Rockets return veteran group for 2021-22 basketball campaign


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HAZLET – It is all about “seizing the day” for the Raritan High School boys basketball team as the Rockets prepare to tip off the 2021-22 season.

That is the motto Coach Denis Caruano has been preaching to his players since practice began just after Thanksgiving.

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With a mentality that is similar to the one the Rockets employed during the 2020-21 season that was abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the players are taking every game and every practice as if it could be their last one.

“We talk about being where your feet are,” Caruano said. “We are playing every game like it could be our last game. We are going to play hard and do what we can to try to win a championship.”

The Rockets went 8-6 in 2020-21 and bring back a lot of experience with nine returning varsity players on the roster.

With his entire starting five back and a deep bench, Caruano believes Raritan can be very competitive in the strong Shore Conference A Central Division.

“We can go toe to toe with anyone on our schedule,” he said. “I believe we have the talent to be a Top 10 team.”

Leading the way at point guard is senior Justin Rivera, a three-year starter. Rivera led the Rockets in scoring last season at just over 13 points per game.

“Justin is a fabulous player,” Caruano said. “He took on a leadership role for the team last year. He is the voice of the team.”

Returning alongside Rivera in the starting lineup will be senior Jason Trotta and juniors Matthew Agar, Lucas LaVilla and Jack O’Leary.

Trotta is entering his third-year as a starter on the hardwood and is an NCAA Division I football recruit.

Trotta and O’Leary bring a nice physical presence to the frontcourt and do an outstanding job rebounding on both ends of the floor, said Caruano.

Agar and LaVilla are each expected to make significant contributions on both ends of the floor from the wing.

Caruano expects Agar to take a big leap this season after finishing behind Rivera as the team’s second leading scorer in 2020-21.

“He can hit the three from outside and go down the lane and finish at the rim,” Caruano said of Agar. “He is a good free throw shooter. We can have him play on the wing or down in the post.”

LaVilla and junior William Tigar give the Rockets strong shooting from beyond the three-point line.

Tigar has impressed Caruano during the Rockets’ scrimmages, scoring in double-digits coming off the bench.

Senior Tyzaya Smith and juniors Jack Coleman and Michael Diller are returning players who are expected to make an impact off the bench.

Sophomore Alex Gargiulo and juniors Justin Guccione and Nick Venticinque round out the varsity roster.

Though he is not used to having this much depth on the team, Caruano said it is nice to have a lot of options and to have the possibility of calling on nine or more players throughout the season.

Caruano said the players have trust in one another. He believes that going through the hardships of the 2020-21 season with all of the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 helped bring them closer.

“They have embraced that brotherhood culture,” the coach said. “They care about each other. They all have the common goal of putting the team first. They know they have options (players) behind them who can do the job.”

Raritan will open the season at home against St. Rose High School of Belmar on Dec. 17. The Rockets will play A Central foe Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School on Dec. 21 before playing in a holiday tournament during the winter break.


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