Two years ago, the boys basketball team finished with a winning record of 12–11, allowing only 52.48 points per game on average. But last season the team experienced a sharp turnaround, going 6–15 and giving up an average of 58.14 points per game. In response, Head Coach Mark Shelley has made improving the team’s defense a top priority.
“[Improving our defense is] the focus, and I’ve told them [that] we’re going to hold people under 50 points per game on average,” Shelley said.
“Two years ago we had the best defense in the conference, and last year we weren’t even close to that, so if we could bring back our good defense that we had a few years ago that would [help],” said Matt Hart ’16, who plays small forward for the team. Hart led the team in scoring last season with 249 points.
In order to improve their defense, the boys will have to fill the hole left by last year’s center, Peter Mahotiere ’14, who graduated in the spring. One of the ways in which they will do this is by denying their opponents lanes to drive to the basket.
“Without a true big man we’ve changed the way we are aligned on some of our [plays],” Shelley said. “We don’t have that shot-blocker to where we can let them drive the lane and then block the shot, so we’ll start a little more condensed and work on playing defense from the inside out.”
Although the team will try to force opponents to take outside shots, it still needs new players to play in the post and fill the role of Mahotiere. Shelley has called up Tommy Moore ’15 and Tad Moore ’15, who both played for the junior varsity team last season, with the hope that they will improve the team’s post defense and rebounding.
“[The Moore brothers] had a lot of work at camp and summer league, and if they stay out of foul trouble they’ll be fine,” Shelley said. “There’s no pressure on them to score ‘x’ amount of points, but they have to be able to defend the big people from the other teams … [and] get on the board and get rebounds.”
For what it lacks in varsity experience in the post positions the team makes up with the experience and depth of its other players. Point guard JC Silva ’15 and shooting guard Kevin Kane ’15 are both returning, along with Hart. Each of these players played in at least 19 games out of a possible 21 last season.
“I feel like we have gained a lot of experience by playing together last year,” Silva said. “We did lose a lot of size but we also [gained] a better set of skilled players.”
“I think we’re better at the guard position, and guards win close games in terms of taking care of the ball [and] making free throws,” Shelley said. “So, I think we’ll be stronger in terms of closing out close games.” PHS went 2–7 last year in games decided by single digit margins.
According to Shelley, the team’s depth in the guard position will also allow it to put pressure on the ball on defense: if one player tires, another can be subbed in.
Another obstacle that the Little Tigers will face this year is that they have been moved up in classification from Group III to Group IV. They will also play both Trenton Central High School and Notre Dame High School twice this season, as opposed to once each last season. Each of these teams made it to the semifinals or better in its NJSIAA group tournament last year.
“We’ll be better, but then the schedule will be tougher. So it’s a good challenge; we’ll enjoy it,” Shelley said.
Last year’s team was plagued with a string of injuries that took out Andrew Braverman ’14, Maxwell Tarter ’15, and Paul Murray ’14. This season, the team will be making sure to do all that it can to not lose so many players to injuries.
“We’re closer to [Athletic Trainer Shannon] Koch and able to ask her more questions, and we’ve been doing better stretching and taking it more seriously, so hopefully that will let us have a longer and healthier season,” Hart said.
Ultimately, the boys hope that their efforts to improve defensively and to cut down on injuries will result in more wins and a return to the state tournament.
“I think this year we want to not lose as many close games, and pretty much just win more games because last year was kind of a disappointment,” Kane said.
Hart said, “I’d like our team to make the states this year, [since] last year we were one game away from making it.”