Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mohammed Is Ham'ZA MAN In Huskers Ascension

A few weeks ago, Yorktown's boys soccer team was languishing around the .500 mark. Striving for a pattern of consistency, the Huskers had been searching for the sources to keep them above sea level.

Partly at Mohammed Hamza's transition from midfield to forward, partly at Jacob Braham's ability to keep the net intact, and partly at an all inclusive team effort, Yorktown has rattled off a series off upsets. Braham has allowed just one goal during this sleeper story and late-October power surge, stabilizing a defensive unit between-the-posts. The senior tandem has helped catapult Yorktown, mired in mediocrity for the first 15 games, into the Section's upper-crust.

 On Wednesday, with the No.11 Huskers renewing a cross-town blood feud with Somers, Hamza entered the game as the focal point, his recent exploits demanding a surge in pressure. 

Having earned Journal News Player of the Week after depositing seven goals in four games, Hamza evoked double and at times triple teaming from Somers.

Keyed on and quiet throughout the first half, Hamza's assassin's instinct resurfaced in the second. 

The senior got loose on a transition attack, converting Marco Spiniello's assist to the game-deciding goal during minute no.72 Wednesday, en route to a 1-0 Section 1 semifinal victory. Spiraling to the turf, Hamza limped up in celebratory fashion while visibly hobbled. The senior has thrived despite a balky hamstring.

 The Huskers are slated for a date with local area power Byram Hills on Sunday, in the Section 1 championship at Arlington High in Lagrangeville. The Bobcats, which like Yorktown stormed out of the .500 mark (they hovered at 5-5 early on), defeated Eastchester 2-1 in yesterday's semifinal.

After culminating the regular season with a two-goal, two-assist performance en route to a 4-1 win over Brewster, Hamza erupted for a hat trick in a 4-0 blanking of Walter Panas. Hamza has yet to tail off.

 Hamza deposited a pair of goals in a 4-0 upset of Tappan Zee in the first round. Then, while becoming the focal point of the offense and extracting an uptick in pressure, Hamza had help from Marco Spiniello, sophomore Adam Romanski, and Roy Reynolds en route to a 3-1 Section 1 quarterfinal victory over Hen Hud.

"Magic carpet ride," "Cinderella story" and "out of nowhere tear" have all been used to describe Yorktown's wild post-season ascension.

 A No.11 seed registering upset after upset while storming its way to the Section 1 championship, Yorktown has authored a playoff power surge that seems storybook.

Yet at close glance, this is the result of not only a scoring binge from senior forward Mohammed Hamza, but the defensive backbone that is Yorktown senior Jacob Braham.

Though unsung and not equated with the same high-profile status as other recruits across the Section, the senior has provided an efficient account of himself.

 Proving that a 13-save performance during last year's season-ending loss to Horace Greeley was a portent of things to come, Braham has allowed just one goal this post-season.

Quarterbacking the offense by action and vocally, dissecting the strengths of scorers, and making several acrobatic saves that only rarified athletes are capable of, Braham's emergence has spearheaded Yorktown.

The lone goal he surrendered came on a penalty kick during Yorktown's 3-1 Sectional quarterfinal win over Hen Hud. Now the Huskers, previously the lone double-digit team standing in the tournament, are slated for a date with a deep and perennially potent monster.

Braham ditched baseball after deciding soccer had more long-term value for him.

 The senior, who turned 17 two weeks ago, trains year-round. Braham plays outdoor from March to December and indoor during the winters, joining forces with local talent such as Lakeland's Jon Denis, Bronxville's Sam Aherne, and Somers' Will Bennet.

Bennet's reunion with Braham was just one of many intriguing subplots to last night's game. The Tuskers are coached by Chris Pietris, a JV coach at Yorktown before becoming Somers' fourth varsity coach in six years. Bennet, a perilous scorer, was largely kept at bay.

The same clamp down focus applied on Hamza was used to lock up Bennet, with Matt Sussman providing steady harassment.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sleepy Prepares For Halloween Brawl

Growing up in Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horsemen's varsity football team has heard countless tales of Ichabod Crane and other fictional ghosts and demons.

There is no fiction or hype surrounding this year's squad, which features a beast of its own in freakish sophomore running back Jon Gomez.

