HILLSBOROUGH: Raiders look to build on success

By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
   The Hillsborough High School boys basketball team came out on top of the first four quarters of its preseason scrimmage against defending Central Jersey Group IV champion East Brunswick on Monday.
   The Raiders are hoping they can do the same when the games matter most at the end of the season.
   Hillsborough has been building impressively over the past couple of seasons. They have weathered the annual departure of senior leaders, and with new faces they have continued to raise their expectations. They posted a program best 21 wins last year.
   ”I’m proud of our program,” said Hillsborough head coach Ian Progin. “I’m proud of the kids. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good kids over the past couple years. When you have some of your better players being some of your hardest workers and putting in the time and buying in, that helps. I feel the kids have worked hard. That’s the foundation for anything.
   ”We’ve had some wins and put up some good seasons. We’re also chasing winning something. We want to win a county, win a conference, win a sectional. You have to have a special team to do those things. We won 21 games, which is a record for the boys side. We finished second in the conference for the last couple years and we’ve gotten to the county semifinals the last couple years. It’d be nice to take that next step and win the conference or get to the county final.”
   The Raiders graduated five seniors from last year’s team including a trio of starters in Jon Gregory, Nigel Herbert, who now plays for Alfred University and Nick Alaimo, who is playing for The College of New Jersey. Progin is counting on some returning players to increase their roles and new faces to step in and keep the standards high.
   ”I think the program has gotten to a good spot,” Progin said. “But because the program has had some good solid kids, they’ve laid the foundation and set the bar high. Hopefully the juniors and sophomores see the program getting better, and the competition is better and our strength of schedule is better. We’re playing Linden this year, which will be a test for us, they’ll be one of the best teams in the state. We’re at the point where we can schedule some of the best teams in the state and hopefully we can look at maybe winning something now.”
   The Raiders have seven seniors year this with Pat Crossan, Matt Hornich, Jack Panagos, Jalen Parham, James Smith, Scott Timko and Matt Westphal. Parham and Hornich led last year’s team in scoring and rebounding. While Hornich is a top of the line baseball player, Parham is getting looks from Division I to Division III schools for basketball. Smith also is drawing interest from Division II and III schools.
   ”We return two starters (Hornich and Parham) and James I see as a guy who was a pretty big contributor off the bench once he had to sit out because of transferring,” Progin said. “Jack Panagos gave us some good minutes as well. Those are the guys that bring back some varsity experience. The rest on varsity got limited time or were on JV. How they develop, that’s going to play a big role in how we’ll be this year.”
   Juniors are Rob Askes, Kyle Bergen, Mike DeCicco, Mike Reilly and Joe Suseck. The Raiders expect to get contributions from throughout their roster, which has good balance.
   ”Scott Timko, who’s a senior now, and Rob Askes, who’s a sophomore and played a little bit of varsity last year, they’re part of the seven that are returning, along with Matt Westphal that didn’t play a lot of minutes,” Progin said. Preseason scrimmages are a good chance for the Raiders to work out their inexperience and find out what players work best on the court.
   ”We have to grow together as a team and build that chemistry,” Progin said. “We have to have this team come together so we can get the most out of each other.”
   Progin has good pieces back to build around, and an improved group of less experienced players that have been developing their games since last year.
   ”Jalen, he was leading rebounder and scorer and shot blocker,” Progin said. “Matt Hornich, who’s a baseball guy, he’s physically stronger. He’s in a little better shape. I can see he’s added some size and muscle. He’s always been a decent sized kid. James Smith, I have to compliment him too. He really worked hard in the offseason on his game. Those three guys are going to be our better players.
   ”Scott Timko, who was on varsity and played limitedly, he got a lot of playing time this fall. He’s a solid athlete. He had a good volleyball season last year. We have a couple guys from the juniors coming back, like Rob, hopefully he’ll be able to provide us an outside shooting threat. He saw limited varsity games and has the ability to shoot it pretty well. Two other juniors, I don’t know if they’re a surprise, but Joe Suseck and Mike Reilly, who will play some point guard and off guard, they’re both guys that played JV last year and worked hard this offseason and got a good amount of playing time this summer. They’ve done pretty well so far in tryouts and practices. Hopefully they’re going to help us.”
   Progin got his first look at the team against an opponent in the scrimmage against East Brunswick. There were some encouraging signs.
   ”What we got out of it is we saw when we move the basketball in the halfcourt and reverse the ball and keep it moving, we’re able to get some good shots, some good looks and get the ball inside,” Progin said. “Defensively, we need to do a little better. We gave up a few too many 3s to one of their better players, but I have to give him credit. He’s a good player. We didn’t rebound as well as need to at the defensive end. We have the size and strength to do it. We missed a few times there watching the ball. They are a solid team. They have a point guard going to Princeton. They won the Central Jersey Group IV sectional. It was a good first scrimmage. Us and them got some good things out of it.”
   By their Dec. 20 opener at Watchung Hills, the Raiders are hoping they have their roles more established.
   ”The biggest thing is we really need to develop some on the court leadership,” Progin said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about in the offseason and preseason. Everything can’t come from the coaching staff. The guys have to be able to communicate with each other and hold each other accountable and be an extension of us on the floor. We have to develop some mental toughness and if there’s some adversity, we’ll see how we handle it.
   ”Those are things every team has to deal with. The teams that handle those things the best are the most successful. Those are three important things we’re trying to work on with our guys.”
   This year’s group will play similarly to some other recent Raider teams, while they also have the some different strengths.
   ”We still have decent size and length,” Progin said. “I think we can do a good amount similar. There are some things we’ll have to do better. Our strength has been zone the past couple years, but there will be times when we need to change some things up and play man-to-man. Offensively, we’re going to look to possibly push the ball and be more up tempo if we can be. We have some speed. I know the guys like to do that. We have practice it.
   ”We’ll have a couple new things on the offensive and defensive end. One thing we’ve been talking about is defensively we have to be able to adjust on a nightly basis depending on how the opponent is. We’re trying to get them as a team and individuals to understand you can’t play defense the same every night. It has to be a little different based on our opponent.”
   It’s another difficult schedule in the Skyland Conference and Somerset County has some of the top teams in the state. Gill St. Bernards returns one of the best players in the country. Bridgewater-Raritan is reloaded, Rutgers Prep will be good, Ridge comes off a terrific year and Montgomery is strong again. The Raiders will host their holiday tournament on Dec. 27-28. They open with Hightstown and play either Delaware Valley or Rutgers Prep the next day. Hillsborough is looking at each game as a chance to move toward its goals of winning a championship.
   ”We have to take it one step at a time and one practice at a time,” Progin said. “We have to break bad habits and create good habits and improve on a nightly basis if we’re going to realistically be in the picture to do those things.”