By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
The 21st century is a world of instant gratification — if a website takes more than a second to load on our phones we get frustrated. Even fast food is faster with the implementation of mobile app ordering before you even get to the drive through. Nobody wants to wait for anything anymore. That’s why we have tap-and-go payment options at convenience stores.
In the world of high school athletics, many times if a kid isn’t in the starting lineup as a freshman or sophomore they are looking to transfer. They don’t want to hear that they aren’t good enough for varsity, or aren’t mature enough, or just aren’t ready.
Jay-Nelly Reyes isn’t one of those kinds of kids. He’s kind of an anomaly at his age — a deep thinker, someone who has enough wherewithal to understand the big picture. A couple years ago he was one of those sophomores on the junior varsity team, and Egg Harbor Township boys basketball coach Cameron Bell kept telling him to be patient, that his time would come. And when it did, Reyes was going to do some special things.
That’s not an easy thing for a 15-year old boy to hear. But Reyes put his faith in Bell, and that faith was rewarded. Handsomely.
As a junior, Reyes was a key contributor for the Eagles, averaging six points and seven rebounds per game while helping lead EHT to a 23-4 record. But that season was marred by disappointment, as top-seeded EHT was shocked by No. 8 Mainland in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, and the Eagles lost to Lenape in the semifinals of the South Jersey Group 4 state playoffs. They had 23 wins, but nothing to show for it.
By this time, however, Reyes realized that nothing good worth having comes easily, and last summer he got to work on becoming the best player he could possibly be as a senior. That effort resulted in a tremendous season that had Reyes in the conversation as one of the best players in South Jersey. He averaged nearly 14 points per game, finished with almost 200 rebounds and added 92 assists and 136 steals. He also led Egg Harbor Township to the first CAL Tournament and sectional championships in program history.
“I have to give a lot of thanks to coach Bell, he’s been my biggest motivation. Sophomore year, I didn’t get that much playing time but he’s the reason I really kept playing basketball,” Reyes said. “He’s always encouraged me and told me I was good enough, I just had to wait my turn and that’s exactly what I did. I went from sitting the bench (as a sophomore) to starting (as a junior). I had a great year last year, numbers-wise, and last summer I just put in countless hours of work in with my coach. That whole summer he instilled this mindset in me that I just had to believe in myself, because he believed in me. He hit a switch or something, and I had a great senior year. He was always encouraging me, and even if I messed up he always reminded me that everyone messes up, nobody is perfect. He’s always been in my corner and I’ll always love him for that.”
“This has been a two-year maturation process for him. We knew his freshman year that he had ability. Then sophomore year was the covid year, and had that been a normal year he would have split time between JV and varsity and would have gotten a lot of reps. But because of what the covid rules were that season, you weren’t allowed to play both levels so he sat a lot of varsity,” coach Bell explained. “He didn’t play a ton, but the experience he got playing against Carlos Lopez in practice and guys like Ahmad Brock, J.J. Germann and Ethan Dodd — after that season he came to me and said, ‘coach, what do you need from me in the offseason for me to get better?’ He worked on his defense because that can get you on the floor, and he came back junior year as a tenacious defender. He knew we didn’t need his offense yet because we had Lopez, Anthony Colon, D.J. Germann and Isaiah Glenn. But this past offseason he knew those guys were gone and it was just him and D.J. He really honed in on his ball handing, his finishing and his shooting while still maintaining his defensive aggressiveness.”
The 2021-2022 season was supposed to be the one where EHT arrived and proved it could win big games, win sectional titles and go play for a state title. The Eagles had one of the state’s best players in Carlos Lopez. They could hit threes, score in transition, defend. They could beat man-to-man defenses, zones, traps. But it just didn’t materialize in the postseason. The Eagles played terribly against a highly motivated Mainland team in the opening round of the CAL Tournament that year, and in the blink of an eye the No. 1 seed was gone. They regrouped in the state playoffs and blasted Atlantic Tech and Clearview, but then got dumped, 66-52, against Lenape in the semis.
“I feel like everyone wrote our story for us last year, we didn’t really get to write our own. Coming into this year, we had to worry about what we wanted. Obviously, we wanted to win and do all those things (like win the CAL and a sectional championship) but we wanted to do those things because we wanted to and not because anybody told us we should or had to,” Reyes said. “This year, we just turned to a new page in the book and came into this year like, yes, we’re going to win, but we’re going to win our way, EHT’s way. I’m glad we did it our way. We worked for it without any outside forces coming our way.”
