By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When a coach gets a call from a player a month before the season, usually the coach is thinking, “oh boy, this can’t be good.” But when Marquel Bridgers called Pleasantville boys basketball coach Ken Johnson in October of 2015, it was simply to ask if Johnson had a key to the gym. Bridgers and some of his teammates wanted to take some shots to start preparing for the 2015-2016 season.
That’s the kind of call Johnson welcomes any day of the week, any time of year. So Johnson had no problem opening up the gym for guys such as Bridgers, Kenny Allen, Jovan Luna, Malik Morgan and Isaiah Spencer.
“He and Kenny hung out off the court. They, along with Jovan and Isaiah, were the first ones to call me before the season and ask if they could get into the gym to shoot some shots. They were ready to go,” Johnson said. “They wanted to win. This year, they had a point to prove. I love getting that kind of phone call. That got me excited before I was ready to get excited. It got me looking forward to the season and that made me feel good.”
“This season had a lot of emotion involved and a lot of anxiety. Everybody just wanted to get into the gym and start working together because we knew this was our last season and we wanted to get as far as we could in the postseason,” Bridgers said. “He was happy that we wanted to get into the gym. I think this was the best season in my high school career.”
The past couple of years, Pleasantville has been a good team, but not one that was able to challenge for either a Cape-Atlantic League Tournament or South Jersey Group 2 title. This year, however, with Bridgers leading the way, the Greyhounds put up 15 wins, beat Wildwood Catholic to advance to the semifinals of the CAL Tournament, and scored a big home playoff win over West Deptford in the opening round before falling to state powerhouse Camden.
“We knew every time we stepped on the court we were hungry and looking to win,” Bridgers said. “It was a great experience having all those fans coming out to our home games. The fans were behind us more than ever, and when Pleasantville gets together like that, it’s a beautiful sight.”
Johnson said he wanted to ease Bridgers into the Greyhounds’ lineup when Bridgers was a freshman, but after seeing him play against Atlantic City at the Battle by the Bay, he knew he had to get Bridgers in there full time.
“I started getting him some time freshman year, and he was in the starting lineup ever since. He has a lot of basketball knowledge, and a lot of courage. I put him in during the Battle by the Bay his freshman year. We were getting beat pretty bad, but he stepped right in and it was like he had been there all his life. He showed no fear and handled the ball well against (Atlantic City’s) pressure. I said, ‘wow, this kid can really play.’ He made an impression on me then, and ever since then he’s been in the starting lineup. He was a three-year captain for us,” Johnson said. “He was never intimidated. Whenever he got knocked down he would get right back up and get in the guy’s face. It didn’t matter how big the kid was. The other guys would feed of him. If he came to play, all the other guys had confidence. When we needed a basket or a big play, most of the time we were putting the ball in his hands to make it happen.”
“I wasn’t intimidated, it was more of just getting into the flow of things. There were about six or seven seniors on the team. I knew everybody on the team and most of the guys we were going up against, so I was pretty comfortable. Freshman year, I was a little chubby, so I had to lose some weight and get quicker on my feet. I also had to work on my shot. I was more of a pass-first guard,” Bridgers said. “There are a lot of eyes on you as a captain, especially as a sophomore. People are looking to see how you are going to handle it. I think I did pretty well, and everyone just fed off that.”
Johnson said what made Bridgers so valuable was the versatility he brought to the court. Even if he wasn’t scoring, he was doing so many other things to help the team, Johnson said.
“Even during games when his shot wasn’t on, he was giving 100 percent in all other aspects of the game. I knew he was going to play tough defense for me, he was going to get in there and rebound, block out, do all the dirty things even if he wasn’t scoring,” Johnson said. “So the comfort level was exactly that, I knew what I was going to get and he wasn’t a guy I had to worry about. I knew he was always going to come to play.”
Bridgers also was an honor student during his high school career and set a great example for the other players, Johnson added.
“He never got in trouble. He always had good grades, was an honor student. We would point to him as somebody the younger guys would want to emulate, that you are a student first. I never got a call from a teacher saying anything bad about him, he was great out in the community. He knew what he had to do in order to go to the next level and was a role model for our team both on and off the court,” Johnson said. “And he did that almost from his freshman year. Even when one of the guys was slipping, I would try to talk to him, but Marquel would as well. He would tell the guys to get it together and stop messing around. I don’t think he’s going to be replaced right away. That will be a big hole for us to fill.”
Bridgers said he credits his parents, Hollis and Marcee, with giving him the direction he needed to succeed in school and be a leader on the court.
“My parents laid out the blueprint for me. They told me what to do, what’s right and what’s wrong. I knew I needed to get good grades and not be disrespectful. Some of the kids on the team were leaning toward a bad way, and I think I helped get them on the right track. Now they are graduating and heading off to college, and I hope I played a part in that,” Bridgers said. “I’m one of the only people on the team who has been able to travel away. I spent the past couple of summers in New York and I saw there is more to life, there is more to basketball. I wanted to show those guys there are opportunities if they work hard. I tried to get the guys in that mindset that if you want to play at the next level you have to put in the work, on and off the court.”
Ironically, Bridgers said when he looks back on his high school career, he will remember the losses most. Not because of the disappointment he felt, but because they gave he and his teammates an opportunity to come back the next night and prove they could overcome that disappointment.
“Honestly, I’ll remember the losses, because that forced us to bounce back and that’s what we learned from to make us a better team. We’ve been growing up together and playing together, going out to the movies and going to the mall. We knew we had a chance to have a good season and we prepared ourselves well,” he said.
“This year was very special for them, but also for me. We’ve been working together, and we had some good seasons but we could never get over that hump to get into the second game of the CAL playoffs and we couldn’t win that first game in the state playoffs,” Johnson said. “That was a monkey on our back, so I was so happy for them that not only did we win a playoff game, but we got into the semifinals of the CAL tournament. They accomplished all the things I thought they could at the beginning of the season.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN