By Jimmy Allinder
Think South River High School sports and football immediately comes to mind. And that’s likely to always be the case.
However, boys basketball has experienced its moments through the years and, more recently, the girls team has emerged as a power of sorts.
This season, both the boys and girls are enjoying outstanding campaigns and are legitimate contenders to win both the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Gold Division titles and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championships.
The boys (11-2 overall, 8-1 division) are atop the division standings with Perth Amboy Vocational Technical High School (9-4 overall, 7-2 division) a game behind the Rams with a victory over the Patriots being the difference. The rivals are scheduled to clash again Jan. 30 in a game that could decide the Gold Division.
The Rams’ girls (11-1 overall, 9-1 division) are currently a game behind Dunellen High School (12-1 overall, 9-0 division) but get another shot at the Destroyers when they visit them Feb. 8. A South River victory would mean, at the very least, both teams tie for the division crown.
One of the more interesting connections between the boys and girls teams is Rodney Harris and his daughter, Gabrielle. Rodney Harris has coached the boys for seven years, and this year’s team is his most accomplished. As for Gabrielle Harris, the 23-point-per-game scorer is 47 points shy of breaking the school career scoring record. She is surrounded by a cast of skilled players, including junior center Aleah Bass (13.4 points, 12.4 rebounds a game) and freshman guard Tara Beachem (eight points a game).
“I expect to compete for at least a piece of the Gold Division,” girls head coach Mike Feaster said. “Right now, we haven’t played as well as we can, and I’m still trying to find the right mix that features team basketball and gets us back to the level I think we are capable of playing.”
The other goal is to repeat as state sectional champions. South River earned the top seed last year and since Dunellen competes in North Jersey II Group I, the Rams could garner the No. 1 spot again, regardless of which team wins the Gold Division.
While the first half of the boys season has turned out, in the words of Harris, “pretty good,” the coach can take heart that this is just the beginning of what could be an impressive run. No fewer than three freshmen start — Zachary Rafano, Mike DeSantis and Derrick Whitaker — and their experience as CYO and middle school teammates shows. Whitaker has been lights out on the scoring sheet, leading the team with 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
Seniors Mario Nigro (12 points a game), Antonio Martinez (11 points a game), Angel Pesante, Billy Jorge and Riley Fernandes have taken the freshmen under their wings, and the result has been a cohesive offense and defense.
“We have worked well together, and much of the credit for that goes to our coaching staff: Michael Pawloski, Rob Hawk and Tom Cassidy, Jr. We always play a fast-paced tempo, and it’s obvious the players have bought into that style by the way they execute,” Harris said.
Two other freshmen, Silvio Cruz and R.J. Fischer, and juniors Matthew Pietryk and Jaryn Bullock solidify the rotation and enable the Rams to cause opponents havoc by keeping up with the fast pace throughout the game.
Harris won’t predict what the future holds for his team once the GMC and state tournaments begin, but he is adamant about not allowing his players to become complacent because of their success.
“We still have weaknesses that need to be corrected,” he said. “That will be our focus moving forward.”