Middle acing Chemistry 101

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Many who have observed the Middle Township High School boys basketball team this season come away impressed with the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, when you consider the makeup of the team.

The seniors on this year’s Panther team have been playing with one another for more than 10 years.

“We all started playing with each other in third grade,” senior forward Tommy Feraco, the son of head coach Tom Feraco, said. “That was the youngest travel team there was” offered at the Middle Township Recreation Department.

Feraco, fellow forwards Micah Moore, LaMarr Greer and Jacob Cowan and guards Darrell Shelton, Tom Catanoso and Jalen Toney were all part of that third-grade team. And they’re all still together now as high school seniors.

“We know each other so well,” Feraco said.

Watching the team play, it’s easy to see they are a tight-knit group. None of them is a superstar but all of them are at least above-average players who can do a variety of things well.

“We know how each person plays,” Catanoso said. “We’re able to help each other out the best we can.”

Middle is 15-3 for the season after defeating Ocean City Tuesday night and is tied for the lead in the Cape-Atlantic National Conference with St. Augustine Prep. The Panthers have been considered one of South Jersey’s top 10 teams by media polls all season long.

Middle’s success comes through its great teamwork. There isn’t much size and there isn’t a ton of spectacular athletic ability on the team. But there’s a great willingness to defend and share the ball.

“They’ve been together for so long and they all hang out together. This is really the kind of team you can be proud of,” coach Feraco said. “This is the way it’s supposed to be. We’ve won with transfers before, like when we had LaMarr’s father, but there’s something special about seeing neighborhood kids that have grown up together do what they’re doing.”

Entering this week, Middle had four players averaging in double figures for the season. Feraco was leading the way at 14.2, Shelton was at 12.2, Catanoso stood at 11.6 and Greer was at 10.2.

“Balance can have a negative side to it, too, but I don’t think it’s ever bad to be unselfish and share the ball,” coach Feraco said. “We’ve never had four kids average in double figures and then we have kids like Jacob Cowan and Micah Moore who are certainly capable of that, too.”

The unselfishness shows on the stat sheet. Entering this week, Middle was averaging 13.2 assists per game as a team.

“I love the way our team passes the ball,” coach Feraco said. “Getting kids to give up a good shot to try to get a great shot is hard to do. This group gets that.”

And they don’t get it by accident, either.

“We have a bond no other team has and chemistry no other team has,” Greer said. “It makes it easier to for us to play. We understand that teamwork wins championships. Everyone puts their egos aside for the team to win games.”

The balance of talent among the top six or seven players makes Middle a very difficult team to defend.

“We have more success this way,” Shelton said. “Teams with one superstar, we usually beat those teams because we have more weapons than they do.”

Almost any of those players can make a good play at any time.

“A lot of teams we play might have two or maybe three good players,” the younger Feraco said. “But we have five or six above-average kids we can rely on.”

The seniors on this year’s Middle team might have played in as many as 500 games with one another. They were teammates in recreation and grammar school ball for six years before even reaching high school. Then, in addition to all the games at the freshmen, junior varsity and varsity levels at Middle, they also formed their own AAU team, the South Jersey Panthers that played dozens of games each spring and summer.

“We trust each other,” Shelton said. “We know each other’s games and we know where everyone’s going to be on the court. We know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.”

When Middle’s playing well, however, not many of those weaknesses are ever exposed.

“When we’re all playing together as a team,” Catanoso said, “we’re hard to stop.”

Opponents have certainly noticed.

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