Five years after being told “Don’t do it!” Chris Raba proved it could be done.
When Raba was eyeing the Nottingham High boys’ basketball coaching job, five years ago, let’s just say his friends weren’t overly supportive.
“I had two or three people tell me don’t take it,” Raba said. “They told me ‘It’s one of the worst jobs to ever take, don’t take it. You’ll never win there.’”
But what was really tough for “The Baron” to take, was a year away from coaching after a successful run at Hamilton West. A job was open in the Hamilton school district, where he taught, and he wanted it.
“I’m a basketball junkie,” Raba said. “I had to get back into the gym. I don’t believe what anybody tells me. I figure if the kids see you work hard and sweat, then they’ll work hard and sweat for you. To me, there’s no secret in success. It’s hard work, that’s it.”
Armed with that attitude, Raba ignored the ominous warnings and got the job. It’s safe to say, the Nottingham basketball community is better off for it.
This winter, Raba guided the Northstars to the greatest basketball season in school history. Nottingham finished 23-6 to set a school record for victories. The Northstars reached the Central Jersey Group III championship game for the first time in school history, and got to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals for just the second time.
Junior Cliff Joseph scored 561 points, a Nottingham record for one season. He became the school’s all-time leading male scorer with 1,306 points, and will be in great position to become the all-time scorer for both boys and girls early next season.
“We broke through some walls that Nottingham never broke through,” Raba said. “We got the furthest any team in the school for basketball has ever gotten. Our goal was to win sectional final at the beginning of the year. We didn’t do that, but we did accomplish many other things.”
They were things the players wanted to accomplish, because they, too, wanted to confirm to Raba that he had a good job.
“He told us people didn’t want him to take this job,” junior forward Darell Johnson said. “He told us all about that, and that was something good for us to hear. We wanted to prove to people that this was a good job for him to take and that we were glad he is here.
“We all know he’s a real good coach and we know all the stuff that he won. We know about his state championship team at West (in 2000) and that motivates us even more.”
Nottingham was coming off its first season of “slippage” under Raba. The Northstars won 13, 14 and 15 games his first three seasons before dropping to 11 last year. But a thrilling three-point victory over Ewing on opening night set the tone for a historic campaign.
Nottingham enjoyed a 10-game win streak at mid-season and its six losses were by a combined 31 points. Take 9-point losses to Trenton Catholic and Ewing out of the equation and four losses to quality teams were by an average of 3.2 points.
‘They helped to change our culture by how hard they worked, and just winning.’
None of the success came as a surprise, however, as the Northstars’ goals this year were to set the school record for wins and win a sectional championship.
“Coming in, the kids felt we were going to be pretty good,” Raba said. “They put a lot of time in the off-season, they were in the weight room since last April, and we played in maybe four or five different type of summer things. The guys dedicated themselves to the team.”
“We were always playing basketball with each other,” Johnson added. “Either at the Hamilton Y, or in summer leagues. We played with each other all the time in the summer.”
Because of the constant camaraderie, along with listening to what the coaches wanted, Nottingham had a nice chemistry from the start.
“Somebody who may have had a good shot on the court, may have sacrificed it for a better shot by someone else,” Raba said. “They helped to change our culture by how hard they worked, and just winning. Every year we’ve won in double digits, but never got to the 20 mark. We’ve been competitive but not like we were this year.”
A key addition to the Stars was Trenton Catholic transfer Christian Ford, who averaged 10.7 points and 4.5 rebounds while draining 40 3-pointers.
“Christian was like our glue guy,” Raba said. “He was the one who put everything together for us. He does a little bit of everything very, very well. He came in with a lot of experience playing in big games.”
He also came in knowing he could not try and take over the team in what would be his only year in the Blue and Gold.
“He’s a great character kid,” Raba said. “He’s probably someone who could have scored more somewhere else, but he didn’t come over here and think that he knew it all. He never wanted to step on anybody’s toes. He just wanted to fit in and he did a great job.”
The faces of the team were Joseph and Johnson, who formed one of the top 1-2 tandems in the Colonial Valley Conference.
Joseph averaged 19.4 points and 6.7 rebounds while leading the team in assists and steals. He shot 52 percent from the floor. Johnson, who is 221 points shy of 1,000, averaged 13.9 points (on 56 percent shooting) and 7.8 rebounds.
“Cliff could already have the school record for boys and girls if I didn’t take him out of so many games in the fourth quarter,” said Raba, who felt Joseph was the CVC’s best player this year. “Since Bam (Johnson) graduated after Cliff’s freshman year, he’s been our point guard. Next year, we want to try to mold a point guard and take Cliff off the ball so he doesn’t have to worry about that. The kid’s just a great talent.”
Nottingham had a player on its 14-3 JV team that has point guard potential, and Raba feels Johnson could even play there. Johnson was a terror in the state tournament, as he was the Stars best player over the four games.
“He handles the ball really well for a 6-5 guy,” Raba said. “He can shoot, he passes the ball really well. I may consider moving him into the point for a little bit next year. But in my mind he should average 20 and 12. He’s that type of player. He’s like our point forward.”
Junior Richie Jones was the fourth Northstar in double figures as he averaged 10.9 points and hit 66 3-pointers. Jones set the school record with 11 threes when he scored 37 points in a win over Princeton three games into the season.
‘I’m older now, I have a family, I watch my kids play. Winning still means a lot, but it’s not life or death anymore.’
Darry Felix rounded out the starting lineup and had some big moments, as did reserves Dan Ekwunife, Kuyler Fowler, Edward Lakie and Kastro Montina, who came on during the state tournament.
“We just had a real good team,” Raba said. “Those guys bought into their roles. Dan started every game last year as a junior, but he came off the bench this year. All these players were really selfless. That’s’ why it was so special. No one complained about not starting, about not getting enough shots. That’s when you can have a special season.”
Johnson agreed, saying, “It was a real fun season, a real positive atmosphere. We had a lot of fans, people wanted to see us play. We were all like brothers, and to the people who were watching, this season was a success.”
About the only downer was losing to Ewing in the CJ III final after beating them on opening night.
“I can’t even say what happened,” Johnson said. “It seemed like we were just happy to be there. We didn’t play to our potential, not even close. It was a really good learning experience for us.”
An experience they can put to good use, as Nottingham returns Johnson, Jones, Joseph, Lakie, Montina and Ku-jane Johnson next season.
“We want to get back to that (sectional final) and win it,” Raba said. “We have a good nucleus coming back.”
Johnson warns they cannot take anything for granted.
“We had a good season, it was a fun season,” he said. “But we’ve still got a lot of work to go do this summer, so we don’t have that loss to Ewing happen again.”
Don’t bet against the Stars having another big season. Since Raba took over, Nottingham has won 76 games in five years. Only Notre Dame, Ewing and Trenton have more during that time. The coach spread the praise around, noting that his staff of Chris Edwards, Deon Chew and Drew Paden “did a tremendous job.”
As for Raba, he won’t count this season as any more or less special than any other. He feels every year is satisfying because every team is different, and he loves the kids who play for him.
“I don’t compare teams, I never have,” he said. “I’ve had teams win five games and they were great to coach.”
Raba will, however, compare his present self to his former self, feeling he has mellowed over the years.
“I probably don’t yell nearly as much as I did,” he said. “I’m probably easier than when I was at Hamilton. At Hamilton, I yelled on every possession. When I coached at Hamilton, I thought winning was life or death. I’m older now, I have a family, I watch my kids play. Winning still means a lot, but it’s not life or death anymore.”
But being able to coach still is. Which is why he refused to listen to the naysayers five years ago.