There is a lot of buzz in the air in the Swamp.
The high expectations surround the Middletown High School South boys’ basketball team.
Returning four starters from last year’s lineup and its top-five scorers, Middletown South is loaded with talent and is expected to be a top team in the Shore Conference and in the A-North Division.
That has been the case so far, with the Eagles flying out to a 6-1 mark to begin the season.
“If we beat the team’s we’re supposed to beat, everything will fall into place,” said Middletown South coach Jim Anderson. “The kids have bought into sharing the ball. We’re a hard team to defend. We’re known as a team that can shoot the three, but we have worked on ways to score by taking the ball to the basket to make us tougher to guard. We’re fast and we can score.”
Going into the 2019-2020 season, Anderson made sure his club didn’t get lost in all the hype by keeping them focused on taking things one game at a time, which started with the season opener against Manalapan High School on Dec. 19 at Middletown South.
Middletown South heard their coaches message loud and clear by storming out of the gate with a 70-51 victory over the Braves.
The Eagles continued roll by winning their first two contests in the WOBM Holiday Classic Tournament.
Middletown South swept by Lacey in the first round with a 71-44 victory and then picked up an impressive triumph over a good Red Bank Catholic team in the quarterfinals, when the Eagles defeated the Caseys, 71-52, on Dec. 27.
Senior James Anderson played a big part in the team’s 3-0 start. Anderson scored over 20 points in each of the three victories when he knocked home four three-pointers and scored 24 points in the season opening decision over Manalapan.
The senior connected for a total of 86 three-pointers as a junior last season that helped him lead Middletown South in scoring.
He has sank17 three-pointers so far this winter, while he splashed in three shots from downtown during his game-high 21 point performance in Middletown South’s 68-49 victory over Matawan Regional High School on Jan. 4. That result was Middletown South’s six victory of the season.
“I worked on my ball handling skills in the offseason and getting stronger to take the ball to the basket,” said Anderson, who is averaging 17.5 points a game. “It’s great to add those skills to my shooting.
Middletown South is loaded up with talent around Anderson in the backcourt with fellow senior Jackson Sheridan and junior Luke Albrecht.
Sheridan had a stellar junior campaign, leading the team in steals, while finishing as the squad’s second leading scorer and second in assists.
Anderson and Sheridan combined for 158 of the team’s 195 three-pointers made last winter.
“You want to be looked as one of the best teams out there, but it also puts a big target on your back,” Sheridan said. “I think we’re ready to face that challenge. We can play at a faster pace because we all understand where guys are going to be in different spots.”
Albrecht provides another element to the Middletown South terrific backcourt trio with his ability to drive to the basket and his vision to dish the ball off to the open man.
As a sophomore, Albrecht led the team in assists with 128 and had 82 baskets from inside the arch to help finish as the team’s No. 3 scorer.
“I know I got some of the best shooters in the state on my team, so I use my good passing IQ to get them the ball when I see them open,” Albrecht said. “We all bring something different to the table and all of us put together know how to make it work on the court.”
Senior Richie Boyko is another strong player that returns to the Eagles’ backcourt this winter and is one of the team’s best defenders.
Because of their size and length, Boyko and Anderson will both see time as a power forward when the team decides to go with its smaller lineup.
Down in the frontcourt, senior Mike Dabas returns for the Eagles after a solid junior campaign.
Dabas has been a force in the paint to start this season for Middletown South, withaveraging 13 points and over eight rebounds a game. The senior is really good at grabbing offensive rebounds.
Fellow classmate Bobby Pirie is a big scoring threat in the frontcourt for Middletown South. Pirie was the team’s fifth leading scorer last season and is off to a good start this winter for the Eagles, averaging 11 points and almost seven rebounds a contest.
“My job is to get a lot of rebounds in the paint and play hard,” Dabas said.
Junior Julius Forte and sophomore Tommy Schork have each seen time off the bench this season for Middletown South and have played well.
Senior Tom Brown has provided strong depth in the frontcourt when on the court for the Eagles. Brown is currently dealing with an injury to his back that has only allowed him to play in three games for Middletown South so far.
With a healthy Brown and senior Joe Stanzione, who is also coming back from an injury, Middletown South will have more depth and athleticism in its lineup.
When Anderson took over the team again two years ago, he knew his team could have great success even though the program was coming off an 8-18 season in 2016-2017 and we’re not highly respected coming into last season.
After a great start to this winter, Middletown South looks primed that great success this season.
“Anytime you have good expectations coming into the season and see the kids working hard to win games, it’s great to see,” Anderson said. “We have a good system here. We have good coaches. The kids have all bought in and work hard. If we work hard and do the fundamental things right, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports