John P. Stevens High School has all the hallmarks of a senior laden boys’ basketball team.
The Hawks practice harder than they play, execute strong team defense and always make the extra pass.
Coach Chris Garcia has eight seniors on his varsity roster, and they have been waiting for this season since they were kids. Most of them were role players last year.
One month into the campaign, they are making the most of their opportunity. J.P. Stevens is 7-1 and has beaten five opponents by double digits. In their last game of December, the Hawks dominated Perth Amboy Technical High School, 58-26.
“Defensively we’re doing very well, holding most opponents under 50 points. We play man to man and rotate accordingly,” Garcia said. “We do a good job closing out and boxing out. We pride ourselves on getting stops and limiting the other team’s best players.”
Senior Devon Fowlkes guards the opponent’s best player. The 6-0, 190-pound athlete was the slot receiver on the school’s football team. College are talking to him about playing football at the next level.
Fowlkes’ quickness and ability to turn on a dime, both essential skills of a slot receiver, have turned him into a “shutdown defender,” as Garcia calls him, in basketball.
In J.P. Stevens’ 57-46 victory over Bishop George Ahr High School on Dec. 22, Fowlkes held standout Quadry Adams to a season low 13 points. The Hawks topped East Brunswick High School, 49-27, on Dec. 18, and Fowlkes held the Bears’ leading scorer, Travis Cumber, to five points.
“He takes the other team’s best player out of the game,” Garcia said.
By taking the toughest defensive assignment, Fowlkes allows his fellow guards, Solomon Smith and Naysean Burch, to conserve energy on defense. In return, Smith and Burch have carried the Hawks on the offensive end.
Both players are scoring more than 13 points per game. Smith is a creator, so he handles the ball. Burch is a classic two guard, meaning he’s an off ball shooter, driver and scorer.
“Solomon makes it easier to coach. I don’t have to worry about calling plays. I can just let the senior do his thing,” Garcia said. “Naysean can knock down the three, get to the rack and dunk.”
“Both are also phenomenal in transition,” Garcia added.
The duo was not getting much college basketball attention last winter. Now, both players are being recruited by multiple Division 2 and 3 schools.
Fowlkes, Smith and Burch stand out, but they are not Garcia’s only contributors.
Another senior, Jamar Williamson, a 6-1, 210-pound hybrid, just does his job, whatever that may be.
“Jamar is the coach on the floor,” Garcia said. “He doesn’t score a ton and isn’t flashy. But he communicates defensively, keeps the energy up and has all the intangibles.”
Another senior, Sidate Mbawhe, leads the Hawks in rebounds with 26. Two other upperclassmen, Kasi Hazzard and Will Thompson, round out Garcia’s experienced rotation and help out wherever they can, often popping up in multiple box score categories.
It’s a selfless, talented group. Garcia could sense that last summer. The Hawks came in every day at 7 a.m. and went undefeated in their summer league.
“We expected a good season,” the coach said. “Hard work pays off.”
The only remaining question is, how good?
“I said to the guys, ‘You aspired to play varsity basketball since you were three, to lead this team to the (Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament) championship.’ That’s our goal,” Garcia said. “Another goal is to be one of the top teams in the (GMC’s) Red Division, if not win the division.”
J.P. Stevens will continue its season on Jan. 10 at Perth Amboy High School. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.