The Nottingham boys’ basketball program can be somewhat likened to the fall foliage. For one glorious burst of a season, the Northstars were a thing of beauty, catching every eye in town. Suddenly, the winds of graduation scattered an unforgettable group of seniors to different corners of the state, leaving the Northstar tree barren, and the growth process must start all over again.
That is the challenge that faces coach Chris Raba, who lost all five starters and a sixth man.
Nottingham is coming off arguably the greatest public school boys’ basketball season in Mercer County history. The Stars went 30-3; won the Mercer County and NJSIAA Group III tournament championships; and became the first public school to win 30 games and a Tournament of Champions game.
With all the contributors gone, Raba is left to start over. Entering his 17th season, the veteran coach jokes that what he lacks in experience, he won’t make up for with size.
“This team is one of the most inexperienced teams that I have ever coached, but we may also be the smallest team in the state,” Raba said. “We only have three players over six-feet, and no one over six-one. So it’s going to be very challenging.”
Obviously, the Stars strength will have to come from the backcourt.
“We will be running our offenses until we get lay-ups,” Raba said. “We really are going to put pressure on other teams to play defense. Almost like my old (Hamilton) West teams. We are going to have problems scoring, but that’s part of the rebuilding process.”
It’s a process Raba is quite familiar with, having had to do it often.
But never to this extent. Nottingham is going from a feared team, to one that everyone will hope to get revenge on after absorbing some lopsided losses last year.
“Coach Raba told us we have a target on our back, everybody wants to beat us,” senior forward Martique Perry said. “But we feel like we can surprise some people. I would say it’s too early to tell what we can do. We know last year’s team was really talented. This year I like that we all play as hard as we can. We know we gotta be scrappy to win games.”
Perry is one of a handful of players who saw slivers of varsity time last season, along with seniors Derek Williams and Antonio Brown, junior Javon Jenkins and sophomore Brandon Raba, the coach’s son who garnered several AAU honors over the summer.
Most of this year’s varsity are products of Brandon Johnson’s JV team, which went 13-2 last year with four freshman starters. There could very well be talent just waiting in the wings.
“Brandon does an excellent job with our sub-varsity,” Raba said. “My staff is one of the best in the state. Milo McGuire, Chris Edwards, Drew Paden and Mo Hobbs are excellent teachers of the game.”
Rounding out the group that played with the Northstars summer team are seniors Darold Altine and Jermaine Austell, and sophomores Josh Morrison, Devin Coleman, Chris Williams, Z Amir Brown, Kishawn Douragh and Jack Bisset.
“It was a growing summer, we had growing pains,” Perry said. “We lost some tough ones, but that just comes with it. We have a lot of young players, a lot of us never played together before. We had some chemistry things, just trying to play together as a team.”
Raba said the Stars were around .500 while playing close to 30 games over the summer.
“Our lack of size was a problem, but the kids played extremely hard,” the coach said. “I was impressed with their tenacity on defense.”
Nothing, however, was decided in terms of who will play where; or how much they will play. It is a continuous work in progress.
“That has all yet to be determined,” Raba said. “Roles and playing time will change throughout the season.”
Despite the difference in returning talent between this year and last, Raba treats every upcoming season the same. He feels a season is made from April to November, before it even starts, and had the young Stars in the weight room and the gym “for thousands of hours” in the off-season. “They have done everything that I have asked from them,” Raba said.
It’s not surprising, considering who they were exposed to in the previous seasons.
“I learned a lot from them,” Perry said of last year’s seniors. “A lot of people were telling me it was a bad thing to stay here and play behind them, but I didn’t really mind. We were like a family. They always taught me if you want anything, you gotta work hard for it.”
Raba agreed that the champions’ eagerness to roll up their sleeves was contagious.
“Mostly everyone in our program saw how hard last year’s team worked, and saw that it took three years,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, over one season. You take baby steps. That’s how you build a program. Our players want to compete, and we aren’t going to back down this year. If teams take us lightly, that will be a mistake. The culture in our program is that they expect to win. Their work ethic is second to no one.”
Last year, Raba joked he did not have to coach, he only had to make sure he didn’t screw his players up. This year, it’s back to teaching and having patience. The man known as The Baron, will now be the Building Baron and he builds as well as anyone.
After his Hamilton West team won a state title, all five seniors graduated and the following year the Hornets won 15 games and upset top-seeded Red Bank in the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals before falling in the semis.
“When you have talent like I had last year, you just didn’t want to over-coach them,” Raba said. “I wanted them to play with freedom, under our structure. This year’s team we will have to coach them up. They are inexperienced, but I’m looking forward to helping them improve during the course of the season.”
And that improvement may not result in a ready-to-serve meal by January.
“This is the microwave era, parents and players want instant success and playing time,” Raba said. “I like my pizza in the oven. It takes longer to cook, but tastes much better. That’s what our parents, and our players have to understand. It’s a process. People forget as sophomores that our state championship team started off 0-6.
“The biggest challenge is to teach the kids that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. This program is used to winning. This year is going to be a roller coaster so we can’t get too high or too low after wins and losses. It will be fun because the team will grow during the course of the season.”