Building on Momentum After Return in ’21 From Pandemic, Princeton Men’s Summer Hoops Primed for Big Campaign
GOING FOUR IT: Zahrion Blue heads to the hoop last year for Loyaltees in the Princeton Recreation Department Men’s Summer Basketball League. Former Princeton High standout and current Lincoln University star Blue led the way as Loyaltees won its third straight summer hoops title last year, getting named as both the playoff and regular season MVP. Blue and Loyaltees will be going for a fourth straight crown this summer. The league is tipping off its 33rd year of action with a triple-header at Community Park on June 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
A throng of hundreds jammed the Community Park courts last July as Loyaltees edged Majeski Foundation to win the championship of the Princeton Recreation Department Men’s Summer Basketball League, capping a triumphant return for the league after the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic.
Building on the momentum from the rebound campaign, the league is primed for another big summer as it tips off its 33rd year of action with a triple-header at Community Park on June 15.
The league has grown to 10 teams from eight last year and the action figures to be heated with an intriguing mix of stalwarts and newcomers vying for the crown.
“We have a great reputation, the word is out that if you want to play some good basketball in the summer, Community Park and the Princeton Summer League is the place to be,” said Evan Moorhead, executive director of the Rec Department and longtime summer hoops commissioner.
“It is the first time since 2015 that we have had 10 teams. On paper, this should be a very competitive season. I don’t see any weak links. From what everybody has told me, they have been out there recruiting and trying to stack their roster with some talent. I think it will be reflective of that when we get to the season.”
Led by team manager and former Princeton High standout Davon Black, Loyaltees is fired up to go for a title four-peat.
“Davon has told me that he has the same crew, he has added one or two,” said Moorhead. “He picked up David Rodriguez, who graduated from The College of New Jersey this past year. They have got Zahrion Blue (a former PHS star) who is the reigning regular season and playoff MVP. He is clearly the best returning player in the league and it is probably not close after the way he was playing at the end of last year. He had a great college season at Lincoln University in which he earned (Division II HBCU) All-American recognition. I am expecting him to have a big season. It is his home court, he has been playing there since he was kid.”
If Loyaltees brings home a fourth title, it will solidify its legacy as one of the best teams in league history.
“They won in 2018; it was their first title,” said Moorhead, noting that the My-T-Sharp (and later Tiger’s Tale) group achieved the league’s only four-peat with titles from 1989-92.
“In 2019, there was a little bit of an asterisk because the other team ran out of healthy bodies so they had to forfeit and then there was the COVID year. To me, this is the year we figure out is Loyaltees a dynasty or not. They are looking to put their stamp on the history of the league. They can cement the dynasty status if they get another title this year.”
Majeski, which is comprised of players from the TCNJ men’s hoops team, figures to be in the championship mix again.
“From the looks of things, they have a strong nucleus coming back,” said Moorhead, noting that team manager Jason Larranaga is leading the squad which includes Anthony Dicaro, Naysean Burch, Danny Bodine, Jim Clemente, and Jack Vreeswyk, among others.
“They have some real talents and some young legs. They have got good chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them make a deep run into the playoffs if they can get everybody there.”
Adding some spice to the league is the addition of Pizza Den, which features players from the Drew University men’s hoops team.
“They said they had reached out to the TCNJ guys; I don’t know if they had heard about our league ahead of time or found out through them,” said Moorhead, noting that the squad is led by Andrew Turco and includes former Princeton Day School standout Jaylin Champion-Adams.
“It is another thing where our reputation precedes us as a competitive league to play in the summer. I think that is going to be a good thing for our league, that is another varsity D-III squad. I think that alone gives the chance to be a really strong team in our league.”
Princeton Supply looks to have a strong college contingent.
“Princeton Supply sponsored a team last year but this is a totally different group of guys,” said Moorhead. “I don’t know a lot but what I know is that their manager Brian Johannson, who played at Hunterdon Central, is now playing at Johns Hopkins. I think a couple of those other guys on the team are D-III guys.”
The Homestead squad, which is led by league stalwart Phil Vigliano, has a good group of guys.
“Coach Phil is always a wild card, he has become part of the fabric of summer league,” said Moorhead of Vigliano, whose roster includes former Hun School standout Lorenzo Spinazzi, former TCNJ star Jordan Glover, and Rodrique Mazzenat, who starred for PATH Academy in the summer league last year, and former East Stroudsburg State star Steve Harris.
“I am always glad to have him bring a team back. He is a guy who eats and sleeps basketball and loves the game.”
Another former TCNJ standout, Kevin Johnson, is heading the Athlete Engineering Institute squad which will have a familiar look.
“It is the Speed Pro team from last year under new management,” said Moorhead of the team which includes Jalen Parham, Nick Alaimo, and Greg Tarca.
“That is a team that when they brought their A-Game last year, they could play with anybody in the league. Kevin is a good player. Jalen is another guy who is really athletic. Nick is a good player. The key for them is that they are all out of college so what is their conditioning like and can they keep up with the younger guys.”
A younger group of guys, Market on Main, features former Princeton High boys’ hoops standouts including Gefen Bar-Cohen, Tim Evidente, Ethan Guy, Jack Suozzi, Matt Rinaldi, Judd Petrone, Ben Moyer, Matt Rinaldi, Noah LaPoint, and Jay Jackson.
“I am always to glad to have them; we had a few years where we didn’t have a strong PHS contingent,” said Moorhead, a former PHS player himself. “The history of this league is that it was founded to give PHS alums a place to play after they got done with high school. I am excited that these guys are back, they took their lumps a little bit last year. They are going to be better. It is good to have them in the league, it gives us a little more local flavor.”
Jefferson Plumbing, which is led by Rec Department program supervisor Chris Petrucelli, will also have a local flavor as it includes former Princeton Day School standouts Ethan Garita and Connor Topping along with the Jones brothers, Aaron and Tyler.
“Coach Petro has Ethan so he has got some size there,” said Moorhead. “He has the Jones brothers who come from Summer League royalty. Their father is Keith “Wizard” Jones, he is in the Summer League Hall of Fame. I watched those guys grow up, their dad would bring them to his games when they were barely big enough to dribble a basketball.”
A returning team, Planet Fitness, also has some game. “There is a West Windsor contingent with Juwan Harrison,” said Moorhead.
“They have all played in the league before. That is another team that was competitive when when they had their full roster last year. They love to shoot the 3s, they are going to let it fly. They were tied for the league in 3s last year. They are not shy at all. The question is how much defense are they going to play and can they compete with some of these younger teams.”
The 10th team, PATH Academy, is a bit of a mystery at this point. “I don’t have any info on their roster yet,” said Moorhead. “It is the same guy, TJ Malave, who ran it last year. He gave me the sense that he was going to try to revamp his roster.”
With so many teams having strong rosters, Moorhead is fired up for the 2022 campaign which will feature the same playoff format with all teams included and a best-of-three championship series slated to start on August 1.
“I don’t know too many leagues that have been around for as long as we have,” said Moorhead. “We have staying power and we are getting better with age. I am excited, I think it is going to be a great summer. There will be triple-headers — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. It will be a busy summer. I am looking forward to getting back out on the court.”
After last year’s experience, Moorhead is confident that he will be joined around the court by the league’s large community following.
“People realized how much they missed it; the enduring memory for me last year was that last game where we had probably 250-300 people in the park enjoying the game,” said Moorhead.
“One of the big reasons we do this is the community feel. It is providing players with the chance to compete. There is the entertainment value for the community and the chance for people to socialize and see people they don’t see any other time of the year.”