While never fazed by anything that appears more rumor than reality, the Headless Horsemen (6-2) understand top-seeded and undefeated Yorktown (8-0) is for real. The Huskers' stranglehold on Class A is no mythical Halloween story.

The Headless Horsemen's prolific offense, which vows to keep defenses on the move with an unyielding blend of aerials and stout ground game, will prepare for its biggest challenge.

It's only fitting the game is slated for Halloween Night.

What's scarier, Gomez running at full throttle or Yorktown's monstrous offensive line? Is the threat of Yorktown's explosive running back Nicky Santavicca as ghastly as Sleepy's hot-handed receiver Dan Chevere?

Will Yorktown quarterback Ryan Baker's speed, 6-foot-3 man-child tight end Dan Delbene's hands or Joey Good's pocket poise steal the freight night show?

Better get your candy ready for this one. You'll likely need the quick-fix of sugar energy.

"Yorktown is a physical team so we know it's going to be a fight out there," said Good, who has emerged into one of the area's highest-efficiency red zone passers.

"We won't change how we prepare."

The Headless Horsemen appear well-prepared, having ripped off four of its last five.

 They bounced back from a 25-21 loss to Walter Panas by posting a 27-14 over John Jay-Cross River last week. The 27-14 count is identical to what the Huskers put up in a win over the Indians in its season finale.

Sleepy readied itself for the rigors of the schedule with five speed camps and several Lineman Challenges this summer.

Holding their own speed camps on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while filling the Mondays and Wednesdays in with practices, there was never a dull moment.

"With the work our line put in before the season started and throughout the whole summer, we are able to be a well-balanced offense through the run and pass game," Good said.

"It's been crucial for success."

Gomez, shaping into the program's most electrifying runner since the multi-faceted LJ Garrant in 2011, shredded the Indians for 114 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore sparked the Horsemen with a 26-yard TD scamper just four minutes into the game.

"He's been playing like a man against boys lately," said Sleepy Hollow cornerback Wendell Brand, who has shouldered a utility role this season and worn multiple jerseys.

"Having him in the backfield, as well as Ariel Dejesus, gives defenses two different styles of running which really throws them off."

Good, who has eclipsed the 1,000-yards milestone in the air, has paralleled Sleepy's success.

Good featured tight end Michael Morales throughout the John Jay game, routinely hitting the junior in stride.

He scored touchdowns both in the air and on the run. The multi-sport senior announced his presence from the jump, firing in four touchdown passes en route to a wild 55-27 throttling of next door blood rival Ossining in Week 1.

Helping push Good's evolution has been Nick Vallo, the former Sleepy QB now at Ithaca College. Vallo, who threw for over 2,000 yards after transferring from wide receiver to signal caller his junior season, worked extensively with Good throughout the summer.

The two went over routes and orchestrated 7-on-7s on Sleepy Hollow's home field, sometimes working late into the night.

"He was like a sponge, everything I said he listened," Vallo said.

"Since I could explain it from a QB standpoint and a wide receiver standpoint, he would understand it. I would tell him, 'As a QB throw here so the receiver could make the play' or advise him to throw it before he breaks. Little things like that we'd school him on."

Chevere, Good's no.1 target, has had several 100+yards receiving games this season. Both he and Vallo ran routes, keeping Good consistent with the playbook.

"Whoever was there would run the route and Joey would just fire in a money ball," Vallo said.
"His season is proof that hard work pays off."

Vallo, who was on the sideline for Sleepy's regular season win over Nyack, helped Good read defenses and instilled confidence in him.

Buoyed by Santavicca, the Huskers have opened up an aerial attack to supplement one of the best backfields in Section 1. With hellfire-fast 5-foot-8 back Santavicca handling a bulk of the labor and Timmy Forbes serving as a between-the-tackles hammer, several teams have loaded up the box on the Huskers.

In the Huskers' 28-21 victory over Nyack, it was Delbene who reeled in a wild, game-saving reception which kept the final possession intact.

Delbene's catch occurred on fourth-and-nine on the final drive. At first he snatched it with the tips of his fingers. Then he bobbled it. Then Delbene secured it and held on for the most dazzling moment of a pulsating win.

"Plays like that you've just got to zone everything out," Delbene said. "All the screaming, all the fans. You've just got to look at the ball. Look right at it. Put your hands on it, and hope for the best."

Santavicca, who gashed Greeley for 333 yards in Week 4, has ascended the ranks among program legends such as John Fennessey and Brandon Trager.

