by Andrew Garda
Often the reward for a job well done is more work. In the case of Montclair High School’s boys basketball team, their reward for last winter’s 18-win campaign and Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship was a bump up to the SEC’s top tier, the American Division.
That means a big upgrade in the toughness of their schedule, as the Mounties will battle with Essex County’s elite, including Seton Hall Prep, crosstown rival Immaculate Conception, and Newark East Side.
“It’s eat or be eaten,” said head coach Gary Wallace as his team prepared for a scrimmage against Cedar Grove Tuesday afternoon.
Montclair had been in the SEC-American two seasons ago, finishing a competitive 3-9 in league play with a handful of close losses.
“We just couldn’t finish,” Wallace said. “I know we can compete, now it’s just these guys have to believe they can compete.”
If MHS is going to keep their head above water though, they will need players to step up. The end of last season saw a dozen seniors graduate, and Wallace said that’s a challenge to overcome.
To help, he’s looking to his current seniors.
Omarion Jett, Trevon Blount, Reid Eaves and Shawn Collins will all have to push themselves past their smaller roles last season if the Mounties are going to be successful.
“Omarion played some good minutes for us last year, and Reid, as the season went on, got more and more involved,” Wallace said. “Tre didn’t play as much as I would have liked him to last year, but we’ve discussed that and these guys are very open and honest coming into the season. I told them it’s not just the talk now, we’ve got to put the rubber to the road.”
Those four seniors aren’t the only players who Wallace is going to push past their comfort zones.
“We brought up a kid from the freshman team, Omari Thusi, who I believe has the ability to be a great point guard. But right now it’s just him getting used to the speed, and used to being coached. I don’t think he’s used to being coached and he gets frustrated. I told him that’s a part of being a basketball player. It’s not how I’m saying it to you, it’s what I’m saying because I need him to grow up fast.”
Wallace is hoping Thusi can step up, because Jett and Blount aren’t pure point guards, while he views the freshman as one.
“He’s just young. I’m throwing him in the fire, probably sooner than he wanted to but that’s ok, that’s how you learn. You learn by having your feet put to the fire.”
The Mounties’ schedule will certainly be a test, with an additional wrench thrown in: they begin the season with nine straight road games. Wallace said it was just happenstance that the schedule tumbled that way.
MHS opens the season tonight, Thursday, Dec. 19, with a 7 p.m. American Division contest at Columbia. They’re next in action at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City Monday, Dec. 23.
“The way our conference schedule fell, our first two conference games were away automatically. The only open day we had before conference play started was Jan. 3, and I really wanted to get two games in before the Immaculate game [on Jan. 7].”
Wallace got his games, but neither one managed to get scheduled at Montclair High. First, they’ll play Paterson Kennedy in a showcase game on New Year’s Day at Bergen Catholic. The following day, Jan. 2, they’ll travel to Linden High to face one of the state’s perennial public school powers.
Since the Mounties won’t play a game at their home gym until a Jan. 14 division game against Payne Tech, Wallace tried to get some games which could be home-adjacent. The Mounties’ holiday tournament will take place at neighboring East Orange Campus, where they will join the host Jaguars for the NJ Hoops Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 28, and Monday, Dec. 30.
“For us that’s kind of a home game because the teams we’re playing are from New York City, so hopefully we’ll be the home team because it will be close to home. We won’t be in this gym but we’ll be close to home.”
The stretch will test the Mounties, but Wallace said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think in a weird kind of way this is great for us,” he explained. “These guys will get a lot of experience playing in hostile crowds before we start conference play. I think it will be key because it gets no easier when we come back to conference with Immaculate, Seton Hall Prep, East Side, West Side, Payne Tech, and Columbia. It’s like experiencing the gauntlet before gauntlet number two.”