South River has struggled with move to Blue Division

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By Jimmy Allinder

The South River High School boys’ basketball team was elevated to the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Blue Division this season — a promotion that was long overdue.

The Rams had wreaked havoc in the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Gold Division, winning titles in each of the last four seasons, with an aggregate 63-43 overall record and two trips to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group I semifinals.

However, the difference between the Blue and White Divisions is like night and day, as South River’s 7-11 overall and 4-7 division records attest. The Rams have five regular-season games left and the postseason tournaments to preserve their four-year winning streak.

“This year, we’ve had our ups and downs,” South River head coach Rodney Harris said. “We’re young [with four sophomore starters], but they are building blocks that will enable us to compete on a high level.”

The Rams have struggled this season because of defense and rebounding deficiencies. Blue Division opponents are taller and more athletic than Gold Division teams, so it’s not surprising South River has suffered growing pains. The Rams are currently fifth in the division standings.

One of the sophomores, Derrick Whitaker, is why Harris is optimistic about the future. He averages 22 points after scoring at a 17 point-per-game (ppg) clip as a freshman. Whitaker also takes down seven rebounds per game (rpg) and makes two steals a contest.

With 886 career points, Whitaker will soon join three other Rams who topped 1,000 the last four seasons: Sean Darrar (2014-15), Matt Martinez (2013-14) and the coach’s son, Tyler Harris (2012-13).

The other sophomores are Matt Pietrzyk (seven ppg and eight rpg), Zac Rafano (seven ppg and four assists a game), Mike DeSantis (nine ppg, two rpg and two steals a game) and Joe Nigro (five ppg and two steals a game).

Freshman Jayvon Taylor averages five points and three rebounds, while senior Jaryn Bullock and junior DeJuan Ross-Jackson are first off the bench.

Whitaker will be the key to South River’s success in this and future seasons, but Harris speaks highly of DeSantis — who quarterbacks the football team — for being the heart and soul of the team.

“He does so many things you don’t see [on the statistic sheet],” he said. “Joe is the emotional leader and our hardest worker.”

Although perennial power and rival Spotswood High School is suffering a substandard season (5-14 overall, 1-7 Blue Division), the Rams have prevailed in both games where the rivals have clashed, which has prompted Harris to state his team is headed in the right direction.

“That first win was our third game of the season, and we turned a close game into a 31-point victory,” the coach said of the 79-48 win Dec. 19. “That proved to us we could compete, even though we have a lot to learn.”

The Rams begin the postseason by participating in the GMC Tournament beginning Feb. 11 with play-in games. Following that, South River will play in the Central Jersey, Group II sectional for the first time in a long time. The Rams are currently mired near the bottom of the power rankings and will be on the road for the first round against an opponent to be determined.