Written by Ryan Peters
Greg Herenda was ready to pitch a coveted recruit’s family on Fairleigh Dickinson University. It was the first day home visits were allowed during the 2014 fall recruiting period.
For weeks Grant Billmeier, an assistant coach at FDU at the time, had urged his boss to travel down to South Jersey to visit the family of Mike Holloway, a burgeoning star from Arthur P. Schalick High. Billmeier was convinced the burly big man would help the Knights solidify the interior, especially with the program struggling to protect the glass the previous two seasons.
Herenda was all ears, but had little idea how long a jaunt to Pittsgrove, NJ would take from campus. As he soon found out, it was more than a modest road trip.
“I didn’t really quite tell him how far it was; I just said we have to go see Mike Holloway down in South Jersey,” Billmeier, now a Seton Hall assistant coach, recalls with a chuckle. “So we get in his car and we put in the GPS and he thought it was going to be an hour and a half and it said about two hours and 45 minutes.”
An incredulous Herenda may have given Billmeier an earful upon that discovery, but he nevertheless traversed down the turnpike to Salem County, the Garden State’s least populated county known for its dairy farms and sprawling landscape. It was a wise decision, as the home visit laid the groundwork for convincing the Holloway family that FDU was the best place to continue their son’s education, and obviously, his basketball career. The official visit the following weekend sealed the deal.
“I took one visit to Fairleigh Dickinson University and I fell in love,” Holloway, now a senior at FDU, said. He cancelled his upcoming trek to Tennessee Tech and verbally committed to Herenda and the coaching staff on the last morning of the official visit. He was done with the college recruiting process before his senior season at Schalick was to begin.
Meanwhile, some 10 miles northeast in neighboring Gloucester County, Holloway’s cousin Keith Braxton was wondering why Division I programs weren’t actively recruiting him. He had just finished a standout junior campaign at Delsea Regional High, averaging 20.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game. He was instrumental in leading his 21-win team to the Group 3 sectional championship in South Jersey. And yet, there wasn’t a modicum of interest in Braxton at the Division I level.
Braxton’s high school coach, Tom Freeman, was surprised but understood why programs were ignoring a player in a lightly recruited area. “We were using him as a high post and at 6-(foot)-3 at that time with not really an outside game as far as shooting the ball, he wasn’t getting the looks,” Freeman explained.
It wasn’t that Braxton didn’t possess a capable outside shot, rather it wasn’t needed on a team that already had a bevy of perimeter scorers. Braxton’s unselfish nature, along with his versatility and uncanny ability to attack the rim, was a perfect complement to Delsea’s roster.
Braxton kept a positive attitude throughout the arduous recruiting process, while Holloway did his best to elevate his cousin’s profile. “The thing about (Mike) is when he got his offer to Fairleigh Dickinson he was kind of trying to promote me to go there as well,” Braxton said. “Just the fact that he was really looking out for me, really meant a lot to me.”
Herenda admits that his staff watched Braxton play at Holloway’s request – they competed together as high schoolers on the Philly BallHawks AAU squad after all – but the timing just didn’t work out. Earl Potts and Marques Townes, both three/four hybrid forwards in their own right, recently signed and were highly regarded. There simply wasn’t a need for a smallish power forward that had yet to display an ability to make 3s.
With nothing but Division II offers to ponder in the fall of his senior season, Braxton set his sights on pushing Delsea to the pinnacle of New Jersey high school hoops. But first they had to repeat as the South Jersey, Group 3 conference champions. Doing so would mean getting by their in-conference rivals, Schalick High, which low and behold, rostered one of the best big men the region had to offer, Mike Holloway.
Well before the high school rivalry, a deep bond between Holloway and Braxton took shape early in their childhood. With their respective families just a short drive away from each other, there was plenty of time to forge a close friendship over various activities.
The weekend days of playing sandlot football and basketball in the Holloway’s backyard, followed by feasting on the cooking of Mrs. Holloway, exemplified a childhood that the two cousins fondly look back on.
“We were always down to his house on weekends playing basketball, barbecues, watching football, so we were always close at like a young age,” Braxton said, while also mentioning the families’ time spent together in church. “It just eventually grew.”
When the two cousins and their siblings approached their teenage years, it became apparent that basketball ultimately was the thing that kept the families together. It’s not that their close connection needed strengthening, but those days on the South Jersey Cyclones, an AAU team for elementary school kids, were the impetus that catapulted their relationship toward basketball.
“That was one of the best moments of my young life,’ Holloway admits when reliving his time as on the Cyclones. The “family team” as both cousins affectionately call it, made an early run to a tournament final. After that, both Holloway and Braxton were hooked, leading to an intense rivalry that would capture the interests of South Jersey a decade later.
Delsea and Schalick, two “farmland schools” according to Freeman, weren’t known for their basketball prowess, yet this wasn’t an ordinary period in South Jersey basketball. Both schools were tied atop the Tri-County Conference-Diamond Division standings heading into their much anticipated matchup on January 18, 2015.
Schalick jumped out to an early lead on their home court, thanks to 10 first quarter points from Holloway. Delsea, understandably, couldn’t contain the best post presence on the floor as their deficit swelled to 12 points. “I just remember (Mike), he was locked in,” Braxton recalls of his cousin, who poured in 31 points that evening. “He was posting; I think he hit a three or two. He was just a force to be reckoned with at that time.”
While guarding Holloway was certainly problematic, Delsea still possessed more talent and depth. They crawled back into the contest with their long-range moxie, draining 13 triples when it was all said and done. Also serving as a catalyst for the comeback was Freeman’s shrewd defensive adjustment of putting smaller, albeit quicker players (i.e. Braxton) on Holloway. After an early scare, the favored Delsea squad narrowly defeated Schalick, 63-61.
