Darell Johnson, Richie Jones, Deonte West, Cliff Joseph and Kostro Montina celebrate after the Nottingham High boys’ basketball team won the CNJ Group III sectional title March 6, 2018 against Moorestown. The ’Stars went on to win the Group III title, and to be the first Mercer County public school team to win a game in the Tournament of Champions. Their run ended in the TOC semis against Roselle Catholic, the top team in the state. (Photo by Wes Kirkpatrick.)

It was January 2016, and it was picture day for the Nottingham High sports teams. The boys’ basketball team was 2-6 at the time with a group of talented but raw sophomores.
After the photographer snapped her photos, she turned to coach Chris Raba and asked if he could send in the varsity team.

“I just looked at her, like…” Raba said, displaying an expression of sheer disbelief. “I told her ‘This IS the varsity team!’ And then I turned to those guys and said, ‘You think you’re good, she thinks you’re the JV team.’”

It’s safe to say that photographer never would have predicted what happened two seasons later, as the nucleus of that squad became the most successful team in Colonial Valley Conference history. Nottingham went on a run that sent a school and township into a tizzy, making awesome memories for players, students and fans alike.

Behind the dynamic senior trio of Cliff Joseph, Darell Johnson and Richie Jones—aka the Jo Storm—Nottingham won the Colonial Valley Conference’s Valley Division title, claimed its division of the ESCIT Christmas Tournament, and garnered the first Mercer County, Central Jersey Group III and Group III state tournament titles in school history. In winning a CVC-record 30 games, the Northstars also became the conference’s first public school to win a Tournament of Champions game.

A special collection of unselfish players helped coach Chris Raba (above) lead Nottingham High boys’ basketball to new heights. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Even after all that, the players recalled their humble beginnings of being mistaken for a sub-varsity team.

“She said that, and I was saying in my head, ‘This is the varsity team,’” said Johnson, a 6-5 forward. “We just stood there in disbelief that someone thought this was our JV team.”

Joseph was half stung, half laughing.

“It hurt a little bit,” he said. “But I just thought it was funny.”

Jones took it as a sign to start working harder.

“It was kind of, like, an insult,” he said. “We were the varsity team, and we probably thought we were much better than what we were. So, to hear a comment like that, that just humbled us. We just had to suck it up so we could be good.”

They passed good and went to great before it was all over. As sophomores, the Jo Storm finished 11-14 (after an 0-6 start) and, as the 16th seed, threw a titanic scare into top-seeded Ewing before falling, 61-57, in a first-round state game.

Last year, with fellow junior Kostro Montina joining the mix, Nottingham improved to 23-6 and reached the MCT semifinals and CJ III title game before losing to Ewing again. The 23 wins were a school record, which the Northstars broke this season in the first game of the state tournament. Ku’Jane Johnson and Deonte West rounded out the rotation as key role players on this year’s 30-3 squad.

Darell Johnson was named Mercer County player of the year. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Nottingham also became the first team in Mercer County history to have three 1,000-point scorers on the roster at the same time in Joseph, the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,870 points; Johnson (1,497) and Jones (1,078). Joseph set the school’s season record for points with 561 last season, and all three players broke it this year.

It pretty much summed up the Northstars greatness—unselfish talent.

“That is the most mind boggling thing for me,” Raba said. “These guys aren’t pigs. You would think a guy gets 1,800 points and he wants more, but that’s not the case. If you’re open and you play on this team, you’re gonna get the ball.”

Their ability to pass is what made the ‘Stars so exciting. No matter who was on the floor, all five players had an uncanny knack for finding each other for open looks.

Jones broke the school record for 3-point baskets in a career and a season, and his 104 threes this year were a CVC mark. He was as good a passer as he was a shooter. During Nottingham’s TOC win over Haddonfield, Darell Johnson was a foot from the sideline when he threw an underhand bullet through traffic to Ku’Jane Johnson for an easy lay-up. That was typical of his ability. Joseph led Nottingham in scoring his first three seasons but, slowed by a knee issue this year, became a facilitator and led the team with 5.3 assists per game.

It’s what happens when guys play together for so long. The Jo Storm all played with or against each other since sixth grade. Montina watched them growing up and joined them as a freshman. Montina was symbolic of the ‘Stars unselfishness. A 25-point per game scorer on the JV as a sophomore, he evolved into an outstanding role player this year and also scored 10 points per game. Few, if any, in the CVC out-hustled him as Montina won the prestigious Jack Cryan Award this year.

Ku’Jane Johnson (35) rounded out the rotation as a key role player. (Photo by John Blaine.)

“We saw we needed a lot of improving to do after our sophomore year,” Darell Johnson said. “Just because you have good players doesn’t mean everything. You need a team to win. Our chemistry was real important.”

Having a guy like Johnson helps a bit too. After struggling with his confidence during his first two seasons, Johnson enjoyed a stellar AAU season against strong competition last summer and came back as an unstoppable force. He averaged 21.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists and shot 57 percent. Showing his inside-outside abilities, Johnson had 67 blocked shots and made 42 3-pointers.

Raba does not think that in 16 years that he has ever coached a better player than Johnson was this season. And while his confidence peaked as a senior, it was always pretty high.