 As a junior, he's become the program's sturdiest rusher in 20 years. He's lethal for his ability to bounce around would-be tacklers and keep his feet moving amid contact.

Last season, Yorktown gutted out a wild 37-35 Bowl Game. The Huskers fended off a wild comeback bid, nearly frittering away a double-digit first half lead. The hard-hitting of then-senior Connor Vercruysse helped tame a late passing spree from then-QB Devin Lopez.

This season, both teams are chasing history. Yorktown is looking to sustain its unblemished record, thirsting for its first Section 1 title since 1998. Sleepy is looking to quell a drought stemming all the way back to 1972.

This is Baker v.s. Good. This is Gomez v.s. Yorktown's monstrous defensive line.

This is a reason to get your candy ready.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Returning All Starters, Ossining To Make Due With Schedule

A basketball oasis in the old-school sense, Ossining girls basketball is predicated strictly on homegrown products.

Like Mount Vernon on the boys side, it's the grass-roots systems and togetherness that breeds a yearly contender.

Out of the 11 players head coach Dan Ricci plays comfortably, all went to elementary and middle school together and grew up in the tiny, 3.2 square mile village along the banks of the Hudson River.

 This helps evoke an unflappable chemistry that's rendered tight-knit Ossining such a daunting order for Section 1 foes.

Self-interest and personal stats are never a concern.

Those 50-50 balls are pursued grittily.

Shooters pop off the bench and provide immediate catch-and-stick production.

Ricci ensures that all of his scoring threats are defenders first.

 The Pride's roster contains enough oceanic-depth to come in waves and waves and waves en route to wearing down the opponent.

With four straight Section 1 championships, three straight regional champions, and two consecutive NY state championships to defend, the talent is nurtured through an AAU schedule featuring road swings in D.C., Rhode Island, N.J. and Blue Chip-laden showcases in Pa.

Ossining's entire team from last season is back, with the focus shifted to becoming just the seventh program in NYS history to win three straight state titles.

The aim is always to compete against the best, as Ricci noted.

Out-of-conference matchups against Archbishop Molloy, Syracuse area power Jamesville-DeWitt, Bishop Loughlin, Albany HS, as well as a barometer against James Madison (Va.) during a tournament in the Bahamas are sure to keep the brand fresh.

After a pre-season tune-up against plenty-talented Our Lady Of Lourdes at CLUB FIT, which witnessed the short-handed Pride deposit a hailstorm of 3-pointers en route to a 40-point washout, the hunger for new, stiffer competition has only intensified.

"Unfortunately our schedule is not what we would like it to be (this year)," Ricci said.

"Twelve of our 18 games were assigned by BOCES. We wanted to play the likes of Christ The King and Murray Bergtraum like we did a few years ago, but we were not allowed to do it this year. So we will scrimmage those teams to improve."

Improvement is a vital factor for Ricci's system, as he tightly charts progression.

Few players have improved at the rate Shadeen Samuels has.

 Finally receiving a clean bill of health, the 6-foot guard has proven she can crash the boards and defend as effectively as she opens up the mid-range game and handles.

Offers from George Washington and Seton Hall are on the table.

 LaSalle, Iona, Hofstra, Delaware, Canisius, and Sacred Heart have all inquired.

Hartford, which received a verbal pledge from teammate Jalay Knowles last month, has also expressed interest.

Knowles, a 1000+-point scorer, was the MVP of O's 76-49 Section 1 championship romp of Mahopac.

She authored a 23-point, seven-rebound, and seven-steal performance, only the prelude to a 42-point, 20-rebound eruption during a 77-47 thrashing of Kingston High.

It was her coach-ability and character that helped her win over Hartford head coach Jen Rizzoti, a Geno Auriemma disciple who coaches with the USA World Championship team.

Also deciding on a future hardwood home was guard Stephanie Svodoba, who committed to nearby Pace. Svodoba, who got her teeth cut as a pure shooter with New Castle Youth Basketball Association, adapted to the role of game manager last season.

Madison Strippoli, a forward who provides immediate energy off the bench, has received Division-II interest from NYIT and Georgian Court.

"She would be the best player on most teams in Section 1," as Ricci opined. "She will start if we go big."

