Photo courtesy of Brookdale 2023 NJCAA DIII Regions XIX champions

Brookdale back in the National Tournament for first time since 2018

LINCROFT – Brookdale star point guard Kevin Mateo knows the significance of building camaraderie among teammates if a team wants to realize the success it's capable of achieving.

For Mateo and his Brookdale teammates, their friendship and camaraderie is second nature. They've been to battle together and they have each other's back. They take their work seriously, but at the same time, fun and games are still part of the equation.

Take last Thursday as an example. As Mateo was being interviewed, the whole team pushed up against a glass partition and began hooting and hollering in a fun-loving manner. And their fearless leader loved every minute of it, giving it back to them. Camaraderie is flourishing on this team.

"No matter what, whether your day is good or bad, you know you're going to get to practice and you're going to have fun," said Mateo. "Everybody is going to put a smile on each other's face. It's literally what you just saw – during his interview – and it's what this team is all about, just having fun and getting better every day. These are my guys; I wouldn't want to be around anyone else."

Mateo, the Garden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year and first-team NJCAA DIII Region XIX selection, has led Brookdale to a 27-3 record this season, the NJCAA DIII Region XIX championship and a third seed in the upcoming national tournament.

Brookdale played in the elite Jersey Shore League this summer which was a bonding experience as well as a learning experience.

"We played in the Jersey Shore League this summer and played against some really good college players," said head coach Paul Cisek, who is in his 31st season at Brookdale and won his 600th game this season. "And that really, really helped all our kids and was a great experience for the team. Then when we got back in September and started working out, this team just really bonded and genuinely like each other and got after it."

It should be noted that two of Brookdale's losses were wins that were forfeited due to an administrative error. Their only actual loss this season was an 81-79 defeat to Atlantic Cape that saw Mateo sit out with a hamstring injury that kept him on the sidelines for eight games.

"Kevin is our leader and number one player," said Cisek. "He lost by two votes in the NJCAA Region XIX Player of the Year balloting. He handles the ball well, shoots it really well, distributes the ball really well and comes off screens and gets rid of it really quick. He had a 47-point game this season and has had a couple of 11 or 12 assists games – he can do it all. He's starting to get some D1 interest."

The 6-foot two-guard is averaging 16.9 points per game while shooting 47.5 percent and dishing out an average of 5.4 assists per game, 2.8 steals and 2.9 rebounds.

A third-team All-Bergen County selection out of Hackensack High School, Mateo attended Believe Prep Academy in South Carolina following graduation. However, following a year there, he reached a crossroads on whether or not he wanted to continue playing basketball. He turned to fellow Hackensack High School alum Jaimik Moore, a couple of years older and someone he had developed a close relationship with and looked up to.

Coincidently, Moore led Brookdale to the 2018 national championship and was an NJCAA DIII first-team All-American. 

"I talked to Jaimik because he's like a brother to me and he just told me great things about Brookdale. So it wasn't really hard to make a decision to come here because I trusted Jaimik and everything he said about Brookdale was true."

Mateo hopes to follow in Moore's footsteps and bring home a national championship when Brookdale travels to Herkimer College in Herkimer, New York, this week for the NJCAA DIII Mens Basketball National Championship.

As the third seed in the tournament, the Jersey Blues received a bye in the first round and will face the winner of the No.6 seed Fulton-Montgomery College vs. No.11 seed Dupage Community College contest on Thursday at 8:00 p.m.

Last season, Brookdale lost in the final of the NJCAA Region XIX Championship game, derailing a trip to the national tournament and a lesson was learned. Three starters and three key reserves are back from that team.

"It just wasn't meant for us to win last year," said Mateo. "That experience is what we needed to win this year. In losing we learned so many things about ourselves and we just wanted to be resilient. We came back this year with just so much fire power and so much grittiness and we knew what it took to win."

Mateo may be the straw that stirs the drink, but he has a supporting cast that compliments him nicely and is a force to be reckoned with in their own right.

Freshman guard Nick Williams, a second-team All-Bergen County selection as a senior at Elmwood Park High School, has had a breakout year for the Blues averaging 16.2 points, seven rebounds, two steals and 1.6 assists per game. He was a first-team GSAC selection and a second-team All-Region XIX pick.

