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Manalapan boys’ hoops team looks for stronger season

By Jeff Appelblatt

A playoff loss last season dropped Manalapan High School’s boys’ basketball team below the .500 mark to end the season, but head coach Rick Garretson can’t help but look at last year as a great stepping stone for the upcoming campaign.

“Last year, we were a young team,” the veteran coach said. “We think we’re going to be stronger this year. We have a lot of guys coming back.”

Based on last year, there’s one player Manalapan’s coach expects to see big things from: Matan Zucker. The junior made it into all 21 games last year as a sophomore.

“Zucker had a great year last year,” Garretson said. “He averaged 14 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. This year, we think he’s going to have a real bust-out season.”

One of Zucker’s top advantages on the court is his size mixed with his agility.

“He’s about [6 feet 3 inches tall],” the Braves’ coach said. “He goes to the rim from the wing real strong, and he could post you up on the block. So he’s got the best of both worlds — a little inside-out game.”

As the coach said, much of last year’s squad will be back on the court with Zucker, including four seniors getting their last runs with Manalapan. They are Cody Wiener, John Lugo, Rocky Garretson and Sean Kinniburgh.

Lugo knocked down a few 3-pointers per game for Manalapan last year, helping him reach 11 points per outing. Rocky Garretson, the coach’s son, knocked down a few baskets in the 13 games he got into last year, while Wiener and Kinniburgh are each expecting to contribute more on the court this season.

“I played a little bit last year,” Wiener said. “This year, I’m looking to make it back on the court for the team and help any way I can.”

Three of the four seniors didn’t have much time to relax before the basketball season. Rocky Garretson scored 16 goals and passed for 10 assists during Manalapan’s 11-9-2 soccer season. Wiener and Kinniburgh worked on both sides of the ball for Manalapan’s 11-1 football team, which lasted through the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V championship game Dec. 3.

But coach Garretson is certain that the lengthy fall seasons, even for the football duo, won’t hurt anyone this winter.

“They’re starting to get back into the swing of things,” the coach said. “They’ll be fine.”

Though Wiener admitted that the transition from football to basketball was rapid, he’s ready to take the court.

“It’s been quick. Saturday (Dec. 3), we played Piscataway [Township High School]. Monday (Dec. 5), we were back here for basketball,” Wiener said at practice in Manalapan. “But I’ve been playing basketball four years. It hasn’t been very difficult. I’m just getting excited for the season.”

He hopes Manalapan’s basketball team will be able to hang a few championship banners following this season — maybe making amends for the football team falling one win shy of a state title.

“We’re just hoping to compete in the division, win as many games as possible, make it to the states, make it to the Shore Conference [and] go as far as we can,” Wiener said. “[We need to] ride [the season] out as long as possible.”

Coach Garretson is hoping for a long season, too, even after he spent a lengthy season with the girls’ soccer team in the fall. He believes with some practice, the basketball team will be ready to contend.

“I think if we get our defense where we need it to be, we could play with anybody,” he said. “I had a great group in the fall, and I have a very good group now. I feel very lucky.”

However, Garretson knows his players will need to give it their all in every single outing to make noise in the Shore Conference.

“We’ve got a real tough conference this year. Both Middletown [High School North and Middletown High School South] left, and we gained Neptune [High School] and Colts Neck [High School],” the coach said. “There’s not a lot of easy games in the A North.

“I think the A North this year is going to be up in the air. Any given day, anybody could beat anybody.”

Manalapan will immediately see a conference foe when the season begins Dec. 16. The Braves travel to Lincroft to face Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) for a 6 p.m. matchup.

Manalapan’s coach remembers the two times CBA beat his team by double figures last season, and he hopes for different results this year.

“It’s going to be a tough game — that’s never an easy place to play,” Garretson said thinking of CBA. “But these kids are gamers. They’re ready to battle with the best of them.”

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