In what has to be considered the most topsy-turvy and crazy year in the history of HCIAA basketball, perhaps it was only fitting that the season ended with the most unlikely of contenders coming away holding the Coviello Division championship trophy.
In the waning stages of January, the Marauders of St. Peter’s Prep held a totally non-descript 4-9 record and a 2-6 mark inside the Coviello Division. At that stage, the Marauders weren’t even on the radar screen as being a legitimate threat for the HCIAA title. Heck, at that point, they weren’t even in the picture to simply qualify for the playoffs.
But something miraculous happened. The Marauders, a team that featured the exploits of three freshmen all season (an unthinkable thought in the highly competitive league), finally came of age. The freshman mistakes started to dwindle and the team’s two seniors, a lacrosse player named Nick Rabiecki and a football player named Joe Holder, decided to lead the way.
“At that point, we were 4-9 and just had to win the next five,” said Holder, who was a Hudson Reporter All-Area wide receiver for the Marauders’ HCIAA grid champions in the fall. “With that record, we had nothing to lose. That’s what was going through our minds. I think Nick and I took it upon ourselves to lead the underclassmen and show them that they could accomplish something that they would remember the rest of their lives.”
“We knew that our most talented players were freshmen,” said Rabiecki, who has already signed a letter of intent to attend Holy Cross in the fall to play lacrosse. “They showed some immaturity and instability earlier in the season and we couldn’t bounce back in games. We knew we had a better team than 4-9. It was our last chance to do anything and Joe and I had to take the leadership role. I don’t think it ever crossed our mind that it was over, but we knew it was going to be tough.
Added Rabiecki, “But there was one game when we were down 17 and [freshman point guard] Kevin Walker just got us going. I could tell that they were not going to let us down and that for the rest of the year, we weren’t going to go down without a fight.”
So the Marauders scrapped and clawed their way to five straight wins to qualify for the NJSIAA Non-Public (Parochial) A North playoffs. They also managed to bounce back and win enough games to capture the eighth and final seed in the HCIAA Coviello playoffs.
Winning the league title would then become an extremely daunting task, considering the fact that no team seeded eighth had ever emerged as the league champs in the 24-year history of the HCIAA playoffs.
Marauders head coach Mike Kelly never approached the idea that his team had an impossible road ahead. The seeding meant nothing to the Marauders. They were in the playoffs. It meant they had a shot. That’s all that matters.
“We really were optimistic, because we talked about the three teams we would have had to play, namely Bayonne, Emerson, and Union Hill,” Kelly said. “And honestly, we beat them all in the regular season. We kept it positive and pointed in that direction that we could beat those teams.”
But realistically? History was against the Marauders. They needed to win two straight on the road to get to the finals. The No. 8 seed simply doesn’t win the title. It never happened before.
The Marauders kept the faith. They went to Bayonne and shocked the top seed in the first round of the playoffs, avenging an 18-point loss that took place just eight days prior. They went to Union City and toppled Emerson, ending the dream of having an all-Union City finale.
Finally, the Marauders had one last mountain to climb to achieve their impossible dream – namely the Hillers of Union Hill, who were going for one last crack at the ever-elusive HCIAA title, who had not captured a league crown since 1955, with this being the last chance since the school will become a part of history at the end of this year.
“Union Hill plays so hard anyway, but with the history involved, it was like they really needed any incentive to play harder,” Kelly said. “They impose their will on teams and play a little harder than anyone. I knew that they would play with a sense of desperation and desire. It was all about how our young team would respond to that desperation. No one gets more out of his team than [Union Hill coach] Carlos Cueto.”
Added Kelly, “When you have a young team, you’d rather play a team that executes more than one that imposes their will with their intensity and speed. It was like a street fight. It was a tough challenge for us, because everyone has to come out and play so damn hard. They certainly weren’t going to give it [the championship] to us. We were going to have to earn it.”
The Marauders went out and earned it. Raphael Ortiz hit a jump shot from a little past the foul line with just seven seconds left, giving the Marauders the unthinkable, the 48-47 victory over Union Hill that enabled the Marauders to capture the school’s first HCIAA Coviello title since 2001 and only the second for the school since 1963.
The win gave the Marauders a 9-3 record over their last 12 games, a complete 360-degree spin from where they were in January.
“It was a 100 percent turnaround,” Kelly said. “You couldn’t even draw up a blueprint to have this happen. In my wildest dreams, I never would have believed this could happen. It’s certainly befitting of what was a crazy year that went right down to the last day. It was certainly fitting for us.”
So the team with the freshmen, like 6-foot-8 center Keith Lumpkin, who played himself into a First Team All-Area slot with his tremendous second half, as well as point guard Walker and talented 6-foot-4 forward Chase Fluellen, get to hold the trophy.
However, it was the two Prep seniors, the lacrosse player who won the MVP of the championship game with 10 points and 12 rebounds, and the football player, who carved a slice of his own personal history by becoming the first football/basketball player at Prep to win two county titles in the same year since 1963, who deserve the brunt of the credit.
“It’s a privileged position to be in,” Holder said. “It’s pretty remarkable. Coming in as the No. 8 seed, people didn’t expect anything from us. Everyone was counting us out. But we’re a close-knit team and after we started off slowly, we all came together a little more. We couldn’t quit. We still had a chance, no matter how slim that chance was. We had a chance to pull off a miracle and I guess we did. We weren’t even on the radar and now we’re the champs. I guess this feels even better than the football championships, because no one expected this.”
Holder can now concentrate on his collegiate choice. He’s deciding between Penn, Yale, Georgetown and Franklin & Marshall. Yeah, nice choices.
“I never would have expected this,” Rabiecki said. “What made me feel good is that Kevin Walker said before the final, `We want to do this for you and Joe.’ That was pretty impressive and special in my eyes. We can be remembered as being the only No. 8 seed to win it all.”
Kelly, a Jersey City native who is also a lieutenant in the Jersey City Police Department, said that he remembered other great names who had earned HCIAA titles in the past.
“It made me think of names like [Jim] Spanarkel and Danny Callandrillo,” Kelly said. “I felt a little selfish, because this is where I was born and grew up and used to come to the HCIAA championship game all the time. I remember the history. It was a great place to grow up and now I’m the coach of the county champs? How can that be?”
Kelly said that the whole concept hadn’t hit him yet. “Maybe when it’s all over, the season is over, I can have some finality to it and sit back and reflect how amazing this year really was,” Kelly said. “No one could ever believe it.”
It’s fine to believe in miracles every now and then.