Friars’ pushover days are done
As hoop tips off, St. Anthony vows to return to glory
Here’s a little note to all the high school basketball teams that took a liking to beating up on the Friars of St. Anthony a year ago: Surprise.
The uncharacteristic 17-8 record that the Friars posted as they struggled their way through the 1999-2000 campaign? Nothing more than a blip on the radar screens. There and gone.
"I think last year would best be categorized as a nightmare," said legendary St. Anthony head coach Bob Hurley, whose career of 720-plus victories now ranks second in the history of New Jersey high school basketball. "We knew it was going to be a long year. Coaches who knew that they would have a down year wouldn’t schedule teams like we do, but because of our past success, we don’t have a chance to schedule down in down years. So we went out and played teams like Rice and (Archbishop) Molloy (of New York) in the same weekend. Sometimes, the St. Anthony tradition can be stifling. We weren’t good enough to play those teams."
So Hurley’s extremely young team gave it a go, but they became the first St. Anthony team since 1978 to fail to win 20 games in a season. For a school that has had incredible success over the years, including a state-record 22 state championships and two national titles (1989 and 1996), last year had to be a total aberration.
However, Hurley’s young team of a year ago is now a year older, a year wiser, a year stronger and without question, a year better. The Friars are so improved over a year ago that Hurley can actually talk about the one thing he knows better than any other New Jersey high school basketball coach.
"Our goal this year, and it’s a realistic one, is to win the state championship," said Hurley, who has guided St. Anthony to seven NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles in the 12 years of the tournament. "There isn’t a kid on this team that can’t be better in February, when we’re playing big games. I doubt there will be many times this season that we go into a game knowing we don’t have a good chance of winning."
According to Hurley, who was inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame last spring, the Friars enter the 2000-2001 season already in a comfort zone, knowing the tough times are history.
"I won’t say that we’re relaxed, but I think the kids have a sense of comfort in the experience they have," Hurley said. "No one feels any weight on their shoulders. They’re all good players and we have some depth. I don’t want to have kids who are uptight when playing. I want them to be relaxed. Because we were so young last year, with only one experienced player, we were like deer in the headlights, with sophomores facing seniors. Now, we have a terrific team and barring injury, have the ingredients to be something special."
Leading the parade of returnees is 5-11 junior point guard Elijah Ingram, who is considered by many scouting services as the premier underclass guard in New Jersey. Ingram averaged 15 points per game last year, despite playing the entire season with a nagging leg injury.
"He couldn’t play at all for six months, and when he came back, he wasn’t the same," Hurley said. "After the season, the leg problems cleared up, but we never had him at full strength, with the chance to play at a top level. He’s a dominating all-around player, a tremendous player. Other than [Camden’s] Dujuan Wagner, Elijah is the best guard in the state."
Junior guard Dwayne Lee also returns. The 6-1 shooting guard averaged 15 points per game as well a year ago, growing leaps and bounds with every passing game.
"There were so many games that Dwayne was our best all-around player," Hurley said. "In the off-season, Dwayne worked very hard with weights to become stronger. He’s very competitive in the weight room and he’s now much stronger. He’s going to take the ball to the basket more and no one will get physical with him."
The triangle of talented junior guards is completed with 5-10 junior Donald Copeland.
"Donald clearly takes the ball and runs the team," Hurley said. "And defensively, he’s tremendous on the ball. He has better strength and stamina now and physically, he’s more mature. We may be small, but I’ll take a lot of small guys if they play like these three."
Senior center Jon Paul Kobryn is becoming more of a consistent force down low. The 6-9, 235-pound Kobryn, ranked No. 1 in his class academically and already committed to Stony Brook for next season, needs to become more of a physical presence, according to Hurley.
"If we can get consistency from him, I will be ecstatic," Hurley said.
Six-foot-seven forward Pete Cipriano is the team’s biggest surprise.
"He’s shown the most improvement," Hurley said. "Last year, I think he was content just to be a part of the team. Now, he’s way more productive. He’s a starter for us and looking very strong."
Perhaps the biggest gem of the bunch – and certainly the player to watch – is 6-1 freshman sensation Marcus Williams, who represents the future of high school basketball locally. The brilliant rookie will come off the bench for now, but Williams will see plenty of action, simply because he’s too good.
"He’s been un-freshman-like in his play," Hurley said. "His impact already has been incredible. No one has played better for us so far in scrimmages. He can come in for all five guys and knows all five positions. He plays with passion and is like a highlight reel. He’s done things in our scrimmages that have made people gawk in amazement."
Hurley believes that Williams right now ranks as a Friar freshman "somewhere between Mandy Johnson and Anthony Perry." That’s some compliment, but Hurley realizes that the kid is that talented.
The Friars will become even better in January, when Zakee Boyd, the former Hudson Catholic standout, becomes eligible after transferring from St. Benedict’s of Newark. The 6-5 junior forward will play all forward positions when he becomes eligible after sitting out the 30 days mandated by the NJSIAA for transfers.
Carmine Charles, a 6-3 senior guard, and Juan Baquero, a 5-11 senior guard, also return and give depth on the bench. Terrence Roberts, a 6-6 sophomore with tremendous potential, is nursing an injury. Obie Nwadike, a 6-3 sophomore, will miss a few weeks while he goes with his family to attend to family matters in their native Nigeria.
But there’s no question Hurley has a little bounce to his step as the 2000-2001 basketball season tips off this weekend.
"Last year, I think I needed orthodics to get that bounce," Hurley said. "We have the makings of having a terrific team. We already do."