I was talking with St. Joseph coach Vito Montelli Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Cadets had won their second straight state title and 11th overall.
During the course of the discussion, I mentioned what I thought was the key to the team’s success, the one constant over the past 12 months.
Get knocked out in the first round of the FCIAC Tournament.
Of course that is coincidence rather than design, though no doubt the disappointment of getting upset in their opening conference tournament games at least helped give a little more propulsion to the Cadets’ postseason incentive.
Two days after the ending of the boys basketball season, applause to St. Joseph, which was picked as the preseason favorite by the writers, coaches and amateur pundits and lived up to the billing. Apart from that hiccup — a shocking one — against Bridgeport Central, the Cadets were perfect, overcoming the loss of a starting player to grades by discovering that their depth was greater than anticipated back in December.
Overall, it was an intriguing season. The top of the league was not as distant from the upper middle class as in the past, and the middle class was deeper than usual. That made for a greater number of upsets, more teams in the hunt for a league playoff berth and widespread interest.
In what appeared to me the defining moment of what this year was all about, Wilton, a town that does not come to mind when the sport is brought up, filled a large section in the Trinity Catholic gymnasium for the teams’ second round state tournament matchup. The Warriors had qualified for the first time in 13 years and there was a buzz with the fans, even as a rout played out.
Incredibly, 15 of the league’s 19 teams qualified for the CIAC playoffs, perhaps the best indicator of the increased parity.
Still, in the end some players, coaches and teams stood out. So as we recap with this final edition, here are the Second Chance Points awards for the season.
Most Valuable Player: James Jennings, St. Joseph: In selecting an MVP in any sport I ask one question: which player’s removal would have the greatest impact to a team. I think Ridgefield’s Kurt Steidl and Bassick’s Demetrius Thomas were of inarguable importance to their teams, and a strong point can be made that Timajh Parker was St. Joseph’s best player.
But Jennings was the most valuable, as was apparent throughout the Cadets’ state-tournament run. His playmaking and explosive first step were impossible to stop, and Jennings was equally effective finishing as creating. As Jennings went, so went St. Joseph, which is why the players today are wearing a second state championship medal.
Coach of the Year: Jim Moriarty, Stamford and Vito Montelli, St. Joseph (tie): Montelli was the pick of his peers, and deservedly so. The coaches with the best talent often go overlooked, and St. Joseph’s 20-0 regular season was taken for granted. I’ve been driving the Moriarty bandwagon since the second half of the regular season.
Sure, the Black Knights went 0-2 in the postseason. But I was in the Kuczo Gymnasium after a dismal 63-54 loss dropped them to 5-7. I stood outside the locker room as Moriarty called out his players for 15 minutes after the game. No way would I have wagered a penny that Stamford would win its next four games and go 7-1 the rest of the way to clinch the the No. 6 seed in the FCIAC Tournament.
A tremendous job by one of the state’s best coaches.
Most Improved Player: Paschal Chukwu, Trinity Catholic: The offensive game still needs a lot of work, likely a point of emphasis this offseason. Still, Chukwu, the Crusaders’ 7-foot sophomore center, made tremendous strides from his freshman season, when his playing time was due solely to his height. Chukwu’s ability to anticipate on the defensive end was a huge factor to the Crusaders’ success, and he became a more effective rebounder both because of his positioning as well as his, to use college basketball’s new “it” word, length.
If Chukwu had not been saddled with early foul trouble and eventually fouled out, it would be interesting to see how the state semifinal with eventual champion Career would have played out.
Best Defensive Player: Pat Hopkins, St. Joseph: Hopkins could easily have been the winner in the unsung hero category, just as Chukwu would have fit in perfectly here. The FCIAC actually has an All-Defensive Team — not sure how coaches make informed choices. The team is almost always comprised of centers with shot-blocking ability. The pick here is a forward. Hopkins was the best shutdown player I saw this season.
With Parker, Jennings and Quincy McKnight handling the offense, the Cadets needed a player to handle the dirty work. Hopkins was their equal at the other end of the court.
Most Unsung Hero: Seth von Kuhn, Ridgefield: Steidl was by far the Tigers’ go-to player — look at what happened to them when he had to leave the quarterfinal game against St. Joseph with foul trouble.
Ridgefield exceeded expectations this season because of its defense, but also because von Kuhn unselfishly did a great job playing out of position and running the team’s offense.
Thanks to everyone for the support and kind words in starting the Second Chance Points notebook. I look forward to doing it again next season.
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