WESTFIELD, NJ — As the basketball season starts up, both the Westfield High School boys’ and girls’ varsity teams look to build on last season’s success.
The boys’ team finished 18-9 and won their first conference title since 1977. This season, they will be without many of last year’s key players as Owen Murray, Nick Mele, Parker Hess and Jelani Pierre all graduated.
“We lost a great group of guys so it’ll be different but we learned a lot from them,” senior Tristan Quallis said. “We hope to fill in for that talent by playing our roles. We have several guys that are capable of making plays.”
The team will look to its more experienced players to help lead the way.
“Matt LaCorte is one of the best outside shooters in the area, burying 67 three-pointers last year as a junior,” head coach Daryl Palmieri said. “The team will be counting on him to take on a bigger role this year from last year. Junior Adam McDaniel played sparingly as a sophomore but will be counted on for major minutes this year in a starting role. Senior Jeff Gagum saw plenty of minutes as an undersized center but is a tough, physical player.”
Juniors Dylan Jackson and Marshall Roberson are projected to start alongside LaCorte, Gagum and McDaniel. Seniors Tristan Quallis, Phil Martini and Phil Zanfagna give the team even more experience. Juniors Mark Natiello Rob Norris, Mike Leniart, Luke Spellman, Chris Wagner and Chris Marner will also look to make an impact.
“A lot of the younger kids don’t have that much experience so the only way to get that is through playing,” LaCorte said. “We definitely need to work on our defense and rebounding because we’re smaller this year, but I think we’ll be all right offensively, especially shooting-wise.”
Last season the girls’ team finished 9-16, though they outscored their opponents in total 1,067 to 1,046, and return many of their players.
“We have a lot of seniors this year,” head coach Liz McKeon said. “I am excited for them and I'm excited for the team as a whole. These girls have worked very hard in the off-season and pre-season. I'm excited to see the growth and hard work transpire on the court.”
Seniors Danielle Rinaldi, Shannon Devitt and Jenna Iorio as well as juniors Molly Ryan, Grace Elliott and Lauren Sgro all return from last season. Seniors Nicolina Albano and Casey Popowski will also look to make a difference alongside sophomore newcomers Lily Maz and Sam Stravach.
“I expect each girl to make an impact this year,” McKeon said. “Each girl on the team gives us a little something to make the team a family. Not every girl has experience on the court at the varsity level but they have the heart and the ‘team’ mentality.”
This season the team will be more guard-heavy and will use a four-guard front as opposed to the three they used last season.
“Our combination of four guards with a single post player at any given point will set us apart from other teams and allow us to push the pace of the game,” Rinaldi said. “We have a number of shooters who will both do damage from the outside and pose a threat driving to the hoop, as well as post players who will be a force down low on both ends of the court.”
The players also like to spread the ball around.
“Our biggest strength this season is our unselfish play,” Devitt said. “The points are evenly distributed among the whole team, so it is hard for other teams to play defense on us.”
After many pre-season scrimmages, the team is even more confident.
“I have been hopeful since the beginning of tryouts, but what made me realize our potential was when we scrimmaged and beat a very talented Morristown team who is favored to win the county tournament in the toughest county for girls’ basketball,” Rinaldi said. “I think with hard work we have a great chance of winning the Union County Tournament and making a run for it in states.”
The boys’ team will start their season off Friday at 5 p.m. vs. Linden. The girls will square off at Roselle Catholic Saturday at noon.
Eric Storms is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Westfield.