BRONX, NY - St. Raymond has had to overcome a lot this season. The defending Archdiocese of New York and City champion lost almost their entire team from last year.
Most looked at the Ravens and saw a team rebuilding for the next couple of years, but not the coaches and players of St. Raymond. They expected to win, and win a lot. They had the confidence and the desire to succeed, and they have proved people wrong by defending step one, winning the Archdiocese title on Saturday afternoon over Cardinal Hayes 67-56.
When you lose high major Division 1 players, Daniel Dingle and Nkereuwem Okoro, to graduation. You also lose your point guard, Shane Rector, who most expected to be the leader, to a transfer. That along with the acquisition of first year head coach you could see a team losing faith. St. Ray's didn't though. One returning player from last year's team is Kayvon Williams and he said the fact people didn't give the Ravens, the defending champs, any shot, motivated them.
"Everyone doubted us. People were saying St. Ray's had no one at the start of the year. That just gave us fire and motivation to prove them wrong." Williams said.
They looked of their way to doing just that, but got caught in a slump late in the year and came into the Diocese tournament losers of 6 on a row, but 1st year Varsity coach Jorge Lopez said that while some teams may have lost faith reeling late the way the Ravens did, his team didn't do that.
"Sure at the time everyone is down, but everyone kept working hard in practice. We took each loss as a lesson to get ready and become better for the playoffs. We never lost faith, we never got down on ourselves, and we never lost sight of our goals." Lopez said.
They did fight out from the slump in wins over Mt. St. Michael and St. Peter's in the quarters and semis of the Archdiocese tournament, but Cardinal Hayes was a different animal, and it didn't start out great either for the Ravens on Saturday.
Mustafa Jones dominated the 1st quarter, he scored 11 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in the opening stanza, and the Cardinals overall seemed to be out hustling the Ravens who were settling for contested jumpers and not getting good looks. Hayes took a 16-10 lead after 1 and looked like the better team early on.
St. Ray's was able to turn things around though in the 2nd behind the thing that Lopez preached to his team in the days leading up to the game, defense.
"I said to the guys that Cardinal Hayes is probably the best team in the league in the open floor, so let's eliminate that." Lopez said.
They eliminated Hayes' open court game by switching to a 2-1-2 zone, which seemed to rattle the Cardinals guards, not letting them get clean looks, and the driving lanes were stifled by the imposing presence of Luis Santos in the middle as he had 3 blocks in the 2nd. Hayes was held to just 4 points in the 2nd, and Hayes coach Joe Lods admitted that the defense was a major factor in their woes in the quarter.
"We practice a zone offense but Santos is just such a force that if you extend your zone a little bit it's ok because Santos is there to protect the rim. They closed out on our shooters well and really gave us problems." Lods said.
Hayes was down 21-20 at the half because of the swarming zone defense, but they came out strong in the 3rd with Shavar Newkirk scoring the first 4 points of the quarter. Unheralded stars also emerged in the 3rd with a flu ridden Shawn Jones coming up big knocking down a corner three to tie the game back up late in the quarter and slashing his way down the left side to help Ray's take a 39-37 lead through 3.
Newkirk gave Hayes back the lead early in the 3rd, but Tory Ferguson came up with back to back steals and finished getting into the lane which helped propel the Ravens on a 9-0 run midway through the 4th. They never looked back after that. Ray's was able to finish the game strong going 15 for 15 from the FT line in the 4th to never give Hayes hope of making a run, as behind a bunch of youthful young stars, the Ravens defended the Archdiocese title, 67-56.
Ferguson led St. Raymond with 17 points, while Santos added 13 and 10 rebounds. Hayes in the loss was paced by Newkirk's 17 points, with Jones adding 15 and 14 rebounds as well.
It is impressive to think that a team with a 1st year coach and 5 new starters can come back and defend their title, but they did, and Lopez said that from day 1 this was the goal, defend the Archdiocese and City titles.
"We stuck to our game plan. We set a goal for ourselves at the start of the year so it feels great to achieve this. It says we are on the right path for sure." Lopez said.
The FT shooting was clutch late, and Lopez was not surprised by his team's performance late from the line.
"We spend 10 minutes every day shooting FT's. The kids aren't allowed to speak, all they do is shoot. If they speak they run. We so this because FT's are so important. They help you win games like they did today."
The Ravens won for a lot of reasons, and were truly the best team on the floor Saturday, but for Hayes, Lods is left to wonder, at least just a little.
"You just wonder if we make some of those shots you miss, if you press more, would the outcome be different. You don't know, but we will go home dejected tonight." Lods said.
Dejection for Hayes, and jubilation for St. Raymond in winning another Archdiocese of New York title. Can the Ravens go forward and defend the City title now is the question. One thing is for sure though. This group that not many gave a chance early in the year is for real and can now follow in the footsteps of last year's team and call themselves champions.
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