The Nottingham High boys’ basketball team has dominated the headlines this season, and the names seen most frequently are Johnson, Joseph and Jones.
But there is more to this talented team than people may realize. He is the quiet contributor who has come to accept that he would not have the starring role he enjoyed on JV; but would provide value in various other ways that don’t garner headlines but do produce victories.
Senior Kostro Montina has been called by coach Chris Raba “our glue.” While Darell Johnson, Cliff Joseph and Richie Jones have often enjoyed 20-point games in the same game this year, Montina has done everything else.
“We have a few of what we call work players,” Johnson said. “Players that don’t have to have the ball to be a big factor in the game. Kostro is one of our big factors. We really need him to get all of our loose balls, our deflections, tipped passes, all that stuff.”
During a game at Trenton in mid-January, Montina got in early foul trouble and the Tornadoes rolled to a 14-point lead against the then-undefeated Northstars. It was Nottingham’s largest deficit of the year. Montina returned after halftime, and the Stars pulled away for the win.
“Kostro’s an intricate part of our team,” Raba said after the game. “In the second half when he played, that’s when we went on our run. He does everything for us, he hit some big threes along with everything else he does.”
Montina’s story is unique, to say the least.
In this day and age when kids are signed up for organized sports at age 3 and pick-up games with neighborhood friends are a thing of the past, Montina is a throwback. He played football, soccer and basketball growing up, but never with adults getting in the way.
“I never took it serious, it was just like a hobby,” he said. “I never played in leagues, I only played street basketball with my friends, that was it. I enjoyed it.”
While at Crockett Middle School, he began playing with Joseph and Johnson.
“I looked at Cliff and Darell as like, gods,” he said with a laugh.
The summer before ninth grade, Montina decided to give basketball with an actual coach a try. He saw the talented crop of Crockett graduates getting ready for high school and started going into the weight room for Nottingham workouts.
“I could see that could be a team that could do something,” he said. “So I wanted to try to hone my skills for the season.”
Skills were one thing, understanding the game was quite another. Montina discovered that his freshman year, when he was good enough to make the JV team, but not savvy enough to get playing time.
“I got garbage time that year,” he said. “Coach actually had me practicing with the varsity and JV. I was unorthodox. I was just one of those crazy kids, I couldn’t make anything. Since I didn’t ever play organized basketball, I had a hard time with the plays. I didn’t even know what a wing spot was. I had to learn all of that on JV.”
He grasped it quickly and worked tirelessly that summer. The following season Montina averaged 25 points for the JV while Johnson and Joseph were establishing themselves on varsity. But Montina showed his potential late in the season, when he scored 14 points—all in the fourth quarter—during a varsity game with Steinert.
Montina had no idea at the time, that he was making JV coach Brandon Johnson look like a prophet.
“You’re allowed five quarters (between JV and varsity),” Raba said. “I told Brandon that he was going to play the whole fourth, and Brandon said, ‘I’ll guarantee he gets 14 or more.’”
Montina was figuring in Raba’s plans at the beginning of last year, until a series of occurrences caused him to get on the roster late. The school doctor was concerned about a possible heart murmur and suggested he see a cardiologist. He could not get an appointment until after the holidays and, once cleared, it was mid-January.
“By that time we were rolling, so it was hard to get him in the mix,” Raba said. “When we got to the state tournament, he hit some big shots. We knew what he could do, he just didn’t have his paper work in on time.”
There was another issue as well. Unlike JV, where Montina was The Man—he earned the nickname Kash because his 3-point shot was money—he had to dial back his game since Jones, Joseph and Johnson were the featured scorers.
“It was a tough adjustment,” Montina said. “I just had to understand that on JV I was the star, but now on varsity there are three other stars so I had to learn how to just fit in and take the shots I get.”
It wasn’t easy.
“Last year, he wasn’t willing to do that stuff,” Raba said. “We fought all the time. Last year I said, ‘Kostro, until you listen to me, you’re just gonna sit next to me.’ This year he listens to everything. Last year he wanted to score and shoot a little more. This year, he’s doing what we need.”
And he does it with ferocity. Montina is all energy, all the time. Nottingham has opened some massive leads on teams, and it would be easy to get complacent. But Montina never lets that happen as he is constantly flying around the court, defending, setting screens, grabbing rebounds. His hustle spreads throughout the guys he’s on the floor with.
As of Jan. 23, Nottingham was 10-1 and Montina was scoring nearly 7 points per game and was second on the team to Johnson with nearly 9 boards per game.
“Most guards don’t box out other guards, that’s why he’s getting so many rebounds,” Raba said. “Big guys are boxing each other out, a shot goes up and he comes in from the perimeter and grabs it. He’s athletic, he’s a big reason why we’re 10-1.”
To his credit, Montina finally understood that his glory days of scoring big were over, for the most part (he did have four games in which he hit double figures). Thus, knowing what he had to do, Kostro asked to wear No. 10 this year in honor of last year’s defensive stopper for the Northstars.
“I had to be a smart player,” Montina said. “I already knew what my role was going to be. I just had to cope with that, and fill in the gaps from seniors we lost. We needed another defensive player, like Darry Felix from last year, because everybody on the team can’t score and take all the shots. So I had to fulfill that role, so that’s why I put on that number 10 jersey.”
It’s not surprising Montina has been smart enough to figure that it out, because he’s pretty smart in general. Sporting a 3.5 grade point average, he went to visit the University of Richmond with the Princeton University Preparatory program last summer and immediately decided that is where he wanted to go.
Several Division III college coaches have expressed interest in having Montina play for them, but he was not about to turn down a hefty scholarship from an academic institution like Richmond.
“They met 100 percent of my needs,” said Montina, who is a member of the Hamilton NEWS Club and also tutors kids after school. “Academics comes first. I have no idea what I’m majoring in, but I’m gonna decide my first year, figure out my options and declare my sophomore year.”
Until then, he will continue to do the little things as Nottingham pursues county and state tournament glory. He is the type of player every successful team needs.
“And not many have him,” Raba said, with a sly grin.