A Win For Central, And For Charity

(Photo courtesy Maureen Clemente)

BERKELEY –  The victories were emotional for Central Regional High School boys basketball coach Mike Clemente – a cancer victim – and his Golden Eagles.

One took place during the second annual Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase at Central where the Golden Eagles bested Point Pleasant Beach 46-44.

The other – highlighted by a check presentation in Clemente’s fight against the illness – again took place at Central where the Golden Eagles were 50-36 winners over Toms River South.

This year’s Showcase raised $20,000 for the Monmouth Medical Center Foundation, according to Maureen Clemente, coach Clemente’s mother and the event’s spokeswoman.

“It was tremendous, a real special event,” coach Clemente said. “To raise that amount of money for such a special cause…words can’t describe how good of a feeling that is.”

Coach Clemente said no financial goal was set for the event.

“We just wanted to raise as much money as possible and get the awareness of the disease out,” he said. “After a couple of weeks, my mom said, ‘I think we can raise $10,000.’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s a lot of money.’ When we got to $20,000, it was mind boggling to see that amount. People who my parents have known forever and who live across the country sent money in. We received a decent amount of money from business sponsors, but what added up were the small donations from a ton of different people.

“People at the game (against Point Pleasant Beach on a Saturday afternoon) were donating money right at the door. Even if it was five dollars, it all adds up.”

Clemente, who learned last July he contracted mediastinal non-Hodgkin lymphoma, undergoes treatment at the Long Branch facility in Monmouth County. His oncologist is Dr. Seth Cohen, who was on hand for the presentation, which took place at halftime of the game against South on a Tuesday night.

Clemente with his nurses from Monmouth Medical Center. (Photo courtesy Maureen Clemente)

“My doctor and nurses have done so much for me throughout this whole thing,” Clemente said. “They have gone above and beyond everything.”

Clemente said Dr. Cohen learned he was a coach during the second week of his treatment.

“When he found out I was a coach, he said he would play me in a game of one-on-one once I beat the disease,” Clemente said. “At halftime of the game, I hear this roar from the crowd. I come out of the locker room and he is making three-point shots. I don’t think he missed a shot during the whole time. He is just a special person.”

Clemente said he no longer felt normal at the end of last May. It turned out there was a tumor in his chest that pressed on the main arteries in his heart. At the time the illness was discovered, it was at stage two. There was a tumor in his chest cavity that was about the size of a softball.

To express his gratitude to the doctors, nurses and support staff at Monmouth Medical, all of the proceeds from this year’s showcase were donated to the facility’s Cancer Services Program. The program helps implement new technologies and treatments for patients in their battle against cancer.

A large supporter was Clemente’s brother-in-law, John Yannariello of Toms River. He owns the Jay Construction Company of Toms River.

“He gave the cause its biggest donation,” said coach Clemente, who hopes to return to teaching personal finance and economics at Central in March. “He spread the word out about the event. He, my sister, Lauren, and their three kids, Harrison, John and Henry, have been so supportive throughout this whole thing. They have looked out not only for me, but also for my wife, Allison, and our daughter Emily, as we went through tough times.

“They made trips to the store during all hours of the night and made certain I would eat the things I had to eat. Lauren stayed with me at the hospital through all hours of the night and Lynne (another sister) was tremendous too.”

Coach Clemente estimated the crowd for his team’s game against Point Pleasant Beach at 2,000 fans. They saw a good one as the Golden Eagles stunned one of the best teams in the Shore Conference. The Golden Eagles won on a steal and layup by Walter Maldonado with one second left in the fourth quarter.

“A lot of the guys I played basketball with in college came to the game,” Clemente said. “That was emotional for me. Once the game got going, I turned to coaching and trying to put the boys in the best possible position to win the game. I wanted to let the kids know they could win. They answered every bell that rang.

“There were a lot of hugs and smiles in the locker room after the game. The boys knew it was a special moment.”

Maldonado said he was mentally ready for the game.

“I was pumped,” he said after scoring six points. “I could not wait for the game. It was an emotional, hard game and we were determined to win it. From the start, we were all pumped about it.”

Maldonado turned the ball over with 19 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. The Garnet Gulls brought the ball down the court and Maldonado sprang into action, stealing a pass and sinking the basket as the Golden Eagles’ fan roared their approval.