“He came into our summer training going into ninth grade, and the older guys were on one side of the court and younger guys were on the other side,” Raba said. “He’s looking, looking, and after a while he goes “Why am I over here with the little guys? Why ain’t I on that side?’ He wanted to play with the older guys from the beginning.”

Thus began a steady climb to stardom.

“After this summer I knew I had it in me,” Johnson said. “When I played AAU that’s when I started to think if I keep working this would be a big year for me.”

Asked what fueled him to get better, Johnson said simply, “Other people.”

What kind of people?

“People who talked about my game, talked bad about it,” he said. “People say I’m not gonna be good. Naysayers, anybody that thought bad of me, just made me better.”

Richie Jones, here during the March 15, 2018 Tournament of Champions game against Roselle Catholic, broke the school record for 3-pointers in a career and a season, as well as the CVC mark for 3-pointers in a season. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Johnson was part of the season’s most epic baskets. In the MCT finals against Trenton Catholic, Nottingham trailed by one with 12 seconds left. After taking the inbounds pass, Johnson drove to the hoop, drew the defense and flipped to Joseph for the game-winning bucket with five seconds left.

In the CJ III finals at Moorestown, Nottingham trailed by two and inbounded to Johnson with three seconds left. The ball was tipped up toward the net, and Johnson grabbed and shot in one motion to tie the game at the buzzer. The ’Stars went on to win in overtime.

“That play right there showed the maturation of Darell,” Raba said. “Everybody’s going crazy, people are running out on the court, jumping on him, congratulating him. Most people would be all excited and Darell is going, ‘Calm down, we’ve still got overtime to play.’”

If Johnson wasn’t making clutch hoops, Jones was. The sniper hit a bundle of big 3-pointers that either started runs; thwarted other team’s runs; or put Nottingham ahead at a big moment.

“He didn’t just hit 104 threes; the threes he hit were huge,” Raba said. “He hit so many big shots throughout this year, it was unbelievable.”

Jones, who played for Ewing as a freshman, averaged 18.2 points and 3.7 assists while leading the team in steals (90) and deflections (2). He shot 51 percent on 2-point shots and 86 percent from the foul line.

“It felt good playing with these guys just because of how much time we spent together in the gym, playing against each other, playing with each other,” Jones said. “Playing in all aspects helped us.”

Kostro Montina won the Jack Cryan Award, given to a Mercer County senior who displays outstanding sportsmanship and leadership. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Especially when Joseph is in the mix. Joseph showed his skills as a freshman and just kept getting better. When right knee issues hit this year, Joseph needed to change his game because he lost some explosiveness.

“It just came out of nowhere,” Joseph said of the injury. “I could barely jump off my right leg. Sometimes it would feel worse than others. But I thought I could do other things. I just like to get my teammates the ball, rebound for my team to make it easier for everyone else. As long as we were winning I was fine with (not scoring).”

Despite his “decline” in points, Joseph still averaged 17.1 points on 53 percent shooting. He had 7.0 rebounds and made 34 3-pointers.

“The body of work he’s put together, he may be in the top five of the CVC of all time,” Raba said. “He’s a winner. As our team got better, he didn’t want to score as much. He was our third leading scorer. He never complained, he played on one leg all year. I could only imagine if he played and was 100 percent all year.”

After Nottingham defeated Chatham in the Group III state final—the first state title by a township team since Raba’s 2006 Hamilton West team won it all—an emotional Raba unleashed a heartfelt thank you to his Big Three in front of a roomful of media at Rutgers. With players fleeing public schools to play at parochial and private institutions at an alarming rate, he could not thank his guys enough for staying with him and seeing it through.

“What makes a public school good is when these kids who are told to go to a private school stay at their public school,” Raba said, “Those three could have played at any private school in the state of New Jersey, and they were loyal to me.”

Cliff Joseph, Nottingham’s all-time leading scorer, adjusted his role away from scoring this year to help his team win games. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Because of that, they ignited the township and county, as social media exploded with followers who also knew these players since they were young. Raba realized offers would come their way after their sophomore season, and Joseph verified the players had to turn down a few people.

“I just felt we could do something good here,” he said. “I really wanted to stay around my people, my friends and stuff.”

Remaining with Raba was part of it as well. Few coaches return loyalty to their players as much as the man they call The Baron. Raba has no problem doing something that he knows will outrage the rest of the CVC in order to let his players know he has their backs.

“That did a lot for us,” Johnson said. “It was real fun playing for him. I’m gonna miss it. When it comes to basketball, he didn’t have to do a lot for the games, he just put us in the spotlight and let us perform.”

“He taught us a lot, how to be leaders, how to work hard,” Joseph said. “He pushed us to play to our potential.”

Jones feels that Raba’s confidence in his players “means everything to us, because when we play in games, in certain situations if we’re down on ourselves, he’ll assure us we got it, just to keep playing our game.”

And as much as Raba meant to his players, they meant even more to him.

“These guys have given me their heart, their soul,” the coach said at the Rutgers press conference. “I can never repay them for what they gave me. Never. They have given me memories that will last a lifetime.”

They did likewise for a school and a community. Pretty good for a “JV” team.