After winning all 32 of their games last year, culminating in the mythical national championship, there’s no way anyone could have expected a repeat performance from the Friars of St. Anthony.
Seasons like the one the Friars enjoyed last year don’t come along every day. Sure, St. Anthony had enjoyed undefeated national championship years before, like in 1989 and 1996 and in 2003.
So the 2008 campaign was nothing new.
But the aftermath left after the memorable campaign was new. The Friars graduated seven seniors from last year’s national champion – six of whom went on to play major Division I college basketball.
There were only two returning players, Dominic Cheek and Jamee Jackson, who played at least moderate roles with the team a year ago. The Villanova-bound Cheek was a major player on the undefeated squad of a year ago, while Jackson, headed for Quinnipiac in the fall, was a reserve.
The rest of this year’s Friar roster consisted of either total newcomers or players who saw very little action if any last season. It was a major rebuilding job, top to bottom.
The results haven’t been good – in the St. Anthony sense of good. The Friars have lost four games, the highest loss total in five years. There are bound to be more before the NJSIAA Parochial B state playoffs begin in a few weeks.
Last Tuesday, the Friars lost, 60-58, to Long Island Lutheran at the Golden Door Charter School in downtown Jersey City. It was the first time the Friars lost a home game in six years.
“We have a good team and we have talent, but the pieces don’t fit,” said legendary St. Anthony head coach Bob Hurley. “The team is flawed. The players just don’t compliment each other. Last year was a perfect year. This is more like high school basketball, having an imperfect team.”
Part of the reason why the Friars have not played like a typical St. Anthony team has been the personnel turnover. Three of the key players, forwards Ashton Pankey, Derrick Williams and Devon Collier, all transferred into St. Anthony within the past year and had to sit out the first third of the season.
So the Friars had to play at least 13 games this season with different players playing key roles.
“We have five guys who are 6-6 or bigger, but we can’t have all five of them out there at the same time,” Hurley said. “Day in and day out, we’ve had lineup changes.”
Hurley debunked the idea that the players were still unfamiliar with each other.
“Two of the transfers, Ashton and Devon, were in school last April and played with us all summer,” Hurley said. “They played about 45 games with everyone over the summer. I thought we got past all of that during the summer. But right now, we’re still trying to find the right combination.
Added Hurley, “Usually at this point of the season, you’re getting the team ready for the playoffs. I have an idea who will start the games, but I have no idea who’ll finish. [Assistant coach] Ben [Gamble] and I have worked harder this year than any other, putting more time in to find the right combinations. We’ve done everything, from changing offense s and changing defenses.”
In a recent game, Hurley actually employed a zone defense, which was almost unheard of in the world of St. Anthony basketball.
The Friars have struggled to find decent play in the backcourt, which has always been a staple of the team’s success. For example, last year’s team had four guards, Mike Rosario (Rutgers), Travon Woodall (Pittsburgh), Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas) and Jio Fontan (Fordham), who are now contributing huge minutes for their respective Division I college teams.
This year, the Friars have been trying to find solid play from any guard, although junior Elijah Carter has emerged of late and has been giving the Friars better play from the point guard slot.
Another reason for the tough times has been the play of Cheek, who was expected to emerge as the team’s go-to player this year, but has never really recovered from preseason injuries and has not enjoyed the success that many expected.
“He’s been working all year to get back into shape, but there are only give games left,” Hurley said. “He was never asked to be the man before and now he’s being asked to do a lot more than he ever had to do. He hasn’t been able to be that kind of player.”
Because of the personnel changes and the type of team they have, the Friars haven’t been able to play defense the way they’re accustomed to.
“The defense is giving up more points,” Hurley said. “Because we’re bigger, we can’t press like we did. We haven’t been able to figure out how to play defense against some teams.”
The Friars have a tough schedule ahead of them, with games against undefeated Pascack Hills, Linden, New Church of Pennsylvania and Hotchkiss Academy of Massachusetts still on the slate. A year ago, those would have been just tune-ups for the state tourney. Now, they are all very hard challenges.
“Almost every game we’ve played has been close,” Hurley said. “We’ll just have to change another person in the lineup and try to survive and advance to the next game.”
But who knows how many more next games there will be? The one redeeming factor about the Friars is that the roster is mostly comprised of juniors, so the improvement could very well be on the horizon. But things don’t look exactly like St. Anthony basketball right now.
Jim Hague can be contacted at OGSMAR@aol.com. To comment on this column on-line, go to our NEW website, www.hudsonreporter.com, and leave a comment.