Union High School’s Louis J. Rettino Gymnasium will be rocking on Opening Night this Friday, Dec. 16, with a special tripleheader to jump start the 2016-2017 Union County boys’ basketball season.
The 2nd Annual St. Jude Benefit Basketball Games at UHS features five Union County squads that will open their seasons and also do so for a good cause.
All proceeds from the three hoop contests will once again be going to St. Jude’s Pediatric Cancer Research Hospital in Manhattan.
The opening 4 p.m. game features host Union tipping off against rival Elizabeth, while the next contest includes defending Group 4 state champion Linden taking on Westfield for the second straight season. The nightcap has Roselle Catholic, which last year reached the Union County Tournament final for the second straight season and then the Non-Public B final for the fourth consecutive year, going up against Trenton Catholic.
Last year’s first event at UHS took place on the first Tuesday night in January and featured Linden vs. Westfield in the initial game and Roselle Catholic against Union in the second.
“It was something we just kind of put together last year,” said Union head coach Kevin Feeley, now in his sixth year at the helm of the Farmers. “It was something I wanted to do for a while, a couple of years.
“With the help of (Union Athletic Director) Linda Ionta we got it off, but didn’t quite know what to expect, especially having it on a Tuesday night.”
From a fundraising standpoint the evening was a success. For a Tuesday night, both games were well attended, with underdog Westfield giving Linden all it could handle in a clash of undefeated squads.
“We raised over $6,500 for St. Jude’s, so it couldn’t have worked out better,” said Feeley, who last year guided Union to a winning season of 16-10. “This year we had more time to plan and prepare.”
When called upon, head coaches Phil Colicchio of Linden, Daryl Palmieri of Westfield and Dave Boff of Roselle Catholic didn’t hesitate.
“We wanted to have three games this year and tried to get a Top 20 team for Roselle Catholic to play,” Feeley said. “Phil, Daryl and Dave were all on board for being a part of this again and it fit in their schedules so that we could do this to start the season. They couldn’t have been happier to be a part once more.
“We’re going to try to do this on the opening Friday of the season every year from here on out.”
Here’s what was said last year:
“We would like to thank all the teams, volunteers and donors for all that they did to make this day a success,” Feeley said. “We would especially like to thank all the businesses and sponsors who generously donated.”
“This is for a great cause,” Palmieri said. “This was supposed to be our home game, but when we were asked to be a part of this I was more than fine with that.”
“We absolutely wanted to be a part of this and didn’t hesitate when asked,” Colicchio said. “Anything for child research, I’m in.
“We play enough of these events that it’s time to do our part and donate back. As long as they want us we look forward to being here.”
For the first time during his tenure as head coach at Union, Feeley does not have one returning starter. Returning letter-winners include seniors Justin Beckett (5-8), Ryan Dolce (6-0), Hansley Cenescar (5-11) and Cory Thelisme (6-2).
Other seniors include Darris Watkins (5-11) and Jon Greene (6-1), while juniors consist of Jabri Lateef (6-4), Deandre MacFarlane (6-1) and Derreyen Whyte (5-11).
Two of his sophomore players from last year, Ithiel Horton and Jason Battle, transferred to St. Anthony, with Battle now at Roselle Catholic.
“To be honest, it’s a work in progress,” Feeley said. “We are without kids with a ton of varsity experience, but on the same token we have some kids that were on our JV county championship team from last year.
“This is the hardest-working group since I’ve been here. They want to work and get better. We’ll be small, but we will compete. These are tough kids that want to learn every day. So far they have been a joy to coach every day.
“It will take a while. We will not be the same team in February that we will be in December, I can almost guarantee that.”
Union’s next two games after Friday night include at Roselle Catholic Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. and then home against Union County Conference-Mountain Division rival St. Mary’s of Elizabeth Dec. 22 at a starting time still to be determined.
The UCC’s Mountain Division consists of only four teams this year – St. Mary’s of Elizabeth, Union, Union Catholic and Westfield – with Scotch Plains dropping down to make the Valley Division seven teams. The same five teams are in the Watchung Division and the same six are in the Sky Division.
Two of Linden’s top returning players are junior Tavon Jones and senior Khalief Crawford. In last year’s 63-51 St. Jude’s Classic win over Westfield, Crawford poured in 15 points and Jones 10.
Westfield, hit hard by graduation, trailed Linden only by four at the half and then pulled to within nine points inside the game’s final minute.
Roselle Catholic defeated Union 56-35 in last year’s second St. Jude’s Classic contest. The Lions have prominent returning players in senior Nate Pierre-Louis, who will continue playing in college at Temple, and nationally-ranked 6-10 junior power forward Nazreon Reid of Neptune.
One of Trenton Catholic’s top-rated players is senior guard Chris Labelle.
2nd Annual St. Jude’s Classic
Boys’ Basketball Lineup at UHS:
Friday, Dec. 16
Elizabeth vs. Union, 4 p.m.
Westfield vs. Linden, 5:45 p.m.
Trenton Catholic vs. Roselle Catholic, 7:30 p.m.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE
BOYS’ BASKETBALL ALIGNMENT
FOR 2016-2017 SEASON:
WATCHUNG DIVISION (5 schools)
MOUNTAIN DIVISION (4 schools)
St. Mary’s, Elizabeth
VALLEY DIVISION (7 schools)
SKY DIVISION (6 schools)