Columbia has been one of the red-hot teams in Essex County during the past month. In top photo, junior Jalen James (23) soars to the rim as teammate Chris Berry (24) looks on in Saturday's (Jan. 28th) Essex County Tournament quarterfinal win vs. Newark Tech in Maplewood. The Cougars feature one of the state's top backcourt performers in NJIT-bound senior Jalen Robinson (1) while his dad, veteran coach Eugene 'Bam' Robinson has been working of late with support for his right leg as he continues recovery from surgery to repair a torn achilles muscle. Columbia has two very big games this week at Caldwell, starting with the two teams' second Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division showdown on Tuesday at 4. (Photos by Gene Nann-genenann.smugmug.com)
Is Still Way To Go For Columbia
By Steve Tober
Bam Robinson knows all too well just how big a week ahead it is for his Columbia Cougars, and he is ready to apply a time-honored sports cliché to the big task in front of his red-hot team.
“We’ll approach it as just looking at the one game in front of us,” said the veteran head coach. “You have to try and take care of what is first up and I know that I’ll keep emphasizing that to the kids.
“We know that we have eight big quarters this week against a very good team, but you can’t get ahead of yourself with worrying about what’s beyond Tuesday.”
Columbia (14-3 overall, 8-1 in the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division) has won four in a row and 9 of its last 10 as it looks ahead to a huge Tuesday afternoon division showdown at Caldwell (15-2, 8-2), which will be the first of two all-important contests for the Cougars in West Caldwell in the next few days.
Following Tuesday’s contest, which could very well decide the SEC-Liberty Division champion, sixth-seeded Columbia will host North Star Academy in another Liberty Division game Thursday before then returning to face third-seeded Caldwell in the quarterfinals of the 76th Essex County Tournament this Saturday afternoon (Feb. 4).
Caldwell defeated the Cougars, 55-49, Jan. 3, in Maplewood, jumping off to an early 18-6 lead and then holding off a Columbia second half surge as senior guard Rocco Checchetto led the way with a game-high 24 points.
Columbia, which starts two sophomores in its otherwise seasoned rotation, has been playing excellent basketball for the most part since early January and is coming off this past Saturday’s 64-57 ECT first round victory over a solid 11th-seeded Newark Tech squad in Maplewood.
“Before this season began, I thought that we were among the top three or four teams in the county regardless of what division we were in,” said Robinson. “Now we have to go out and prove that in order to win our conference title and also be one of those still standing in the county tournament semifinals (Feb. 11 at West Orange).”
This Saturday’s ECT quarterfinals will see all top eight seeds involved with 8-Irvington at 1-Seton Hall Prep and 5-East Orange Campus at 4-Immaculate on the upper side of the bracket, while it will be 6-Columbia at 3-Caldwell and 7-East Side at 2-Arts on the bottom side.
The semifinals are slated for 3 and 5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11, at West Orange, followed by the 2023 championship game, 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 18, at Essex County College in Newark.
Columbia has a nice mix of youth and experience in its starting lineup with the senior leadership provided by the coach’s son, 4-year starting point guard and NJIT signee Jalen Robinson (12.6 points, 7.5 assists, 3.6 steals per game), who is one of the state’s premier backcourt performers.
The talented sophomores are led by 6-2 guard Jayden Myers (18.8 ppg) and 6-4 Shelton Colwell (13.2 ppg, 6.4 rebounds per game) while 6-2 junior Jalen James (12.4 ppg) has been another solid complementary scorer for the fairly well-balanced Cougars.
While the Columbia players have remained healthy throughout a busy recent stretch, their coach has had to withstand an injury challenge after he tore his right achilles tendon simply while quickly rising while doing what he always does in directing his team from the sideline.
“I was coaching, got up and it just popped,” said the 48-year-old Robinson, a 1993 graduate of Irvington where he excelled as a top backcourt performer for the Blue Knights. “Just one of those things, but it is tough getting older, that’s for sure!
“I had surgery Jan. 13 at a surgical center and follow-up is going fine, but it has to take time to heal. I can’t lean on it so I have to use this contraption to coach from.
“Still, what the heck, you do what you have to and keep going forward. Now, it’s time for some of the biggest games of the season and that’s our focus right now, starting with Tuesday’s game and we’ll take it from there.”
Essex County Tournament first round results:
(1) Seton Hall Prep 78 (17) Newark Tech 58
(8) Irvington 60 (9) West Essex 50
(5) East Orange Campus 39 (21) West Orange 32
(4) Immaculate 89 (13) West Side 65
(2) Arts 74 (15) North Star Academy 39
(7) East Side 68 Payne Tech 61
(6) Columbia 64 (11) Newark Tech 57
(3) Caldwell 50 (14) Central 35
ECT Quarterfinals, Saturday, Feb. 4:
Irvington at Seton Hall Prep
East Orange Campus at Immaculate
East Side at Arts
Columbia at Caldwell
ECT semifinals, Saturday, Feb. 11, 3 and 5 p.m. at West Orange
ECT final, Saturday, Feb. 18, 1 p.m., at Essex County College
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Columbia forward Shelton Colwell (14) puts up a shot in lane vs. Newark Tech in Saturday's ECT first round contest while his fellow sophomore Jayden Myers (4) works hard to guard the Terriers' Malcolm Bragg (24).
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