Photo by Alex Cena Photography.
Photo by Alex Cena Photography.
Last Wednesday, around the patch in central New Jersey where New York City’s pop music radio stations turn to fuzz, I passed an SUV dressed as a reindeer. The car was cruising down a two-lane street with a speed limit of 25 miles per hour. Antlers poked out of the windshield’s corners, and a nose protruded from the fender. It couldn’t have been anything else. By the time I had come across Rudolph the Red-Nosed Range Rover, I had traveled five subway stops, 40 minutes by train, and an hour in traffic, all for a preseason high school basketball scrimmage.
“We’ve got cows on the side of the road,” said Jaren Sina, a star guard for the private school Gill St. Bernard’s in Gladstone, a tiny borough in affluent Somerset County, NJ. It was two hours before Gill would tip off against St. Anthony, the defending national champion. The season officially opened Friday, two days later, so this was a final tune-up that meant about as much as a wind sprint. But with the NBA weeks away from its Christmas start date, and the college schedule lousy with exams, this high school scrimmage in the middle of nowhere might have been better than any basketball matchup anywhere else that day. “It’s unheard of, especially for us,” Sina said. His teammates had just walked by with 10 boxes of pizza.
I’ve been making this trip to Gill for a few years—the school’s athletic director was my own coach at a rival prep school—but I hadn’t visited since USA Today had released its preseason top 25 earlier this month and ranked the obscure prep school twenty-fifth in the country. It wasn’t long ago that a similar ranking in New Jersey alone would have been a monumental achievement. For that matter, a decent record against other undersized and overmatched opponents would have sufficed. Until this decade, Gill St. Bernard’s was anonymous, unknown even among those who make a point of knowing about this sort of thing. Perhaps it’s the name, properly enunciated with a sort of British inflection, often mispronounced, like the dog—it's not Bernard, but Bernard. “I used to say Gill St. Bernard’s,” said Mergin Sina, Jaren’s father and the basketball coach, stressing “Bernard” like he was a Brooklyn barkeep. “My wife would say to me, ‘It’s Gill St. Bernard’s.’ I would say, ‘What’s the difference?’” The question didn’t seem terribly urgent.
But then the Gill St. Bernard's Knights put together a 26-3 record last season, losing only to St. Anthony, St. Benedict’s, and St. Patrick, the Holy Trinity of New Jersey basketball. In a recent HBO documentary about St. Patrick—there’s also a documentary, a book, and a 60 Minutes segment on St. Anthony, which beat St. Patrick last spring in a de facto national championship game—the three schools separated by 11 miles were described as the Bermuda Triangle: “They suck in all the talent, and teams rarely escape intact.”
Far from New Jersey’s “industrial swampland,” as the HBO doc called it, Gill is set in a bucolic area where the street signs tout equestrian routes. The school was established in 1972 as the result of a merger between the Gill School for girls and the St. Bernard’s School for boys, and the 700 students from preschool through twelfth grade hail from 10 different state counties. The sprawling campus exudes a pleasant, rustic charm, and the school is small enough that it offers neither varsity football nor lacrosse. Like other academically rigorous prep schools, it’s difficult to distinguish the basketball team’s starting five from any five randomly selected students walking to class. When the Knights roll into an opposing gym, they bring with them the intimidating aura of a pair of Rec Specs. “We don’t pass the look test,” said Mergin Sina.
Despite those appearances, it wasn’t hard to figure out why Gill could hang with St. Anthony, St. Patrick, and St. Benedict’s. The Knights played like kids who have been together since sixth grade, because they have. Alex Mitola is listed at 5′ 11″ and is unimposing enough that even slight defenders salivate when they see him—which makes it particularly satisfying for Gill fans when the Dartmouth recruit’s three-pointers drop like Eephus pitches into the strike zone. His backcourt mate is Jaren Sina, who is the coach’s son, a junior, and currently being courted by Big East and ACC schools. He shimmies and shoots anywhere within arm’s distance of the arc. “When we’re both on,” Mitola told me, “we can play with anyone.” They also have a post presence who pops and rolls off high screens in Dominic Hoffman, a 6′7″ forward bound for Bucknell who wakes up at 5:45 am for his 75-minute bus ride to school.
As middle-schoolers on the same AAU team, the three teenagers often found themselves on the losing side of the margins of victory they enjoy today, but they recognized an opportunity to stick together in high school. Until last winter, they were the state’s best-kept secret. Things really clicked on the summer circuit, when an enhanced version of Gill’s varsity team advanced to the final four of the Super Showcase at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. An ESPN recap of the event hailed the “unheralded team from the Garden State,” and named Mitola the tournament’s best point guard, while Sina was noted as a “fan favorite” who “spent the afternoon snapping ankles.” In other words, it was exactly what I had come to expect.
“They started to realize it could be their time,” said Mergin Sina, who chats like a coach trying to pack an hour of strategy into a timeout. He added: “One thing I’m positive of is, we won’t be in awe. They’re going to look at us as they usually do: What’s going to come out that will surprise us? And by the end of the game, it will be a war.”
Sina was referring to the competition Gill would encounter in this week’s City of Palms Classic, the preeminent holiday high school tournament. Of the other 15 teams in the field, six were nationally ranked at one point, and they looked the part. The reaction when Gill showed for its opener on Friday was precisely as predicted. “Not what you expect from a COP team—a bunch of short dudes,” one reporter tweeted before Gill played Riverside Academy, a Louisiana powerhouse. “Riverside is going to destroy St. Bernard’s.” Not quite. Riverside did win, but it took two overtimes, and Gill ended up cruising past a Florida school the next morning to set up a consolation bracket semifinal today on Tuesday against Lake Wales, another Florida representative.
But no team invited to City of Palms has the pedigree of St. Anthony, which was why I trekked to watch the Friars scrimmage Gill. St. Anthony’s is ranked number eight in the nation and boasts the bluest of chips in Kyle Anderson, a five-star recruit headed for UCLA, not to mention Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley. What’s more, St. Anthony’s visit to Gladstone counted as a preview of a potential state championship, the only time New Jersey’s top two schools could possibly meet again.
What the 300 other spectators and I saw was nothing more than a high school basketball scrimmage. St. Anthony arrived late because of rush hour and was missing a starter because of the flu. The players wore practice jerseys and the coaches stalked the sidelines in variations on sweatpants. The score reset after each quarter, as did foul totals. All shooting fouls were rewarded with one-and-ones. The Blue Crew, a growing contingent of Gill students who seem perfectly tame when they’re not screaming, consisted of six lonely diehards standing in a corner. In the glass window above one basket, fencers were busy parrying down a strip. The buzz of a potential state-championship showdown was more like the hum and thump of a pickup game. Anyway, it wasn’t like winning a scrimmage was a priority. The season hadn’t even begun yet.
And yet! The actual basketball had its moments of real promise. Mitola and the rest of Gill’s shooters nailed their looks in transition. Hoffman secured the paint; Jaren Sina caught an elbow to the mouth; Anderson had his way in the lane for St. Anthony. The crowd kept swelling, even well after 5:30 pm, and I can’t imagine that anyone left without knowing that the teams split the four periods, or that the last three quarters were decided by one point each. Not an hour after the buzzer, the aggregate score was posted on a popular New Jersey basketball message board: 58-51, Gill St. Bernard’s.
After a high school basketball game, people linger in the gym to talk about it. Underneath one basket, the recruiting guru Tom Konchalski showed Mitola the meticulous notes on his yellow legal pad. Hurley and I settled into folding chairs in plain sight before a pack of middle-schoolers asked him to pose for a group photo. He explained that he agreed to this scrimmage because he felt St. Anthony’s preseason was not challenging enough as it was. Across the court, I watched Virginia coach Tony Bennett greet some peers with mutual wide eyes. It was a look I’ve noticed more lately, in large part because I’ve worn it myself. Bennett was there to scout Sina, who walked out after the game in a varsity jacket over a sweatshirt. The young coach admitted that he was so enthralled by the Knights that he caught himself wondering how he would strategize against them.
Not long after I left, preoccupied with similar thoughts, I saw flashing lights in my car’s rearview mirror and pulled over on Main Street, next to a pond. The policeman informed me that I was going 44 miles per hour. He asked where I was coming from, so I said I was watching some basketball. He let me off with a written warning. “Just be careful,” he said. “There’s deer and bears and all kinds of other things poppin’ up around here.”