When it’s all said and done, Lenape High School senior Derek Simpson will be headed northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike en route to Rutgers University to continue his academic and athletic journey.
As for right now, the 6-foot-3 prospect has unfinished business to take care of in Medford.
Simpson’s last mission is to bring the Indians’ boys basketball program its first state championship since 2009.
“That’s been my goal ever since my freshman year,” Simpson said. “I think last year we had a great shot. We had a special group of guys. We just had a great bond and we played together as a team. I think that was just special to have. It’s been a fun experience and I can’t wait to finish it out with my guys.”
Those in charge also agree.
“I think we have a solid nucleus back from a team that I think could’ve won a state championship last year,” Lenape coach Matt Wolf said. “We’ve got some great senior leadership and great talent. If you’re gonna have goals you might as well make them big ones.”
Last year’s squad finished with a 10-4 record and concluded the shortened campaign with a 64-52 victory over North 2, Group 4 power Elizabeth. The Indians used a 21-10 fourth quarter burst to heighten a one-point lead after three quarters. Simpson tallied a game-high 30 points.
It was a defining moment for the Lenape boys basketball program as it joined nationally ranked Gill St. Bernard’s and Roselle Catholic as the only teams to beat the Minutemen last winter.
“It gave us confidence,” Wolf said. “We went into that game thinking, ‘this is sort of like our state championship game.’ We didn’t have playoffs and they seemed like they were the best Group 4 North Jersey team. We thought we were the best Group 4 South Jersey team at the time and we were happy with how it turned out. It just shows that we can play with anybody, too.”
The Indians begin this year’s campaign against Linden at Cherokee High School’s 9th annual Jimmy V Classic on Saturday. The Tigers have won six NJSIAA Group 4 state championships since 2000 (2000, 2006, 2007, 2014, 2016, 2017).
Following the weekend, Lenape will quickly dive into its Olympic Conference schedule with heavyweight bouts against Cherry Hill East, Camden and Shawnee before seeing Newark East Side at Holy Spirit’s Seagull Classic on January 9. Since the 2020 playoffs were canceled due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Raiders are still the defending NJSIAA Group 4 state champions.
“Ever since last year we wanted to play a lot of bigger teams,” Simpson said. “We couldn’t really do that (because of the COVID-19 pandemic). This year, we got invited to the Seagull Classic (and) we got invited to a couple other things. It’s great for us to play better teams than what we’re gonna play in the states in our group. It gives us a better challenge during the season and it makes us really work. We’ve been working our tails off for a while. We’re ready for anybody.”
“We have a really tough schedule this year,” Wolf said. “We’re hoping to be prepared for the playoffs by the time that comes. We have some big goals for ourselves.”
Simpson will be joined by a pair of returning starters. Senior forward Tayvon Gaither returns after averaging 9.8 points per game and being named a 2021 South Jersey Sports Zone All-South Jersey honorable mention a season ago. Gaither, the younger brother of former Lenape standout Tabu Gaither, tallied 18 points in the signature win over Elizabeth last winter. The 6-foot-4 forward has generated Division III interest.
6-foot-5 forward Aidan Anderson also returns to the Indians’ starting lineup. Anderson averaged 6.6 points per game and posted a career-high 17 points in a 67-45 setback to Paul VI. The senior made enormous strides over the summer and has recently garnered Division II and Division III interest.
“The last couple games of last year, he really hit his stride,” Wolf said. “I think the COVID year hurt him a little bit last year. It typically takes about half a season to feel comfortable playing varsity basketball. All he really had was half a season.
He’s a gym rat — plays basketball all the time, works on his craft, bought into the weight room and can shoot the ball and handle it. I’m excited for him. All the college interest he’s getting is totally warranted because he’s gonna make a college program very happy one day.”
Anderson credits his improvement to his tireless effort in the weight room and in the gym with his supportive teammates. The senior is also more comfortable with the ball in his hands now.
“When I went down to Georgia to see my dad, they put me on the Vertimax,” Anderson said. “I was lifting weights a lot with the team. I’ve also worked on my ball-handling a lot, being able to jump off the floor quick, improving my shooting.”
The senior picked up an offer from Lincoln on December 6 and has received interest from Arcadia and Lycoming. Anderson recently visited the latter of the two and later stated that he’s garnered interest from Adelphi.
The recruitment process has evolved rapidly and overwhelmingly, but Anderson is embracing each and every moment.
“It’s an enjoyable moment,” Anderson said. “It’s something that you can’t forget. Not a lot of basketball players from the high school level really make it out to college. It’s a low percentage. It’s special and you should embrace the whole process as best as you can.”
Thankfully, he has a teammate that has experienced and conquered the daunting process. His teammate is already reaping the benefits of his commitment, too.
Simpson was tuned in with his family when Rutgers’ Ron Harper, Jr. demoralized Boilermaker Nation on December 9. The Don Bosco Prep graduate sank a buzzer beater from half court to push the Scarlet Knights past Purdue, 70-68. It marked the first time in school history Rutgers beat a top-ranked team in the nation.
“I was yelling in my house,” Simpson said. “Me, my dad, my mom, we were watching the game. We were yelling all over the place. That was Rutgers’ first time ever beating a No. 1 team. This is a big step for them. This is three years in a row they’ve beaten Purdue.”
“I’m going there next year and I get to embrace it,” Simpson added. “That was a good feeling seeing that happen. I’m happy for the coaches and the players because they deserve that.”
Lenape’s quest for its third state title in school history begins on Saturday. Wolf wouldn’t want to navigate the journey with anyone else other than his Rutgers-bound point guard.
After all, capturing a state championship at Jersey Mike’s Arena before playing there full-time in 2022 would be the perfect storybook ending.
“We’ve had a lot of great players come through this program,” Wolf said. “I’ve been coaching here for 16 years, I played here in 2002, my brothers all played here, and I’ve seen a lot of basketball in the last 25 years. He’s the best player to come through here at the high school level. We’ve had awesome players like Jason Thompson, Matt Betley and Ryan Thompson and some made it to the NBA. At the high school level, there’s nothing he can’t do on a basketball court. The things he can do you just can’t teach. It’s a gift that he has and he just works on it so much.”