The Montclair State University men’s basketball team was eager to face New Jersey City University (NJCU) in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) semifinals after losing two straight games to them to end the regular season at 5-3.
After preparing and practicing for the game, the worst of news came in the day before; someone on the team tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).
Due to privacy, the extent of this event cannot be revealed, but the damage has been done.
COVID-19 tests were done to all players and staff in the days before this game and everyone tested negative for the virus. But Thursday morning, a member within the organization came back positive, and reality set in for the men’s basketball squad.
“We got the guys together on Zoom and express to them the situation,” head coach Justin Potts said. “This group has responded to every situation all year, they handled this the right way and it was unfortunate but it was also something we knew going into the season that could have happened at any moment.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic still going strong over a year later, one of the most heartbreaking ways to upturn any sports season is someone being affected by the virus, whether it leads to game postponements, cancellations or in this case the end of the road in the playoffs. However, this situation did not bring Potts down, as he knows how unpredictable the virus can be.
“It’s the way the virus operates,” Potts said. “I know it was a disheartening situation for the guys, but the positive was we got through 68 practices and nine games, and these guys got a chance to grow together and be around each other. We’re much better off than the alternative of not doing anything this season.”
These days, it can be hard at times to get that positive mindset going, but for Potts and his team, that is all they were doing. They analyzed the weaknesses throughout the season, worked on them and embraced the strengths which led them to a mostly successful season within the pandemic.
Red Hawks junior guard Myles Mitchell-White discussed how the players were able to thrive in a season defined by the pandemic.
“It was definitely a unique challenge to bring a certain level of energy and to adapt to the new environment that we were all forced to play in,” Mitchell-White said. “To see everybody having to form their own energy and learn to grow through adversity was definitely different.”
Red Hawks sophomore guard Keyon Pryce missed having a normal environment where there are always fans in the stands cheering on the Red Hawks.
“Not seeing your family or friends in the crowd watching you do what you love and not being able to talk to them after the game was the biggest challenge for me,” Pryce said.
Luckily on Feb. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy put into effect a rule that would allow two parents or guardians per athlete to spectate indoor and outdoor collegiate games, which created at least a little more of that normal basketball dynamic.
“As soon as we got word about the news, I was able to call my mom and I could tell she was jumping for joy in the kitchen,” Pryce said. “That was an experience she was waiting forever to happen.”
But aside from the restrictions, the cancellations and the positive test, the men’s basketball team had a good season. They went 6-3 overall and won four out of their five home games. They went on a three-game winning streak in the middle of the regular season and even captured a playoff win against William Patterson in the NJAC quarterfinals.
All in all, the team did a lot of things well within the bad going on in the world.
“We really embraced our tempo; keeping the game up-paced and moving as fast as possible,” Pryce said. “By doing that, we got quick stops on defense and on offense, we did not give the defense a chance to set up so we can get a quick score.”
Mitchell-White also gave his thoughts on the subject.
“This was one of the hardest playing teams I have ever played for,” Mitchell-White said. “Going down 94 feet of the court and keeping a high motor is really difficult. Everybody accepted that challenge and it was something that kept us moving forward.”
As for the future, the Red Hawks will return most of their experienced players including Mitchell-White, Pryce and junior forward Steve Breeman. However, their young players have developed nicely thus far, including freshman guard Amir Williams.
Williams won multiple NJAC Rookie of the Week honors and scored a career-high 17 points against Kean University in a game on Feb. 12.
“I knew he had a chance to help us as a freshman, but he exceeded my expectations from what I thought at the start of the season,” Potts said. “He has a good understanding of the game, and he really created a niche for where he can fit in. He had a lot of success his first year, but the question is if he’s okay with that or if he wants more.”
The culmination of this season brings the end of a journey for five seniors on the team: Irving Callender IV, Tim Algenio, Malachi Smythe, Joseph Radi and Peter Obertan Jr. All five of the seniors have accomplished so much on and off the court over their four years on the team and Potts knows they will take that with them into their careers.
“The best thing I can say about them is that I am proud of the young men they have become today,” Potts said. “They’re responsible, committed, supportive and hard-working. And there is way more success in front of them than there is behind them. They will always be members of our family and a quick phone call away.”