–Admittedly, the second season of the Montclair High School boys basketball program under coach Jerry Hill will be tougher than the first.
Last year, Hill called himself “very lucky” to inherit a talented, senior-laden team, piloting that squad to 21 wins and a division championship. Of course, those seniors – including four starters (Tahlib Swan, Isaiah Jennings, Kieran Miller, Stephon Sanders) and 85 percent of that team’s scoring – have since graduated, leaving precious little varsity experience.
Still, Hill’s program for Montclair basketball continues to click into place, and on the eve of the Mounties’ 2013-14 season opener (Saturday, 1 p.m. vs. Hillside at the Midland Avenue gym), the veteran head coach is guardedly optimistic.
“I don’t like the word ‘rebuilding,'” Hill said. “It’s unfair to our seniors, because this is their year. And I think we can be competitive. We may have tough days, because of the inexperience, but we know we can defend and rebound. If our guards play well, handle the ball, value the ball, we’ll have a successful season.”
Most of the returning varsity experience comes in the form of Montclair‘s three senior captains, Cortez Rawls, Darius Dorsey and Chris Mortimer.
Rawls is Montclair‘s lone returning starter, its likely No. 1 scoring option – he is the leading returning scorer at 5.1 points per game – a terrific defender and by some margin its most experienced guard/wing.
“We’ll have to distribute our scoring,” Hill said. “It’ll probably be best for us to have three or four guys score in double figures, but Cortez can definitely be our most consistent scorer. He’ll have his big nights.”
Dorsey and Mortimer figure to be reliable, game-to-game contributors who can score in a variety of ways and play tough down in the post.
Hill noted that both are reliable defensive rebounders, and both will need to chip in on offense. Dorsey can be quite effective in the low post, while Mortimer features a smooth mid-range jumper.
“Chris can be an ‘X’ factor for us, if he has the type of season we think he’s capable of,” Hill said. “Darius is just a solid guy, we’re looking for a big year rebounding and scoring from him.”
All things considered, size shouldn’t be an issue for Montclair, as the Mounties can look toward Romane Jean-Louis (6-foot-3, 195-pound senior), Cameron Lipton-Martinez (6-foot-3, 175-pound freshman) and wiry 6-foot-4 freshman Ivan McDaniel to compete.
“Our kids have definitely bought into our defensive philosophy,” Hill said. “They understand defense is something we can control, something we can do well, and it’s hard to get kids to do that sometimes.”
Montclair‘s backcourt will admittedly be a “work in progress,” Hill said, with several promising young players looking to fit in their roles.
Perhaps the most promising of the young guards is 5-foot-10 sophomore Tahlik Summers, who had a strong summer and preseason and will slot in mostly at shooting guard. Hill described Summers as “fearless” and not afraid to shoot the ball or take it to the rim.
“Tahlik has to keep working hard, and he needs to get better on defense, but he has a chance to be a pretty good player here, a three-year starter,” Hill said.
Fellow sophomore Isaiah Rodriguez appears likely to start Saturday’s opener at point guard, and is able to attack the rim and play solid defense, the coach said.
The inexperienced point guard rotation also includes senior Jahmille Campbell and freshman Shawn Smith; both are undersized first-year varsity players, but both possess excellent speed and ball-handling skills and will be counted on as they adjust to the level of play.
The Mounties will also hope for the mid-January return of senior Tauqeer Boyd from an undisclosed illness. Boyd saw regular minutes at the point last season backing up three-year starter Isaiah Jennings, now playing at Moravian College.
Hill noted that MHS will start the season with five freshmen and sophomores on the 10-man varsity roster (the other five are seniors), challenging those young players and those on the Montclair junior varsity to make their mark.
Montclair won the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division with an 11-1 league record last year, but Hill believes that the division is wide open.
The second-through-sixth placed teams in the seven-team loop finished within a three-game margin, making for a tight race throughout the winter.
University, MKA, Orange and West Orange will be looking to dethrone Montclair, while East Orange and Livingston can never be counted out, Hill said.
Contact Kevin Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org