(WORTH MENTIONING is an ongoing feature from the South Jersey Glory Days staff in which we recognize a player, coach or team for doing something outstanding, give our thoughts on why it’s important, and what it means for the particular program mentioned. If you see or hear about something worth mentioning, email South Jersey Glory Days Publisher Dave O’Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org).
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Throughout its short history as a boys basketball program, Atlantic Tech — more formally known as the Atlantic County Institute of Technology — never scared anybody. If anything, seeing ACIT on the schedule meant a coach could play some of his young guys for extended minutes and feel confident he could still get on the bus with a win in hand.
But these days, the RedHawks could be considered a sleeping giant. The school population has exploded in recent years as Atlantic Tech now plays in South Jersey Group 4 in state playoffs, where all the largest schools in the area compete. ACIT is now the third-largest high school in Atlantic County behind only Egg Harbor Township and Atlantic City, having recently passed both Mainland Regional and Hammonton.
So, couple that boost in numbers with a coach like Byron Nelson, and the RedHawks are starting to believe they can become one of those powerful teams in the Cape-Atlantic League and give schools such as EHT, St. Augustine Prep, Millville and Mainland a run for their money.
This year, ACIT had its coming out party, of sorts, as the RedHawks set a program record with 20 wins and won a state playoff game for the first time in school history. Their run finally came to an end against eventual sectional champion EHT, but ACIT finished 20-7, one of just five teams in the league to reach 20 wins.
“These guys made a helluva run, they made history and left a legacy that can never be taken away from them,” Nelson said. “Last year, the seniors, I didn’t really get a long time to mold them, but these guys have been with me since they were sophomores. They bought into me and I bought into them. I trust them completely. I know losing them is going to hurt, but they need to know that they’ve left a legacy for ACIT basketball.”
Atlantic Tech had five seniors in this year’s starting lineup, and they played with a hunger and passion that was rarely seen at the Mays Landing school in years prior. These guys wanted to win a South Jersey championship, and, more importantly, believed they were capable of it.
They were led by senior point guard Nasir Tucker, who kind of epitomized what the new-look Atlantic Tech basketball program was going to be all about — he may have been undersized, but he’s tough, scrappy, can shoot and can find ways to get to the rim and the free-throw line. That’s one thing that was impressive about this team, how athletic they were. Their big man, Zahir Davis-Roberts — who was a football star at Oakcrest as a defensive lineman last fall — could run the floor on the fast break, as could Jameil Quintana. The Hawks had a sharpshooter in guard Jayden Lopez, and a guy like Desi Stroud, who could play multiple positions and guard just about anybody on the floor.
ACIT got nearly 1,300 points out of its starting five, they averaged nearly 27 rebound per game as a team and racked up nearly 400 assists in 27 games.
More important than the stats, however, is the impact this group of seniors will have on this program in the years to come. Their talents, as well as the way they played the game, served as an example to the younger players in the program that there will be new expectations of success going forward for anyone who puts on a maroon, black and yellow uniform.
“We have a good group of young guys so I’m excited to get back to work and see if we can be back on this stage next year, for sure,” said Nelson, a basketball lifer whose brother Wayne, is the coach at Atlantic City High and was a star player at Holy Spirit before playing professionally in Europe. “I feel like we’ve built strong relationships with these seniors. We’re going to have that family bond, that brotherhood, for the rest of our lives. That’s what I’ve wanted to build here. I learned that from my brother and the cultures that I was raised in, we’re trying to build that here.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays