Junior Gio Panzini, left, is a 6-6 junior transfer from Red Bank Catholic who will give St. Rose a talented big man when he becomes eligible in mid-January. Freshman Jayden Hodge, right, a transfer from Belgium who is coach Brian Lynch’s godson, has been St. Rose’s leading scorer in the early season. Photos courtesy of https://twitter.com/TheHoopGroup
Junior Gio Panzini, left, is a 6-6 junior transfer from Red Bank Catholic who will give St. Rose a talented big man when he becomes eligible in mid-January. Freshman Jayden Hodge, right, a transfer from Belgium who is coach Brian Lynch’s godson, has been St. Rose’s leading scorer in the early season. Photos courtesy of https://twitter.com/TheHoopGroup
St. Rose of Belmar boys basketball coach Bryan Lynch won’t deny it, he has acquired an immediate wealth of talent with six new transfers.

But what Lynch also realizes is, much like a child’s Christmas present, some is assembly required before his team can be in proper working order.

Thanks to the coach’s connections from a professional playing and coaching career in Europe, he has landed Belgium imports Matthew Hodge, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, and his younger brother Jayden Hodge, a 6-4 freshman. Both are considered Division I college prospects. He also landed Bryan Ebeling, a talented 6-2 sophomore guard from Italy.

That type of talent attracted in-state transfers Peter Mauro (5-10 sophomore guard from Gill St. Bernard of Gladstone), Gioacchini Panzini (6-6 junior forward from Red Bank Catholic) and Evan Romano (6-3 sophomore guard from Holmdel).

Their skills and ability are unquestioned. However, there are a few speed bumps to navigate. The New Jersey imports are unable to play until mid-January due to the NJSIAA’s 30-day transfer rule. Until then, the international players (who are all American citizens) are trying to blend with former JV players with no varsity experience. Thus, team chemistry must be built.

“We have big expectations on us, and rightfully so when you see the guys that came in, and when we’re fully rostered, absolutely we have a very strong team,” Lynch said. “The first six guys are very strong. But the reality is that for half our season we only have three of those guys. The rest are inexperienced, multi-sport kids.

“I don’t think we deserve the expectations that have been put on us,” the coach continued. “I’m kind of old school. I want to earn those things. I want to go win some big games and move up the ladder. Now we’ve been put in position to be either two or three in the Shore Conference, and we don’t have the experience to warrant that.”

The Purple Roses opened with three straight wins and faced a huge test Dec. 22 when they hosted Manasquan, generally ranked as the Shore’s top team. Lynch was not putting any importance on the outcome, saying he just wanted what was best for his outfit.

“The goal is to take a step forward,” he said two days prior to the game. “If that means getting a win, I’ll take it. If it means that we played a good game and we’re competitive, that’s a big step. If we get our butts kicked, we know we need a lot of work.”

Indeed, no state title was ever won in December. The bottom line is, when the Roses are at full strength and gel as a unit, they will be dangerous.

It starts with the Hodge brothers. Jayden led the team with a 21.3 scoring average through three games while playing point guard, and Matthew was second on the team with a 12.7 average and led in assists while playing the five position.

They chose St. Rose due to Lynch’s close association with their father, Odell, while in Belgium. The two played with and against each other professionally, and when Lynch began coaching, Odell was the team’s general manager. The Hodges made Brian and his wife, Kim, godparents to Jayden.

“We’ve done everything together for the last 17 years,” Lynch said.

When Jayden was just a youngster, both men saw how talented he was in basketball. Before Brian ever knew he would return to America, Odell wanted to send Jayden to the United States to see how good of a player he could be.

When Lynch got the St. Rose job a year ago, it was a no-brainer for Hodge.  

“Odell called me up,” Lynch recalled, “and said ‘This is irony at its best, we’ve been talking about it for 10 years and now you’re a head coach. And who do I trust more than you? I know exactly what my kid’s getting into.’

“The game changer came when Jayden’s brother came to visit with him. He’s a bonafide Division I player already. When he decided to come, there was an explosion of interest from a lot of people around the state. I think it immediately attracted better players.”

As for Ebeling, his father John is considered one of the greatest hoop players in Steinert (of Hamilton Township) history and was a three-time All American at Florida Southern in the early 80s. Despite being drafted by the Detroit Pistons, Ebeling opted for Italy and forged a successful career as a player and executive.

When Lynch was playing in Italy, Ebeling was a general manager in the league and actually tried to procure him for his team. Now the Ebelings are in the U.S. looking for a good basketball school for Bryan. When John saw Lynch was at St. Rose, it was a done deal.

“He knew me, he knew what I could give,” Lynch said. “All of this came from the resume and connections I made from being in Europe. It parlayed into kids wanting to come to St. Rose because of the familiarity with me and the ambition that these kids have.

“I was very disappointed to hear people say we’re an international AAU team (recruiting players). We really aren’t. We’re a small school who got two good kids from Belgium because of family related reasons, and then I got a kid from Italy because he came back to America in the same year that these kids came.”

Couple them with the talented Jersey trio that transferred in, and St. Rose has a potential powerhouse.

But first, Lynch must get all the pieces to fit just right.