CHATHAM, NJ - Coach Todd Ervin can name the freshmen who have been starters on the boys basketball team at Chatham on one hand: Billy Oliver, Billy Walsh and Sam Carson.
Add current freshman Cougar guard Jack Rooney to the list.
"The rest of the team respects his ability to play the game, you could see his confidence from the first day of practice," Ervin said. "I don't know how much it matters who starts the game. I think it's more important who finishes."
Rooney has broken into the starting lineup in recent weeks and he's certainly been finishing. In a road victory over Montville, it was Rooney who sank both ends of a one-and-one situation with 27 seconds left that provided the decisive points in a 45-43 victory. Two days later, he threw up a 30-foot shot at the buzzer that dropped through to defeat Mendham, 36-33.
Jack Rooney is the TAP into Chatham Athlete of the Week.
Rooney's arrival was no surprise to Ervin. He's known about the 5-9, 140-pound Rooney since he was in fourth grade.
"He's been coming to our summer camps and he was always one of the better players at that age," Ervin said. "There is no jealousy or anything from anyone on the team. The kids know that he helps us win and that's all that matters."
Ervin isn't one for hyperbole when it comes to the talents of his players. He simply states what Rooney has meant to the team this season. Chatham (14-4) already has equaled its victory total for all of last season and the 15-year-old Rooney has definitely been a factor.
"For us to be successful, we need him to play well," Ervin said.
So far, Rooney is averaging nearly 10 points a game, leads the team with 35 3-pointers made, and owns the best free throw percentage (84 percent) for the Cougars. Most impressive is the fact that he's making 48 percent of his 3-point attempts. Perhaps, that's why teammates are always encouraging him to shoot.
"At first, I was a little nervous, but I'm really enjoying it," Rooney said. "My teammates are always telling me to keep shooting. Once you get into a rhythm, the shots start to fall. No matter what happens, you have to keep shooting and play for the next play."
Chatham fans might be surprised to hear how serious Rooney is about his game preparation, which starts an hour and a half before tipoff. For a 7 p.m. start, he begins getting ready at 5:30, stretching and then going through dribbling drills in Chatham's other gym for about 15 minutes.
Then Rooney switches to shooting, starting close to the basket with one-handed shots and then moving out and using both hands. He follows that with 3-point shots from all angles until 6:30 p.m. Rooney then straps on the headset to listen to selections such as "Run This Town" by Jay Z.
"While I listen to the music, I'm saying to myself that I'm going to have a good game," Rooney said. "I envision what I want to do in the game."
Rooney's shooting gets most of the attention, but his ball handling and ability to drive to the basket has really been a plus for Chatham this season. That too, is no accident. Rooney has been working with a coach, Eric Myrick, for the past two years.
"It's all shooting and dribbling drills," Rooney said. "I've been incorporating game-type moves that help me get a shot off quicker. When I was younger, one of my AAU coaches Francis Nicholas taught me how to shoot and strengthen by all-around game."
An example of Rooney's mindset was displayed on Monday when Chatham High had an early dismissal because of the weather, canceling basketball practice. Rooney, however, found his way to a gym to work on his game.
"I know that every free moment and every free day, he's playing somewhere," Ervin said.
Jack Rooney drives to the basket in a road victory over Delbarton