(Not Just) "A Bunch of Short Dudes"

New Jersey's Gill St. Bernard's is a small school with a leafy campus, a fancy name, and a shockingly good basketball team.
Share |

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.”


Share |

Comments

Great post! I am actually getting ready to across this information, is very helpful my friend. Also great blog here with all of the valuable information you have. Keep up the good work you are doing here. milton barbarosh

Nice post! This is a very nice blog that I will definitively come back to more times this year! Thanks for informative post locksmith pembroke pines

I hope you will share such type of impressive contents again with us so that we can utilize it and get more advantage.
http://www.theopulenceforlife.com/bonus/

Hey enormous stuff or pleasant information you are offering here.quantum success coaching academy videos

Your articles make whole sense of every topic.http://www.lifeinsurancerates.com

The quality of your blogs and conjointly the articles and price appreciating.Inbox Blueprint

I found your this post while searching for some related information on blog search...Its a good post..keep posting and update the information.
upsee.nic.in

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. paneles solares guatemala

This is a wonderful article, Given so much info in it, These type of articles keeps the users interest in the website, and keep on sharing more ... good luck. satta matka

I am very happy to read this article .. thanks for giving us go through info.Fantastic nice. I appreciate this post. jeecup results

Hello, this is fastidious post I actually loved reading this.lifr indurance

An unbelievable blog. This blog will indisputably be definitely recommended to my friends as well. virginia online payday loans

I am very happy to read this article .. thanks for giving us go through info.Fantastic nice. I appreciate this post. cajas de carton

I am very happy to read this article .. thanks for giving us go through info.Fantastic nice. I appreciate this post.
science toys

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!!!!
Diabetes management tactic

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. foot pain

Excellent site. Lots of helpful information here. I'm sending it to a few friends ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you on your effort!Shopping

Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .
master kush

cheat monster legends gems I use only high quality materials - you can see them at: clash of clans hack iphone deutsch

follower twitter Ones own favorite songs is without a doubt astonishing. You have got various highly athletic animators. As i intend one the ideal in achieving success. how to get a lot of views on youtube

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. law recruitment

I enjoyed reading your post and found it to be informative and to the topic. Thank you for not rambling on and on just to fill the page. Thanks..
solar panels Oklahoma

Its my great pleasure to visit your blog and to enjoy your great posts here. I like it a lot. I can feel that you paid much attention for those articles, as all of them make sense and are very useful. how to get insurance leads

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. freelancer services

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!!!!
ca cuoc the thao

ontario real estate lawyers We are really grateful for your blog post. You will find a lot of approaches after visiting your post. Great work. best weight loss pill for women

Best kids dentist Houston It’s very informative and you are obviously very knowledgeable in this area. You have opened my eyes to varying views on this topic with interesting and solid content. Actually I read it yesterday but I had some thoughts about it and today I wanted to read it again because it is very well written. Houston SEo Consultant

quotes on home insurance Very good points you wrote here..Great stuff...I think you've made some truly interesting points.Keep up the good work. mortgage insurance leads

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. car insurance rates

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!!!! nonton video bom teroris

life size animal statues Thank you so much for the post you do. I like your post and all you share with us is up to date and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job. Wood floor sanding services London

This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. Really its great article.
home refurbishment London

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. iherb coupon

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. xmodgames download

Hi! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and new initiatives in the same niche. Blog gave us useful information to work. You have done an amazing job! australia

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. gewinnen

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and do my research paper for me I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!!!!

wow, great, I was wondering how to cure acne naturally. and found your site by google, learned a lot, now i’m a bit clear. I’ve bookmark your site and also add rss. keep us updated.
Best cologne for men

I am happy to find this post very useful for me, as it contains lot of information. I always prefer to read the quality content and this thing I found in you post. Thanks for sharing.
home insurance quote

I have read your blog it is very helpful for me. I want to say thanks to you. I have bookmark your site for future updates.
affordable kitchens items

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often.
affordable kitchens items

I enjoyed reading your post and found it to be informative and to the topic. Thank you for not rambling on and on just to fill the page. Thanks..
cheapest auto insurance in texas

This article is really good! This is one of those good articles that you read very rarely and I am happy that the rare moment was founded by me today.Maharashtra HSC Result 2016

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. auto insurance rates by zip code

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!!!!
hair dryer for fine hair

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. jailbreak

I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I will post a link to this page on my blog. I am sure my visitors will locate that extremely useful...
lowest cost car insurance

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog, I will keep visiting this blog very often. medical trolley

I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.
explainer videos

http://lowcostautoquotes.com Its my great pleasure to visit your blog and to enjoy your great posts here. I like it a lot. I can feel that you paid much attention for those articles, as all of them make sense and are very useful. home and auto insurance