Howard McBurnie was not happy. Neither were his fellow senior captains, Luke Fresco and Ryan Granito.
It was the middle of January, and Saint Joseph Regional High School was just 5-6 in boys’ basketball.
But it had a rotation of seniors and juniors. Those upperclassmen helped the program at the Metuchen school win Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament titles in 2017 and 2018.
The captains thought the Falcons needed a wake up call. So before practice one day, they called a players only meeting.
McBurnie got up and spoke first.
“I told the team, ‘We’re better than this,'” he said.
Fresco and Granito stepped forward to talk next.
“They said, ‘Everyone needs to take responsibility,'” McBurnie said. “‘We have to start with practice and continue our momentum into games.”
A little over a month later, on Feb. 22 at Middlesex County College in Edison, those words spoke heavy volumes.
On that evening, Saint Joseph beat Piscataway High School, 49-46, in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament championship game.
The Falcons won the game with a crucial showing in the fourth quarter, when they outscored the Chiefs, 14-9.
Saint Joseph received a balanced scoring effort in the GMC title game.
Fresco led the way with 14 points, Tyree Ford recorded 13 and K-Shawn Schulters and Matt Cruz each connected for 10.
It was a calm, balanced effort by a veteran team.
“Like in anything, experience helps,” said Saint Joseph coach Mike Thompson.
Experience didn’t just help these Falcons. It saved their season. After the players only meeting, the team went on a tear.
It started, as the captains said it would, in practice right after the meeting. Saint Joseph began working harder on its “Nova press,” McBurnie said.
The press, named for the Villanova men’s basketball team, is a 1-2-2 alignment. The first defender pressures the ball, the middle defenders trap the ball and the back defenders “play like free safeties,” McBurnie said.
After that practice, Saint Joseph started using the press more in games. By playing fast and creating easy baskets, Saint Joseph went 9-2 in its last 11 regular season contests.
The breakneck pace energized the players.
“There was more camaraderie when we scored,” McBurnie said. “High fiving and happiness for each other.”
During the surge, Saint Joseph also beat teams that it lost to earlier in the season, including South Brunswick High School and Old Bridge High School.
“We called it the revenge tour,” McBurnie said.
The “revenge tour” continued into the GMC Tournament. As the No. 3 seed, Saint Joseph pressed its way to the final.
But in the championship, Piscataway slowed the game to a crawl. The Falcons, though, were not phased. They stayed in the game with solid half court play.
“We practice those situations, too,” McBurnie said.
Then, they brought back their Nova press for the fourth quarter, forcing turnovers and earning free throws. Late in the fourth, Saint Joseph broke a 43-43 tie with four straight free throws. Piscataway never tied the game again.
In the end, the seniors’ words got through. The Falcons woke up, practiced hard and turned their season around.
And on Feb. 26 at home, Saint Joseph beat Saint John Vianney High School, 78-61, in the first round of the NJSIAA Non-Public A South Tournament. But on Feb. 28, the Falcons fell in the second round on the road at the top seeded Saint Augustine Preparatory School, 66-59.
Still, McBurnie and his teammates went 14-3 after their meeting. They did not just salvage their season. They made it indelible.
“A lot of teams counted us out and the media did too,” McBurnie said. “But we knew we weren’t done.”