In his first season as head coach of Marist, Ben Gamble led the program to a Hudson County Tournament final appearance for the first time since the 2014-15 boys basketball season.
Unfortunately for the Royal Knights, they fell to a sizzling hot Union City team which became the first public school to take home the county title. However, in a positive outlook for the kids returning to Marist, Gamble and his coaching staff were able to give their players a little taste of what winning was like for a program that is still starving for its first county championship.
Now, with the return of key juniors Mike Jackson, Keith Mency, Momo Sidibe, and seven promising transfers who joined the party in the offseason at the non-public school in Bayonne, Gamble is excited about his Royal Knights and their golden opportunity to be crowned as champions of Hudson County.
Gamble says the program is well ahead of schedule.
He and his staff were visible during the offseason by participating in a lot of summer events. Due to the team’s success last year and the graduation of eight seniors, it opened doors for kids looking for a new home to play at a better school with a competitive high school basketball schedule.
Jackson, a 6-foot-3 guard who is 154 points away from the 1,000-career milestone, already has Division I programs on his radar. And Mency, who has interest from Bloomfield College, will form a guard combination alongside senior Emmanuel Toha, a transfer from Cristo Rey in Newark, as one of the best backcourts in the county. Toha, who is only 54 points away from the 1,000-career milestone, has five Division II offers and some interest from Division I schools.
Sophomore Donovan Long came around nicely during the offseason. Gamble had him on the JV team last year, and he’s developed very well. He’s a great shooter for his size at 6-foot-5.
Adam Salis, a transfer from St. Benedict’s, and Hassan Jackson, a transfer from St. Thomas Aquinas, are two other players expected to make an impact, as well as Tyrek Decosta, a transfer from Cardinals Hayes (NY), and Cross Bandy and Jaeshawn Felder, both from St. Raymond’s in the Bronx, are three more transfers that will be key contributors on the court for Marist on a nightly basis.
“Decosta is very good defensively, he can get to the rim, and get into the paint and he makes plays,” Gamble said. “Momo (Sidibe) is also very good defensively, he’s long and athletic. I’ll put him on a lot of defensive assignments this year. Cross Bandy might overall be the best ball handler on the team, and Jaeshawn Felder is also very athletic and gets to the rim.
“A lot of the kids who transferred in, those kids played JV for other programs,” added Gamble. “They really don’t have a lot of varsity experience. But by mid-January, I think they will be a lot more comfortable as a unit.”
Gamble said some of the bullet points on Marist’s board include getting to the third round of the state tournament, winning the county title, winning 20 games, and taking care of home court.
If Marist can get back to the state tournament, Gamble says they will be playing with house money due to the fact that they are without question in the toughest state tournament bracket in all of New Jersey, which includes state powers Roselle Catholic, The Patrick School, Immaculate Conception, and in-county rival Hudson Catholic.
“If we can gel together and improve over the next couple of months, and maybe on that given day, we may have a shot to win,” Gamble said of a state tournament run. “Look at Union City last year. They got hot at the right time. Not only did they win the county, but they went pretty far in the states. I’m excited about the season. We have a very good schedule. And as the year goes on, we will get much better, and I think we will be a dangerous team.”
Marist opens up its season on Dec. 19 at Snyder.
Last year, the HCIAL-White Division rivals squared off in the season opener, and the Tigers came away with the 51-41 victory on Marist’s home court. However, in their second meeting one month later, Marist cruised to a 54-39 win, and then the Royal Knights came away with a 61-41 victory over Snyder in the quarterfinal round of the Hudson County tournament.
Marist will also have competitive games against Lincoln, another HCIAL-White Division rival, Gill St. Bernard’s, Wildwood Catholic, Don Bosco Prep, Hun and Elizabeth with hopes of meeting Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep in the county tournament.
“What’s being taught in practice is team and togetherness,” Gamble said. “I started to say to my guys, ‘I have your back, if you have my back.’ I think that’s the motto with our group right now. We are all going to fight for one another and make sure that we aren’t going to let anybody separate us.”