By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

Last season, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology boys basketball team went 15-9 but missed out on the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament and the RedHawks were bounced by Egg Harbor Township in embarrassing fashion in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament.

Fifteen wins and nothing to show for it. They were a distant third to St. Augustine Prep and Millville in the CAL National Conference, so not even a conference title.

This year’s RedHawks are intent on making something happen, and proving the naysayers wrong. They want to prove they belong among the CAL’s elite teams, like Prep, EHT, Mainland and Millville. And, so far, Atlantic Tech is right there in the thick of things in the CAL. They’ve went 9-4 in a jam-packed January schedule and are 15-5 overall and in second place in the CAL American race behind Millville heading into tonight’s matchup at Atlantic City.

“We’re in playoff mode now and we have to go into every game feeling that we have to win or go home,” senior point guard Nasir Tucker said after a recent win over Cedar Creek. “That’s how we’re trying to treat every game. For me, I’m trying to spark my guys. I want us to go all the way, so I’ll work as hard as I have to.

Senior Nasir Tucker runs the point for Atlantic Tech, a team that went 9-4 in January and is 15-5 overall. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“We’re trying to hustle and get our respect,” the Mays Landing resident added. “Hustle on every play. That’s my main focus. The only way you’re going to beat us is if you out-work us.”

Atlantic Tech (15-5, 8-3 Cape-Atlantic League American) beat Bridgeton in the season opener, then lost a road game at Hammonton before ripping off five straight wins to close out 2022. The RedHawks opened 2023 with a five-point loss at Cedar Creek, but since then the only setbacks have been a 49-47 loss at Millville, a 10-point defeat at Clearview and a three-point loss to Absegami.

Coach Byron Nelson credits this year’s success so far to the play and mindset of his seniors.

“All my seniors this year were juniors last year who got a ton of experience. They kept it going through the summer trying to get better,” he said. “We wanted to take a step forward, and up to this point I feel like we’ve done that. I tried to make the schedule tougher from last year so we could play some good teams and get some quality wins. The work is showing.”

This year’s roster features six seniors, including all five starters — Tucker at the point along with guards Jayden Lopez and Jameil Quintana, plus forwards Zahir Davis and Desi Stroud. Athletically, this team can match up with anybody. Davis was a defensive lineman at Oakcrest this past fall and Stroud is a very athletic swingman type. Tucker can not only run the point, but score as well, Lopez can shoot the 3-pointer (team-leading 25 made threes) and Quintana can rebound (51) and provide defensive effort (25 steals).

And the fact that all five starters are seniors means coach Nelson can play a more advanced level of basketball, especially defensively. The RedHawks can switch seamlessly between man and zone defenses without getting confused about their assignments. They also know how to police themselves, and get on each other when the effort or execution is lacking.

“It makes my life easier because now I don’t have to correct every little mistake. They know what they are doing wrong, they know what we’re trying to do as a program and the style we want to play with,” coach Nelson said. “At halftime (against Cedar Creek) I didn’t have to say a word. It came from my senior point guard (Tucker), he said everything. They knew we played terrible (in the first half) and they knew the statement we wanted to make after losing to them at their place. We shouldn’t have lost that game. So, they said everything that needed to be said and they came out (in the second half) fired up and ready to go.”

It’s not going to be easy for the RedHawks to win the upcoming Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, but they can point to last year’s Mainland team — the first No. 8 seed to win the tournament — as proof that if you play hard, especially defensively, anything can happen. They still have a couple of tough regular-season tests coming up, including a big road test at Atlantic City tonight followed by a Saturday morning game at Manchester Township in Ocean County.

“I think we just need to continue to hit our stride, continue to work on a day-to-day basis,” Nelson said. “I think we can beat anybody. We match up well because we can go big, we can go small, we’re athletic — I have two solid guards who can handle the ball and we have shooters, so we can score with anybody. We just have to be able to hit the ground running going into February and keep gaining momentum.”

Lopez was a little less cautious in his optimism following the win over Cedar Creek on Jan. 25.

“I feel like we’re in a good position right now because a lot of teams in the CAL are sleeping on us,” he said. “Once we get to that higher level and play the higher ranked teams, they are going to be shook about how we come out and play as a team.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Key upcoming games:

Feb. 2 at Atlantic City, 7 p.m.; Feb. 4 at Manchester Township, 11:30 a.m. Feb. 6 at Glassboro, 5:30 p.m.