McDonnell, Saker, Bell leading Jaguars’ cagers


Brandon McDonnell has played for the past three years on the Jackson Memorial High School boys basketball team alongside and often in the shadow of his older brother, Jimmy, who has started his college career at Temple University in a redshirt season.

But this year, Brandon McDonnell and the Jaguars have carried the load without Jimmy McDonnell, a 6-8 forward, and graduated guard Andrew Pappas. The Jaguars were 3-1 as the week began.

“We are doing a lot of the same things and we have changed some things now that Jimmy has left,” McDonnell said. “We are trying to post up more and get the ball down low.”

With McDonnell, who is 6-6, joined by 6-3 senior forward Connor Saker and point guard Elliott Bell, now in his third season in the starting lineup, the Jaguars opened the season with a 58-33 victory over Jackson Liberty behind McDonnell’s 16 points, and a 37-32 victory over Ocean Township in the opening round of the WOBM Classic. Brandon Holup, a 6- 5 junior forward, led the Jaguars with 11 points in the win over Ocean Township.

The Jaguars also scored a 60-55 doubleovertime victory over Brick Memorial in their Shore Conference A South Division opener. Saker had 18 points and 18 rebounds.

“It’s just like last year, although we lost two starters and a really good one in Jimmy, but this is a difficult offense to scout because every person has two or three options off every play,” said Saker. “We are able to run it with three starters back. It’s a little bit of a different look because Brandon has taken his brother’s role and can drive the lane, and he’s a big playmaker off it.”

But posting up was a difficult task on Dec. 22 against the state’s No. 1 ranked team, St. Anthony of Jersey City, which has departed from its guard-oriented style and gone to a big lineup. The Friars beat the Jaguars, 75-32.

Jackson Memorial coach Joe Fagan praised Bell’s poise against St. Anthony’s signature pressure-cooker defense and the benefits of a learning experience for his team.

“It will definitely help us a lot,” said Mc- Donnell. “I love playing the best. I knew it would be a tough game, but I wanted to play them. It will make us better.”

Despite the 3-1 start, Fagan believes the team has a way to go to improve.

“We did not play well so far and we are lucky enough to be around in every game,” said Fagan, noting that the Jaguars forced overtime against Brick Memorial on senior guard Brian Specht’s two free throws with less than one second left in the fourth quarter. Saker scored four points in the second overtime as the Jaguars beat the Mustangs.

“I think it’s going all right so far, but we definitely need to improve more,” said Mc- Donnell, who is being recruited by Davidson and New Hampshire. “Defensively, we’re good. We’re keeping teams down [in scoring].”

As for his own game, McDonnell said in a modest tone, “I think I’m doing pretty good offensively and defensively. I’m trying to be able to score in different ways, to post up more, drive more and become

a better passer.”

Jackson Memorial went 16-8 last season. Brandon McDonnell and Saker each averaged eight points per game.

“I like the versatility,” Fagan said of this year’s roster. “We can run a little more and play inside a little more, and on defense we can stick with our man-to-man.”

With seniors Eric Kelly and Matt Ferro and 6-3 junior Anthony Skwiat completing the eight-man rotation, Fagan said the leadership of senior starters McDonnell, Saker and Specht is important.

“It’s been a lot better for me,” said Saker. “I’m a bigger part of the team than last year, and there’s more trust in me for my leadership.”

“Saker is getting better every day and relishing his role as a leader,” Fagan said. “We are expecting big things from him.”

McDonnell sees a difference in leadership.

“It’s a lot different without Jimmy because he was the leader of our team,” said the younger McDonnell. “Now that he’s gone, everybody is stepping up into a leadership role. I like being a leader. I think we’ll have a good year, too, even though we started slow.”

Bell, a junior, is providing leadership at point guard.

“He’s turning the corner on defense from a guy on the ball looking for the steal to developing into an all-around defender,” said Fagan. “He’s a nightmare on defense.”

Jackson Memorial was scheduled to play Lacey on Dec. 28 in the WOBM Tournament and was trying to reach the semifinals on Dec. 30. The Jaguars will host Toms River North on Jan. 4. Jackson Memorial will play New Egypt High School on Jan. 15 at Monmouth University, West Long Branch.