Amir Siddiqu replaces long-time Ewing High School basketball coach Shelly Dearden, who retired this year.

Brandon DeKleine stepped away from football and jumped into basketball in seventh grade.

It was a big transition that has shaped his athletic future. Five years later, he is part of another transition.

DeKleine and the Blue Devils boys’ basketball team are busy every day preparing for the season under new head coach Amir Siddiqu, the former assistant who takes over for trailblazer Shelly Dearden. She retired this year.

“A lot of people worried because Coach Shelly put Ewing on the map,” said DeKleine. “Everyone is expecting a lot from a new coach and a new team. When we found out Coach Siddiqu was the new coach, we calmed down. I was very happy.”

Siddiqu is a familiar face to all but the incoming freshman. He spent the last three years coaching the EHS freshman team and knows his players well.

It’s helped that Ewing has been doing many of the same things it has done every offseason. Players are coming to the school four days a week to lift and do skill work in the morning, then they play in league games at night at Moody Park, The Hun School or West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South.

“Right now it’s building a foundation, it’s building a work ethic and it’s building a desire to compete and how to compete,” Siddiqu said. “We’re getting detailed as we go throughout our summer. We’re immersed in basketball. It’s setting the foundation for hard work and competition.”

Ewing finished the regular season 5-3 in the Moody Park Summer Basketball League before playoffs were set to begin July 22 and the championship scheduled for July 31.

“Since the beginning of the summer we came a little ways,” DeKleine said. “In the beginning, we were always disagreeing with each other and we weren’t on the same page. He (Siddiqu) was talking to us and saying we have to get ourselves together. We listened and we got better.”

“It is tough paying with all different levels and grades,” he said. “Sometimes the younger kids are headstrong, but they end up listening. As long as we continue to come together as one instead of playing separately, we’ll be good for the season.”

It was a priority for Ewing to get in the Moody league again. It’s convenient to the players and it gives them tough competition.

“It’s very prideful to play in your back yard,” Siddiqu said. “It says ‘Moody Park Basketball League,’ but it’s our courts. Those kids go there to play pick-up. I grew up playing at that park. Everyone grew up playing at that park.”

DeKleine is an undersized forward at 6-feet-1 on an undersized and inexperienced Ewing team. Only three players return with true varsity playing experience. “We’re not very tall,” Siddiqu said. “We weren’t that tall last year. The thing about Ewing kids, and I’m not sure it’s like this in every town, but our kids play bigger than they are.”

DeKleine expects to be a big contributor on the court and as a leader. He has been starting and finishing games at Moody Park, and he stepped up when Ewing was short players for a doubleheader that they split July 16 in the CYO League at WW-P South.

“It’s pretty different,” DeKleine said. “There’s tougher teams playing at Moody Park, but it’s still competition playing at CYO. It helps the younger kids get ready.”

Siddiqu is following a model that he saw work for Dearden. He has moved Ewing to the CYO league instead of Montgomery and has a team in the Moody Park JV league as well. The players are adjusting to their new coach as they have more time with him.

“They’re different, but they have similar styles,” DeKleine said. “Both coaches love pushing the ball on fast breaks, love playing defense and boxing out and everything about defense. Siddiqu is more of a fast paced style than Coach Shelly. She liked to calm things down.”

The players’ familiarity is helping with the transition. Having played for him as freshmen, they know well what to expect of Siddiqu.

“He was very supportive of the team,” DeKleine said. “He never was soft with you. He kept it real. If you messed up, he let you know in front of everybody. He toughened up our guys pretty much.”

Like Dearden, Siddiqu is a EHS graduate who has returned to coach and teach at his alma mater.

“It’s really a privilege, being an alumni and being a community member,” Siddiqu said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be head coach of Ewing High boys basketball. Coach Dearden did so much for the program. Coach (Emil) Wandishin did so much for the program. To have my name mentioned in the list with them is such an honor. I just want to do right by those guys.”

“We are definitely coming together as a team more now than at the beginning,” DeKleine said. “A lot of people were selfish and not being good teammates. Now they’re understanding we have to be good teammates if we want to win games and have fun during the season.”