By Jim Whelan
Twenty years ago, the Elizabeth Minutemen had a special hoops season. Coached by New Jersey icon Ben Candelino, the Minutemen tore through the county and state tournaments. They moved on to their second consecutive Tournament of Champions title game.
In the inaugural season of the Tournament of Champions, Elizabeth met up with the first-ever tournament champ, the St. Anthony Friars, which included three future NBA players (Bobby Hurley-Sacramento Kings, Terry Dehere-LA Clippers and Roderick Rhodes-Houston Rockets.) This time, Elizabeth defeated the Friars 65-62 to become the first public school to win the Tournament of Champions crown.
Candelino’s club was stacked. They were led by one of the most intriguing New Jersey high school players, 7’2 Luther Wright (Seton Hall/Utah Jazz), a heady guard Mike Brennan (Princeton), a slashing guard Lawrence Thomas (UNLV), and two hard-nose gridiron players at forward Malik Jackson (Rutgers Football) and Alcides Catanho (Rutgers Football/New England Patriots and Washington Redskins). It was no surprise that Elizabeth came home with all the accolades in 1990.
Since the Minutemen’s victory in 1990, only three other public schools have raised the Tournament of Champions crown-Shawnee in 1992, Orange in 1994 and Camden in 2000. Who knows when there will be another?
Twenty years later, this year’s Elizabeth Minutemen team has third-year Coach Chris Balent scratching his head.
Losing nine seniors to graduation, including all five starters, Balent did not know what to expect when he opened for the gym for practice on FAT Friday. Only four of his players lodged any varsity time on last year’s Union County runner up squad—senior guards Jamil Jenkins (5’9) and Shadeed Waheed (5’11) and junior forwards Jihad Wright (6’3) and Mollory Pringley (6’1).
One of the Minutemen’s bright spots was supposed to be sophomore guard Jihad Pretlow (5’11). Last year’s starting shooting guard Latif Rivers graduated from Elizabeth and decided to forgo a Division I scholarship to attend prep school at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut. Rivers brought his cousin, Pretlow, with him and left another void for Balent to fill.
“I don’t know too many teams that lost a total of ten players from one season to another” said the Minutemen’s head coach.
Two other Union County blue chip players decided to leave their traditional high school programs behind and “sow their oats” at the prep route- Plainfield guard and University of Pittsburgh hoops recruit Isaiah Epps and the Union Farmers’ Aishon White.
“We have a lot of new faces. Some kids did not come out for last year’s team. Either they had to work and did not have an interest last year,” said the Minutemen’s coach.
Balent’s first look at his “possible” new team came this summer in the always-competitive Elizabeth Summer League. The league included 22 teams; Elizabeth had an A and B squad.
Elizabeth defeated Roselle Catholic in the Summer League finals. “It was nice surprise,” said Balent “It hard to really judge what you have in the summer time. Some kids work, other kids are playing AAU.”
The real work for the Minutemen was when they started practicing the Friday after Thanksgiving at the Dunne Center. “Repetition helps. You have to take you time, run drills a little longer than usual till they get a good rhythm down,” the coach said. Incoming players like Freshman PJ Walker give Balent some talent to build around.
Balent knows how to be successful. Coming to Elizabeth from South Brunswick, Balent had an impressive 49-9 record. Entering his third season at the Union County school, he will try to find the right formula for another winning season.
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