“It was like something out of the movies,” coach Clemente said. “I don’t think anyone gave us a chance, but the boys played with so much emotion and passion that they were ready to take on anything. They have been there through everything. They said, ‘We’re gonna play our best game tonight.’ ”

Mike Clemente with wife, Allison, and daughter, Emily. (Photo courtesy Maureen Clemente)

“It was honestly a big risk that I took,” Maldonado said. “They made a lazy pass and I went for the steal. Coach Clemente told me I had to make a play and I made the play. It was probably one of the biggest moments of my basketball career.”

Maldonado said the Golden Eagles learned of Clemente’s illness prior to the start of the season during a team meeting.

“It was a shock, a total shocker as it was something unexpected,” Maldonado said. “When we learned of his illness, it was hard, but it gave us the motivation to keep going and keep fighting.”

Maldonado said he enjoys playing for Clemente.

“He has impacted my life in a lot of ways at being a better player and a better person off the court,” Maldonado said. “He keeps my head level so that when things get heated during the game I don’t put my head down. If I am doing badly in a class, he will get on me. He takes me into a room one-on-one and we talk about it. He says, ‘You have to get good grades or you are not going to play.’ ”

Clemente said Maldonado is a strong defensive player.

“He always seems to be around the ball,” Clemente said. “He often makes things happen. Sometimes, he gambles too much, but he is a fighter who gets after it on the defensive end of the court. We preach defense and he is always one of the guys who push themselves.”

There were four other boys games in the Showcase – Howell vs. Colonia, Donovan Catholic vs. Woodbridge, Mater Dei Prep vs. Red Bank Regional and Toms River North vs. Highland Regional.

Coaches vs. Cancer is a national program that empowers basketball coaches, their teams and local communities to make a difference in the fight against the illness. The program was started in the memory of late North Carolina State University men’s coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer April 28, 1993 after leading the Wolfpack to the national championship in 1983.

Clemente and his program raised and donated more than $2,000 to the American Cancer Society last season.

Clemente and Dr. Seth Cohen. (Photo courtesy Maureen Clemente)

Clemente, 32, a Toms River resident and a 2003 Central graduate, played four seasons of varsity basketball under his father, Mike, and scored 1,098 career points at guard. He also played varsity football under his dad when his father was an assistant coach.

Clemente earned four varsity letters. He won four in basketball, three in football and four in baseball. He began his college career at Virginia Wesleyan and played three seasons of varsity basketball at Moravian College, captaining the team for two years and winning its Defensive Player of the Year Award in three campaigns.

Now in his third season at the helm, Clemente took Central to an 11-15 record in his first year. Last year, led by career 1,000-point scorer Maks Gruszecki, a guard, Central (22-6) set the school’s single-season wins record and was the first team in school history to earn the top seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III Tournament.

The Golden Eagles lost to Winslow Township in the quarterfinals a year ago. Winslow won the Group III state title.

Clemente’s father, Mike, coached the Golden Eagles to a 361-275 record from 1981-2012 before his retirement. He led Central to six Shore Conference Class B South titles. His son was one of eight Central players to score either 1,000 or more career varsity points – Mike Morin, Harrie Garris, Jermaine Clay (2,206), Jason Pozo, John Tice, Arian Clay and Ibn Moye.

Transfer impresses: A new player in Central’s camp is 6-foot-7 freshman forward Kyle Rhoden, a transfer from Rutgers Prep and a former student at the Central Regional Middle School.

He will play his first game for the Golden Eagles on Feb. 23 against Holmdel after sitting out 30 days under the NJSIAA’s transfer rule.

“He is a wing player, a special talent,” Clemente said. “He does things naturally that take years to coach. He picks up things very quickly. When we do our workouts, his elbow is above the rim when he attacks the basket.”

Rhoden also plays on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit with the New York Rens, who go against the nation’s best competition.

“He can step out behind the three-point line and score,” Clemente said. “If he obtains a real consistent jumper, it will set him apart from the other players. His wing span is so long. He can guard smaller guys as he is that athletic. He uses his length very well. When he blocks a shot. he does not block the ball out of bounds. He is smart enough to keep it in bounds to give his teammates a chance to recover the ball.”