The defending Division II champion Johnston boys basketball team is back in action and gearing up to defend its title this winter season.
The Panthers return some key players from last year’s championship roster while looking to replace a few roles. Johnston enjoyed a strong preseason and is tipping off its season this Friday night.
“It’s going to be about finding leaders this year and for them to step up. They’ve done a great job. They know they have big shoes to fill and right now they’re exceeding expectations. It’s good to start this week off on the right foot. I think we’re still the team to beat in Division II. The vibe has been great so far,” said coach Mike Bedrosian.
The team’s elder statesman in the starting lineup will be forward Neari Vasquez, who is hoping to use last year’s title run to help lead the way.
“The leadership has been great. Mikey (Carlino), Cam (Walker), Branden (Testa) all spent time in the starting lineup or were sixth men last year and they have pushed me to be a better leader in practice. Last year we learned about dealing with adversity and dealing with it as a team. After (a few) losses, we never kept our heads down and kept working. We learned that we had to keep our foot on the gas at game time,” said Vasquez.
The team said bye to starting guards Derek Salvatore and Anthony Corsinetti, who were All-Division and were perhaps the division’s best back court.
Carlino will be called on to fill those minutes and he is confident in himself and the returning players.
“From last year to this year, there are a ton of roles to fill. But no one in the division has as much experience as our starting five. We all played at a high level last year and competed in the biggest games of our lives. No one has more experience than us,” said Carlino, who learned a thing or two from playing behind Salvatore. “(Salvatore) made sure that everyone got involved and made sure everyone was on the same page at all times.”
The last major void to replace is in in the front court after the graduation of Camani Batista. Cam Walker is a leading candidate to replace the Batista role.
“Without Camani, I feel that I have to take a way bigger role this year and practicing with him last year made me a better player. Same with NeAri, I think we’ll do well,” said Walker.
Brothers Branden and Jayden Testa will round out the lineup and project to be key offensive weapons, according to Bedrosian. Branden was in and out of the starting lineup last season while Jayden was lost for the year from a leg break. He is back on the court and at 100 percent heading into the season.
“I’m 100 percent now and have been playing since the spring. It really was a bummer to not get to play last season,” said Jayden.
Branden added: “I’m looking forward to it because we have been playing together for our entire lives. Everyone can see that wee play together so it’s going to be fun.”
Bedrosian is excited to see the impact the duo will make.
“(Jayden’s) hungry. He replaces the scoring that we lost from last year, Branden, too. They’re going to be two of the best scorers in the division. Jayden is hungry and this is the first time they’ll be on the floor together as brothers. Last year we expected them to take that big role but it didn’t work out. We’re looking forward to having them both out there.”
The Panthers will tip off their season this Friday night when they travel to Smithfield, then will host East Providence on Saturday.
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