St. Joseph still class of the GMC despite challenges

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By Jimmy Allinder

The Saint Joseph High School of Metuchen basketball team was coming off an outstanding season like so many others in its storied history.

The Falcons finished 22-6 last year, won their sixth Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Tournament crown in seven tries and advanced to the NJSIAA Non-Public A South title game, only to drop a 69-67 thriller to eventual state Non-Public champion St. Augustine Preparatory School.

St. Joe’s again figured to be a major player on the New Jersey high school scene even with Tyus Battle (Syracuse University), Breein Tyree (University of Mississippi) and Branislav Vujadinovic (Assumption College) graduating.

Even with the challenge of filling those vacancies, the Falcons could expect to reload with fresh talent supplemented by impactful transfers. However, when it was announced junior Alanzo Frink and sophomore Kalif Battle would play at Roselle Catholic High School and senior Xavier Townes was headed to Sayreville War Memorial High School, a collective “uh-oh” could be heard in Falconland.

For a team that has been unbeatable in the GMC for five consecutive years, the coaching hierarchy couldn’t be blamed for entertaining the notion the Falcons’ reign might finally be over — except for St. Joe’s coach Dave Turco, who had no doubt this group would win just like his former teams.

They are 19-0 overall, have clinched the Red Division, are the GMC’s only unbeaten team and had an opportunity to remain that way if they defeated Old Bridge High School (13-7 overall, 5-4 division) Feb. 7. When the conference convenes Feb. 10 to choose the seeds for its annual tournament, which begins a day later, St. Joe’s is a cinch to receive the top seed, which has been the case the last three years.

Turco felt strongly his charges would eventually meld together, but even he admitted the unblemished record has surprised him.

“We lost a lot to graduation and transfers, but I knew we would [still] be good,” he said. “We had a lot of young players and older ones who just needed to adjust to competing on the varsity level.

“I thought we would struggle early on and [perhaps] lose [some games] but when the tournaments began, we would be a tough out.”

Thus far, St. Joe’s has absorbed all-comers’ best shots and has not hit the canvas. South Brunswick High School — the team closest to St. Joe’s in the Red Division — has provided the most competition but lost both times the teams have met (56-53 Jan. 12 and 64-52 Feb. 4). The Vikings will be marked among the few who can prevent St. Joe’s from defending its GMC tournament championship.

Outside the conference, the Falcons edged Seton Hall Preparatory School, 48-45, in the Neptune Holiday Jubilee tournament title game and Neptune High School, 47-46, Jan. 28.

“The defining moment was winning that holiday tournament,” Turco said. “We beat a solid Ewing [High School] team, [42-35], and then Seton Hall. That proved to me and the kids we have enough talent to represent St. Joe’s basketball and keep the tradition alive.”

The point about believing in his team is mostly due to three seniors: Mikey Granda, Malachi Walker and Latrell West.

West has led the Falcons in scoring with 19.1 points per game, steals (54) and free throws (88), generally terrorizing the opposition. Walker has been nothing short of sensational on defense with 103 blocked shots, which Turco said is tops in the state.

There are many glowing superlatives that describe Granda’s value, but none better than being the glue that binds the team together. His 7.2 point-per-game average isn’t as important as what he does to make everybody around him better.

“[The three seniors] come to work every day and help our younger players understand what it takes to be a Falcon,” Turco said. “I give them and their families credit for sticking with this program. Today, so many kids transfer because they don’t play as sophomores or juniors, and these guys have had to wait their turns. They certainly have earned the right for the spotlight to shine on them now.”

The seasoned trio is not totally responsible for the Falcons’ success. A pair of talented freshmen — Richard Greaves and Tyree Taganeca-Ford — average close to 10 points and a third freshman, Zach Martini, has earned important minutes.

If the Falcons are vulnerable, it may be a lack of depth. Turco has decided on a six- or seven-man rotation, at least when games are tight, and so far the strategy has worked. However, if foul trouble rears its ugly head, the coach will have to dig deeper into a bench that hasn’t played important minutes. On the positive side, while the Falcons may have been wet behind the ears at the beginning of the campaign, that’s not the case any longer. Led by their three seniors, the rotation, as small as it is, has become a cohesive unit on both ends of the court.

St. Joe’s is certain to encounter challenges ahead in the postseason.

Following the GMC Tournament is the state tournament, and the Falcons will be seeded no lower than second behind St. Augustine. Regardless of how the season concludes and considering the obstacles this team overcame, it will be remembered as a very special season.