By Andrew Garda
It’s a whole new season for the Montclair High School boys basketball team, with numerous changes to contend with, and not just because of the pandemic.
The Mounties, who struggled mightily last year in the top Super Essex Conference American Division and finished with a 5-18 record, have dropped down to the Liberty Division.
In the Liberty, MHS won’t have to contend with perennial New Jersey Top 20 teams like Seton Hall Prep, Newark East Side and 2020 Essex County champion Immaculate Conception.
Still, according to head coach Gary Wallace, the competition Montclair will face is going to be fierce. East Orange, for example, finished with a 24-4 record and didn’t drop a game in either the conference or the Colonial Division, even holding their own against Immaculate in a 55-52 loss in the ECT semis. Newark Central went 16-9 (10-5 SEC) last season, and Orange was 16-10 (13-4 SEC).
Wallace knows his team needs to come in focused.
“You know, we all saw all the teams in the fall be very successful,” he said. “I’m excited [and] very optimistic that we’re going to do the same thing.”
Focus is especially critical given how few games there will be. Most years can see teams play upwards of 25 games, with the top teams playing more than 30.
This year, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is limiting teams to 15 games, including any county, conference or league championship games. As it stands, there are no postseason tournaments planned, so if a team wants a trophy, they have to win the division.
To do that, teams need to focus and be on the same page, even more than usual due to the pandemic and the reality that a positive COVID-19 test can derail a season, while repeated issues could end it.
MHS did a good job of avoiding those issues in the fall, something Wallace will stress to his team as they begin practice. There’s already been a delay, as Monday’s practice was canceled while the main building continues to be cleaned after a positive COVID-19 test among the staff occurred last week.
More than anything else, that means the Mounties need to be able to adapt.
Wallace and his staff are already doing so, as they are not completely clear on how many kids will be returning. The coach said until practice starts, they won’t know for sure if a player is fully committed or will skip this season due to COVID-19.
Still, there are some important pieces to the puzzle Wallace is relying on.
Senior Jason Douglas is someone Wallace is looking to for a big step forward this year and someone the staff has been focused on in prior seasons.
“I rode him pretty hard the last couple of years because he’s got so much untapped potential, and just his presence on the floor changes a lot for us,” he said.
Douglas, who is 6-foot-5, and Matt Skibniewski, who is 6-foot-7, represent the Mounties’ height this season, and Wallace needs them focused.
“Two guys like that who are great athletes, who pass the ball very well, with great instincts, who rebound the basketball and do the dirty work are important,” he said.
Another player to watch is William Monroe, who missed the first few games last year. Monroe should step into the point guard position, where the Mounties lacked steady play last season. Wallace expects the senior to step up and be more consistent this season.
He also has high expectations for Omari Thusi, another senior.
“What I’ve seen from him, in fall ball as he has worked with our coaches, he’s really grown and been open to positive criticism,” he said. “Not being so closed-minded, but being more open-minded as to learning what is going on in an actual game situation.”
Wallace said it’s a very young team overall, so he is expecting players who were on the junior varsity team last season, who are only sophomores or juniors this year, to contribute more than perhaps has been needed in years past.
One element of the new season that Wallace has been trying to get his team ready for could be the most jarring for some teams: a lack of fans and crowd noise.
Along with the shorter season, there will be protocols like filling out health forms and taking temperatures before practices and games, as well as no spectators allowed at games.
Wallace thinks that could be the biggest shock for many teams, pointing to the many upsets in college basketball this season. Coaches call the fans the “sixth man,” and they are a big part of a game for many teams; removing that from the equation might result in a lot of surprises at the high school level as well.
“Anybody who’s played basketball before, anybody who knows basketball at all, understands the power of the ‘sixth man,’” Wallace said. “When you have fans in the gym, they can rattle the other team and get in their head, and that just has [to help] the home team that much more.”
Now it’s just two teams on the court and nobody else.
“I think that’s going to play into a lot of teams’ favor,” he said. “Hopefully we can take advantage of that.”