Falcons look to overcome the loss of Graham


Staff Writer

JEFFGRANIT staff Monroe's Steven Blish drives to the basket during the Falcons' home loss to North Brunswick on Tuesday. JEFFGRANIT staff Monroe’s Steven Blish drives to the basket during the Falcons’ home loss to North Brunswick on Tuesday. After a 6-0 burst from the starting gate, the Monroe High School boys basketball team has leveled off at 8-6, with losses in the Falcons’ last three games, most recently Tuesday’s 62-52 decision against hot White Division rival North Brunswick.

It’s no coincidence that the losing streak coincides with the loss of 6-foot-1 senior Shamil Graham, perhaps the team’s top all-around player, who suffered a broken foot when Monroe’s record stood at 8-3, and is expected to miss some four weeks of action.

“He was scoring almost 10 points a game and pulling down four or five rebounds,” said coach Bob Turco. “For the first 11 games, he was my MVP and now we’re scrambling to fill the void without him.”

Despite the recent slide, Turco is extremely pleased with his team’s work ethic.

“They worked extremely hard over the summer and made a lot of progress, and that’s why I scheduled eight games before Jan. 1, probably the most of any team [Monroe only got to play seven of them],” he explains. “I knew we’d have an advantage and get off to a fast start.”

The Falcons’ glue on the court this year is point guard Vinnie Mahmoud, who stands 5-9 and has been an excellent playmaker, while scoring between six and seven points a game, controlling

the offense and distributing the ball.

“Vinnie really grew into the position at the end of last year,” Turco says. “But his shoulder popped out and he had to have surgery in May. That meant he was rehabbing all summer, so it took him some time to jell. But he’s really hustling and playing 26 to 30 minutes a night.”

As for the rest of the team, 5-10 senior Mark Gulick is certainly one of the best outside shooters in the county with better than two 3-pointers a game. He was a role player last season, but really stepped up his game during the summer, according to his coach, and now plays 25 minutes a night. Overall, Gulick is scoring just under nine points per game. At center, 6-2 senior James Pellino is on the small side for his position, but he’s proven valuable, especially on defense.

“He’s doing a nice job, closing the other centers down,” Turco said.

Monroe’s leading scorer is 6-2 junior Justin Mitchell, who is bagging 11.2 points a game, while proving to be both an inside and an outside threat. Mitchell is also the leading rebounder with between seven and eight boards per night.

“He is really stepping up and he’s led the team in about 10 of our 14 games,” Turco said. (Mitchell topped the team again in the loss to NBTHS, registering 15 points).

Junior guard Ivan Barreto (5-10) is a defensive stopper who steps into the point guard slot when Mahmoud sits down. A hardworking soccer player, Barreto may be Turco’s most versatile player. On defense, he’s usually covering the opposition’s best player, while offensively he can make some noise – witness his 19-point effort in a recent loss to Colonia. Sophomore Steven Blish (5-10), who has been recovering from a broken finger, is emerging as a key cog in the machine. He scored 12 in Tuesday’s loss.

“He’s one of our newer offensive weapons and I think he’s really coming into his own,” Turco said. “Steve’s been in double-digits in the last four games, and he works tremendously hard, getting better every day.”

First-year player Christian Hanley, a 6-0 junior, comes to the court from Turco’s football squad, and has been a valuable role player, particularly as a defensive stopper. The first relatively big man off the bench is 6-2 junior forward Ryan Clark, who has a nice outside shot and contributes a half-dozen points per game. Travis Gregg, a 6-1 junior center, is another hardworking sub.

Turco, who is assisted by Matt Gigiello, John Bigos and Scott Wall, has an immediate goal for his team, which meets up with South Plainfield today.

“We need to win two out of the next six games to make the states, which was one of our primary goals before the season,” he said. “If we can fill the void left by Shamil, I think we can compete with just about anybody.”