Before the high school basketball season officially tipped off back in December, there were a lot of expectations placed upon the St. Anthony basketball team.
Back then, this team had all the pieces to make a run at the school’s 28th NJSIAA state championship and consequently, the 13th NJSIAA Tournament of Champions crown. Three highly anticipated newcomers were added to the roster from ports of call overseas. Another was set to join the team via a transfer from nearby Marist.
Add in the talented crop of experienced players that the Friars had coming back and you had the makings of a high school juggernaut, a powerhouse that hadn’t been seen at the tiny Jersey City school in a few years – or in St. Anthony timeframe, a lifetime.
This was going to be one of legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley’s best teams, no doubt. It had all the ingredients.
However, things happened along the way. There were injuries and illnesses. One of the expected newcomers from Nigeria via the Patrick School, Samson George, tore his ACL in his knee during preseason and was lost for the season before he even played.
Another, Daniel Mading, suffered from a back injury and was never really a factor. Mading, a refugee from the Sudan, who first went to a school in Australia, then one in Florida before arriving with huge fanfare, gave a verbal commitment to Arizona State to play for two St. Anthony products in Bobby Hurley and Rashon Burno. Mading was anticipated to be one of the best all-around players in the country. That never materialized.
Nor was Nigerian Akuwovo Ogheneyole, who is better known as “Savior,” but never really became that with the Friars.
George is 6-foot-9, as is Savior. Mading may be an inch shorter than those two. It was believed that Hurley was going to field his biggest team to date, a monstrous team that was simply going to overpower all comers.
But that never occurred. The injuries and what have you took care of all that.
Add into the mix that the Friars’ top returning big man, Kaleb Bishop, the former St. Peter’s Prep standout who transferred to St. Anthony last year and earned a scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson and North Bergen’s own Greg Herenda, suffered a high ankle sprain a month ago or so that sidelined him for the year.
It meant that Hurley had to go back to what he knows best, coaching guards. In fact, down the stretch of the season, that’s all Hurley played. He had guys who are better known and identified as guards stepping up and playing bigger roles on the floor.
“We had no choice,” Hurley said. “We had to play the little guys.”
It really didn’t matter, as the fabulous Friars still managed to live up to all the preseason hype and expectations.
Last Monday night, the Friars put a ribbon on yet another undefeated season, by defeating Linden, 55-38, to capture the NJSIAA T of C title once again.
It marked the eighth undefeated season in the storied history of the St. Anthony basketball program and yes, the 13th T of C title. No other school in New Jersey has more than five T of C trophies.
“Our goal was to win the state championship,” Hurley said. “It wasn’t to be undefeated. Our size just disappeared from this team. How can this team be undefeated? There were people who thought we could run the table. With what was going on, I thought we’d be lucky to be 2-2 after Christmas, that 2-2 would have been optimistic.”
So is this the most unlikely of the eight undefeated teams?
“Oh, God, yeah,” Hurley said with a laugh.
“We had the deepest team in the state,” said senior Jagan Mosely, who played perhaps the biggest role on the team, playing all five positions during one point or another during the year. “We had the most mature team in the state with a lot of seniors. We were supposed to win. It never changed our focus. We didn’t change our ways.”
There were times over the previous three years where St. Anthony thought it had the makings of a state champion, but Roselle Catholic stood in the way all three years. So perhaps the albatross was lifted two weeks ago when the Friars finally knocked off Roselle Catholic to win the Non-Public B state title and advance to the T of C.
“We had a lot of pressure on us to win the state championship,” Mosely said. “Once we did that, the pressure was off.”
So the T of C, facing teams like Teaneck and Linden, felt easier.
“This game [the Linden game] felt like a regular season game for us,” said Mosely, headed to Georgetown in the fall after scoring 10 points in the title game against Linden. “It meant four years of hard work had finally paid off. It was definitely worth the wait. It feels better as a senior to go out on top.”
“The whole feeling of being on an undefeated state champion is tremendous,” said senior Idris Joyner, who had 10 points as well in the win over Linden.
Joyner was one of the players who had to play bigger than his 6-foot-3 frame.
“As a younger player, I was always stuck playing down low,” Joyner said. “I’ve been doing that all my life. I just had to be able to make plays, do what I do best.”
The transfer from Marist, guard Asante Gist, made all the big plays en route to scoring 16 points, earning Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week honors this week.
“All of them had moments during the season,” Hurley said. “We took one punch from every team this year, then went back to playing our game. There was always something going on.”
This year, more than most, there was something indeed going on. But the Friars maintained their focus and poise and returned the state basketball championship trophies to where they belong, to the tiny school on Seventh Street in downtown Jersey City.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.