another group two juggernaut in Manasquan with a point guard who would not be denied.
But their journey with a 22-point win over Metuchen on opening night, then took a most interesting turn the day after Christmas, when the Rams went up to St. Joe’s – in a Blue vs. Red Division matchup – and beat the Falcons 74-66.
Everyone stood up and took notice. Would it be a fluke? Could they keep it up? If they kept winning, could they get a three-seed in the county tournament? All the talk about bias against the Blue and Gold Divisions of the past years meant nothing since those teams often didn’t play up. South River put its money where its mouth was.
They wound up winning their first eleven games before falling to Piscataway, but finished the regular season as Blue Division Champions, still picked up the third-seed in the GMC Tournament, behind St. Thomas and Colonia. St. Joe’s got the four.
Though they got knocked out in the GMC semis by South Brunswick, their next life would begin in the state tournament, as the top-seed in Central Jersey Group 2. They rolled past East Brunswick Magnet and beat Point Pleasant Boro. They filled the place against a damn good Bound Brook and beat them by six.
Then came Manasquan.
This was a senior-laden group, and the story after that oh-so-heartbreaking defeat in the Central Jersey Group 2 title game could be told in the lingering crowd thereafter. Family, friends, neighbors. As head coach Brandon Walsh talked to his team, talked, and talked some more, one by one, the seniors would come out.
Roman Santos. Laz Rodriguez. Jeremy Grospe. Kobe Taylor. Isaac Linarez. Gavin Franco.
Each got a round of applause and standing O as they emerged from the locker room.
The Rams didn’t just go 26-4. They drove the student body bonkers every night with long three balls, pesky defense, and transition basketball. They lifted a community’s spirit.
They gave South River a basketball season it will never forget.
That’s why they’re Central Jersey Sports Radio’s 2023 Team of the Year.
Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk with head coach Brandon Walsh and senior Laz Rodriguez: