CLARK – From the little engine that could.
To the engine that proved it could.
To the, as senior tri-captain Joe DiProfio put it, “the team that now has a target on its back.”
The Johnson boys’ basketball team has so far continued where it left off last season – which was one of the finest the Crusaders ever produced.
When Johnson faces Rahway at Rahway in the first round of the Rahway Holiday Tournament Dec. 27 at 7:30 p.m., both teams will be 3-0.
However, this time Johnson may not be the underdog for a change.
“Teams are now coming for us,” DiProfio continued Saturday afternoon after Johnson took care of visiting New Egypt 55-37.
The Crusaders have won their first three games – all at home – by double digits, including Union County Conference-Sky Division triumphs over New Providence (68-58) and Roselle Park (86-59).
Much-improved 12-12 (in 2014-2015) and 12-13 (in 2015-2016) campaigns were followed up last year with an epic 22-5 season that included a Rahway Holiday Tournament championship, a 17-1 start, repeating as the UCC’s Sky Division champions (perfect 10-0 league mark) and then – as the No. 3 seed – reaching the Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game where the Crusaders came so close at top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven before falling to the host Bulldogs 57-51.
Johnson lost at RFH 77-47 in the quarterfinals two years ago. That’s just one example of how far the Crusaders have come.
This year’s squad includes four returning starters: seniors George Visconti and DiProfio and juniors Brenden Kelly and Brandon Hund, along with senior Jeff Drajin who is a starter for the first time after playing a lot last winter.
Visconti, DiProfio and Drajin are the captains. Visconti’s 18 points Saturday puts him 349 shy of 2,000.
Last year Johnson defeated Holmdel 61-58 and then – also in a battle of undefeated teams – the Crusaders edged Rahway 36-35 to win the Rahway Holiday Tournament. Johnson also defeated Holmdel in the CJ, G2 playoffs.
This year’s Rahway Holiday Tournament is set up next week to pit Governor Livingston vs. Holmdel at 6 p.m. on Dec. 27, with Johnson vs. Rahway to follow at 7:30 p.m.
The consolation (6 p.m.) and championship (7:30 p.m.) games are set for Dec. 29.
Rahway went 21-4 last year, repeated (with an 11-1 record) as the UCC’s Valley Division champion and then – as the top seed – reached the North 2, Group 3 semifinals before falling at home against fifth-seeded and eventual champion Barringer 76-68.
“What we were able to do in the Rahway Tournament last year was the first glimpse of how good we could be,” Visconti said. “It also helped our county seating (Johnson ended up the ninth seed) and got us some power points (referring to state seeding).”
“Rahway is sort of like a home away from home for us,” Drajin said. “Bring it.”
Rahway has opened with home wins over Hillside (59-44) and Koinonia (70-27) and has also won at Gov. Livingston (69-59). The Indians lead the Valley Division once again at 2-0.
“Beating Rahway last year was the start of a list of quality wins for us,” said ninth-year Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy. “It gave us a little more confidence, we were a bit lucky and eventually we reached a sectional final.”
Rahway will be hungry to avenge last year’s loss as Johnson will be playing away from home for the first time.
On Saturday in the Louis J. Peragallo Gymnasium at Johnson High School, the Crusaders turned it up a notch defensively in the third quarter to pull away from a nip-and-tuck game that saw them ahead by just one point at intermission.
Johnson ultimately produced a decisive 55-37 win over visiting Group 1 New Egypt. Last year in Ocean County on Feb. 21, Johnson defeated the Warriors by the score of 54-38 to improve to 19-3. That was Johnson’s second-to-last game before the states.
“They were tough again,” Kennedy said.
The first half included seven New Egypt leads, the biggest being two on five different occasions and the last at 19-17; five Johnson leads, the biggest being three at 24-21; and four ties, all of them in the first quarter, including a 12-12 deadlock at the end of the first eight minutes.
A 3-pointer, his second of two, by Visconti from the top of the key gave Johnson the lead for good at 20-19 with just over two minutes to go before halftime.
Owen Raab scored 10 of his team-high 14 points in the second quarter, which was all but one point of New Egypt’s offensive production that period.
Visconti paced all scorers with 18 points. He had 12 at the half and shot six-of-23 from the field. Visconti was perfect from the foul line, making all four attempts.
“We were fired up at halftime to come out and play much better,” Visconti said.
Johnson scored the first six points of the third quarter to increase its lead to seven at 30-23 when New Egypt called a timeout. Visconti hit a shot from the right side and then one in the lane before Drajin produced his only two-point basket.