The triumph was Delsea’s fifth straight and put the Crusaders in the driver’s seat of the division. They would go on to win seven more games in a row before losing.
In the second showdown between the two schools one month later, the Delsea crowd brought their energy as the intimidating 6-man. A Crusaders win would all but guarantee a share of the Diamond Division title. “Just the amount of tension in the gym – we don’t get huge crowds down here for basketball for a regular game – our gym was just rolling with the student body,” Freeman said.
For Braxton, the meaning of a championship clinching game was further elevated, for obvious reasons: “It was always just a more important game because we knew we were playing against each other,” he said of those high school battles against Holloway.
The undermanned Schalick squad wasn’t intimidated, however, and even held a 2-point advantage late, mainly due to Holloway’s extraordinary 28 point, 12 rebound and 3 block effort. But spectacular play from the Crusader’s Kaleb Morton and Braxton – he also finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, to go along with 5 assists and 3 steals – was inevitably too much for Schalick to overcome. The Delsea Crusaders went on to repeat as division champions once again.
If you include a Delsea win over Schalick when the cousins were juniors, back when Holloway’s older and bigger brother Rashaan was on Schalick, Braxton had bested his bigger counterpart with a 3-0 record in high school.
Advantage, Braxton. “I always joke with him… but little did I know that we would come full circle back and play in college,” he said with a chuckle.
At the time, however, Braxton still hadn’t realized his goal of getting a Division I basketball scholarship. With only UMBC’s offer as a preferred walk-on out there in the spring of 2015, Braxton opted to take a prep year at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
While the senior felt it was a gamble worth taking, others in Braxton’s trusted circle, including Freeman, wanted to make sure the star forward had weighed all of his options. “The one thing I did say to him before he left Delsea was ‘Keith, you know you have a ton of Division 2 offers on the table, are you sure you want to go to prep (school) and kind of roll the dice a bit?’” Freeman recalled.
Despite the pushback, Holloway gave Braxton his unconditional support. “I thought it was a good risk,” he said, before adding, “only because I knew his work ethic and determination.”
The gamble obviously paid off with Saint Francis calling in the spring of 2016 after a productive season at Lawrenceville. After Braxton watched his cousin’s FDU squad win the 2016 conference tournament championship on ESPN, two months later two of the best players South Jersey had to offer would go on to represent the Northeast Conference.
Holloway and Braxton may be close off the court, but in the heat of competition, “business is business” as Holloway likes to say. In other words, there’s no such thing as family love when a basketball championship and a berth to the NCAA tournament is on the line.
That couldn’t have been more evident in the NEC quarterfinals matchup between FDU and Saint Francis last March.
In the first half of the elimination game, Braxton back-ironed an open three, but found the ball in his hands after a fortuitous bounce. With the open path to the rim, Braxton did what he excels at – he put the ball on the floor and began confidently striding toward the basket. The only thing between Braxton and an easy finger roll was his 6-foot-7, 245 pound cousin.
Family love soon went out the window.
In Braxton’s attempt to finish near the rim, Holloway swatted Braxton across his upper body and left arm, making sure the ball wouldn’t find its way through the rim. In that respect, mission accomplished, even if it came at the expense of Braxton’s body.
“Yeah, I remember that (play), because my head started hurting a little bit after that,” Braxton admitted when asked about his cousin’s hard foul. To the junior’s credit, he went right to the charity stripe and calmly sank both free throws.
Holloway, who promptly turned his back and walked away from Braxton after the foul, was resolute when describing that moment. “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to,” he said. “I said ‘he’s family, but this game is way more important, the NEC championship is way more important.’”
The quarterfinal matchup turned out to be a riveting back-and-forth affair with FDU finally pulling away late in the second half. The victory prevented what would’ve been a Saint Francis three game sweep of the Knights. More importantly, FDU advanced to the NEC semifinals – a game they narrowly lost to the eventual champions, LIU Brooklyn – and Holloway improved his high overall record versus Braxton to 2-6.
The head-to-head record isn’t something Holloway would like to be public knowledge, but for the time being, the Pittsgrove native has the last laugh.
A few months later at NEC Social Media Day in October, Braxton and Holloway shared a proud moment together after being announced to the league’s preseason first team. It came as no surprise to anyone inside the league, given both players current standing.
Holloway had crossed the 1,000 points and 500 rebounds threshold before embarking on his senior campaign. Braxton, who recently scored his 1,000 point on, most poignantly, a creative drive and finish in the lane, has the remarkable opportunity to become the first player in NEC history to accumulate 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds if he continues at his current, uber productive pace.
Perhaps more importantly, Saint Francis and FDU were #1 and #2 in the NEC coach’s preseason poll, respectively. It’s almost like the two cousins were once again reliving their South Jersey high school battles.
“It’s like deja vu,” Holloway confirmed when asked to reflect on the upcoming conference season. “It was like, alright we are coming together, we are two of the premier players in the NEC. We were two premier players on the (high school) circuit and it was like everything was re-happening again for me.”
Braxton echoes a similar sentiment. “I see him getting the (preseason) award, he sees me getting the award, and we congratulate each other… Just shows all the hard work paid off and it reminds us of all the games we used to play every day in the backyard.”
The final chapters of this family saga have yet to be written. The 2018-19 NEC season promises to provide a riveting ending to a worthwhile basketball journey of the Holloway and Braxton boys from South Jersey.