Return to glory

Marist boys’ basketball program enjoys a rebirth under new coach Freeland

At one time, they were as good as it gets in the HCIAA.

The Marist boys’ basketball program was as dominant as the Yankees are in baseball and Duke is in college basketball. Marist was feared and hated and despised and respected, the way perennial champions are treated.

With head coach Mike Leonardo calling the shots, the Royal Knights captured seven league championships and won the NJSIAA Parochial B state championship in 1992, including a berth in the Tournament of Champions finale that year. The Knights produced NCAA Division I college basketball players left and right, players like John Giraldo, the late Roscoe Harris, Donnell Williams, Randy Encarnacion and Jamal Marshall, just to name a few.

After Leonardo resigned and turned the reins over to Chris Chevannes, the winning tradition continued. The Knights won another league title under Chevannes, with players like Rashid Dunbar and John Winchester leading the way.

But then disaster struck. Dunbar was involved in a near-fatal car accident. It was also learned that Winchester was illegally enrolled in the school. The team had to forfeit all of its games in 2001. Chevannes was replaced, first by a former high school teammate of former NBA star Chris Mullin named Jerry Castello.

For two years, the Marist program sunk to all-time lows. After having to forfeit all 22 games in the 2001 season, then winning just one game in Castello’s lone season as head coach, the Royal Knights had only one win to show for two entire seasons. The Royal Knights were actually 1-19 two years ago. 1-19!

For a program soaked in a winning tradition like Marist, it was almost unthinkable to conceive that the Royal Knights could become so horrible, almost overnight.

Enter Vernon Freeland, a veteran coach who established his basketball roots in Newark, coaching at Arts High and Chad Science, experiencing winning at both schools. Freeland branched out to college basketball, as an assistant coach at Middlesex County College as well.

When Freeland was hired to replace Castello right before the 2002-03 season began, he was more than aware of the Marist mystique.

“I knew Marist was a big-time program with a lot of big-time college players over the years,” Freeland said. “I knew that Marist had a great winning tradition. I thought it was a great opportunity for me.”

Freeland didn’t want to think about just how far Marist had fallen. He wanted to focus on the positive.

“I actually thought that the winning tradition would help us out,” Freeland said. “A lot of these kids were around when Marist was in better times. They knew what Marist basketball was all about. I think we just needed for someone to come in and get back to the winning ways, the winning tradition. For some reason, they got away from that.”

However, Freeland didn’t experience instant success. The Royal Knights floundered during Freeland’s first season a year ago, posting a 5-14 record.

“You know, I really thought we could be competitive right away,” Freeland said. “In fact, I thought we were competitive. I was extremely optimistic. Maybe it was my stupidity. It was my first year in Hudson County. I was used to Essex County. But it was a strange year. We lost about 10 games by seven or less points. We were only non-competitive in three games. That 5-14 record was a little deceiving.”

So Freeland had a good feeling about the nucleus of the team he had returning from his first year.

“I was real excited because we had everyone coming back,” Freeland said. “We had a core group of kids who worked hard over the summer together. They all went to an overnight camp together in Pennsylvania at Albright College. They played together in summer leagues, facing teams like Rice (of New York), South Plainfield and Teaneck. They really played together a lot and they grew together. When you have six kids going at it together all the time, it really helps.”

Seniors Jyron Brooks, a 6-2 guard, and Jamil Nelson, a 6-1 guard, gave Freeland leadership and stability in the backcourt.

“They were the holdovers from the year before,” Freeland said.

Another senior, Taal Harris, a 5-9 guard, added to the leadership. Senior forward Alfonso Duhart, a 6-5 power forward, was the fourth senior of the group.

Add in 6-3 junior forward Jarious Parker and 6-2 junior forward Ali Singletary and you have the makings of six dedicated kids willing to put the troubled times of the past in the past – and concentrate on a very promising future.

“They were the reasons why I was so excited,” Freeland said. “I knew they wanted to win. I knew they wanted to play.”

When the 2003-04 season began, Freeland had a strong feeling that the Royal Knights were poised to turn the corner. The losing ways of recent years were about to become a part of a faded memory. The tradition had returned.

“I think we came into the season knowing that we had to share the basketball and we had to re-dedicate ourselves to defense,” Freeland said. “That’s what we’ve done.”

The Royal Knights own a 9-3 record thus far. They’re 3-2 in the HCIAA Coviello standings. That would be good enough right now to get into the county playoffs, which was a distant memory in each of the last two seasons.

Incredibly, the Knights are winning with regularity and they don’t have a single player averaging more than double figures. Their leading scorer is a bench player, 6-3 junior forward Shahid McPherson, who is averaging 9.7 points per game.

“We’re really excited about it,” Freeland said. “We’re really pumped up. One of our goals to start the season was to make the county playoffs. Another was to make the state tournament. We would like nothing more than to reach those goals.”

Helping the cause are 5-11 junior guard Eric Lyles, a transfer from St. Anthony, and 6-3 senior forward Ramone Harris, who was the quarterback during the football season.

While most coaches might have been overjoyed making such a dramatic turnaround, winning twice as many games already as the school had enjoyed for the last three years, Freeland isn’t overly excited.

“I’m just not real surprised by it,” Freeland said. “That’s just me. I’m always optimistic. I don’t think we ever lost the dignity and pride of Marist basketball. No one was accustomed to 5-14. Some kids might have gotten down on themselves, but these kids were ready. The kids are still learning, but we’re getting to the upper echelon.”



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