The Matawan Regional High School boys’ basketball team finished with the second-worst record, 5-15, in the Hamilton Park Summer League regular season.
Then the Huskies lost to Saint Peter’s Preparatory School of Jersey City in the first round of the Hamilton Park playoffs on Aug. 1.
But that was kind of the point.
Not to lose, necessarily, but to play the best teams in New Jersey and learn from the experience.
The Hamilton Park League, which is played in Jersey City, attracts some of the state’s premier scholastic programs in the state. Hudson Catholic Regional High School, The Patrick School of Elizabeth and Hunterdon Central Regional High School are among the strong participating teams.
Matawan may not be included among the state’s premier programs. But after playing in the Hamilton League the past two summers, Matawan has developed into one of the best programs in the Shore Conference.
The Huskies won four games in the 2017 summer league and then finished 20-6 in the 2017-18 high school season. The year before they started playing in the Hamilton League, 2015-16, the Huskies finished a game below .500.
Bottom line is this— The Hamilton League is a lot talented league that can prepare a school to play in the competitive Shore Conference.
“I try to challenge my kids. It’s a totally different brand of basketball than kids are accustomed to down here at the shore,” said fourth-year Matawan coach John Giraldo. “It’s a great experience because it’s out of their comfort zone. It prepares us for our season.”
“Teams are tougher and bigger. Every game has a certain competitiveness,” said Matawan rising senior Justin Coleman. “That gets us better and makes these teams so hard to beat.”
“The competition is so rough and you don’t get anything handed to you. Only hard fouls,” said Matawan rising junior Ethan Okello. “It has made me a better player and I give a lot of credit to the league.”
The summer league also helps Giraldo develop young players, which is especially important in years like this one. Matawan lost its top two scorers, Michael Dunne and Reggie Tawiah, and its best defender, Ramon Estrada, from last year’s team tpo graduation.
Other players are already stepping into those roles, four months before the season.
“Quincy Wathington is a rising senior and he’s really taken over the leadership role on this team,” Giraldo said. “Justin Coleman has really stepped up this summer and is going to be a key member of the team.”
Still, if Giraldo has learned anything this summer, it’s that he won’t have two prolific scorers dominating the ball this winter. The 2018-19 Huskies will be more balanced.
Okello, who played off the ball last year, has emerged as the point guard this summer. He is surrounded by solid scoring options, like Wathington, Coleman, Dylan Casey and Niles Haliburton. Casey and Haliburton played on junior varsity last year and have emerged as varsity options this summer.
“Last year’s team was a little different. We had some good veteran leadership, started three seniors. But there was a big drop off after that. We played a lot of sophomores,” Giraldo said. “This year is different. It’s more of a veteran group. Plus we can have five different guys be leading scorers in different games.”
With Dunn, Tawiah and Estrada gone, Matawan may not be a contender to win a division or the tournament in the Shore Conference this winter. But the Huskies’ summer league development should make them a factor.
“I think we’ll surprise people with a really good season,” Giraldo said. “This is the most experienced team in my four years at Matawan.”