Improved Warriors rolling as boys’ basketball season enters 2017

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By Wayne Witkowski

It’s a happier year for the New Egypt High School boys’ basketball team and its fans.

New Egypt is off to a 4-0 start, including winning its own 15th annual Warrior Holiday Tournament championship for the first time since 2011. The team is lodging a realistic bid for its first Burlington County Scholastic League championship in the Freedom Division since that season when towering center Desmond Hubert led the charge before heading off to a successful college career at the University of North Carolina.

Credit it to balanced scoring, tenacious defense, selfless play with four returning starters and inspiring perspective from coach Mick Hughes, who in three years went from a one-win season to 10-16 last year, including a 12-2 streak going back to the last eight games of last season.

Gino Tortoriello is the lone graduated starter from last season.

“They really started to believe in themselves the end of last year,” said Hughes, who feels that winning starts with defense. “The majority of players are back and have built on that and improved. They’ve gotten bigger and stronger. They believe in themselves, but they’re not satisfied. There’s a lot of hard work required to winning.”

The best news is that Ryan Devine is the only senior starter. Three other seniors are in the rotation. Devine is averaging 11.5 points. Owen Rabb and Quinn Kimmick each are hitting at an even 12 points a game. Each of those three players has been the team’s high scorer in at least one game thus far.

In a unique approach to the game by Hughes, none of those three players have a set position in the starting lineup, as Kimmick and Devine are the tallest players at 6 feet 3 inches tall and Rabb measures an inch shorter.

Anthony Burr is the point guard again this year and Matt Dempsey is the other guard. Dempsey also may be handling the ball a lot.

“For the most part, we’re pretty position-less. Anyone can play any position,” Hughes said. “We do try to get the post entries (passes) out of our offense. We just see the floor and exploit matchups.

“Quinn is probably the closest thing to a traditional center. He can handle it like a guard and shoot it and is great in the post, too. He can play inside-out. Owen can play inside and Ryan can post up, too.”

Devine and Rabb are around their averages last season, and Devine sank a team-best 65 of the Warriors’ 141 3-point baskets last season.

“It feels awesome,” Devine said. “I remember two years ago how bad it was. Now we’re going into every game expecting to win. We worked hard in the offseason and put a lot of work in the weight room. We’re playing a lot better on defense.”

Hughes said all of the players have improved, but the coach added Dempsey shows the most significant improvement. He’s come a long way with his confidence.

Indeed, it’s a situational offense, which comes from plenty of game experience and the ability to handle adversity.

Three other seniors are in the rotation and one of them, Anthony Rinaldi, is back from a life-threatening struggle with Hodgkin’s disease that sidelined him for much of last season as the team and community rallied around his successful battle. Rinaldi was back in the gym by early summer working hard to get in shape and back in sync with the veteran-laden lineup as a guard.

“He’s doing really well,” Hughes said. “He’s still acclimating himself. He’s a trooper, such a competitive kid.

“He was at a really high level when he left us last year, and we’re starting to see flashes of that, like his diving for a loose ball the other day and hustle plays like that. It’s a great boost to the team seeing him do that. He’s a great leader by example.”

Kyle Prouty at 6 feet 2 inches tall and James Sonday at 6 feet tall come off the bench, primarily playing as forwards.

“They all have put in an incredible amount of time in the offseason,” Hughes said. “They’re in the gym every day when they’re not in season and they play on AAU teams — year-round players.

“They have really great chemistry and trust each other. The juniors and seniors have played 52 games together coming into this season and been through a one-win season and a 10-win season along with adversity and supporting one of their [ill] teammates, and they’ve stuck together. They look forward to competing. If you don’t learn from the bad times, the difficulties and adversities, you’re foolish. It’s motivated us to get better when you need to find that extra energy in practices and games. They know they’ve been through a lot together. That’s what we share, and it’s a credit to them that they fought through that and didn’t throw in the towel but they hung tough and know they still have a long way to go.”

It showed in the Warrior Classic, during which New Egypt rolled to a championship victory, 52-31, Dec. 29 over Shore Conference team Pinelands Regional High School. Rabb scored 16 points, Devine dropped in 12 and Kimmick scored nine points. An 18-8 surge in the third-quarter broke open a two-point lead at halftime.

Rabb also led the team with 13 points in its semifinals victory over Raritan High School, 52-44. Burr and Kimmick added 12 and 10 points, respectively. Rabb was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Three players also scored in double figures, led by Devine’s 21 points, in a nondivisional victory over Burlington Township High School, 53-42, Dec. 20. Kimmick and Rabb chipped in 12 and 11, respectively.

The Warriors opened their season Dec. 16 with a division victory over defending division and NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group I champion Florence Township Memorial High School, 40-35. Kimmick led the way with 15 points and Devine scored 11. Dempsey scored all eight of his points in a critical 18-8 run in the third quarter that broke open a two-point lead at halftime, and Dempsey said his team’s ability so distribute and share the ball so well in that third quarter was the key factor.

Hughes said he sees the pride in the athletic program growing this year, with more fans at home games and more even traveling to the road games.

“It’s been on an upswing since Jerry North came back as superintendent [of the Plumstead School District],” Hughes about about North, who also was the first principal when New Egypt High School opened in 1999. “And also with Michael Mendes as school principal; that’s a huge part of it. And then with the football team’s success winning a division title got people excited in the fall. At our Christmas tournament — we had a great showing from parents, students and the community. You can kind of feel it in the air. It allows the community to come together. It’s nice to see that.”

It continued Jan. 3 with a division game at Maple Shade High School, which went into the game with a 3-3 record, to start a challenging week that includes a nondivision game at home Jan. 5 against Delran High School, which is 4-0 coming into the week, and a division home game Jan. 7 against Holy Cross High School (2-2).