UNION, NJ — Despite an unprecedented pandemic, seven Union boys basketball seniors not only had the opportunity to play last year but were able to excel in a season that reached 13 games, even with COVID-19 setbacks and winter snowstorms.
They have all graduated now, but they were an important part of the program and made the best of a unique situation that included no county or state tournaments.
“To get 13 games in, whether they were wins or losses, was impressive,” Union head coach Kevin Feeley said. “Everyone in the state did an awesome job to get us back on the court. We followed the guidelines, and I feel like it worked out for everyone.”
Union won eight of its first 10 games between the late start of Wednesday, Jan. 27, and Friday, Feb. 26. After setbacks to Elizabeth and Plainfield, the Farmers closed with a 57-48 win at Plainfield. Union also beat the Cardinals 47-35 at home on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
“To finish 9-4 and be ranked among the top teams (in division) is a successful year,” Feeley said a year ago. “It was a battle. With this group, we felt we were going to be successful.
“It was unfortunate that there was no UCT or state tournament. That’s just kind of how it was. It was fun, though, to have the kind of success we thought we were going to have going in.”
Union’s seniors, who were not deprived of competition for their final season, were guard-forward Jakin Edmond; guards Livingston Cross, Ronn Flood Jr. and Gavin Barrett; center Korey Thomas; and forwards Spencer Boakye and Justin Green.
“Our seniors were extremely special,” Feeley said. “They’re really a good group of kids. They played together for so long, and this was something they were waiting for. If the season was to be yanked away from them, it would have been upsetting.”
Last year’s juniors who saw action included forward-center Jahaan Wray, forward David Kema and guard Nathaniel Thompson. All three are back this year as seniors.
For the second consecutive season, the Farmers are one of seven teams in the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division. The other six are Roselle Catholic, Elizabeth, Westfield, Linden, Plainfield and Union Catholic.
Union is scheduled to open this Friday, Dec. 17, playing Freehold Township at Marlboro at 4 p.m.
Union will continue with its first Watchung Division game at Roselle Catholic on Wednesday, Dec. 22. The Farmers will then participate once again in the Matawan Tournament, an event they have won in the past.
Union commences January play with a Watchung Division game at Union Catholic on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
Union’s first home game is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 11, at 4 p.m. vs. division foe Linden. Union’s Louis J. Rettino Gymnasium was hit hard by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, however, and is still being refurbished.
“We’ll be on the road for some time now,” Feeley said. “We’ll have to be road warriors.
“I think if we can get in our gym to play by late January, that would be OK. If later, say like in February, that might not be so good.”
The inexperienced team, void of any returning starters, will quickly get used to getting on and off a bus.
“We have a lot of new faces in new spots,” Feeley said.
One of them is senior Jaden Stewart, who at football quarterback helped lead Union to an 8-1 regular season record and then a dominant 41-3 home playoff victory against Livingston.
“The kids worked hard in the summer,” said Feeley, referring to the 22-game Jersey City League in which they participated. “It’s a fun group and they listen. It will take some time for them to build varsity experience.”
This is Feeley’s 11th season at the helm. He owns a record of 126-120 (.512) during his first 10 seasons leading the Farmers. That includes six winning seasons and two .500 campaigns.
“It’s been a fun ride so far,” Feeley said. “When I look back, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. Every year is different, and every team is different. We try to make the most of every season as they come.”
Unfortunately, due to the reconstruction of the gymnasium and the impact the pandemic has had on expected attendance, for the second straight year, the Farmers will not be able to host the annual St. Jude Classic.
“We had to put it on hold because we were not sure of the number of fans we would have drawn,” Feeley said. “We wouldn’t have been able to host it anyway now, because of what Ida did. There were too many what-if scenarios.”
The 2019 St. Jude Classic, Union’s fifth overall and fourth straight to start the season, was, for the second consecutive year, the third-largest, single-day school fundraiser in the country for St. Jude’s, according to Feeley.
“To not have the St. Jude Classic was extremely disappointing,” Feeley said last winter. “For our team and other local teams as well, it was an event and something nice to give back. To miss it was somewhat difficult.”
Feeley said the team plans to come back with it next season.