Almost a year ago to the day, the Manasquan boys basketball team’s season ended in a locker room because of a burgeoning pandemic and the decision of school administration.
A year later, the Warriors season ended with a thrilling triumph that capped an emotional season that was perfect on the court and anything but away from it.
In each instance, the Warriors did not get a chance to reach a logical conclusion to their season – whether it was a loss to a better team or a series of wins for the ages that put Manasquan in exclusive company. The last two Mansaquan teams were as well-suited to reach the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions as any in the history of the program and the T of C was canceled in both years, the only times that has happened since the tournament’s inception in 1989.
The stars have not aligned for Manasquan to reach the Tournament of Champions for the first time ever, but it sure seems like they aligned for something in 2021. Even without a state championship to pursue, Manasquan made the most of an challenging set of circumstances to go 12-0, win the unofficial Shore Conference title, finish No. 2 in the state and capture the first Shore Sports Network Team of the Year Award in boys basketball, as well as the final Jersey Mike’s Team of the Week award for 2021.
“Kids have had a whole offseason and this season to reconcile with the scenario that they are going to be in,” Manasquan head coach Andrew Bilodeau said. “If anything, the old ‘You never know when it’s going to be your last game’ cliché that everybody talks about – you’ve had an opportunity this year to really think about it.”
Since opening night of 2021, Manasquan has worn the crown as the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference and save for two tight games in the fourth quarter against Holmdel, no Shore team came close to knocking it off their collective dome last season. The Warriors rolled to their first Shore Conference Tournament championship since 1957 and their second straight NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II title before their anticipated showdown with Camden in the Group II championship was cancelled due to the emerging pandemic.
“We have known from day one when this year was going to end,” Bilodeau said. “It wasn’t a shock to the system at 3 o’clock before you get on the bus. Very different in that regard.”
This year was not so easy in any way, shape or form. Manasquan’s 12-0 record and No. 2 ranking in the state by NJ Advance Media might paint a picture of a dominant team but the Warriors had to scratch, claw and execute late in the majority of their wins during the past season.
“We talked the day before (the last game),” Bilodeau said. “We kept it pretty short and sweet and said, ‘You’re going to cement your legacy or not. You’ll be a good team that didn’t win anything or you’ll cement your legacy.’ And they got it done.”
Before Manasquan, however, could square off against any of the 10 ranked teams (that’s either Shore-ranked or state-ranked) on its schedule, the Warriors ran into adversity they could have never seen coming.
A positive COVID-19 test on the varsity team forced a shutdown of the program for two weeks following two wins over St. Rose to open the season. While that was a speed bump for the Shore’s best team, it was not an unusual challenge in 2021, with 26 other boys varsity teams from the Shore stopping their programs for some period of time during the basketball calendar.
About halfway through Manasquan’s team quarantine, though, the process went from routine to tragic. On Feb. 9, Andrew and Matt Solomon lost their father, Larry, to a bout with COVID-19 and bronchitis.
The team returned to the court on Feb. 15 sporting shirts that read “Solomon Strong” and played for their grieving teammates, who played an inspired game against state-ranked Montclair Immaculate. A foul away from the ball with 1.6 seconds left and ensuing technical foul on the Montclair Immaculate bench gave Ben Roy four free throws and he sank three of them to break the tie and give the Warriors an emotional 68-65 win.
Just about every Manasquan win from that point on was emotional in some respects, in part because most of them were so close throughout. Even in a win over Don Bosco in which the Warriors pulled away for a double-digit win, Roy scored the 1,000th point of his career.
Manasquan trailed Wall heading into the fourth quarter in its second game back from the shutdown and rallied to beat its rival behind strong finishes by Roy and Collins. The following week, the Warriors pulled away from two wins over Neptune before rallying from third-quarter deficits of seven and eight to beat Trenton Catholic and Life Center Academy to close out the regular season with a 9-0 record.
During that 4-0 week that led into the postseason, Manasquan was dealt its latest challenge. Head coach Andrew Bilodeau contracted COVID-19 around the time Manasquan was shut down and was experiencing heart problems that prompted a hospital visit and a doctor’s order to stay away from the gym under his heart rate dropped to a normal level.
Bilodeau missed Manasquan’s last seven games, leaving the in-person coaching duties to assistants Ryan Ritchey, Colin Eldridge and Sean Fitzgerald. He still stayed in contact with his coaches and kept in touch with the team over the phone and with an occasional pre-practice or pre-game visit, but when the ball tipped off during the final week of the season, the best Bilodeau could do was watch the live stream of his team’s games.
“I did watch all of the games at home, as much as I probably shouldn’t have,” Bilodeau said. “It was tough. I am a very vocal watcher of the game. My wife was snapping photos of me unbeknownst to me and sending them to our athletic trainer and telling her to call me and yell at me.”
In the last week of the season, the Warriors put Bilodeau’s heart to the test. The Warriors trailed in the second quarter of both games and were down by eight to Christian Brothers Academy in the middle of the third quarter in the Shore Conference Pod A semifinals. In both games, Manasquan kicked their way to the finish line and outscored CBA, 28-10 over the final 14 minutes.
After surviving Neptune and CBA, Manasquan’s final challenge in 2021 came against Marlboro, who was fresh off an upset win over Ranney two days earlier. After one half, it appeared as though Manasquan might win its second straight Shore Conference title without too much drama, but that would not have fit the personality of either the Warriors or Marlboro. Manasquan watched a 10-point halftime lead disappear within the first four minutes of the third quarter and from that point on, no team led by more than eight points.
Bilodeau – who said he is back at work and his heart is doing much better than it was during the last week of the season – watched the final game and hoped his years of preparing his staff and players would help them pull through when the game went into overtime.
“I have been criticized for my lack of excitement in those moments in games, but at home, I was pretty fired up,” Bilodeau said. “I felt a lot of stress. I felt pretty guilty about not contributing. I felt like I put these guys in a really tough spot and thank god they pulled it out.”
On the final sequence of the game, Roy found Andrew Solomon for the winning layup with 1.4 seconds left and Manasquan’s dream basketball season ended with a basket by a senior whose family was living a nightmare. For at least one night, though, the Solomons and the Manasquan basketball family had something to celebrate and in capturing the Team of the Year Award, the 2021 Warriors had a chance to get together once more to enjoy what they accomplished.
On top of Roy and the Solomon brothers, seniors Jack Collins, Connor Walsh and Casey Mulligan were major players for Manasquan’s team and three more seniors that drove Manasquan to its success over the past three years. Mulligan and Roy have been varsity regulars since 2018-19 and have gone 72-5 since that season. Over the past two years, led by Roy, Collins, Walsh and Mulligan, Manasquan is 43-1 with just one two-point loss to Roselle Catholic.
Roy will lead the way next year with Matt Solomon and current freshman Ryan Frauenheim as his sidekicks. The expectations will remain the same and the standard is set.
“The three-year varsity guys – the seniors and Ben – they have had three tremendous years,” Bilodeau said. “Seventy-two and five – I think the team would have signed up for that. They have had a great run and it continues.”