The 2019-2020 boys’ high school basketball season was expected to be a great one for the Patriots of Secaucus.
It was the season that Patriots head coach Tom Curry waited for, paying his dues, enduring seasons of 9-16 in his first year and 12-13 in his second campaign.
Sure, the Patriots had a great year last year, posting a 19-7 mark, but the new season represented Curry’s best chance at a champion yet.
But then, adversity kicked in.
An expected starting player transferred to another school.
Another key player, junior forward Veton Tolaj, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during football season, an injury that required reconstructive surgery and forced Tolaj to the sidelines for the entire basketball season.
Yet another key contributor, junior guard Patrick Pantoliano, broke his ankle during the very first scrimmage of the preseason, forcing Pantoliano to miss the entire basketball season.
That’s enough adversity in terms of transfer and injury to destroy any team, much less a Group I enrollment school with several athletes who participate in more than one sport.
“I’ve always been preaching ‘next man up’ mentality,” Curry said. “You’re always going to have injuries in high school basketball. In fact, no matter what the sport is, you’re going to have some injuries. So I always teach the ‘next man.’”
With that in mind, Curry just went about life with business as usual.
“I thought we still were in a good boat,” Curry said. “We had a lot of oars to put in the water. We also had a lot of dog left in the fight.”
The Patriots started the season with a win over New Milford and a loss to Fair Lawn, before heading to the Weehawken Christmas tournament, called the Indian Holiday Classic. There, the undermanned Patriots defeated host Weehawken, then knocked off Hawthorne in the championship game.
“Honestly, I think the Weehawken Christmas tournament helped to propel us a little bit,” Curry said. “I think from that point, we were able to have anything happen and we could recover. I told them that this was the team we have. We’re not worrying about who’s not here. I said, ‘Let’s roll with it and see what happens.’”
Steve Winwood couldn’t have sung it any better than the message Curry gave to the Patriots.
“I knew that we had a senior dominated team,” Curry said. “And I really felt that we could win a lot of games with them.”
On January 10, the Patriots experienced another turning point, when they defeated Dwight-Englewood, 54-50, at Englewood. The Bulldogs had not lost a home game in almost four full seasons, stretching 43 games.
“It was a very long time,” Curry said, as his standout guard Jamling Lama scored 22 points and forward Egon Ferati had 15 points and 15 rebounds. It was clearly a statement-making victory.
Since that point, the Patriots have won 10 of 12 games, seven of their last eight and three straight to post a 13-4 record thus far. No one in their right mind could have ever predicted such success after losing so many key players. But no one has ever believed that Curry was in his right mind when he kept that positive ‘next man up’ winning formula in his brain.
“It’s been great,” Curry said. “It’s been a lot of fun. We have a good group of guys. It has been a pleasure to work with them.”
And the Patriots should get a seed in the middle of the Hudson County Tournament bracket that was being determined at press time. Sure, there are a ton of teams in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League in the same boat – there’s that nautical reference again – with the Patriots. North Bergen (14-5) and Lincoln (13-5) have almost identical records with the Patriots. Memorial (15-6) and defending county tourney champ Union City (12-9) are also right there. Even Hoboken at 9-9 will deserve some consideration for a higher seed that the Patriots. It’s hard to judge what kind of seed Secaucus deserves in comparison to the teams in the HCIAL.
“We’ll see where we fit in,” Curry said.
The Patriots begin and end with their extremely talented 6-foot junior guard Lama, who is among the top scorers in the North Jersey Interscholastic League at 21.6 points per game.
“He’s closing in on 1,000 points and he’s only a junior,” Curry said. “He’s one of the best guards in our league. He’s the player every coach dreams of. He’s a great kid on the court and off the court. He’s really a special kid and I’m glad he’s on my team. He’s just a tremendous scorer.”
Senior Isaac Poueriet is also a capable scorer. The 6-foot-1 Poueriet is averaging 13.4 points per game and almost also grabs eight rebounds per contest.
“He really does complement Jamling well,” Curry said. “He’s also a lock-down defender on the other team’s top scorer. It always helps when a team can put egos aside and this team has no egos.”
Senior Ferati, who had the huge game early in the season against Dwight-Englewood, has also been contributing, averaging 10 points per game. Ferati is a 6-foot-3 center.
“He’s a tremendous offensive player and an aggressive rebounder,” Curry said. “He also averages almost three blocks [blocked shots] per game. He’s a presence.”
Senior Isaac Conil is a 5-foot-10 swingman.
“He’s a glue guy,” Curry said. “He doesn’t fill up the stat sheet, but he gets in there every game. He gets his steals and assists.”
Senior Danny Chinchilla, the cross country star, is also a fine basketball player. The 5-foot-10 Chinchilla is a solid defender.
“He’s our best on-the-ball defender,” Curry said. “He’s a good role guy for a team like this. He can also knock down a three [3-point field goal] from time to time.”
Senior Joe Petruzzelli is a 5-foot-10 guard.
“He’s also a good on-the-ball defender,” Curry said. “He does all the nitty gritty dirty work. He puts the team in position to have success.”
Senior Darsh Patel is a 5-foot-9 guard.
“He comes in and could be a streak shooter,” Curry said. “He helped us beat Leonia recently with three 3-pointers. He’s a smart basketball player.”
The Patriots are far from done winning, but already, they could be Hudson County’s biggest surprise this season, even if they play in a league that resides outside of Hudson County.
“We have to get some things to fall our way down the stretch,” Curry said. “But it has been a tremendous year thus far. I am lucky and blessed to have such a great group of kids. I just hope it continues.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. This week’s guest is former Hudson Catholic immortal, former Duke All-American and NBA player and current television broadcaster Jim Spanarkel.