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Caldwell's senior guard Austin Scott (25), one of the better backcourt performers in the Super Essex Conference-Freedom Division, prepares to unleash outside shot vs. Science Park during the Essex County Tournament 'Play-In' bracket first preliminary round on Thursday, Feb. 4, in West Caldwell. Science stormed from behind with a big fourth quarter to edge the Chiefs, 60-51, despite fact that Scott sank five 3-pointers and had 15 points. (Photo by Gene Nann-nannphoto)

Caldwell sophomore forward Bryan Finnegan (32) slips inside for layup against Science in ECT

Caldwell's junior point guard Jason Costa (11) prepares to fire pass to teammate vs. Science

As longtime assistant Jeff Edwards (far left) listens in along with the Caldwell Chief playes, head coach Mike Fess instructs his team during a timeout in Thursday night's ECT loss to Science.

The talented and acrobatic Caldwell Chiefs cheerleading squad shows its skill during routine

Caldwell Showing Flashes Of Progress
While Seeking That Elusive Consistency
By Steve Tober

WEST CALDWELL- Welcome to the reality of public school basketball for a suburban Group 2 program that most certainly must rely on the players from its two neighboring communities (Caldwell and West Caldwell), and must reload with patience and persistence when graduation hits hard.

James Caldwell High School’s boys hoops squad stands at 1-13 overall and 0-8 in the Super Essex Conference-Freedom Division with seven games remaining on the 2015-2016 schedule. The Chiefs are already out of the Essex County Tournament following this past Thursday night’s 60-51 homestanding loss to Science Park in the ‘Play-In’ bracket first preliminary round contest pitting the 35th-seeded Chargers against the 34th-seeded West Caldwell-based JCHS squad.

After the aforementioned impactful graduation off last winter’s very competitive 15-10 Chiefs team, there was a reality check in store heading into the off-season, and carryng over into the start of the present campaign as several new faces had to adjust to varsity hoops in the rigorous SEC.

Still, even with a 0-11 record before a 67-56 independent victory over Waldwick on Jan. 30, progress is being made, and first-year head coach Mike Fess is optimistic about his young Caldwell hoopsters who are a predominantly underclassmen group with just three seniors on the present roster.

“We’re making strides and we can see it,” said Fess, who had been Mike Mancino’s assistant for six years before the 15-year head mentor resigned his position after last winter. “We’re not seeing the progress in terms of the win-loss record yet, but there are flashes of really good play here and there in the course of a game.

“Now, we need to be more consistent and that’s what we’re trying to do as we look to finish this season as an even better basketball team.”

Fess will utilize 11 to 12 players a game and different combinations are on the floor at any one time. The team’s three seniors are tri-captains Austin Scott, Noah Riggs and Brad Banaszynksi, who have all been big contributors in the Chiefs’ backcourt. Scott, a 6-foot tall veteran guard, is a 3-year starter and the team’s leading scorer at 11 points per game despite frequently being double-teamed or isolated on with a gimmick defense since he is the Chiefs’ most seasoned and dangerous offensive threat.

“We would prefer to play Austin at the ‘2’ but he’s frequently had to be at the point for us and he does a good job wherever he is on the floor,” said Fess. “He gets a lot of attention with box-in-ones and the like, but he still gets his points and he’s a really good all-around player for us.”

Riggs, a 5-10 guard, is a scrappy and aggressive defensive-minded performer who many times is at a height advantage, as he was vs. Science when he guarded a 6-3 forward, but he perseveres and gets the job done on the defensive end.

Banaszynski, a 5-11 guard, is one of the best pure shooters on the team as evidenced by a memorable performance in the team’s lone win of the season vs. Waldwick when he sank seven 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 25 points.

Among the other Chiefs making strides are 6-3 junior center Sean Kinney, who is much improved and had a solid 9 point effort in a recent 55-45 conference loss to Nutley. Jason Costa, a 5-9 junior point guard, is showing his playmaking skills, while Dan Cavallo, a 5-8 sophomore, has also shown flashes of fine play in the backcourt.

Brian Clarkin, a 5-10 sophomore guard, and the school’s starting quarterback in football, is a fine all-around athlete who adds nice depth at the guard position, and Pete Vecchio, a 5-10 junior, is another solid defender at guard for the Chiefs.

In the frontcourt, Bryan Finnegan, a 6-1 sophomore, has also been making big strides with his improved play at the varsity level.

Talking about improvement as a team, one can look at examples in the SEC-Freedom where Caldwell lost, 72-33, vs. Nutley back on Dec. 22, but then played much better in the aforementioned 10-point loss to the Maroon Raiders on Feb. 2. And, after losing to Golda Och, 42-28, Dec. 19, the Chiefs were much closer in the second meeting, 37-30, Jan. 21.

Plus, while they did fall to Science in the ECT prelim contest this past Thursday, the Chiefs again demonstrated that they are an improved squad, jumping out to a 40-35 lead after three quarters only to see the visiting Chargers explode for a 25-11 edge in the fourth quarter to pull away in the end for a 9-point margin of victory.

“Science brought some of their size back into the game after resting them for a while and they did a good job effectively utilizing their big people in the fourth quarter,” said Fess. “But, on the bright side, our kids continue to battle for all 32 minutes and I see a lot of good things as we move forward and try to play even better basketball down the stretch in the final three weeks of our season.”

Caldwell is at Christ The King in Newark, 7 p.m., Tuesday (Feb. 9) before hosting Belleville, 7 p.m.,Thursday (Feb. 11). SEC-Freedom Division action continues Tuesday, Feb. 16, vs. Technology (4 p.m.) and at Glen Ridge, Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7.

The Chiefs conclude the current campaign with three independent contests, first vs. neighboring West Caldwell Tech, 4 p.m., Friday, Feb. 19, and followed by a game at New Providence, 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 24, and concluding with an SEC-crossover at Colonial Division member Millburn, 7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 26.

CALDWELL CLIPPINGS- Thursday night's ECT game vs. Science was part of a big afternoon and evening of Caldwell sporting events to raise funds for Coaches vs. Cancer and JCHS Athletic Director Rich Porfido and his staff did another superb job raising funds and awareness about a very worthy cause to help find a cure for cancer...Caldwell's Bryan Finnegan and Sean Kinney join their head coach Fess in having a strong connection to Montclair Immaculate since Bryan is the son of former Immaculate standout athlete, coach and Athletic Director John Finnegan, who went on to a successful fooball coaching tenure at Seton Hall Prep. Sean Kinney is the nephew of another Immaculate former standout sports perfomer, Mike Kinney, who is well known these days as the chief scholastic boys basketball reporter for MSG Varsity. Fess is a 1978 graduate of Immaculate where he starred for the Lions basketball team. He also coached IC for 11 seasons before moving on to West Orange High School where he was also the head coach and is still a teacher....Caldwell assistant basketball coach Jeff Edwards, a former head coach at his high school slma mater (Class of 1972) will work this spring as a varsity baseball assistant on the JCHS coaching staff headed by his son, first-year Chiefs head diamond mentor Tommy Edwards, who is a former standout player at both Caldwell and Rutgers University.

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Promising sophomore guard Dan Cavallo (15) brings ball upcourt in the ECT contest

The entire Caldwell bench eyes the action as head coach Mike Fess calls out play as the Chiefs battled Science Park in 'Play-In' bracket of the preliminary round in 70th ECT.

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