The Pride has upfront strength with senior Abby Squirrel, a multi-sport athlete headed to Marquette on a lacrosse scholarship. Squirrel has routinely shot free throws with one hand, bringing back a lost art mastered by guys like Anthony Mason and Don Nelson.

Ricci said it's always been a priority to prepare his team against the elite of the elite. He'll sidestep the schedule with a rigorous preseason.

There is nowhere for the Pride to hide, not with the demanding off-season work and budding NCAA interest across the boards.

There's a high standard held here. Only because it's Ossining, where the mountainous expectations remain sky-high through the post-Saniya Chong era.

DelBENEFACTOR Helps Propel Huskers In Thriller

Yorktown's Dan Delbene rolled left on a bootleg, running out a 15-yard corner route.

While senior quarterback Ryan Baker's pass floated slightly outside, the 6-foot-3 tight end kept his eyes pasted on the rock.

During the most dramatic moment of No.1 Yorktown's pulsating 28-21 Section 1/Class A quarterfinal victory over No.4 Nyack, Delbene snatched the ball with the sheer strength of his fingertips.

Then he bobbled it.

Then he recovered it, hauling it in and securing it for a first down on Yorktown's final drive.

With that, Nicky Santavicca (107 yards, 22 carries, 2 TD) zipped through traffic and was brought down at the 1.

On the ensuing handoff, Timmy Forbes capped the theatrics with a game-sealing TD plunge with 29 seconds in regulation, snapping a 21-all deadlock.

The touchdown sent a charged-up, strongly partisan home crowd into a frenzy.

With precious time elapsing, Nyack fed feature back Adonis Alcime on a last-gasp drive.

 Alcime, who was both electrifying and exceptional, bolted down the right sideline before hammering into defensive back Scott Weaver.

Like that, the Huskers avoided an opening round collapse. The undefeated Huskers (8-0), will play the Sleepy Hollow/John Jay-Cross River winner in the semifinal. The Huskers' depth wore out the Indians in last week's 27-14 season finale at Cross River. After nearly spitting out a double-digit first half lead, Yorktown fended off a furious Sleepy Hollow rally in last year's bowl game.

"Plays like that, you just have to zone everything out--all the screaming, all the fans," Delbene, who reeled in six passes for 74 yards, explained.

"You've just got to look at the ball. Look right at it. Put your hands on it, and hope for the best."

Delbene entered the 2014 campaign as Baker's most reliable target.

With Yorktown shifting its identity, adopting a steady aerial presence, the senior captain's role has grown each week.

"He's a great receiver, has great hands, I knew he'd come up clutch," said Yorktown's senior fullback Timmy Forbes, peppering his classmate with due respect.

"When I saw the ball come towards his hands I knew he was going to catch it. That's how much faith I have in him."

How much faith does Yorktown have in each other?

The Huskers have proven again and again the "family" theme, ingrained in them with an iron fist, is no cliché or routine lip service.

They entered the matchup as the Hobbled Huskers, with senior running back and two-way starter Mike Dedvukaj and sophomore wide receiver Max Costello wrecked by nagging injuries.

 A number of players acclimatized to new roles and responsibilities on the fly.

"Critical guys went down with injuries. People that weren't sure if they were critical or not stepped up, including sophomores," Yorktown head coach Mike Rescigno said.

"Justin Cavallo stepped in for Mike Dedvukaj tonight and played like he was a seasoned senior. This is a special team. Before I say another word, that Nyack team is a special team. (Nyack) is well-coached, all class. I haven't seen kids like that play that hard and that talented in a long time."

Nyack applied as quick and aggressive pressure as the Huskers have seen this season.

They knotted matters at 14-14 when junior Rafael Cruz broke a 60-yard touchdown jaunt with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter. It was his second of the game, as Cruz had ripped off a 53-yard, game-tying TD run in the first quarter.

The 1-2 punch of Cruz and Alcime stabilized the ground game, amassing 213 combined yards.

 Cruz dazzled with 123 yards on a meager seven touches. Alcime's extraterrestrial athleticism surfaced in the second half, when he nearly cleared a defensive back as if were competing in a 110 high hurdles event.

Baker hit 6-foot-4 senior James Fennessey in the back of the end zone with 19 seconds remaining in the first half.

 The Huskers' extra point attempt split the uprights, as they seized a 21-14 lead and a roll of momentum heading into the locker room.

