The Shawnee boys’ basketball team this season subtracted two key players and added two keen assistant coaches.
One of whom raised the sartorial standards on the sidelines.
“Best-dressed assistant coach,” said Shawnee senior Sean Heine, who was wearing a dress shirt and tie at Tuesday’s Tournament of Champions quarterfinal game at Toms River North.
Shawnee head coach Joe Kessler doesn’t disagree.
“He definitely dresses better than me,” Kessler said.
Shawnee junior Pat Kernan prefers Renegade sweatshirts and plain sweatpants, but he has embraced his new role as enthusiastically as his partner in knee pain on the bench.
“Me and Sean basically became coaches,” Kernan said.
There are a lot of reasons Shawnee has fashioned one of the most memorable seasons in program history by winning the Group 4 state title and advancing to Thursday night’s Tournament of Champions semifinal vs. Non-Public A champion Don Bosco Prep.
There has been the consistently stellar play of seniors such as Dean Noll, Dylan Deveney, Daevon Robinson and Kane Feudtner as well as junior Connor Deveney. There has been the work of bench players such as senior Drew Brennan. There has been the guidance of coaches such as Kessler and his assistants.
There also have been the contributions of Heine and Kernan.
It’s funny. Their absence was supposed to keep Shawnee from realizing its full potential. But while they have been unable to play because of knee injuries, they have been integral parts of the process.
“They’re still part of the team,” said Robinson, the team’s top defender and rebounder. “They’re there every day. They are still committed to the team.”
Said Noll, the team’s top scorer: “They still help us out. They always are getting us fired up, keeping us in the game.”
Heine and Kernan were starters last season for a Shawnee team that went 27-3, won the South Jersey Group 4 title, and lost to Linden in the state finals at Rutgers.
Heine, a standout pitcher who will attend Maryland on a baseball scholarship, made 66 three-pointers as a junior.
“He might have been our best outside shooter,” Kessler said.
Kernan as a sophomore showed signs of developing into one of South Jersey’s top players given his skills and superb feel for the game.
“I think he’s the best junior in South Jersey,” Kessler said.
Kernan might have been the Renegades’ best all-around player in summer and fall sessions. But pain in his left knee forced him to the sidelines in October.
“It was stress over time,” Kernan said. “It got worse and I tried to play through it, and eventually I just couldn’t go anymore.”
Kernan was disgnosed with a stress fracture of his left kneecap. He has been working at rehabilitation and just got out of a brace that kept the joint locked for six weeks.
“That was tough,” said Kernan, who hopes to return to the basketball court in the summer.
Heine actually played in the Renegades’ first three games. But then he was shut down because of persistent pain in his left knee. He was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and underwent season-ending surgery.
“I actually think I did it pitching in the summer,” Heine said. “I remember coming off the mound one time and I couldn’t even walk, and then it swelled up.”
Heine hopes to be healthy in time to begin workouts with Maryland this summer.
Both athletes have found other ways to help the basketball team, attending every practice, sitting on the bench during every game.
Heine keeps stats on the sideline.
“It stinks not being able to play, but I still feel part of the team,” Heine said. “These guys are still our best friends.”
Kernan’s court vision is perhaps the best part of his game. Now he sees things from a different angle.
“I would love to be out there, but I love cheering for these guys,” Kernan said. “I can still help out; if I see something, I can tell the players or the coaches. I still give input.”
The two athletes concede that the transition from standout players to semi-assistant coaches has been a challenge. But they said it’s also been a valuable life lesson.
“It gives you the view that it’s always about the team,” Kernan said. “It’s not about you.”
Tournament of Champions semifinals
No. 3 seed Shawnee (29-4) vs. No. 2 seed Don Bosco Prep (27-2)
Thursday at Toms River North, 5:30 p.m.
Shawnee’s postseason road: Beat Southern, 68-38; Kingsway, 76-62; Eastern, 59-54; Atlantic City, 61-48; Trenton, 51-40; Newark East Side, 56-53; and Woodbury, 68-47.
Shawnee players to watch: Senior forward Dylan Deveney (17.9 points, 76 three-pointers); senior guard Dean Noll (21.6 points); senior forward Daevon Robinson (7.6 points, the program’s all-time leading rebounder); junior guard Connor Deveney (7.8 points, 45 three-pointers); senior swingman Kane Feudtner (4.4 points).
Don Bosco Prep’s postseason road: Beat Union Catholic, 88-47; Bergen Catholic, 71-48; St. Peter’s Prep, 60-59 (2OT); Camden Catholic, 61-54.
Don Bosco Prep players to watch: Senior forward Marcellus Earlington (St. John’s recruit, 21.1 points); senior guard Ron Harper (Rutgers recruit, 19.5 points); junior swingman Owen McGlashan (former Cherokee player).
Analysis: Shawnee has won 15 in a row and is playing with great confidence. The Renegades will face a challenge in Don Bosco, which is battle-tested from a challenging schedule and has two Division I recruits in Earlington, a burly forward, and Harper, a powerful guard. Both can shoot from distance and score inside as well. This looks like a tight game won by the team that can execute late in the fourth quarter. That sounds like Shawnee.
Pick: Shawnee, 60-58.