OCEAN CITY — On Thursday night, 21 seconds ticked down prior to host Ocean City taking on St. Augustine Prep in our Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. And with each second, a new memory pounded into Red Raiders coach John Bruno’s brain, and a new tear, it seemed, rolled down his cheeks.
The 21-second countdown was a salute to former star Ocean City basketball player Connor Laverty and his jersey No. 21. Laverty lost his battle against cancer this past weekend and passed away at just 25 years old. He was a fan favorite in the red-and-white, and one of coach Bruno’s all-time favorite players. Yes, he was a 1,000-point scorer during his high school days, which ended in 2016, but he was so much more than that. He was a great teammate, a great leader — the kind of kid other parents implored their children to be like.
Just 75 minutes later, coach Bruno was tucked away in the office at the rear of the boys locker room, sitting on a beat-up old couch, beaming with pride while his eyes were still moist from the pregame. His Red Raiders had just beaten St. Augustine Prep — long a Cape-Atlantic League powerhouse that now features five new starters in a bit of a rebuilding year — and they did it just the way Laverty would have liked. They shared the ball, they hustled, they limited turnovers, they hit big 3-pointers, and they answered every Hermits run with one of their own.
It all added up to a solid 61-51 victory as Ocean City improved to 12-1 and moved to within a game of Middle Township in the CAL American race. Middle improved to 13-1 overall and 7-0 in the division with a win over Egg Harbor Township on Thursday night, while Ocean City checks in at 6-1 in divisional play.
According to Bruno, it’s just the fourth time in his 30-plus year career that he’s beaten Prep, and the first time ever that one of his teams has beaten the Hermits twice in one season. Ocean City beat Prep 56-55 earlier this season in overtime. Bruno’s other wins vs. legendary Hermits coach Paul Rodio came in 2010 and one way back in the 1990s.
“They are always a well-coached and disciplined team, so it’s really nice to get a win,” said Ocean City senior forward Pat Grimley, one of four Red Raiders in double figures with 14 points. “I don’t think we’ve ever beaten them two times in one season in Ocean City history, so it’s really nice.”
“I want to say (Laverty) took us through it. I actually have mass cards in my pocket of everybody who I wish was at our games. You can see how long I’ve been coaching — mom, dad, brothers, friends,” Bruno said. “I don’t want to sound negative when I say this, but the last couple of games, the basketball season has seemed a lot less significant. Today was probably the toughest that I’ve had in quite a long time because you saw so many young people having to deal with the grief of losing a young person. That’s what kept driving me. I lost my mom and dad, but they were in their 70s and 80s, my brothers were in their 60s. They had a great life. This kid was 25 years old. But, to be honest, basketball gets to be a distraction for me. I found myself having more problems when I wasn’t doing anything as opposed to when I’m coaching.”
Ocean City got off to a red-hot start, as senior guard Dylan Schlatter nailed a pair of threes and Kori Segich added another as the Red Raiders raced out to a 9-0 start. St. Augustine Prep battled all the way back to take a 20-19 lead late in the second quarter, but Ocean City answered with a 10-2 run to close out the first half with a 29-22 lead. The run featured threes again from Schlatter and Segich, who finished with 11 and 20 points, respectively.
“As far as the game, I can’t tell you how proud I am of these kids and how hard they played. You can call that ‘Connor’s style.’ He was looking down on us. We shared the ball, we didn’t get down on each other when there were mistakes. We kept looking toward the next play. That’s what this team does, and that’s exactly what Connor would do,” Bruno said. “He never stopped playing, no matter what the score was. I can’t get over how well we played as a team. We shared the ball, they all handled the ball well. I know we rely on Kori sometimes but it was nice to see three other guys in double figures.”
Prep (8-6, 3-3 CAL American) shaved the lead down to 45-37 on a 3-pointer from Paris Pratt late in the third quarter, and got within 48-41 with 5:41 to go when Mike Muits scored off a steal, but Ocean City showed composure in the final four minutes by handling the ball well and beating Prep’s full-court press with some easy baskets to close out the win.
“Our two silent heroes are Ben (McGonigle) and Dylan. They don’t get a lot of headlines, but they handle the ball, their passing is amazing,” Bruno said. “Ben had a turnover tonight and that might have been his first turnover in the past three games. I don’t know that Dylan has had a turnover in the last three games. They don’t put points on the board all the time, but I keep telling Ben, you can be a good player without having to score a lot.”
“We were both making our shots — both teams have good shooters — but we tend to always pull away in the second half. We don’t play many guys but the stamina of our starters is up there, and we like to push it. That fast style of play catches up to some teams,” Grimley said. “I know how much respect coach had for Connor. I’m just really proud we could bring home the win for him.”
Bruno said he was very impressed with Segich, who played maybe the most complete game he’s played all season, the coach said.
“St. Augustine may not have the players they’ve had in the past, but they still have good players. You can’t just show up and think you’re going to beat them. To our credit, Dylan came out shooting the ball well, then Kori got into the flow. Who do you guard? Pat made a couple of jumpers, Ben made a driving layup, Charlie (LaBarre) is out there doing what he does,” Bruno said. “When you reference Connor and you’re talking about that 2016 team, they shared the ball. They knew he was the key, like Kori is this year, but the other four, Connor knew to rely on them, too. That’s what we’re trying to do with Kori, and tonight he did a good job of that. He didn’t force anything, where as in some other games he tries so hard that maybe he forces some things. He didn’t have to be the one to get all the points tonight, but he still ended up with 20. Kori is getting better at getting people the ball, and that’s something Connor was very good at. If he had 20, he made sure somebody else had 15.”
Only Ocean City’s starting five players scored, as LaBarre added 10 points and McGonigle six, while Rory Friel led St. Augustine Prep with 12 points and Noah Plenn added 10. The win was the fifth straight for the Red Raiders, who have a big showdown at Middle Township next Wednesday night.
“We just have to lock in for the second half of the season,” Grimley said. “The regular season doesn’t matter to us, it’s all about what happens in the playoffs in February. We have to work on our offensive efficiency. Defensively, we tend to run and jump pretty well, but we just have to put the ball in the basket more, with all of our players.”
Thursday night’s was one of the quickest game of the season, last just a little more than an hour, but Bruno still took a quick moment near the end to think once again about one of the finest young men he’s ever coached.
Said Bruno, “I’m not too nostalgic, but I took his mass card out of my pocket with about a minute to go and thanked him for all he did for us.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Ocean City hosts Lower Cape May on Saturday at 6 p.m. St. Augustine Prep plays Morris Catholic at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Winter Classic Showcase at Paul VI in Haddonfield.
Sully, as he’s known throughout South Jersey, began his newspaper career in 1995 and has worked for some of New Jersey’s top papers, including The Asbury Park Press and Press of Atlantic City, as a writer and editor. He’s earned several New Jersey Press Association awards and continues to produce high quality reporting, writing and photography.
A native of Ocean County, Sully played high school baseball at Lacey Township High and college baseball at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. After a successful 15-year career in the newspaper business, Sully launched Glory Days Magazine in 2013 and for nearly a decade has been bringing fans outstanding and insightful coverage of high school sports throughout South Jersey.