Don't let that 5-foot-8, 148-pound frame fool you.

 Baker entered the season with new range and a polished arm. After airing it at an 11-for-13 clip at John Jay last week, the dual-sport senior flung it for 113 yards on Friday.

Baker, who committed to Division-I UMBC for lacrosse last year, also scampered for a 17-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

"He's growing every single day," said Forbes of Baker.

 "Initially, he was a running quarterback. Now he's a double threat. He can pass, he can run--it's scary for other defenses, I could tell you that."

Yet it was defense and strength in numbers that kept Nyack's explosive offense at bay in the fourth quarter.

 Forbes had a man-sized tackle on Alcime and Mike Resko emerged with a major sack (for a loss) on Nyack's shifty double-duty quarterback James Norfleet.

The sophomore flavor was spread all across the field. Backup QB Jose Boyer, who has assumed a utility role, had an immense fumble recovery. Dom Cioffi batted away a dangerous pass from Norfleet.

"We know exactly what it is, 10th graders, ninth graders, 11th graders, they all go to war for each other," Rescigno said. "That's all you can say. I think everyone of the kids that made big plays today, and I can go down a list of them, they all want to make that big play."

In Delbene, his coach's words resonated.

"Everyone's in it to win it," Delbene said. "If we're not all in it together, I don't think we'd be here right now. During practice, everyone is working as hard as they can. Whether it's on the first team or scout team, everyone's working to make everyone better."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Soccer A Way Of Life For Battle-Tested Santucci

Buoyed by a beyond-his-years savvy and point guard-esque vision, Giuliano Santucci's unique blend of instincts, know-how, and experience has molded him into one the the New York Soccer Club's top netminders.

Versatile enough to dictate the offensive flow as effectively as he could stymie it in net, Santucci's feel for the game developed rather early.

"When I was in my mother's stomach, I was kicking and kicking," said Santucci, a Yorktown native who trains with Guillermo Valencia, the reputable New York area goalie coach.

"I was kicking and juggling bubbles in my mother's stomach."

While the energy of Marcello and Silvia Santucci's oldest son was boundless, it portended his earliest athletic exploits.

From ages 4-11, Santucci did not play age appropriate.

Rather than being thrown to the wolves, the three-time Regional Champion was facilitating offense and applying a rigid brand of defense against guys 3-4 years older than him.

He had constant backyard brawls on his feet.

His first-ever opponent, go-to influence and arguably his biggest advocate today is his cousin, Enzo Sangiacomo.

 Everything from jump rope to swimming to brisk distance runs on the Santucci-Sangiacomo's combined five acre property in Yorktown extracts heightened, unavoidable competition.

"Honestly, he's like my brother," said Santucci of Enzo, the midfielder with whom he forms an inseparable tandem.

And while a young Giuliano Santucci was entrenched in constant battles from midday to sundown with Enzo, he had a stiffer challenge against his uncle, Fernando Salazar.

Salazar played professionally with C.A. Rentistas Club in Uruguay.

He battled Santucci with the same high-wired aggression as he did professional foes.

"You know how parents are supposed to always let the kid win when they're younger? Well he never did that with me," Santucci said, trickling into laughter.

"Never. He would kick me around and play me physically. He was trying to get me pissed and get me to play as tough as possible. He took no mercy on me."

Growing up a bit faster than most, Santucci reaped the results of the around-the-clock work load.

There was no training wheels or life jackets on his young game. Everything had to be learned the hard way.

Santucci's  defensive acumen grew, grew, and grew.

Rarified, deceptive athleticism and an advanced understanding of scoring threats' tendencies earned Santucci respect between the posts.

Keeping the net intact, he subscribed to the role of neutralizing perilous scorers.

He knew where to make the stop.

 He was poised to fend off shots and stifle attacks.

All the hyper-physical one-on-one games, which saw him bruise quicker than a banana, paid dividends.

 Enzo and Salazar's long afternoons pelting him with shots and blasting goals at him was adequate preparation.

"From age 4-10, I noticed that this kid has a natural talent and is really in a class of his own," said Rick Romanski, the head honcho of Yorktown Youth Soccer Club.

"At a young age, he had an amazing view of the field of play. He had the instinctive nature. He was very cognitive, very coachable and showed early strides of being a tremendous goalie."

