PISCATAWAY - They weren’t just words, rather more like a pledge, or a blood oath among themselves.
Last season, after losing in the Group 4 State Championship game, the Shawnee High School boys’ basketball team vowed that their finals experience would fuel a return to Rutgers University this March.
So they marched.
And not only did the remarkably resilient Renegades return Sunday to the Louis Brown Athletic Center, Shawnee took the trophy back home to Medford.
“We used it as motivation,” simply said Shawnee’s spectacular senior point guard Dean Noll about last year’s setback after a scintillating 56-53 triumph over Newark East Side for the program’s sixth state title.
Shawnee secured its first state title since 2007 when junior guard Connor Deveney slid down the lane after a missed free throw for a follow up with 13 seconds left for a 54-53 lead.
“I saw Daevon (Robinson) tipped it and I was just there and made my layup,” said Deveney with the coolness he displayed in making the game-winning shot at the rocking RAC.
The Renegades, which sprinted to a surreal 23-2 lead in the first quarter, held on when the Red Raiders missed a pair of free throws with 2.7 seconds left. Fittingly, Noll grabbed the rebound and was fouled. The sensational playmaker made both free tosses with 0.7 seconds left before a three-quarter court desperation heave by Newark East Side fell 12-feet short.
Then, hundreds of Shawnee students behind the basket stormed the court to celebrate with the jubilant players and coaching staff.
“I think our fans had a lot to do with it,” said Shawnee coach Joe Kessler about the two missed free throws when the student section bounced on the bleachers behind the Newark East Side basket.
Truly, though, Kessler deserves most of the credit. As well as his superb staff with former Shawnee stars J.R. Gillern, Dillion Fields and Mike Spera.
Shawnee has won six state titles now under Kessler, who has further entrenched himself as one of the state’s al-time great coaches.
Last year, the Renegades started five underclassmen against powerful Linden in a 57-41 loss. However, two of the starters – Patrick Kernan and Sean Heine - didn’t play this season because of injuries.
“We came back without two starters and we came back and won,” said senior forward Dylan Deveney, the older brother of Connor, shaking his head in amazement following his 18-point, six-rebound effort.
Next to Dylan Deveney at the post-game press conference, senior forward Daevon Robinson clutched the trophy they had willed to win even without the injured Kernan, who averaged 7.9 points last season as a sophomore, and Heine, who averaged 9.4 points last year as a junior.
“It is mind blowing,” Robinson said after collecting 11 points, five rebounds and five assists. “I’m never going to let go.”
The 6-foot-3 Robinson will be playing football in the fall here at Rutgers. Both Dylan Deveney and Robinson were starters for the Renegades’ sectional football championship team this season. They will go down as some of the best two-sport athletes in the school’s stellar sports history.
And this team might go down as Kessler’s most resilient while Noll sealed his name near the top of the long list of great Shawnee guards with 15 points and four assists in 32 exhaustive minutes.
“We were 29-3 last year and we had our top seven guys back, so we loaded up on the schedule,” said Kessler, who has won 12 South Jersey championships. “I think games against Blair Academy and Gill St. Bernards and then against Atlantic City and Trenton made these guys battle tested.”
Shawnee (28-4) now continues into the Tournament of Champions as the No. 3 seed behind Roselle Catholic and Don Bosco Prep. The Renegades will play No. 6 seed Woodbury, the Group 1 champions, on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Toms River North High School. The winner will play second-seeded Don Bosco on Thursday at Toms River North.
The victory over Newark East Side (29-4) was additionally sweet since the Red Raiders had defeated Linden, 57-52, in the North finals.
Shawnee has also 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.
Riding a 13-game winning streak, the Renegades ripped a 23-2 run over the first six minutes of the game as they connected on their first six 3-point attempts. Connor Deveney started the sudden surge with a trey for a 3-0 lead and then ended it with another 3-pointer for a 23-2 lead with two minutes left in the stunning first quarter.
“We had an unbelievable start,” Kessler acknowledged. “But we told them that it was a long game and this was too good of a team to fall.”
The Red Raiders, though, answered with a 23-4 run over the first 6:44 of the second quarter to seize a 30-29 lead.
Still, Shawnee stood tied at 31-31 at the break,
“I told them as well as they played in the second quarter, we are not down,” Kessler said.
When it was over, the Renegades stood on top, where they vowed they would be last year.
“It was incredible … incredible,” Kessler repeated. “We had a real good game plan and we knew Newark East Side was a great team. But I never doubted these guys, what they did last year and now as seniors. It’s been an incredible two years of basketball.”
Of course, this remarkably resilient run isn’t over either. The Renegades didn’t make a vow to win the Tournament of Champions after last season’s state final loss, but Shawnee is sure playing like they did.
Newark East 7 24 9 13 - 53
Shawnee 25 6 12 13 - 56
N- Deandre Speight 4, Mikah Johnson 6, Anas Amos 9, Jenkins Jahid 7, Shamir Johnson 7, Hassan Ceesay 7, Keron Williams 13.
S- Kane Feudtner 4, Daevon Robinson 11, Connor Deveney 8, Dean Noll 15, Dylan Deveney 18.