At that point, more than two minutes into the period, New Egypt had already turned the ball over twice. Less than a minute later Johnson’s upgraded, swarming defense included a New Egypt offensive charge, with the Warriors called for their fourth foul to none at that point for Johnson.
The Crusaders simply prevented New Egypt from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm whatsoever. A 3-pointer by DiProfio from the right side gave Johnson its first 10-point lead at 33-23.
Another New Egypt turnover followed. Five minutes into the period Johnson had outshot the Warriors 9-1.
New Egypt did not score until there was just 2:25 left in the quarter. Johnson outscored the Warriors 13-4 in the period, with Jeff Sakimura scoring the only two New Egypt baskets during those eight minutes.
“Our pressure defense is what we focus on a lot,” Visconti said. “It’s become our identity. We shook them up with it.”
With every Johnson stop, rebound or action that forced a New Egypt turnover, the crowd roared with increased jubilation.
“We have a great crowd,” DiProfio said. “They make us play harder.”
“There are multiple ways to win,” Kennedy said. “We need to make stops. Somewhere down the road we will need to and today we were able to do so in that third quarter.
“We were also able to do that against New Providence. We will need to continue to improve and defend.”
Juniors Brandon Hund and Brenden Kelly also scored in double digits for Johnson, with Hund netting 14 and Kelly 11. DiProfio finished with eight and Drajin with four. Drajin also had three streals in the first quarter.
“We’re trying to change the Johnson culture,” Drajin said. “I think last year by playing Rumson again (in the states) we proved it was not a fluke. We were there for a reason.”
Other Johnson players include senior Ross Wildes (No. 12); juniors Eric Bretz (No. 23), Art Brownlee (No. 22), Marcos Castro (No. 20) and Luke Giltner (No. 32); sophomores Robert Lukasiewicz (No. 25) and Matthew O’Connor (No. 4) and freshman Tino Puentes (No. 11).
“I like this team,” Kennedy said. “It can do a lot of different things. There’s no reason for them not to be confident.
“However, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’re not talented enough for that. The kids need to keep working hard.
“We have a kid (DiProfio) who scored 32 points for us in a state tournament (Bordentown) win last year, another (Visconti) that my score 2,000 points, we have two juniors (Hund and Kelly) who put up big numbers for us last year and Drajin has made a huge jump, this year being his first as a starter.
“We can score in transition and in other ways. We just have to keep working hard at it.”
NOTES: Swarthmore College was at Johnson Saturday to watch Visconti. The four-year varsity starter also mentioned Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Lehigh and Bucknell as other schools he’s looking at, in addition to other Patriot League schools as well as Ivy League ones.
Visconti also said that just a few days ago he was accepted into the engineering program at Villanova.
He said he will most likely make his college selection after the season.
From February 2016 to February 2017 Johnson went 21-2, including finishing its 2016 season by winning four of its last five and the 17-1 start last year.
BOYS’ BASKETBALL AT JOHNSON
New Egypt (1-2) 12 11 04 10 – 37
Johnson (3-0) 12 12 13 18 – 55
NEW EGYPT WARRIORS (37):
2-Anthony Burr, senior, 3-1-2-11
24-Jeff Sakimura, senior, 1-0-1-3
1-Owen Raab, senior, 7-0-0-14
32-Connor Devine, junior, 0-1-0-3
13-Quinn Kimmick, senior, 2-0-0-4
12-Matt Dempsey, senior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: Burr, Sakimura,
Raab, Kimmick, Dempsey.
JOHNSON CRUSADERS (55):
2-Brandon Hund, junior, 4-1-3-14
5-Brenden Kelly, junior, 2-1-4-11
33-Joe DiProfio, senior, 1-2-0-8
14-George Visconti, senior, 4-2-4-18
3-Jeff Drajin, senior, 1-0-2-4
Starters: Hund, Kelly,
DiProfio, Visconti, Drajin.
RAHWAY HOLIDAY TOURNAMENT:
Wednesday, Dec. 27:
Gov. Livingston vs. Holmdel, 6 p.m.
Johnson vs. Rahway, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 29:
Consolation game, 6 p.m.
Championship game, 7:30 p.m.
NOTES: Johnson went a combined 4-0 against
GL, Holmdel and Rahway last year. Johnson beat
GL in its third game, defeated Holmdel in the
Rahway Tournament and in the states and bested
Rahway in the Rahway Tournament final.