Daevon Robinson was a star wide receiver and linebacker for the Shawnee football team, which won the South Jersey Group 4 title.
Robinson was a shutdown defender and top rebounder for the Shawnee boys’ basketball team, which won the Group 4 state title.
Robinson said the similarities between the teams ran a lot deeper than the powder-blue uniforms.
“Football and basketball, both teams worked so hard,” Robinson said. “We grinded. We grinded for everything we got.”
Shawnee’s basketball program is known for smart play, for spacing the floor, sharing the rock and shooting out the lights. This season’s team fit the mold.
But there was another aspect to the Renegades, who finished 29-5 and earned the No. 1 spot in the Inquirer’s final Top 25 rankings.
“This team might not have been as talented as some of the teams we had in the ’90s,” Shawnee coach Joe Kessler said. “But this team has so much heart. They never gave up.”
All Shawnee teams are judged by the standards of those legendary squads in the early and mid-1990s, when the Renegades won three Group 4 state titles and advanced to the title game of the Tournament of Champions three times.
The 1992 team won it all behind Penn State-bound guard Dan Earl and Florida State-bound forward Kirk Luchman.
The 1995 and 1996 teams reached the finals of the Tournament of Champions, each time losing a close game to national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, including an overtime battle in 1996.
Those Shawnee teams were led by Princeton-bound guard Brian Earl, who would be the Ivy League’s Player of the Year as a senior, and Villanova-bound forward Malik Allen, a future NBA player.
This year’s squad played a similar style as those famous teams, specializing in ball movement, three-point shooting, and sturdy man-to-man defense.
But the Renegades had to rely a little more on their grit.
Their top defender and rebounder was Robinson, a football star who will play that sport at Rutgers. Their top scorer was senior guard Dean Noll, who has scholarship offers from NCAA Division II programs such as University of the Sciences and Caldwell. Their other top senior was forward Dylan Deveney, who likely will attend prep school with an eye toward pursuing a college future in football or baseball.
These guys were excellent basketball players. But along with fellow senior Kane Feudtner, a top soccer athlete, they also brought a toughness and tenacity to the court that was as noteworthy as their pure talent.
“The thing that made this team special was its mental toughness,” Deveney said after the Renegades’ final game, a 49-39 loss to Don Bosco Prep in the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions on Thursday night at Toms River North. “We played with so much heart. We thought we could beat anybody.”
Kessler resisted the notion that the Renegades lost their legs after a 20-8 burst in the first quarter, led by Noll’s 13 points in a performance that had spectators buzzing in cavernous RWJ Barnabas Heath Arena.
“Give us a couple 6-9 guys and we’ll see,” Kessler said, referring to Don Bosco’s interior strength, led by burly St. John’s recruit Marcellus Earlington and Rutgers recruit Ron Harper.
Shawnee was playing its eighth tournament game. Don Bosco was playing its fifth, after needing just four to capture the Non-Public A state title and earning a bye in the first round of the Tournament of Champions as the No. 2 seed.
Shawnee showed its resolve by rallying when the game was slipping away in the both the third and fourth quarter. Down by six in the third, the Renegades stormed back as Noll showed the way with a coast-to-coast drive in which he eluded three defenders and scored on a reverse layup.
“Dean was on fire,” Robinson said.
Shawnee was down, 39-34, with two minutes to play and Don Bosco spreading the floor and looking to run down the clock, draw a foul or convert a layup. It looked bleak.
Instead, Noll made a steal, and Feudtner converted a three-point play to trim the margin to 39-37.
In effect, it was Shawnee’s last stab, since Don Bosco got layups from senior Matt Herasme – a St. Peter’s recruit and the Ironmen’s third NCAA Division I prospect – as well as Harper and closed out the victory from the foul line.
Still, that last sequence underscored the essence of the team. It included a defensive scramble at half court; a steal, drive and missed layup by the totally spent Noll; and a follow and free throw by Feudtner, who like the rest of the Renegades was forced to carry a heavier load than expected this season because of injuries to former starters Pat Kernan and Sean Heine.
The smooth Kernan, a top ball-handler and passer, and the sweet-shooting Heine, who led the team in three-pointers as a junior, were among the team’s most purely talented players.
There still was plenty of talent on hand when they both went down with knee injuries. But their absence forced the team’s Big Three of Noll, Deveney, and Robinson to assume even more of a burden, especially in terms of minutes on the court.
“These guys, they played every game and they pretty much had to play every minute,” Kessler said of his senior captains. “I can’t say enough about those three guys. They are incredible basketball players and incredible kids.”
There was no shortage of skill on display when Noll was spinning to the basket or pulling up for a mid-range jumper off the move; when Deveney was splashing three-point jumpers from 25 feet; when Robinson was soaring for rebounds or knocking down shots from beyond the arc, as well.
But something else defined a team that went 29-5 and captured a Group 4 state title this season, as a follow-up to a 29-3 record, sectional title and berth in the state finals last season.
Basketball teams don’t win 58 games in two years at the highest level of public-school competition without talent.
But they also don’t win that much without something else.
“We played with so much heart,” Robinson said. “We brought that to the floor. We fed off each other’s energy.”