Matawan looking forward to next boys basketball season

By Wayne Witkowski

Matawan Regional High School’s boys basketball team has been making the most of the offseason, as it looks to regain its winning ways of recent years after a 12-14 season last winter.

The Huskies, who had a solid summer in the keenly competitive Jersey City Summer League that ended two weeks ago, will return to the Linden Fall League after the summer. Their junior varsity team did well in the Hoop Group League over the summer at Rebounds in Neptune and will play in a fall league for the first time that will have games either at Elizabeth or Red Bank.

A dozen varsity players are involved in the varsity leagues and about 10 young players are in the junior varsity leagues.

“We know this program had success and that program extends with the young guys getting them involved,” said John Giraldo, who is preparing for his second season at Matawan as head coach. “Last year, we had only one back in Merjim Gjyriqi (who led last year’s team averaging 15.5 points a game). We have a young team coming back, so we have to get the young guys as many minutes as we can.”

After Matawan played in a Colts Neck team camp in mid-June, it joined 20 teams in the Jersey City League that Giraldo was familiar with, as he played against many of those North Jersey teams during his high school career at Marist High School, including national power St. Anthony High School, Hudson Catholic Regional High School, Bayonne High School and James J. Ferris High School. It also included state power The Patrick School, Sayreville War Memorial High School, Hunterdon Central Regional High School and Colts Neck High School.

Matawan played two games a day twice a week in that league and played 35 games overall in what Giraldo called an active summer.

St. Patrick’s also played in the Linden League with Matawan last year as well as Roselle Catholic High School, where Giraldo served as an assistant coach for three years after setting records during his college career as a guard at Monmouth University before he became head coach at Matawan.

“We have some shooters. What we have to get better at is getting other guys shots, creating shots,” Giraldo said. “We struggled with turnovers at times and then we gave up easy baskets on the other end with the mistakes we made. And we can play a little faster because we don’t have the size. At times we may be playing with four or five guards.

“We’re not going to be the strongest, tallest, most physical team. We need to execute, be smart and share the ball. We have more guys experienced than last year when we had one and now we can’t use that excuse. Even though we have young guys, we’re not inexperienced any more.”

One of the bigger players on Matawan’s team, 6-foot-2 wing forward Reggie Tawiah, has benefited fully from the summer regimen under Giraldo and lead assistant Michael Pelkey. Tawiah suffered a broken nose toward the end of last season and came back to play the final games with a protective mask on his face. Matawan lost its NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III opener to Colonia High School, 59-48, and finished 7-7 in the Shore Conference B North Division that includes Wall High School and Red Bank Catholic High School.

Tawiah was selected for the Jersey City League All-Star game Aug. 1.

“He never missed a workout or a game,” Giraldo said. “He will probably step up with more confidence now and shoulder more responsibility. He always snuck up on people [last season]. He was not on everybody’s scouting report but was the most consistent player, scoring nine to 12 points. He’s the guy other teams had to stop, a focal point in how he could impact games as the first option and handle the ball as well. He makes it more difficult to defend us. We’ll see how he takes a leadership role for the team.”

Tawiah, who averaged 5.7 points a game, picked up his scoring later last season.

Injuries gave Tawiah and other players, including some young prospects, more time and opportunity to show and sharpen their skills. Mike Dunne, who scored 11.5 points a game last season, missed the summer with a broken foot. He’ll be a junior this fall. Alan Russell broke two fingers early in the summer but will be playing this fall as he heads into his senior season. Tyree Bryant, who saw action as a freshman at point guard, recently was medically cleared of a heart murmur after sitting out the summer. Zaire Jackson, a rising junior, saw action the past three months at point guard with Bryant out.

They’ll make up for the losses of Randy Myers, a 7.5 point-per-game scorer, and Gjyriqi to graduation.

“The summer gave players opportunities to prove themselves that they might not normally get,” Giraldo said. “It gave us the chance to see [some] guys a little more. It will help our overall depth and strengthen us more.”

Another player Giraldo said made strides in the summer was Pat Hennessey, a starting guard as a junior last season who scored just below five points a game.

“He had to be more of a spot-up shooter [last season] but became more of a ballhandler in the summer league,” Giraldo said. “He extended his game, and we’ll rely on him in situations. He’s a guy who will be looked up to.”

With injured players returning in the fall, Matawan will start gearing up for the approaching season that includes playing in the Martin Luther King Jr. Showcase in Long Branch Jan. 16, 2017, and hosting its ninth annual Huskies Classic Christmas tournament, where it lost in the finals to Old Bridge High School. Old Bridge returns for the tournament this season along with Tottenville High School of Staten Island, Edison High School, Manalapan High School, Carteret High School, Ocean Township High School and Union High School.