Mater Dei ready to meet high expectations on the court


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By Matthew Rocco

The Mater Dei Prep boys’ basketball team begins the 2016-17 season as an early favorite to defend their Shore Conference Tournament championship, and the Seraphs have most of last season’s squad back in the mix as they look to meet those high expectations.

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The Seraphs have quickly climbed the ranks in the Shore Conference. In Ben Gamble’s first season as head coach, Mater Dei welcomed an influx of talent and went 26-2 on its way the conference title.

This season, the Seraphs again brought in some new faces. Mater Dei has four transfers in total, including former Holmdel High School standout Kyle Cardaci, who posted 16 points per game as a sophomore. There’s also junior Brandon Wilson, a leading player for Howell High School last season. Yasim Pretlow arrived to Mater Dei by way of Roselle Catholic High School, and Rajae Muhammad is a 6-foot-8 senior who transferred from Penns Grove High School.

Mater Dei was already stocked with talent exiting the 2015-16 season. Princeton University commit Elijah Barnes and a host of other returning players give the team some big-game experience.

“You try to prepare for those big moments. By the time we got to Monmouth [University for the Shore Conference Tournament finals], it was a little different for them playing in front of thousands of people,” Gamble said, adding that Mater Dei’s basketball IQ will improve with more experience on the court.

Barnes averaged 11.3 points a year ago, and the senior forward will once again be a centerpiece of the team’s offense. In a 78-27 win over Keyport High School Dec. 19, Barnes led the Seraphs with 14 points.

Junior center Adam Afifi, another newcomer to the varsity team, contributed 12 points in the blowout victory. Guard Kenneth Jones, who is back for his junior season, also had 12 points to go with four assists.

Other returning players are seniors Elijah Mitchell, Maleek McKnight and Marvin Pierre. Fellow senior Sean Kueger and junior Kyle Devaney provide the Seraphs with depth in the backcourt.

The Seraphs figure to be strong on defense, Gamble said. The team will also capitalize on its depth, putting players in the best position to succeed.

“I’m trying to mix and match to find our strengths and weaknesses,” added Gamble, who is coaching his second season at Mater Dei. “You also have to build chemistry between the kids. The emphasis is on the team, not the individual.”

Mater Dei (2-0), which also recorded a win against Keansburg High School in the season opener, was scheduled to play Freehold High School in the Albert E. Martin “Buc” Classic Dec. 27. The Seraphs will travel to Union Catholic High School New Year’s Day.

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