PISCATAWAY- Certainly, youth wasn’t wasted on the young Sunday.
After the Shawnee High School boys’ basketball team, which started five underclassmen, fell to powerful Linden in the Group 4 State Championship game, the Renegades vowed that the finals experience will help them return to Rutgers University next season.
“We are going to be confident that we can come back next year,” said Shawnee junior Sean Heine after the 57-41 loss. “We will do everything we can to come back.”
Shawnee should believe it will be back. After all, the Renegades hung tight for most of the game with the repeat champion Tigers (26-4), who endured their only loss to a New Jersey team all season against the Patrick School, the state’s top team.
“I think we learned that we can hang with anyone,” added Heine, a forward with a fluid 3-point shot and superb court awareness. “We showed we can compete with anyone in the state.”
Linden won its third state title in the last four years, including beating Atlantic City last season.
The youthful Renegades were not only inexperienced, but they were facing a seasoned Tigers team that advanced to the Tournament of Champions final last year.
“These guys now know what it takes to get here,” said Shawnee coach Joe Kessler, who also knows what it takes, having won five state titles and 11 South Jersey championships. “It will be tough to do it again, but hopefully they will put in the work they need to do in the offseason.”
The Renegades have a strong starting core to continue to build around with 6-6 junior forward Dylan Deveney, who led Shawnee with 12 points, junior point guard Dean Noll, junior forward Daevon Robinson, sophomore guard Patrick Kernan and Heine.
Assistant coach Dillion Fields is confident the Renegades will find a way to grind even harder during individual workouts when no one is watching, like the bus loads of Shawnee students who made the trip from Medford up the Jersey Turnpike.
“It’s a great group of kids,” said Fields, who was a great player at Shawnee, graduating in 2010, and then at Widener University. “They really are fun to be around and they really like each other.”
Shawnee (29-3) certainly can look back and embrace this magnificent and memorable season in which the rising Renegades advanced to their first state final since 2007.
There was the epic three overtime 76-72 victory in the South Jersey championship game against Toms River North when Deveney went off for 31 points.
Another highlight was when Deveney scored 18 points against Hunterdon Central Thursday in the state semifinals to go over 1,000 career points.
Deveney said the loss “absolutely” makes the Renegades more determined to return to the RAC.
“It’s not easy to get back here, but we are going to do everything we can to get back here,” he said. “This will be motivation every time we step on the court.”
Shawnee has won state titles in 1992, 1995, 1996, 2001 and 2007. The Renegades won Group 4 state titles in 1992, 1995 and 1996 and won Group 3 state championships in 2001 and 2007.
“We learned that we are good enough to play with anyone,” said Kernan, who appears poised to break out into one of the best players in South Jersey next season. “We have to work hard in the offseason to get back.”
The game was tied 25-25 at the half, but Linden slowed down the pace, ran a more deliberate offense and managed a 41-33 lead after the third.
The Renegades had to take chances on defense and Linden’s lead bulged to 51-37 lead with 2:09 left in the fourth.
“We cut it to four points and then they got some layups,” Kernan said. “We had some defensive breakdowns.”
To get back here, the Renegades know they have to first navigate the rugged South Jersey Group 4 tournament field, which always includes school district rivals Lenape and Cherokee.
“I’m looking forward to next season,” Heine said. “We got to push hard over the summer.”