The Robert J. Collins Arena buzzed with excitement during the 2023 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Champions Brookdale Community College Men’s Basketball Ring Ceremony, a celebration recognizing the team’s outstanding accomplishments. This marks the Jersey Blues’ third national championship in the last ten years.
“The chemistry was unmatched,” said one of the 2023 National Championship Team Members. “Honestly, we clicked as soon as we met each other; we were all best friends, we were like a family. That is why we are good together, on and off the court.”
Several more members of the team shared their thoughts on the season, expressing the strong bond within the team and highlighting the pivotal moments that led to their championship victory. They spoke about the guidance and support received from the coaching staff, emphasizing Brookdale’s family-like atmosphere. The following is what they said.
“My proudest moment was being able to compete with these guys in practice. Develop relationships with the coaches and just get myself back into playing basketball and going to school.”
“I think our whole coaching staff does a good job at relating to us in different ways.”
“When we won the Regions and to see my brothers and my team with smiles on their face and my coaches just holding up the banner. That was my proudest moment.”
“When Kevin got hurt in the UCC game at their house and I came in the game. He told me, ‘It’s your time to shine.’ I had to come in and do what I had to do. It was a big step for me. From everyone’s point of view I took control of the game. So that was my proudest moment.”
The team, which had secured the NJCAA DIII National Championship with a remarkable 30-3 overall record, racked up quite a list of accomplishments on and off the court. During the season, there was a Garden State Athletic Conference championship, a Region 19 championship, and a North Atlantic District championship.
President Dr. David M. Stout commended the team’s extraordinary legacy of success and recognized the outstanding efforts of each player, emphasizing the significance of their academic and athletic achievements.
“Throughout Brookdale Community College’s 56-year history, the Brookdale Athletic Department has supported the success of thousands of student-athletes, both in competition and in the classroom,” said Dr. Stout. “Under the leadership of Head Coach Paul Cisek, Associate Head Coach Charlie Hawthorne, Assistant Coaches Kurt Fenchel, Ryan Pastore, and John Rivera, the Jersey Blues men’s basketball team has experienced an extraordinary legacy of success. The 2022 2023 Jersey Blues men’s basketball student athletes formed an unbreakable bond, battled through adversity, and never lost hope throughout the season. This team displayed strong character and sportsmanship.”
On their way to the nationals, they defeated Northampton Community College on their home court to win the NJCAA North Atlantic District Championship. They outmaneuvered higher-seeded teams and placed the success of their team above personal accomplishments as they advanced to defeat the College of DuPage, Rochester Community and Technical College, and finally, Sandhills Community College.
Trustee Chair Paul Crupi praised the athletics department, acknowledging its often-underrated role in the college’s success.
“Take pride in these championship banners,” Crupi said, “Hoisting another today credits the coach and players and demonstrates your tremendous contributions to the school. As board chair, I extend heartfelt congratulations on behalf of the board members here today and the entire board.”
“One of the magical things about Brookdale Athletics is the dedication of our coaching staff,” said Athletic Director Katelyn Amundson. “Each coach supports the student athletes and has dedicated themselves to student success by ensuring each student understands they are supported on and off the court. They have coached National Student-Athletes of the Year, All-Americans, All-Region, and All-Conference student-athletes.”
Head Coach Paul Cisek has been at the helm for 30 years, and he took the opportunity to reflect on the team’s journey, reminiscing about previous championships and highlighting the uniqueness of the 2023 national title. He credited the coaching staff.
The goal was set. “Last year, as we were walking in at the start of the season, Coach Hawthorne pointed out that we have won a national championship every five years since 2013, then again in 2018 … and today we celebrate 2023,” said Coach Cisek.
Reflecting on the championship game, he said, “I’ll never forget it, nor the guys on the team, playing Sandhills Community College, NC, the number one team in the country for the national championship we were down 11 points in the first half, we have a timeout and the quietest guy on the team, Andre Wells stands up and just rips everybody on the team, and got after everybody, and I just took a step back and let him do it. Here we go. We cut it to nine at the half. Then we came out to the second half and just played our tail off. Everybody’s shooting, everybody’s hustling, everybody is playing, and we had them on their heels with about 23 seconds left. Winning 92-82.”
The following is how the players felt about that day.
“That’s it. I knew we were going to pull through it, felt it, and had a feeling. But being down 11, it was like, we cannot give up now. We already made it. We cannot give up. We got to win. However much more time there was, we had to give it our all and I was determined to win. Yeah, being down 11 was rough, but we just kept our head in there and fought through and won.”
“I was a little nervous. I was on the bench, but I just had a feeling. I had a sharp feeling in my heart that we were going to win that game. We were just so locked in going into the locker room. The talk that coach had was a pep talk. He said, it’s all you got right here. It was so good. Like it was just I knew we were going to win that game. We were still dancing, down 11, championship game, dancing, doing everything we always do. We came back and won.”
“My proudest moment was winning the national championship because, you know, all the hard work we did throughout the whole season and everything we did during practice, all the mentally taxing stuff, you know, it was all worth it.”
The ceremony concluded with the announcement of each team member and staff receiving their rings, introduced by the “Voice of Brookdale Athletics,” Rob Halsey.
The following are returning this year to the team and received rings are Luis Robledo, Jersey City, NJ/Liberty High School; Manny Bell, Newark, NJ/American History HS; Kareen Irby, Hillside, NJ/Hillside HS; Jayden Cabrera, Perth Amboy, NJ/Mater Dei Prep; Adam Kukaj, Staten Island, NY/Tottenville; Darnell Askew, Brooklyn, NY/Curtis HS; Nicholas Memoli-Sonera, Brooklyn, NY / Believe Prep Academy; Coach Paul Cisek, Associate Head Coach Charlie Hawthorne, Assistant Coaches Kurt Fenchel & Ron Pastore, Athletic Trainer, Dylan Harrington; and Statistician Nick Williams, Paterson, NJ/Elwood Park HS.
Jersey Blues graduates who received rings are Devin Strickland, Dayton, NJ/South Brunswick HS; Daryen Cabrera, Perth Amboy, NJ/Mater Dei Prep; Andre Wells, Matawan, NJ/Matawan HS; Niles Halliburton, Matawan, NJ/Matawan HS; Kevin Mateo, Hackensack, NJ/Hackensack HS; Ronn Flood Jr., Union, NJ/Union HS; Tim Gjonballa, Brooklyn, NJ/Jackson Liberty HS; Josiah Basket, West Milford, NJ/West Milford HS; and Assistant Coach John Rivera.
“May this victory be a steppingstone to even greater achievements in the future,” said Dr. Stout. “And may the rings that you received today serve as a reminder that you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to.”
The entire event served as a testament to the hard work, dedication, and unity of the Brookdale men’s basketball team, highlighting their remarkable journey. As one of the players expressed, “We won a whole bunch of awards, Cisek got his 600 wins, our coach Rivera left with a ring; we promised him that, yea yea, just like that.”