Colts Neck basketball team makes most of opportunity to play in 2021

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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Richard Lee drives to the basket during a game played against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel. Lee scored seven points in the team's season opener against Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Tommy Fallon makes a pass to a teammate during a game played against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Stephen Ciccarone shoots a free-throw attempt during the team's season opener against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Richard Lee drives to the basket during a game played against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel. Lee scored seven points in the team's season opener against Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Tommy Fallon makes a pass to a teammate during a game played against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School boys basketball player Stephen Ciccarone shoots a free-throw attempt during the team's season opener against Holmdel High School on Jan. 27 in Holmdel.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

The players on the Colts Neck High School boys basketball team are looking to make the most of their opportunity to be on the court in 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated in New Jersey.

“We want to play hard and play smart,” Coach Lou Piccola said. “We are just happy to be on the court. Staying safe and going through the protocols is the priority.”

Three years ago, Colts Neck advanced to its fourth state sectional championship game in eight seasons. But the past two campaigns have been tough for the Cougars, who went 5-17 a year ago during a second straight losing season.

In his 22nd year at the helm, Piccola said the team is in a transition period. He said the goal for 2021 is to build a new culture for the program based on the values of playing hard and being a good teammate.

“We want to change the culture of the program. We want to bring a competitive spirit each day and be a good teammate and stick to the game plan,” the veteran coach said.

The Cougars are led by three returning starters – sophomore Will Surdez and seniors Richard Lee and Stephen Ciccarone.

Surdez burst onto the scene as a freshman with a memorable buzzer beater against Middletown North High School to give Colts Neck one of its two Shore Conference B North Division victories a year ago.

The expectation for Surdez now is to continue to be a top option on offense and to become a leader on defense.

“I expect him to elevate his game and play both ends of the court,” Piccola said of Surdez. “He’s a tough kid. He attacks the basket well. He’s going to handle the ball more this year and have more responsibilities.”

Surdez and Lee comprise the backcourt. Lee is a three-year varsity player and brings leadership and experience to the Cougars this season.

Ciccarone will be a threat on the wing. He played on the school’s state sectional soccer championship team in the fall and brings a winning attitude and crucial leadership to the team, Piccola said.

Juniors Tommy Fallon and Ronak Sandeep complete the starting lineup. Both players bring size, athleticism and the ability to shoot from the outside.

Coming off the bench, seniors Matteo Piperno and Anthony Esposito, and juniors Cade Chrebet and John Runfolo will be key contributors in the backcourt, with support from junior Vivan Gandhi.

Senior Delano Marcelus is expected to bring more athleticism, along with his toughness, size and spirit to the backcourt off the bench.

Marcelus, Fallon and Chrebet played roles in helping the Colts Neck football team go 6-1 in 2020 and Gandhi was a member of the soccer championship team.

Piccola believes the athleticism and success his players have had in other sports can help the basketball team, but he noted they still need to improve their skills as basketball players for their athleticism to translate to the hardwood.

“We want to gradually build up and keep getting better in every game,” Piccola said. “We are taking things one day at a time.

It’s all about “baby steps” this winter for Piccola, who said most of his players did not start playing basketball again until the team began practice on Jan. 11. High school practice traditionally begins just after Thanksgiving, but the pandemic pushed back the season and shortened the campaign.

With a shortened preseason and in trying to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, Piccola has tried to ease his players into basketball shape for the regular season, but said practices have been great.

The coach said the biggest challenge will be trying to stay as safe as possible in order to have an opportunity to play a full 15-game season.

“The most important thing is to play a full season,” Piccola said. “The school has done a great job on their end of making sure the kids are safe and following all the protocols.”

Colts Neck opened the season on Jan. 27 against Holmdel High School, losing to the Hornets, 74-41. Surdez scored 11 points and Lee added seven points.

Colts Neck will host Holmdel on Jan. 29. The Cougars are then scheduled to start a two-game series with Saint John Vianney High School, with the first meeting to be played at SJV in Holmdel on Feb. 2.