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FREEHOLD TWP. -- It is one thing to get an impact player back from an injury for the first time during the season, especially given the circumstances the Marlboro boys basketball team had to work with throughout this season.

It is another to get an impact player back from injury after said player had all but been written off for the season.

That was the case for Marlboro senior A.J. Schwartz, who suffered a broken bone in his leg during an early-October football game that was expected to not only knock him out for the remainder of the football season, but also for the entire basketball team.

So, when Schwartz told his teammates and coaches that he had been cleared to play heading into February, it sent a shockwave through the locker room.

Now, it is Marlboro's team that is once again sending shockwaves throughout the NJSIAA Group IV bracket.

With Schwartz directing the offense and contributing to a standout team defensive effort Thursday night, Marlboro -- the defending champion and No. 7 seed in the Central Jersey Group IV bracket -- rolled through second-seeded Freehold Township, 55-42, to continue their title defense into the Central Group IV semifinals.

Thursday's win extends Marlboro's winning streak to eight games and the last time the Mustangs lost, it was to Freehold Township on Jan. 31 and it knocked Marlboro out of the running for a spot in the Shore Conference Tournament. Four days later, the Mustangs welcomed back Schwartz in a win at Red Bank that marked win No. 2 of the current winning streak.

"The odds were against them," first-year Marlboro coach James Reuter said of his team, which opened up this season trying to replace five standout senior starters from last year's landmark, 28-3 squad, as well as 10-year head coach Mike Nausedas. "It's a bunch of kids that didn't get much time and the one kid (Schwartz) who did was hurt. Plus, I'm brand new, I was a late hire, I didn't get the summer, I'm from outside the district. Things weren't in place and that still aren't to the extent I'd like them to be, but the guys have just stuck with it the whole year."

Since welcoming Schwartz back, Marlboro has taken out three noteworthy opponents: Nottingham, Westfield and St. Rose. Both Nottingham (Central Jersey Group III) and Westfield (North 2 Group IV) advanced to the semifinals of their respective brackets and will host the upcoming round, while St. Rose has been a Top 20 team in the state for most of the year and is the top-seeded favorite in the South Jersey Non-Public B field.

On Thursday, Schwartz showed his value to the Mustangs, which is not so much as a scorer as it is a passer and orchestrator on both ends. A standout quarterback for the football team, Schwartz put his passing on display Thursday, dishing out 10 assists to go with five points.

"He just brings a sense of patience to the game," Reuter said. "He's still not 100 percent, but he knows how to get to a spot, read the defense and hit the open man. He makes the right play every time and guys feed off that. They get better shots and they look to get other guys better shots."

In addition the tangible production as a passer, Schwartz also delivers the intangible of experiencing Marlboro's 2021-22 championship runs in the Shore Conference Tournament and Central Jersey Group IV. Schwartz was the sixth man on the Mustangs' senior-led team a year ago with went 28-3 while winning the program's first ever Shore Conference Tournament title and Central Jersey Group IV title.

While Schwartz's return has been the catalyst in Marlboro's turnaround, the rest of the team laid the foundation in his absence and has been thriving now that the group is whole. Senior Alex Frank is the team's leading scorer and lived up to that stature Thursday in producing a game-high 18 points. In Tuesday's first-round win over Hightstown, Frank scored 26 and delivered the clinching basket when he stole the ball and laid it in for a four-point Marlboro lead with a minute to go.

"He is just intense," Reuter said of Frank. "You watch him when they call his name during player intros and he is shot out of a cannon. He doesn't get down on himself. If he misses a shot, he thinks the next one is going in.

"The best thing he has done is he has gotten better at finding open guys and sharing the ball. The scoring was always there, but I have been impressed with how coachable he has been when it comes to learning to share the ball in our offense."

Juniors Daniel Elmasri and Steve Scimone also scored in double-figures, with Elmasri netting 15 and Scimone pouring in 14. Marlboro's collection of guards also aided its 6-foot-6 junior forward, Brave Haugh, in defending Freehold Township forward Jayden Holmes-Cotter, who finished with 14 points.

Senior Malachi Harris led Freehold Township with 17 points.

"It was beneficial to play them two times during the season," said Reuter, referencing a regular-season split between the teams. "If they got the ball inside the paint, it was going to be a lot for us to deal with. We were going to live with their shooters taking outside shots. They have some good shooters and Malachi, the reason they (Freehold Twp.) have been playing so well is because his game has elevated. We were just going to live with them shooting threes. The most important thing was protect the paint and rebound."

Marlboro's gameplan Thursday worked from the jump, with the Mustangs jumping out to a 17-9 lead and extending it to 30-14 with an 11-0 run in the middle of the second quarter. Marlboro then grew its lead to 39-19 with a 9-0 run that spanned the end of the second and early third quarters.

Freehold Township showed some life with six straight points behind its pressure defense and work on the boards, which got its home crowd stirring. The Mustangs, however, struck back with seven in a row to establish its biggest lead of the game, 46-25, early in the fourth.

The Patriots twice pulled within 10, but never got the deficit down to single-digits during the second half.

Thursday's win means Marlboro will match-up with No. 6 South Brunswick for the third consecutive tournament, with Saturday's sectional semifinal the first time during that stretch that the Vikings will host. South Brunswick beat Marlboro in a memorable 2020 Central Jersey Group IV final that ended on a Vikings game-winner at the buzzer.

After there was no state tournament in 2021, Marlboro got its revenge a year ago, beating South Brunswick in the sectional semifinals to get back to the sectional final.

Now, the Mustangs are one win away from reaching the sectional final round for the third straight NJSIAA Tournament after never making it that far before 2020. Making it twice in three years and winning it a season ago was a landmark accomplishment, but doing so this year would prove something entirely different. With a new head coach and five new starters, Marlboro would prove, if it hasn't already, that there is a real culture of competing for championships that is going to remain when players graduate.

"They just want to prove to people that they are still Marlboro basketball," Reuter said. "It wasn't just a one-year thing and I think they have shown that."

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