While other young kids were nestled in sandboxes and playing with legos, Santucci was manipulating and stopping waves of shots while quarterbacking offense for a slew of Romanski's Yorktown-based club teams.

He was as vocal as he was diligent, often helping other players out with the mentality of a de facto coach.

"We wanted to nurture his talent in the right way," Romanski said.

"We had to at least place him a few notches above his age level. He had that skill-set and mentality to make that decision a no-brainer."

Romanski recalls sitting him down during a one-on-one, mentor-pupil session that lasted about 15 minutes.

While Romanski's Kiids program's is a no-pressure environment with emphasis on fun, productive activities and team concepts, he knew he had to approach Santucci with a different mindset.

His message was simple: "You have natural ability that far exceeds the rest,' I explained to him," Romanski said.

"But it's never going to work unless you commit to this sport as much as you can, without distractions. Don't lose it, kid."

Santucci reacted by pouring his sweat and livelihood to the sport, revolving all four seasons around a schedule that fits his skill-set, classification, and devotion. Now he's playing against his own age group at the New York Soccer Club.

His biggest challenge in life has occurred off the field.

Santucci lost one of his closest friends, Jack Reyna, to cancer in 2012.

Very rarely does Santucci wake up without thinking of his friend. When he suits up for games, he makes sure the band commemorating Reyna's life is draped to his arm securely.

Honoring Jack's life and keeping his presence alive is "my sole source for motivation."

Santucci is a forward naturally.

He knocked in the tie-breaking goal in the final 60 seconds of regulation to send New York Soccer Club into overtime in the final of the first-ever EDP Cup. After being pulled out from goal, he returned to protect the cage in the penalty shooting. He stopped three penalty kicks, preserving a hard-fought team victory.

This summer, Santucci and Enzo embarked on a trip to Belgium and Spain, where they trained with elite level professional teams. The quality of play was flaw-free, the intensity was amplified.

Without the early hype or hyperbole, Santucci already seems on target to become one of the more decorated players in Yorktown history.

In this 2.5 square mile area, the grass-roots programs have churned out plenty of mid to high-major prospects.

The most acclaimed product of the Yorktown Youth Soccer Program has been Kevin Reiman, a McDonald's All-American who played at Michigan State.

Reiman, a cerebral left-footed middie who coached at Division-I Army, would prolong his career professionally with Real Salt Lake.

Lakeland, Yorktown High's staunch border-town rival, features a high-scoring playmaker in Johnny Denis.

As in, the Johnny Denis who happens to be Santucci's second cousin. Denis made headlines this past week, depositing five goals and dealing out an assist in the Hornets' 6-3 win over Panas. With the five goals, Denis established a new school record.

"We're so competitive out there all the time," Santucci said.

"On the field, we get really intense and it gets fiery. But we know it's really for our own benefit and we both try to make each other the best we can be. All three of us, myself, Jon and Enzo, we're constantly looking to make each other better."

Denis has gone from free kick specialist to a diversified offensive threat, shredding teams off the dribble and knifing through defenders.

Both Denis, Enzo Santucci entertain a demanding year-round soccer schedule and are constantly hiking up each other's competitive juices.

You may have seen Denis' name circulating the blogosphere or found in soccer notebooks canvassing "who's who" in Westchester County. The junior popped four goals in the Hornets' recent 7-1 whipping of Middletown.

Is Santucci the greatest or simply the latest? While he reeks of promise and upside, he's so young that you simply can't gauge him or determine the limit (if there is one) on his potential.

"Ultimately, my goal would be to play professional soccer," Santucci said.

 "That's what I'm looking to do. That's my personal aspiration and dream and that's what I'm working at."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Westchester's Montero Aggressively Pursued By SJU And More

A late growth spurt and a new, more prominent role involving an uptick in ball handling and a score-first mentality has shaped Westchester Community College's Luis Montero into one of the nation's fastest-rising recruits.

The ceiling on Montero, a transcendent 6-foot-9 guard/forward, is still unknown. The St. John's target has played only half a season of JUCO ball, attracting a full menu of Division-I interest from across the country.

After practicing with the Dominican national team this summer, the hounding intensified.

Four days after that initial practice week, Vikes head coach Tyrone Mushatt fielded a call from SMU head coach Larry Brown.
Brown, the former Indiana Pacers boss who wore out his welcome during a testy and controversy-stained one-year stay with the New York Knicks, has helped resuscitate a left-for-dead program in Dallas.

