Head coach Chris Hoffman came in and made an immediate impact on the Robbinsville High girls’ basketball program last year, as the Ravens won a school record 10 games and qualified for the state tournament for the first time.
But Hoffman was quick to note that a nucleus of seniors who were tired of losing had a big part in the turn-around and lifted their games to new levels. They are gone now.
There is no quick fix for a program that will make it good for a long term. It has to be developed from the grass roots level on up, and Hoffman is attempting to help the process.
“I joke with my assistants that we might have done too good of a job last year, now people will want 12, 14 wins this season,” Hoffman said. “It doesn’t just work that way.”
Indeed it doesn’t. Especially in a program that has had a revolving door of coaches during its early years of existence. After 10 years as an assistant coach in the Shore Conference, where he helped head man John Truhan turn Toms River South and Colts Neck into Group III and Group IV champions, respectively, Hoffman saw the steps needed to help a program develop.
It started with the youth recreation and travel teams, which Truhan took an interest in. Prior to Hoffman’s arrival, Ravens girls’ coaches didn’t pay much attention to the feeder system, but the second-year coach realized it’s his program’s life line.
“We put bits and pieces in last year from what we did with the Shore teams,” Hoffman said. “We just tried to instill some of the concepts he applied and change the culture and outlook of how people view basketball. Robbinsville is a field hockey, soccer, softball town, and we tried to get kids to take basketball more seriously. We want you to play field hockey, soccer and softball but we have to make people think seriously about basketball. I just moved into town, and it seemed like when you say ‘Robbinsville girls’ basketball,’ people kind of chuckled.”
The best way to avoid being a punchline is to get girls interested at an early age, which has certainly been key to the success of the school’s marquee sports. Hoffman is taking a hands-on approach and is coaching his step-daughter’s second-grade rec team, but says, “I probably would have done it either way.”
The head Raven has been working closely with the three men running the Robbinsville Basketball Association: Dom Demkovitz, Jamie Langsdorf and Steve Morales.
“Those guys reached out to me when I got here,” Hoffman said. “They’re great guys. They said the previous coaches weren’t really involved, and they wanted to change that.”
Hoffman is also working with the travel coaches—Keith Motusesky and Todd Brunner (8th grade), Andrew Aromando and Sarina Hatton (7th grade), Anthony Manto and Ardie Allen (6th grade) and Vijay Bharatiya and Maria Young (5th grade).
“We’ve got the right people in the right spots with these guys,” Hoffman said. “I haven’t met all of them yet but I know the travel program is in really good hands now. They’re doing a great job of developing these kids and getting them ready for the next level, and they’re taking an interest in our program.
“Vijay has been to almost all my practices. He sits and takes notes and talks to me every day and has started doing some of the stuff with his team. We’ve set up a couple different nights a week where we’ve gone to the fifth and sixth-grade practices. Every day a different coach from town, whether it’s a travel team or the RBA, has been at our practices watching.”
Part of the idea is for the youth coaches to see what kind of things Hoffman runs so they can prepare their players the same way. That, of course, isn’t really feasible for the very young players as they are just trying to develop skills. But the key is, it is an attempt at some continuity that will go from youth to middle school to high school.
It was the same recipe that led to state titles in the Shore Conference.
“Going back to Toms River and Colts Neck, when we started there, it was like it is in Robbinsville,” Hoffman said. “There were not a lot of kids playing basketball and not a lot of success. But we were able to work with the youth leagues and got things going.”
Aromando had not met with Hoffman as of mid-December but agrees with his philosophy.
“Good relationships between youth sports organizations and the high schools they feed are essential cornerstones of the foundations of many successful high school athletic programs,” he said. “When those entities communicate well, respect each other and truly work together as peers for the best interests of the kids, great things can be achieved by both programs—on and off the fields and courts.”
Especially in a town like Robbinsville, where there are ample athletes who may specialize in other sports but can still succeed on the hardwood.
“It’s a talented town, there’s a lot of athletes,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have to be a ‘basketball player’ to be a huge contributor to my team. You need to be athletic and have some smarts. At Toms River South, we had five All-Shore and All-State soccer players, there wasn’t a real basketball player on the team, and we won Group III.
“We never put a timetable on things. We just said it would take a while and by the fourth and fifth year you’ll see what you’ve accomplished and if you’ve turned anything around. That’s when you see if the work with the youth leagues is paying off. It all doesn’t happen overnight. There are going to be bumps in the road but when we all get on the same page we can build this stuff up.”
That being said, Hoffman isn’t predicting doom and gloom for Robbinsville this year. He has senior Julia Kardos and sophomore Kaitlyn Herbert as returning starters, although they are the only players with varsity experience. Breanna Colavita has come in to take a leadership role and the coach is enthused by athletic freshman point guard Courtney Adams.
“We’re looking for contributions from some younger kids and hope they can step up,” Hoffman said. “We might have to take a little step back to take a step forward. But if we control the things we can control, we can do what we did last year. There are always going to be the Hopewells, Trentons, Notre Dames and teams like that, but a lot of other teams lost people and I think we’re all kind of at the same level.”
And while the current players are concerned with making Robbinsville a good team, they too are taking an interest in the future.
“Some of them have come out to work with my second-grade team,” Hoffman said. “They come to practices and games and help out. It’s good when a seven or eight-year-old sees someone from the high school team. They can say ‘I want to be like that and be on the team one day.’”
Hoffman is doing other things to make Robbinsville a more attractive basketball environment. Thanks to connections he made while at Colts Neck and Toms River, the coach got the Ravens into the Boardwalk Classic at the Wildwood Convention Hall and at the Battle of the Bridge Classic at Rutgers-Camden. He is planning for a Florida trip in future seasons.
“I’m trying to get them into a different atmosphere, a big-time atmosphere,” he said. “I want people in the town to know this is where we’re going to take these kids. There are going to be scouts and college coaches there. They will be playing in a college gym. It’s a nice experience. For any kid who wants to play in college, aside from AAU games, these are the places where they will be seen.”
And if the continued support of the youth leagues pays off, there may be some Raven players who have those college aspirations down the line.