Patriots winners at Kuhnert Classic, rolling through A North

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By Jeff Appelblatt

This year’s Kuhnert Classic boys’ basketball game between Freehold Township High School and Freehold High School brought in a large crowd Jan. 19, with nobody more appreciative than the wife of the late Jack Kuhnert, Loretta Kuhnert.

The game is played to honor Jack Kuhnert, a former coach at Freehold and the man that Freehold’s court is named after. The teams honored Loretta Kuhnert with a quick ceremony and a bouquet of flowers before taking the court to play.

Freehold tried to stay in the game with its archrival, but Freehold Township went up, 14-5, in the first quarter and never looked back. Behind 13 points from Ryan Zyskowski and 12 from Ryan Cardone, Freehold Township ran off with a 46-27 win.

“This one has a special meaning to me because of Mr. Kuhnert, but every [game] is the same. We just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said after the game. “A win’s a win. We’ll take it.”

Senior Stephen Staklinski, who is most often the Patriots’ leading scorer, only scored nine points in the game, but he was also happy with the win.

“I didn’t know Mr. Kuhnert personally,” Staklinski said. “[But] in the four years now that I’ve been playing varsity, it’s been a very important [game] because coach obviously takes it very seriously. We try to take it seriously for him, too.”

Freehold coach Jesse Ryan frequently thinks of Jack Kuhnert, even if only because his name is on the court.

“The Kuhnert Classic is the biggest game of our season. The Township-Borough rivalry — it doesn’t get much bigger than that,” Ryan said.

Despite the loss, Ryan was happy with his team’s effort.

“I’m very proud of our guys,” Freehold’s coach said. “They’re working hard for each other. It’s not for their record right now. Our guys play hard. There’s always a momentum swing, where it could go our way. And then it swings the other way.

“Every coach, we all teach the same things: work hard every day, give your best effort [and] be a good teammate. The record, that’s secondary to me.”

The record has plenty of meaning for the streaking Patriots, who entered the final week of January without a loss. Two days before the Kuhnert Classic, Freehold Township traveled to Manalapan High School to face the Braves, and a few days before that, the Patriots lost Greg Billups to an ankle injury. The coincidence was Manalapan brought back Matan Zucker for that game in the first he played after suffering a near-identical injury early in the season.

The main difference was that Freehold Township was winning every game with Billups on the court, while Manalapan lost the two Zucker saw action leading up to the matchup with the Patriots.

Billups was on the sideline in Manalapan to watch his team play, and he was doing the best job he could to keep his team motivated.

“I just hope they could get a ‘W’ at the end of the game and we could continue our streak,” Billups said, adding that he roots hard for the guys getting more court time with him unable to play. “I just try to help them do their best on the court and encourage them any time they get on.”

Even with Billups out and Zucker back, Freehold Township didn’t need much motivation to tack on another win. The Braves never seemed to have a chance against the undefeated Patriots. Freehold Township went up, 19-9, in the first quarter and never looked back, crushing the Braves, 69-48.

“We played hard. We did what we had to do,” Golub said after the win. “[Manalapan] is a tough place to come play. They’re going to always play us hard. It’s a rival game, and they shot the ball very well tonight.

“They were down a couple of kids. We were down a couple of kids. And all-in-all, it’s a win. That’s all that matters.”

As much as Golub wanted to compliment Manalapan’s shooting, his usual top scorers, Staklinski and Zyskowski, deserved the majority of the praise. Staklinski went off for a career-high 32 points and Zyskowski added 20.

“You can’t take anyone for granted, honestly, because that’s when they sneak up and take one from you,” Staklinski said on Manalapan’s court after the win. “We just have to keep going and keep doing our best.”

Staklinski has been giving his team his best this year. After contributing 12.5 points per game last season, he’s upped his point total to 17 per game this year and only failed to score into double digits twice.

Knocking off the Braves made it official: the Patriots defeated each team in the Shore Conference A North Division.

“We’re the team to beat now,” Staklinski said. “We’ve just got to try to keep it up.”

Before Freehold Township plays four A North rivals in a row from Jan. 30-Feb. 10, the Patriots faced Neptune High School (9-4) Jan. 24 and will take on Red Bank Regional High School (6-6) Jan. 26 at 6:30 p.m. in Red Bank.

Then the Patriots will host Christian Brothers Academy (9-5) Jan. 27 at home at 5:30 p.m.