Roadrunners have unfinished business

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The Roadrunners are sectional champions and one of the last four teams standing after beating MIT 68-66 on Saturday night.
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By Ryan Scott

The Ramapo Roadrunners have unfinished business.

Last year’s squad went 26-3 but lost a heartbreaker at home to Keene State in the second round of the NCAA Touranment, when expectations of a long tournament run were far higher. This year’s squad, which boasts five senior starters, was ranked highly during the preseason and currently stands at 25-6, but didn’t look like the team we, or they, expected for most of the year.

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“Coach always tells us to separate the two ends of the floor,” says co-captain Thomas Bonacum. “When our offense is struggling, we sometimes get frustrated on defense and we struggle on defense as well. Lately we’ve really been separating the two ends and playing well on defense even when our shots aren’t falling.”

Ramapo head coach Chuck McBreen, who is making his first trip to the final four in his 20th season at the helm, fingers the team's 89-84 loss to New Jersey City on Feb. 10 as the turning point. “We let up a boatload of points, and that’s when we really made a conscious effort. If we were going to make a move, win the conference, and get back in the tournament and make a run our, defense was going to have to be special.” 

Led on the defensive end by NJAC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Ford, Ramapo has not allowed more than 66 points through four tournament games. Boasting the fifth best team defensive field goal percentage in the country, the Roadrunners held Williams 15 points below their season average in round two, with similar success against Franklin and Marshall and MIT last weekend.

McBreen and company are playing with a sense of urgency. They know from experience how rarely these opportunities come around.

“When I came to Ramapo 20 years ago, the goal was to win a national championship," says McBreen. "In 2003 we were two points away from going to the final four and then two years later we were back in the same situation. Little did I know it was going to take 13 years to get out of the first weekend again and 15 years to get back to the final eight.”

Ramapo was not the only NJAC team struggling to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After Stockton (then known as Richard Stockton) lost to Washington U. in the 2009 national championship game, the NJAC representatives went winless until 2014 when Stockton advanced to the sectional semifinals. The next three years the NJAC representatives were eliminated from the Tournament in the first weekend. Overall the NJAC was 5-14 in the NCAA Tournament from 2010 through 2017. 

While Ramapo started the season fifth in the country and New Jersey City was also ranked for a chunk of the season, there's wasn't much indication that an NJAC team would go on a long run this March either. After New Jersey City beat the Roadrunners on Feb. 10, Ramapo dropped off the national radar completely. The Roadrunners did not receive a Top 25 vote in the final three polls, including the one preceding the NCAA Tournament. 

So what has changed for Ramapo? Start with health.

“The last few times we’ve been in the tournament, we came in with a boatload of injuries," McBreen explains. "Guys who couldn’t practice all week, but gutted it out for games. At the end of the day we came up short and injuries aren’t an excuse, but it’s nice to be healthy this year.”

That’s an allusion to Bonacum’s situation last season. He hit a half court buzzer beater to top NJCU in the NJAC tournament final and then suffered some pretty nasty injuries at the bottom of the celebratory pile.

As Bonacum told Sara Sommer last week, “I felt like I let everybody down last year. I didn’t play very well in the tournament and I struggled at the beginning of this season – the numbers show it. Now I just want everybody to experience something special. I just want to play the best I can and luckily the balls are bouncing my way.” 

The Bonacum we all expected burst back into our lives in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Williams, where he scored 33 of his team's 66 points, on 11-for-15 shooting and reminded everyone why he was a Preseason First Team All-American. The Roadrunners relied on him in that game, but Ramapo’s season has been much more about balance and a shared sense of purpose.

“It’s a team effort. Everybody contributes,” says fellow senior Christopher Moseley, “Everybody has done their part and played their role; that’s how we’re successful.” Moseley knocked down two free throws with 0.9 seconds left to top MIT and send Ramapo to Salem, but in that moment, all he was thinking about was his teammates. 

“Nobody wants this to be our last game. We don’t want to do something that ends it for the other four seniors.”

Adds Bonacum, “None of us wants to go home. None of us want our careers to end. So we fight for each other. You don’t realize until you’re a senior that this is the end of your basketball career. That gives you a little extra everything on every play. It gives you the ability to hustle a little more and give a little extra.”

 “It’s a very unselfish group,” says McBreen. “This is an amazing group of high character kids. They have great chemistry and they love playing for each other. Last year was a major disappointment for me, because I knew how good we were. It hurt because it would’ve won us the respect I think we’ve earned.”

This weekend, Ramapo will get national attention and a chance to win that elusive national championship on the court, first against UW-Oshkosh, Friday night.

“We’re going to go in nice and relaxed,” says McBreen. “The Wisconsin league might be the best in the country, but we’re pretty good, too. We have our work cut out for us, but we’re going to be prepared and do our best and see where the chips fall.”

Bonacum agrees. “Since the five of us got here our freshman year, our goals have gotten bigger and bigger. I thought we had the talent to win last year. It didn’t fall our way. Luckily, we’ve been fighting every game this year and we’re healthy and motivated to get our team where we deserve to be.”

It’s difficult to sum up the intensity of camaraderie and belief that exudes from this Roadrunner squad. Words don’t really do it justice. The rest of the country will experience Ramapo’s drive to complete their unfinished business in Salem this weekend, but perhaps Moseley sums things up best.

“It’s been a great journey, but we’re not done yet.”