After losing a Union County Tournament game at Cranford more than 10 months ago – Feb. 13, 2016 to be exact – the Johnson boys’ basketball team has gone 9-1.
Not counting Group 4 state champion Linden, Johnson has been the hottest Union County basketball public school team during that span.
The Crusaders followed up that setback with a season-high four-game winning streak before concluding a solid 2015-2016 campaign – final record of 12-13 – with a loss at Rumson-Fair Haven in the Central Jersey, Group 2 quarterfinals.
Fast forward to the final month of 2016 and Johnson will enter the January portion of its 2016-2017 season with an unchartered record of 5-0 that includes a rare win at Rahway.
Sparked by returning starters George Visconti, a junior, and Brendan Stanzione, a senior, just how are the defending Union County Conference-Sky Division champions continuing to win basketball games?
“Actually, we’re still learning how to win,” said eighth-year head coach Dave Kennedy. “We had really good expectations coming into this season.
“We lost some important players (to graduation) and have a nice, young group. We’re playing with confidence.”
Johnson concluded the December portion of its schedule Thursday night with a 36-35 win vs. Rahway in a battle of 4-0 squads in the Butch Kowal Tournament final at Rahway.
The 6-3 Visconti, who as a sophomore last year reached 1,000 points, paced the Crusaders with a game-high 13-point effort.
“It was a fun challenge,” Kennedy said. “I can’t remember the last time Johnson defeated Rahway.”
Johnson won the fourth quarter 10-7 to pull out the victory. Last year, Johnson did not win its fifth game until Jan. 30.
Johnson lost at Rahway 60-55 in the Kowal Tournament last year and during its 12-12 season in 2014-2015 the Crusaders lost at home to Rahway 71-51.
“Both teams played good defense and it came down to both having chances to win,” Kennedy said. “It wasn’t pretty from a scoring standpoint, but someone had to win and we were able to.
“We’ve been on the other side of plenty of games like that in the past.”
Johnson enters next Thursday’s Jan. 5 home game vs. Valley Division foe Cranford having played .900 ball since last February.
Johnson’s other senior in addition to four-year player and power forward Stanzione is Ray Williamson.
Brenden Kelly, a sophomore, is out at the moment with a hand injury suffered in Johnson’s 67-60 home win over GL Dec. 22.
“We hope to be in more games like our one against Rahway,” Kennedy said.
After a tough 3-18 season three years ago, Johnson has played to four games over .500 since, going 12-12 two years ago, 12-13 last season and 5-0 so far this year.
“In athletics it’s difficult to put a true value on experience,” Kennedy, a state champion in basketball and baseball in high school at Glen Ridge, said. “You almost have to lose some in order to win.”
Johnson’s cast against Rahway included seniors Stanzione and Williamson, juniors Joe DiProfio, Jeff Drajin, Ryan Spallone and Visconti and sophomore Brandon Hund.
“We want to continue to grow in all phases of the game,” Kennedy said. “We want to be better offensively. We want to play better defense and rebound better and take care of the ball better.
“We’re certainly in new territory at 5-0. We wanted to go into the new year with a good record. It’s a nice, little stepping stone for us.”
NOTES: Johnson begins next week tied for the Sky Division lead with Oratory Prep at 2-0. Both teams finished tied at the top of the standings last year at 7-2, but Johnson was awarded the division title based on sweeping the Rams.
The Sky Division consists of the same six teams this year, including Johnson, Oratory Prep, Brearley, Dayton, New Providence and Roselle Park.
Johnson opened this year with consecutive Sky Division road victories, first defeating New Providence 75-55 and then knocking off Roselle Park 81-54.
The Crusaders then downed GL in their home-opener before handling Holmdel 61-58 in their first Kowal Tournament game at Rahway on Dec. 27.
Four of Johnson’s victories in its 5-0 start have come away from Clark.
After facing Cranford, the Crusaders have consecutive Sky Division games scheduled on the road at Dayton Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. and then at Oratory Prep Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.
Johnson is then scheduled to play at Spotswood Jan. 14 at 2:30 p.m.
Johnson opened vs. Spotswood at home last year, falling to the visiting Middlesex County Chargers 77-60.
On Sunday, Jan. 15 the Crusaders will participate in the 2017 Allstate Eric LeGrand Classic at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union. This time Johnson will face Union Catholic at 4 p.m. that day, which will be the fourth of six games on the 15th.
The event was expanded to two days for this season, with the first day of games – also six – taking place at Roselle Catholic Jan. 2.
Johnson lost to Colonia 74-46 at Kean two years ago and last year was downed by Woodbridge 65-59 in overtime at Kean, with Visconti pouring in a game-high 31 points.
2017 Allstate Eric LeGrand Classic
Jan. 2 at Roselle Catholic
Union vs. Point Pleasant Beach, noon
Hackensack vs. Life Center Academy, 1:30 p.m.
St. Benedict’s Prep vs. West Philly Catholic, 3 p.m.
Rutgers Prep vs. Point Pleasant Boro (Girls), 4:30 p.m.
Roselle Catholic vs. Westfield, 6 p.m.
Gill St. Bernards vs. Sayreville, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 15 at Kean University
Carteret vs. Hillside, 11 a.m.
New Providence vs. Iselin Kennedy, 12:30 p.m.
Scotch Plains vs. Woodbridge, 2 p.m.
Union Catholic vs. Johnson, 4 p.m.
St. Mary’s, Elizabeth vs. Sayreville, 5:30 p.m.
Colonia vs. Ridge, 7 p.m.