Forward Darnell Askew – a transfer from Adelphi - is another invaluable newcomer to the team whose contributions have been immeasurable. The 6-foot-5 Askew is shooting 68 percent from the field, averaging 14 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. He was the MVP of the Region XIX championship game and was a 1000-plus-point scorer at Curtis High School, where he once scored 50 points.

"People don't even understand just how good these guys (Williams and Askew) are," said Mateo. "Darnell is really like our anchor; he holds down the fort for us and Nick is just such a natural born scorer who brings so much toughness to the game and we wouldn't be here without them."

Cisek feels Askew has a high ceiling. "Askew has just gotten better and better and better. You can really see it."

Point guard Andre Wells is a two-year starter after a stellar career at Matawan High School, where he was a second-team All-Shore pick, scoring at a 22.9 clip while averaging 5.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists. Wells has started 29 games this season, averaging 7.1 points per along with 2.9 boards, and leads the team with 5.9 assists per game.

"Andre's been playing really well for us," said Cisek. "He's been a two-year starter for us and has done a great job for us at the point."

Sophomore forward Niles Halliburton has been a mainstay for the Blues for two years as a starter both years. In 2022 he was a GSAC second-team selection after averaging 10.7 points and 6.6 rebounds. The 6-foot-4 Halliburton is averaging 6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists.

A good portion of Brookdale's success this season has come off a bench that boasts three second-year players with a ton of experience and an indispensable first-year player at Brookdale.

Sophomore guard/forward Devin Strickland has played in all 30 games this season with three starts. Strickland was a first-team All-GMC selection out of South Brunswick High School, where he was a 1000-point scorer. He's averaging 6.8 points and 2.2 rebounds this season for the Blues.

Ronnie Flood Jr. and Tim Gjonballa are second-year players who add much experience off the bench. Flood Jr. has played in 26 games with four starts this season, averaging 2.5 points and 2.6 rebounds. Gjonballa has been slowed by a broken nose this season but is healthy now and adds experience and at 6-foot-9, he gives the Blues nice size underneath. He's played in 26 games this season averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds.

Sophomore forward Josiah Basket – a transfer from Felician University where he started as a freshman – had to sit out the first semester due to transfer regulations but has fit right in playing in 17 games with two starts. As a senior, he scored 1,491 points at West Milford High School, averaging 26 points a game. The 6-foot-3 athlete averages 12.9 points and 2.3 boards per game for Brookdale this season.

Cisek feels a key to a tournament run will be how his team plays defense. "You got to play defense. When you're up there in the tournament all these teams are really, really good. This team can play defense. It can get after it, it goes after loose balls and I expect them to play defense at a high level in the tournament."

Mateo agrees with his coach's assessment of the importance of playing defense. "Defense wins championships. We know what type of team we are on offense, but you got to play two ways; you got to be a two-way team. Our defense has really stepped up. We have some bigger and better wings that can guard. We're just a really versatile team, but our coaches tell us every day in practice: defense first, defense first, defense first."

Speaking of coaches, Brookdale's assistant coaches are jokingly called the "AARP" staff for their length of service at Brookdale. But all joking aside, this group of dedicated, experienced, knowledgeable, and veteran coaches has been around the block. All have had successful head coaching careers and are excellent teachers.

Associate head coach Charlie Hawthorne has been with Cisek for 30 of his 31 years. Ron Pastore is a former head coach at Long Branch High School and a great recruiter, John Rivera, who is retiring after this season, is a former head coach at Red Bank Regional and Monmouth Regional and Kurt Fenchel won the NJSIAA Group IV title at Irvington and a sectional title at Manasquan.

"I have a great coaching staff," said Cisek. "All these guys have been with me forever. They are guys that do what they do well and allow me to tell them what we need to do."

With the bye, the team can watch possible opponents and better understand where they stand.

"We're really excited, we wanted to get here last year," Mateo said. "We didn't, but we're here now and that's what we have to focus on. We're confident. We feel like we're the best team in the country and we display that every time we're on the court. Winning a championship would mean everything. Everybody raves about the 2013 and 2018 championship teams, so this team is ready to show everybody what Brookdale is all about."