Everything, just about, went right for the 2017-18 Wayne Valley boys basketball team (17-9) up until the end. Thanks to numerous dominant wins, the team cruised to a seemingly easy Big North Independence Championship. The team had every reason to be confident heading into the postseason.
Then, unfortunately, things went south fast. First, Wayne Valley lost to Wayne Hills in the Passaic County semifinal, 57-40. The Indians had previously beaten the Patriots twice during the regular season (84-80 and 65-48).
A week later in the North 1, Group 3 state tournament, higher-seeded Wayne Valley (No. 4) lost convincingly to Northern Highlands (No. 13) at home, 54-40.
“It was a weird year,” Wayne Valley coach Joe Leicht said. “We had a great regular season and we were really confident going into the postseason. I don’t think we ran out of gas physically. Things just got stale on us in a hurry. I’m at a loss to explain why that happened. Wayne Hills and Northern Highlands played great games against us and we didn’t play well at all against either of them. It was a very disappointing ending.”
Those difficult losses now serve as motivation for Leicht’s 2018-19 team, especially for returning senior starters Mark Howell, Anthony D’Arienzo and Patrick Cronin.
Howell, a three-year starter, had 299 points, 153 assists, 68 rebounds and 32 steals last year. The guard also scored 477 points as a sophomore and is now eyeing the 1,000-point career mark.
D’Arienzo burst into the starting lineup as a junior last year, accounting for 273 points, 54 rebounds, 68 assists and 25 steals.
“For the last two years we’ve been able to count on Mark’s quickness and ability to push the ball up court, penetrate or hit the three,” Leicht said. “Then Anthony had a breakout season for us last year. He can also penetrate and hit the three. Together, they give us a very experienced and solid backcourt.”
Taking care of matters underneath the basket, meanwhile, was the 6-foot-6 Cronin. Last year he had 208 points, 164 rebounds, 52 assists, 37 steals and 41 blocks.
“Patrick has great moves around the basket,” Leicht said. “He’s a very intelligent player and is an excellent defender and rebounder.”
Leicht is counting that trio of seniors to take the team further this year.
“I called those three guys together at our first practice and told them that the ingredients for another successful regular season and strong postseason runs are here,” Leicht said. “It is their team now. We are counting them to lead the way.”
The biggest challenge for Wayne Valley is replacing its two graduated starting forwards Jared See (341 points, 222 rebounds) and A.J. Tedesco (316, 112 rebounds). Fortunately, Leicht has plenty of up and comping talent to consider.
Senior Taylor Jackson, who saw lots of minutes off the bench last year, could possibly fill Tedesco’s role. Leicht says Jackson is a good outside shooter, but is also strong enough and physical enough to mix it up with bigger players under the basket.
At just over 6 feet, senior John Pettorini and junior Johnny Crank can also play inside and outside. Senior Evan Bitterman and juniors Andrew Feingold and Aaron Bienstock are strong wing players with good outside shots.
Two sophomore guards, Ameer Coubati and Derek Sandowick, led last year’s freshman team to a 20-1 record. Both could provide Wayne Valley with depth on the outside.
According to Leicht, this is also the tallest team he’s had at Wayne Valley. That means there are several candidates vying to step into See’s role.
That group includes three 6-foot-4 juniors, Will Cadematori, Steven Simonetti and Josh Bieser. Alp Ulker, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Florida, is also in the mix.
“We’ve got several guys who can bang around inside,” Leicht said. “They all have nice inside moves and are strong defenders.”
The loss of its two starting forwards from last year will be far from the only significant difference for Wayne Valley. Doug Scott, who has served as Leicht’s JV coach for 14 years, resigned in the off-season.
“We shared a lot of wins together,” Leicht said, also alluding to the four years he coached Scott at Indian Hills in the mid-1990s. “He’s a great guy and he’s meant so much to me and to the players who have come through this program. He is going to be missed.”
Replacing Scott will be Mike DeMoor, who started for Leicht on the 2007 Passaic County and state sectional runner-up, and the 2008 sectional champion Wayne Valley teams. Josh Rigoglioso, the starting point guard on the 2013 team (18-10) will take over the freshman team.
“Mike is the forgotten fifth starter on that 2008 team,” Leicht said. “Everyone remembers Jason Rosenberg, Chris Pantale and the Siljee brothers. But Mike was just as much a part of our success as anyone. Josh ran the show for us five years after that on another great team. We’re very fortunate to have these two guys back in the program.”