For more than 50 years, that’s five decades to the mathematically challenged like yours truly, New Jersey City University (formerly known as Jersey City State College) has fielded both men’s and women’s basketball teams.
And throughout that half century – now there’s an impressive measure of time – the Gothic Knights had never won the New Jersey Athletic Conference championship in the same year.
Come to think of it, NJCU never crowned a women’s basketball champion. Not once. In recent years, the Gothic Knights were a complete laughingstock, filled with seasons with less than double digits in wins and capped by a huge donnybrook in the parking lot of the John J. Moore Athletic Complex.
Well, the women’s basketball program is not a hilarious joke any longer. In fact, it’s time for everyone involved in college basketball in New Jersey to recognize the Gothic Knights and head coach Pat Devaney.
That’s because the Gothic Knights accomplished the unthinkable last week, knocking off Montclair State, 64-60, to capture the elusive NJAC championship at the Panzer Gym on the campus of Montclair State.
And what makes the win even more remarkable is that the Gothic Knights lost to the Red Hawks twice in the regular season – the lone losses in what has become a historic season. So they rebounded to defeat the regular season league champion on their home court.
And when you consider that Montclair State has been the abundantly dominant team in the NJAC over the history of the league, it makes NJCU’s win truly astounding. Montclair State is the school that went to the NCAA Final Four in 1978, thanks to Naismith Hall of Fame superstar Carol Blazejowski and Hudson County natives Pat Colasurdo Mayo, Cathy Meyers O’Callahan and the late great Alice Schmidt DeFazio.
It was a historic win, without question.
Then, you add into the fact that the Gothic Knight men also took home the NJAC championship, capping their league tourney run with a 79-77 thrilling victory over Richard Stockton on a 3-point bomb by North Bergen’s Kayton Darley as time expired. Darley’s shot capped a ferocious 21-point comeback.
If Darley missed the jumper, then Stockton would have been crowned the champions. But the heroically improved Darley calmly drained it, sending the champion Gothic Knights into a frenzy.
It was a dream season for the talented junior, who went from being a middle-of-the-pack performer to the NJAC Player of the Week for the final week of the season.
“Kayton Darley is a special kid,” said NJCU men’s head coach Marc Brown. “We challenged him a little during the offseason and he came back a much better player. I knew the type of player he was and I knew he was going to improve. He came back bigger and stronger. He made the biggest jump of all of our players. It’s a special feeling for me, because we recruited him heavily out of high school.”
Darley was a Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week during his heyday at North Bergen High School. He scored a season-best 17 points in the NJAC title game against Stockton, with the last three of those points the most memorable.
Darley didn’t know what to expect out of the whacky 2021 schedule, compacted and restructured several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coming into the season, everything was still up in the air,” said Darley, a fire science major at the school. “We spent the offseason preparing for ourselves. But I felt we were very prepared to play. We have been working out since October. We have been clicking as a unit. I saw what we could be and I believed we could win it.”
Darley was committed to increase his strength despite the pandemic. He installed a weight bench and workout area in his home and tried as much as possible to get out to North Hudson Braddock Park to get a bunch of shots in on a daily basis.
“I was going to do the best I could,” Darley said. “I was lifting weights at home and shooting around. I started to notice the difference when we scrimmaged at school. I saw the results of my hard work. I felt better than I did last year.”
The 6-foot-3 Darley’s improved physique enabled him to play several positions for the Gothic Knights.
“I was able to play any position and that helped by me being stronger,” Darley said. “I could see it this year. Once my role changed this year, I felt like I could do it all. I was comfortable wherever Coach Brown put me.”
And it ended with Darley making his final shot of the season with a title on the line.
“This is really a special group,” Brown said. “We were shut down twice for 15 days each time. A lot of other guys might not have survived that, but we had dedicated kids. And we never had a single COVID case. There were no hiccups because of COVID. And we practiced hard and practiced together. We brought the energy and enthusiasm every single day. Every day was like the first day. I saw the closeness and cohesiveness we had right away.”
It was the 14th year for Marc Brown as head coach, coming after his father, the legendary Charlie Brown of Jersey City, the Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer, spent 27 years as the head coach of the Gothic Knights. It means that a Brown has been in charge for almost 40 years. Now that’s dedication.
“Each game we had someone different lead us in scoring,” Marc Brown said. “We were really deep, which made us harder to prepare for. We had second team players who could have been starters on other teams.”
“I knew we had a good team,” Darley said. “I thought we could go as far as we could take it. It feels great. I feel blessed that all that hard work paid off. It was a great achievement.”
It marked the first time the Gothic Knights won the NJAC tournament title since 2011, the eighth tourney crown and the 13th overall league title.
Brown was named the NJAC Coach of the Year for the fourth time in the last nine seasons. Senior Denzel Banks was selected to the All-NJAC First Team and Ryan Savoy was named Rookie of the Year.
While Brown had experienced winning a league championship before, it was all brand new to Devaney and the Gothic Knights, led by Secaucus native and freshman guard Damaris Rodriguez, who was the NJAC Rookie of the Year and All-NJAC First Team.
Rodriguez had 12 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in the win over Montclair State in the title game.
Devaney was selected as Coach of the Year in the league.
Like Brown, Devaney thought he had the makings of a special team.
“I really thought we had a nice group of high character kids,” Devaney said. “They are extreme competitors who gave unwavering effort. There was a time when the idea of us winning and the league championship didn’t belong in the same sentence. The enthusiasm these kids showed really impressed me. The week prior to the game, we had kids going at each other and competing with each other. I thought it was the best time for us to beat Montclair. It was our time to get them.”
And Devaney knows that the image of the NJCU women’s program is forever changed.
“I would hope that people take our players seriously,” Devaney said. “And they’re only going to get better. They want to win it again.”
Imagine that? That might be the biggest surprise of all, NJCU talking about repeating as NJAC champs. Some things have really changed.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, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely former Marist High School and Monmouth University basketball standout John Giraldo of Guttenberg.