This past season wasn’t without its disappointments either. The Eagles came out of the gates on fire, winning eight of their first nine games, but then got blown out by Camden Catholic, 69-57. The only reason it was even that close was because EHT scored 28 points in the fourth quarter against the Irish’s backups.
“I remember that game because that was probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played. After that game, I didn’t really say it out loud but I had a realization with myself — and as a team we had a realization — that we cannot play one-on-one basketball, we have to start playing as a team,” Reyes said. “After that, we started listening to our coaches more, asking more questions, really getting after it with the film. We studied the other teams, but we also studied ourselves and worked on our weaknesses to try to make them better. We also wanted to make our strengths stronger than ever. After that game we really worked on ourselves and changed our mentality.”
The Eagles lost just four games the rest of the season — the last coming in the Group 4 state championship game against Patterson Eastside. Reyes said he knew this EHT team could make it to the state championship game after a big road win against St. Augustine Prep in late January.
“I thought this past season was a great one, probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball. That was one of the bigger things — me having fun. For us to have fun and win at the same time was special for me. And also playing with guys who I’ve been playing with my whole life, for us to finish out our senior campaign together the way we did was something special,” he said. “We’ve been talking about winning a state title since the summer time. During our first practice, coach Bell asked us what we wanted from this year. I answered him and said, ‘we want to win a state title.’ Losing last year (in the CAL first round and sectional semis), obviously that confidence wasn’t built in us yet. But after we beat St. Augustine Prep at their place we knew we were good enough. Prep was a top-10 team in the state, and for us, we wanted to be in that conversation as well. So, after winning a tough game like that on the road, we knew the only thing holding us back was us. After that we kept having great practices and great wins, and when the playoffs came around all the momentum was with us.”
EHT went 28-6 this past season and won nine straight postseason games before falling to Eastside.
“We wanted to win the state title, but it was great making history at our school, bringing the first CAL and sectional championships to this team. Basketball wasn’t really a winning program and (the 2021-2022 season) was supposed to be the year that we really won something. For us to do it this year, I feel like we made our mark,” Reyes said. “We’ll never be forgotten in that school. Everyone will remember us because we brought a title to that school, and it was cool doing it with the guys I grew up with.”
All this was made possible because a young sophomore believed in his coach and decided he wanted to do something special at his hometown school.
“EHT is home to me, so I feel like (transferring) would have been kind of selfish. Coach Bell is one of the most unselfish people on the planet, and I knew if he was telling me to wait my turn it was because he was thinking about what I can do, and he sees something in me that I don’t see in myself yet,” said Reyes, who plans to play college basketball at Widener this fall. “Obviously, it worked out for me to wait my turn. I feel like if I went to a different school, I wouldn’t have a sectional championship, or a CAL championship. I feel like everything happens for a reason. If I had started on varsity since my freshman year, I wouldn’t have had that motivation to keep getting better. Me sitting those two years made me work harder than most of these other people who started their freshman year. I was hungry, and as soon as I got a starting spot I was not going to let anyone take it from me.”
“It’s a story of a kid who listened to coaching, bought into coaching, craved coaching and it turned out great for him. He’s such a great kid. What he’s done speaks to his character. It speaks to his belief in Egg Harbor Township as a school district and his belief in me, our coaching staff and this program,” Bell said. “A lot of kids would have cut out of here and gone somewhere else after their sophomore year of not playing varsity. He could have said, ‘I’m not starting, I’m not getting the minutes I want, I’m outta here.’ But it’s rare for a kid to be able to see further than a month ahead. This kid saw a year or two ahead and said, ‘I’m going to stick it out because this is working and I’m going to be a big part of it.’ I keep saying it — and I feel like I’m repeating myself over and over — but I’m so proud of that kid. He’s a kid who I’m proud that my two children get to watch and talk to every day.”

Guard Jay-Nelly Reyes helped lead Egg Harbor Township to the Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey Groupo 4 championships, the first time in school history the Eagles won either of those trophies. (South Jersey Glory Days file photo/Sully)

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