Normally this time of the year Dave Kennedy has already traded in his basketball whistle for a bat and a bag of baseballs as he makes his usual February into March transition from basketball to baseball coach at Johnson High School in Clark.
That is not the case this year and for a very good reason.
Kennedy has to split his coaching time between both teams at the moment because his cast of Crusaders who have excelled on the basketball court since mid-December are still playing.
Johnson’s season is still alive.
Believe it or not, the Crusaders are now 32 minutes away from capturing a sectional state championship.
After producing two state tournament wins at home – including the first in overtime – Johnson went on the road Friday and defeated a Burlington County team that scored 82 points in each of its first two state tourney triumphs.
Johnson traveled south and came away with an impressive 80-68 win at second-seeded and defending champion Bordentown in Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinal round play.
In advancing to their first CJ, G2 championship game, the Crusaders will next play at top-seeded Rumson Fair-Haven in Tuesday’s 7 p.m. final.
The winner will advance to the Group 2 semifinals to face the South Jersey, Group 2 champion on Thursday. The Group 2 final is scheduled to be played at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway on Sunday, March 12.
Johnson won its third straight to improve to 22-4.
Rumson-Fair Haven needed overtime in Friday’s other semifinal to oust fourth-seeded Manasquan 70-62. The Bulldogs (23-2) have also won three straight.
Both Johnson (10-0) and Rumson-Fair Haven (12-0) won division titles. Johnson repeated as the Union County Conference’s Sky Division champ, while Rumson Fair-Haven captured a Shore Conference division crown.
On Tuesday night they will tangle for a sectional championship.
“This is a loaded section with a lot of very good teams,” said Kennedy, in his eighth season at the helm of the Crusaders. “We felt going in that if we played well enough we would have a chance.
“We don’t have a great deal of experience in this setting, but we’ve experienced a lot of stuff during the season that has helped us along the way.”
Johnson has shown gradual improvement the past few seasons, winning 12 games the previous two years. The Crusaders went 1-1 in CJ, G2 play last year, falling at Rumson-Fair Haven 77-47 in the quarterfinals after winning at East Brunswick Tech 60-28 in the first round.
“We’ve had success in our conference (division) again this year, we won the Rahway Tournament and we had a huge bounce-back win against St. Peter’s Prep after we lost to Cranford in the county tournament,” Kennedy said.
Johnson set the tone early this year, winning at Sky Division foe New Providence 75-55 in its Dec. 16 opener.
In a battle of undefeated teams, Johnson defeated host Rahway 36-35 to capture the Rahway Holiday Tournament on Dec. 29.
The Crusaders have two wins over Shore Conference foe Holmdel, including their first state tournament victory, a 64-62 overtime decision at home.
Johnson began the season 9-0 before falling to Union Catholic 70-50 at Kean University on Jan. 15. The Crusaders then won their next eight games for a rare 17-1 start to their season.
In the win against Bordentown, which had a four-game winning streak snapped to finish at 20-9, junior Joe DiProfio – with an average of just over 10 points – poured in a career-high 32.
“Joe had a career night for us,” Kennedy said.
DiProfio netted six 3-pointers.
After sophomore Brandon Hund’s 3-pointer at the first quarter buzzer put the Crusaders back on top at 21-20, Johnson then went on to outscore the Scotties 26-9 in the second eight minutes.
Johnson never looked back in the final two quarters.
“Although it wasn’t one of his best scoring nights, George Visconti did a great job rebounding and with assists,” Kennedy said.
Visconti, Johnson’s leading scorer and a junior with more than 1,500 points total so far, finished with 17. Also scoring in double digits for the Crusaders was sophomore Brenden Kelly with 13.
Senior Brendan Stanzione, who produced the game-winning shot in the overtime state tournament home win over Holmdel, finished with eight points along with Hund. Jeff Drajin had two points.
“It was an overall team effort,” Kennedy said. “Bordentown is a very explosive team.
“The game was tight after the first quarter and then we got on a roll in the second quarter and it carried from there.
“We were able to kind of keep their pressure at bay. Stanzione did an outstanding job of guarding their big kid.
“Our kids just looked for each other, made the extra pass and we made shots.”
Rumson-Fair Haven was led by Tyler Pierson’s double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds in its come-from behind win over Manasquan. Pierson connected on a 3-pointer in the game’s final minute to send the contest to overtime.
Teammate Jack Solano produced seven 3-pointers for a game-high, 34-point performance.
Rumson-Fair Haven was 11-0 when it fell to Roselle Catholic 49-46 on Jan. 22. The only other Bulldog loss is a 79-35 setback to Toms River North in Shore Conference Tournament play on Feb. 19.
“We lost at Rumson last year in the second round and despite the final score we were in the game with them for a good stretch,” Kennedy said.
Johnson only trailed 31-30 at the half before the Bulldogs won the third quarter 25-6 and then the fourth 21-11. Visconti paced the Crusaders with 15 points, while RFH was led by senior Brendan Barry’s 30.
Johnson finished 12-13 last year and 12-12 two years ago.
NOTES: Kennedy, a 1988 Glen Ridge graduate, played on Ridger teams that reached the Group 1 state championship game his sophomore year in 1986 – falling to Florence – and his senior season in 1988 – edging defending champion Burlington Township in a very thrilling, dramatic, one-point contest played at Rider College in Lawrenceville.
Glen Ridge captured North 2, Group 1 those seasons, back when North 2 consisted of schools from just Union, Essex, Morris and Warren counties.
Since Friday was the first day of official high school baseball practice in New Jersey, Kennedy had to come up with a game plan to spend time with both groups of athletes.
This is his 10th year as Johnson’s baseball coach after he served as an assistant coach under Ray Korn at Elizabeth.
“It was a little hectic,” Kennedy said. “For one hour I was with the baseball guys and we were able to get outside for a bit.
“It’s something as a coach I kind of hoped for (for his basketball team to still be alive in state tournament play as late as the same time baseball practice began) and now it’s on my lap.”
2017 CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 BOYS’ BASKETBALL:
SEEDS: 1-Rumson-Fair Haven. 2-Bordentown. 3-Johnson. 4-Manasquan.
5-North Plainfield. 6-Lincoln. 7-Point Pleasant Boro. 8-Delaware Valley.
9-Delran. 10-Roselle. 11-Bernards. 12-New Providence.
13-Robbinsville. 14-Holmdel. 15-Newark Tech. 16-Spotswood.
Monday, Feb. 27
Rumson Fair-Haven 69, Spotswood 62
Delran 59, Delaware Valley 52
North Plainfield 54, New Providence 44
Manasquan 68, Robbinsville 42
Johnson 64, Holmdel 62 (OT)
Lincoln 61, Bernards 44
Roselle 63, Point Pleasant Boro 61
Bordentown 82, Newark Tech 69
Wednesday, March 1
Rumson-Fair Haven 52, Delran 33
Manasquan 67, North Plainfield 49
Johnson 69, Lincoln 58
Bordentown 82, Roselle 55
Friday, March 3
Rumson Fair-Haven 70, Manasquan 62 (OT)
Johnson 80, Bordentown 68
Tuesday, March 7
3-Johnson at 1-Rumson-Fair Haven, 7 p.m.