MAPLEWOOD, NJ -- Columbia High School’s boy’s varsity team found an unexpected spark this season. Freshman Michael Runcie was moved up to the varsity team three games into the season due to player injuries and is now in the starting lineup.

“It was a no-brainer as far as our options that were left,” head coach Eddie Turner said. “I was just hoping he would be able to get through the first game. After that I thought he would be fine.”

So far this season Runcie has played in 16 games with the varsity team and has averaged 6.7 points a game, hitting a season-high 15 points twice.

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The success that Runcie is having up on the varsity level is a surprise to him.

“I didn’t want to mess up and get sent back down the JV,” Runcie said about his first game. “I was just trying to play point guard and show I belonged there.”

It took Turner only two games to notice Runcie’s play. “I knew he was smart and would pick up the game quickly,” Turner said. “But I just expected him to bring the ball up court and get us into the plays.”

With the help of Runcie in the starting lineup, the Columbia Cougars have a record of 16-5 while advancing to the semi-finals of the Essex County tournament and earning the top seed in the North 2 Group 4 state tournament.

“He has responded very well because he has made the team better,” Turner said. “The way our offense was run with him in the game was as good as our first two point guards in the beginning of the year.”

Runcie said he felt like he was contributing to the team but never expected to stay up with the varsity team, much less continue to start. “Once those guys got injured, that was my opportunity,” Runcie said of his teammates. “And I thought I was doing well, but I thought they were better than me.”

Turner said he believes Runcie would still be playing JV ball if the varsity had not had to bolster its roster due to injuries.

“I would not have thought he would be this good at this level so quickly,” Turner said.

However, with the way that Runcie is playing this year, the freshman feels that there will be more pressure on him in future years. “There is more pressure to keep getting better,” Runcie said. “Cause people will expect more from me since I am just a freshman now.”

The Columbia varsity basketball team will begin state tournament play on Tuesday.

Stephen Valenti is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts designed to give students real-world experience.