The first seeds to St. Anthony High School’s latest national championship, giving the school one national crown in each of the last four decades, were actually planted a year or so ago, when the Friars suffered a stunning loss in triple overtime to Trenton Catholic in the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship game.
If one can recall, the NJSIAA almost placed a state championship on a silver platter for the Friars and tied a nice ribbon around it in the process, after the state association banned rival St. Patrick of Elizabeth from competing in the 2010 state playoffs.
Kicking the powerful Celtics to the curb enabled the Friars to sneak past the rest of the competition, including Paterson Catholic, a team that featured a pair of talented guards named Myles Mack and Kyle Anderson, in the sectional title game at Rutgers. All that stood between the fabulous Friars and their state-record 26th NJSIAA state crown was a game with Trenton Catholic, a foe that no one really knew much about.
The state championship was there for the Friars’ taking – and upstart Trenton Catholic snatched it right away from the Friars with a disheartening 57-56 victory.
The loss lingered with the Friars for quite some time.
“It was very disappointing,” guard Jordan Quick said. “We lost by one point in triple overtime. We just had to get right back in the gym again and start all over.”
“It really bothered me,” said fellow senior Lucious “Lucky” Jones. “It actually hurt physically to know we got that close.”
Jerome Frink was the third returning starter from last year’s team.
“After that loss, we had to come back with authority, make sure that we put St. Anthony back on top,” said Frink, a junior forward.
Those three players who experienced the disappointment of the setback a year ago were joined by two others who lost their final game of the 2010 season as well.
When Paterson Catholic closed its doors last June, it left returning standouts Mack and Anderson with no place to play and attend school. After some soul searching, Anderson, a native of North Bergen, first decided to transfer to St. Anthony. Mack then followed suit.
Once the two talented players jumped on board, the pieces were all in place.
“We just let things work out,” said Mack, who is bound for Rutgers on a scholarship.
“There was a little bit of pressure on us, but we always worked hard,” Jones said.
The Friars met every challenge along the way, traveling to tournaments all over the country and games at any and every port of call.
It all came down to facing the nation’s top-ranked team, old nemesis St. Patrick, in the Non-Public B North finals. While not many people gave the Friars a fighting chance against the Fighting Celtics, the players all believed – and they succeeded to upset St. Patrick in a 62-47 final on March 9.
But to reach the ultimate goal, there was still more basketball to play and more games to win.
“When we beat St. Pat’s, we had to be at our very best,” legendary St. Anthony head coach Bob Hurley said. “It’s hard to keep that going. We just tried to hang out and get to the finish line. We tried to be as good as we were against St. Pat’s, but we haven’t been as good. It’s a long season. We had our 72nd practice the other day and played 33 games under a lot of pressure. We managed somehow to keep it going for 12 more days.”
So the Friars weren’t at their optimum last Monday night, when they faced Plainfield for the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title. They wanted to get to the finish line, which was winning another T of C crown, nailing down another national championship.
They did exactly that, taking home the school’s record 11th T of C trophy and more importantly, capping an undefeated 33-0 season, one that will end with the program’s fourth national title. The Friars also won national titles in 1989, 1996 and 2008.
“It’s a pretty good mark of consistency, winning one in each decade,” Hurley said.
Right away, onlookers wanted to compare this national champ with the other three – and honestly, there’s no comparison.
The first one, the 1989 version, featured future college and pro stars like Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Jerry Walker, and Rodrick Rhodes. The T of C was created for that team, because the NJSIAA wanted to capitalize on the immense popularity of that team, which sold out gyms all over the metropolitan area and caused eternal lines of interested ticket buyers, cramming and clamoring for a chance to see those fabulous Friars.
It’s clearly the best high school basketball team of all time and there really is no comparison. It might lead to some interesting debate, but the bottom line is this: That 1989 team opened the door for the rest to follow and was a groundbreaking squad that was revered and adored. It’s been said that the 1989 Friars were the Beatles of New Jersey high school basketball. Everyone had to see them. More than 12,000 people went to the Meadowlands to see them defeat Elizabeth for the first-ever T of C title.
The 1996 version had standouts like Anthony Perry, Rashon Burno and Delvon Arrington, who all went on to have solid collegiate careers. The most recent, the 2008 variety, had an unprecedented six players who earned NCAA Division I scholarships, including one, Tyshawn Taylor, who leads Kansas into the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, and another, Mike Rosario, who will be spotted on the Florida bench as he sits out a redshirt season after transferring from Rutgers.
This latest national champion has a distinction that the other three didn’t.
All of the other three began the year as the No. 1-ranked team in the country and maintained that status throughout the season. This team did not. They were certainly no slouches and among the elite in the country, but began the season at No. 5 in some polls and as low as No. 8 in others.
“We started taking on challenge after challenge,” Hurley said. “We did move up to No. 2, but it was like a sneaky No. 2.”
And then came the showdown with the dreaded No. 1 rival, putting the Friars in position to claim yet another national title.
“We all felt that the gap between us and St. Pat’s had narrowed,” Hurley said.
But then they finally surpassed the Celtics and earned this shot at immortality – or for some, a shot at redemption.
“It’s only fitting,” Jones said. “After last season, we all got together and made this our one main goal. We had to finish it off the right way.”
Quick wasn’t going to let anything stop him from his chance at redemption. He suffered a torn meniscus in his knee two weeks ago and doctors told him that the injury would require surgery.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play, but nothing was going to stop me from playing,” said Quick, who delivered a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter against Plainfield. “This is what we all wanted. It was all well worth it.”
It might have taken a year and a few more talented ingredients, but the final result is all that matters. St. Anthony is once again the national champion of high school basketball.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.