Rockets have unfinished business as 2022-23 basketball season tips off


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HAZLET — During the 2021-22 postseason, the Raritan High School boys basketball team was eight seconds away from advancing to the Central Jersey Group II state sectional tournament championship game, but in the blink of an eye, Bound Brook High School’s Quadir Harrell hit a game-winning basket to deny the Rockets a chance to play for a sectional title.

The taste of that last-second defeat in the state sectional tournament semifinals is still resonating with Head Coach Denis Caruano and the Rockets as the 2022-23 season tips off and it is fueling the players to earn redemption.

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“The kids definitely (have a chip on their shoulders) to make a big run this season,” said Caruano. “We talked about (that loss) all summer. The kids have really come in and worked hard and are ready to get after it.”

Senior leaders Jack O’Leary, Billy Tigar, Jack Coleman and Matthew Agar are back to set the tone in the new season.

They will be joined by junior Alex Garguilo and seniors Michael Diller and Justin Guccione, who will step into bigger roles. Freshman Cameron Gabloff is a newcomer who is expected to contribute.

The Rockets opened the 2022-23 season on a winning note against Monmouth Regional High School of Tinton Falls on Dec. 15 at home in Hazlet. Raritan defeated the visiting Falcons, 46-39.

The Rockets played outstanding defense all night, especially in the first half, forcing 12 Monmouth Regional turnovers to help lead them to a 19-8 lead heading into halftime.

“Defense here has generally been our forte. I was very happy in the first half only giving up eight points,” said Caruano.

The Rockets took a 31-22 lead into the fourth quarter after a great hustle play on the offensive boards by Diller in the final seconds of the third quarter. The senior guard grabbed a missed layup attempt by Tigar and scored to give the Rockets a nine-point lead heading into the final eight minutes of the contest.

“That was definitely a huge momentum swing for us,” said Diller. “It really helped us keep going.”

Diller, who was playing in his first game since sustaining an injury during the preseason, finished with 13 points and eight rebounds off the bench.

O’Leary had an outstanding season-opener as he scored 11 of his game-high 17 points in the first half. He finished with nine rebounds in the victory.

Caruano and the Rockets watched O’Leary blossom into a top-scorer as he averaged more than 12 points per game as a junior.

“He’s kind of a walking double-double,” Caruano said of O’Leary. “He can get the board and fight through (contact) to put (the ball) in the hoop. He has really worked hard in the off-season to develop his three-point shot.”

O’Leary said he is ready to take the next step in his progression this season, which he hopes includes leading the Rockets to a berth in a state sectional tournament title game for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

“I am looking to lead the team the best I can. We want to make a big run this year,” O’Leary said.

Raritan will host Holmdel High School on Dec. 19 and then face Matawan Regional High School on Dec. 22.

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