Lawrence Joseph never could have foreseen being a key member of the Ewing High School boys’ basketball team eight years ago when he moved here from Haiti at age 10. He had played soccer, but never touched a basketball before his move.
“It’s kind of amazing,” said Joseph, one of Ewing’s six seniors. “I never thought it could happen. I’m proud of myself.”
Joseph scored 15 points to go with five rebounds as Ewing came up just short of winning the Group III state championship in a 74-68 loss to Teaneck at Rutgers University on March 12. And while Teaneck was no surprise when they returned as defending state champions, Ewing’s trip there was quite an unpredictable journey.
“Nobody thought we’d make it that far,” Joseph said. “For us to make it there, that was great.”
Ewing lost its first two games of the season and four of their first seven games. They won 23 of their final 26, however, including the Central Jersey Group III crown with a 62-51 triumph over Nottingham, a team that beat them in the first game of the season.
Joseph has always been a soft-spoken member of the Blue Devils. Creole was his first language, but his confidence in his English and his abilities grew. He blossomed into a more confident person and player over his final season, the finest of his high school career.
“He really stepped up to the challenge,” said Ewing head coach Shelly Dearden. “He was the most consistent throughout the year. He started off a little slow, but he just got better and better each game he played in.”
Dearden said that Joseph started blocking shots for the team at the end of the year and pulling in rebounds. Even though he didn’t score 20 points a game, he had a lot of double-doubles toward the end of the year, she said.
“This year, he became more vocal,” Dearden said. “That in itself, his personality has changed. He’s a blue collar worker.”
Ewing last won a Group III state title in 2014 led by Trey Lowe, the all-time leading scorer in Mercer County history. When Lowe graduated after the 2015 season, the team continued to win.
“I think this senior class was used to winning,” Dearden said. “They won a couple championships as freshmen, they won some championships as JV players. Moving up to the varsity level, their expectations within themselves were the same. That winning attitude, it really spread throughout the rest of the team. The senior class made believers in everybody.”
‘This team was different because there was no superstar… You remember those different nights throughout the season who stepped up. We needed that team attitude to win.’
In addition to Joseph, Jon Azoroh, Edamiyon Doggett, Kar’ron Johnson (who had to sit out part of the season due to transfer rules), Corey McKinnon and Justin Reed set the tone as seniors. Ryan Conde was a starter as a junior and classmate Isaiah Sparks and sophomore Caleb Stokes provided a lift off the bench.
“After we got Kar’ron Johnson back in the lineup, we picked it up,” Joseph said. “We were a better team than without him. He made us better. He’s the point guard. He knows what to do out there and keeps us in the game.”
Everyone on the Ewing team had a role, it just took them some time to find it. “What happened was in the beginning, I don’t think everybody knew their role or accepted their role,” Dearden said. “Once they accepted their role and what they could do, I thought the pieces to the puzzle really fit in together.”
For Joseph, that role was rebounding, defending and scoring a little when the opportunity presented itself. Though he stands just 6-foot-2, he was a giant inside for Ewing as their center.
“They’re taller than me, but I’m stronger than them,” Joseph said. “I don’t let it bother me. I’m quicker and faster than most of the centers that I play. I have an advantage over them. I’ve been playing center since I’ve been playing basketball. It’s kind of easy for me.”
It all came together down the home stretch. Ewing was able to knock off Notre Dame for a second time to the surprise of some to reach the Mercer County Tournament final where they suffered a narrow loss to Trenton Catholic.
“It was tough,” Joseph said. “It was heartbreaking. The coaching staff kept telling us to move on and we have to keep going. States was two days away so we had to let it go and move on.”
Less than two weeks later, they were sectional champions. Azoroh led Ewing with 29 points and eight rebounds in the sectional title win. Johnson added 14 points. Joseph had 10 rebounds, four points and six blocks.
The championship was affirmation of how far the Blue Devils came during the season. Dearden had seen a lot of potential in the team, had seen them work hard during the offseason and knew they could do it with a different formula than the 2014 and 2015 teams that had Lowe leading the way to sectional crowns. Ewing won with defense and teamwork.
“I think this group of players really achieved such a great goal in getting to the state finals,” Dearden said. “I think that concept of team play really set into the mindset of all the players on the team. That is one of the main reasons we got to the state finals.”
The journey to the finals keeps expectations high, and Dearden wants the program to maintain its standards as they look to next year.
“Some of these kids that will be moving up, the JV was 21-0, so the expectations from themselves will still be for winning and getting back to Rutgers to the state finals again,” she said. “The kids that came off the bench and helped us during the state tournament really gave us quality time. They gained experience at the varsity level in the state tournament.”
Those returning players will have to take the place of a senior class that has only known winning, and found another way to advance all the way to the state final. The seniors will be going their own ways with Joseph expected to commit to continue his playing career at Centenary University.
“I’m going to miss the guys a lot,” he said. “I’ve been playing with them since seventh grade on the travel team and AAU. I think it’s going to be hard moving on and starting a new chapter and starting college by myself with nobody else.”
Nothing but some great memories of helping the Ewing boys win another sectional championship together and reach a state final to cap quite a journey.
“Each team is different,” Dearden said. “Each team is special. This team was different because there was no superstar. On any given night, someone could step up. You remember those different nights throughout the season who stepped up. They did it together as a team. We needed that team attitude to win.”