Isaiah Sparks gets ready to shoot a free throw during a win against Lawrence in December. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Shelly Dearden relies on a pipeline of pride and tradition for her Ewing High School boys basketball team, and this year the head coach has turned to it as much as ever.

The Blue Devils graduated five starters from last year’s sectional championship team that reached the Mercer County Tournament final and Group 3 state final. That put a new crop of players into bigger roles, and they have embraced it during a 17-8 start to the season that put them in the MCT semifinals and earned the No. 5 seed in Central Jersey Group 3.

“It’s been good,” said senior forward Isaiah Sparks. “She (Dearden) always says, ‘Next man has to step up.’ And we go out and always try to play hard, and I always try to give my best effort.”

“Most of my career here, I’ve been a guard,” said the 6-foot-3 Sparks. “Being the tallest person on the team my senior year, I had to give that up and play big man. At first, I was kind of fighting it, but then I learned to give into it and play it in my favor.”

Sparks was one of four players in double figures scoring as the fifth-seeded Blue Devils upset fourth-seeded Hightstown, 60-59, in the MCT quarterfinals Feb. 17. His 13 points brought his scoring average to 9.9 points per game to go with almost six rebounds per game after barely averaging 2 points per game last year.

Delvon Doggett (13 points and 12 rebounds), Shemar Robinson (13 points), Miles Reed (11 points) joined Sparks in double digit scoring. Caleb Stokes, the one returning letter winner with starting experience from last year, shared a team-high four assists with Robinson along with two steals.

“It’s just been balanced every game,” Dearden said. “It depends on who we’re playing, we see where matchups might not be as good for the other team. It could be anybody on any given night who could have a great game or a good game or a consistent game throughout the year.”

Dearden can count on defense. They are a group that thrives on shutting teams down, then fills different roles on offense. Keyshawn Preston runs the offense, and he still provides some scoring even if he wasn’t a scorer in the past. He didn’t even average 2 points per game last year, but has been solid as a voice for Dearden on the court this year.

Keyshawn Preston dribbles the ball during a home win over Lawrence in December. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

“She’s always been beating it into my head that I need to run the show,” Preston said. “I always need to gather everybody when stuff is going wrong, always bring everyone together as one team and make sure everything is all right on the court and off the court.”

When Preston goes home, he gets more of the same motivation to do well now that the postseason has arrived. Ewing basketball’s winning tradition is on his mind night and day.
“I hear every day,” Presto said. “I live with one of my uncles that played here. He talks about it every night. It helps. It reminds me. He’s waking me up with the same thing every day. He says, ‘You know what you have to do and don’t let nothing break you.’”

Ewing wasn’t broken by a difficult early season schedule, and that has prepared them to make postseason tournament runs.

“We always have a strong beginning of the year schedule,” Dearden said. “We started the season with Atlantic City, they’re in the top 10. Our holiday tournament is always difficult. We played top teams in the state during that time.

“What that did is prepare us for the tournaments now—the Mercer County and state tournament. It teaches our kids where they have to get to and what level of basketball they have to get to by the end of the season. It’s really a learning curve to see how much hard work we have to do throughout the season to get where these teams are.”

It’s not just the start of the season that prepares the new starters and role players. They start to figure out their spot on the team in the summer when they meet daily to lift, do agility training and play in leagues at Moody Park and Rider University. It gives them experience together before the preseason even begins.

“That’s where it all starts,” Spark said. “We put all the hard work in and it leads up to the season. We just keep working and it leads into it.”

By the postseason, Ewing feels like a group fully functioning as one. They have a determination that comes from the experience they picked up over the season.

“We’re calm, collected and take one game at a time,” Preston said. “We work at practice every day on what we’ll do based on who are next game is and who are next opponent is.”

The arrival of the postseason brings heightened awareness of Ewing’s winning tradition. The Blue Devils don’t shy away from talking about making their own history.

“We do talk a lot,” Preston said. “I think every Saturday for the last couple Saturdays, we’ve been together all day. Breakfasts, lunches, after practice, everything. We even go to our managers’ games sometimes. We have a closer team bond than I would think.”

“No matter what year, they’ll through a brick wall for each other and for the Ewing community and the Ewing High School and for themselves and their family,” Dearden said. You have kids who have played through years of tradition. Past alumni come back all the time and they see that the alumni come back, and they know how important it is. The alumni always remind each year, each team of the winning ways and traditions. It’s just the way things are here at Ewing.”

It’s another new group this year, with more turnover than many years, but it’s no different. They are drawn together after growing up in the same program, watching older players experience success, and now doing everything in their power to continue it.

“It gives us a lot of team chemistry,” Sparks said. “You just know what guys like to do on the court, and it plays out on the court when we’re all playing together.”