USC, SMU, St. John's, South Florida and Arizona are all in persistent pursuit of Montero, who will devise a campus visit schedule as early as next week.

Right now it's an open field. Montero's high-major appeal is most notably linked to a diversified folder of tools.

He's a threat to dial in from beyond the arc.

He can dice defenders off the dribble.

 He can score consistently via self-creation, with a knack for splitting into the driving lanes and finishing at/above the rim. He's become more adept as a passer and creator.

 Mushatt said it would be a disservice not to have the ball in his incoming go-to-guy's hands as much as possible.

And what to say of Montero's considerable wingspan, those Pippen-long arms that seem as long as stickball bats?

"He's a better defender than people think," said Mushatt, who listed SJU as a potential suitor.

"(St. John's) is in the gym here every chance they get," explained Mushatt.

While his identity is that of an electric offensive threat with a janitor's supply of hard-to-guard tools, Montero still has just 16 JUCO games under his belt. This season will gauge his leadership and determine if he can thrive while shouldering a bulk of the offensive load.

He averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 boards, and 3.0 assists in 16 games as a freshman, erupting for  31 points during a wire-to-wire 113-86 bludgeoning of Rockland Community College.

 He scored 20 points, shooting the rock at an 8-for-13 clip, during a win over Harcum College. Montero dropped 19 points on 7-for-11 FG during the Vikes' final game of the regular season, an 82-70 win over Baltimore City Community College.

That marquee win allowed the JUCO landscape to feel the Keith Thomas-Gio Mclean-Montero triumvirate, which burned down its own pathway to the NJCAA tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.

Bordered by the 6-foot-8, 23-year-old Thomas (15.3 points, NJCAA-best 15.7 boards, 65.4 percent FG) and 24-year-old Giovanni McLean (16.3 points, 7.3 assists, 5.0 boards), Montero's late arrival solidified this troika.

"He brought that extra stuff," Mushatt explained. "We were good. He made us great."

McLean, a mercurial scoring threat armed with dazzling handle, is currently up the Merritt Parkway at Quinnipiac.

 Thomas, who entertained budding interest from Florida State, Miami, Fordham, Loyola-Chicago and late pitches from Dayton and Arizona, is 25 minutes from WCC's Valhalla, N.Y. campus at St. John's.

The Johnnies hosted Montero last night, along with a cadre of top-profile recruits underscored by extraterrestrial Roselle Catholic point guard Isaiah Briscoe and Our Savior New American forward Cheick Diallo.

Last season, Montero was purely a secondary player. Mushatt implemented a tweaked triangle offense, empowering his three high-efficiency scorers on one side of the rim.

Alabama's colossal fan base has all but promised a locker and luxury dorm room with Montero's name on it. Bama fans appear to keep carrying a torch proudly for him.

 The Crimson Tide were one of the first schools to pursue Montero in March, following the Vikes 101-99 loss to Wallace State in the JUCO national tournament.

Is 'Bama still in the hunt with the front pack?

"I haven't heard from them in months," Mushatt said.

What he has heard is the unmistakably loud footsteps of Joel Angus, an interior scoring forward who averaged 12.6 points as a supplementary piece to Thomas in the paint last season.

Strong, athletic and effectively changing floors, expect an amplified role from Angus this season.

 The Vikes will orchestrate the offense through John Dewey, a tough little guard who has taken game management responsibilities into his own hands this fall.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Long Road Behind Him, KT Looks To Stabilize Frontline At SJU

Keith Thomas' consistency, collection of double doubles, and furious-paced work ethic is what made the multi-faceted 6-foot-8 Westchester Community College forward appealing to high-major Division-I programs.

 With the desire to stay local and play significant minutes immediately, Thomas chose nearby St. John’s over high-major suitors such as Arizona, Florida State, Miami, Fordham, Dayton, and Memphis.

The Johnnies’ frontcourt void and the Queens-campus’ proximity to Thomas’ Mount Vernon home made the Johnnies the most logical Division-I destination.

Thomas averaged 15.3 points and an NJCAA-leading 15.7 boards, bagging NJCAA Region XV Player of the Year honors.

He helped propel the Vikes to their first JUCO national tournament berth since 1996.

Shooting the rock at a 65.4 percent clip, Thomas pioneered the Vikes interior attack while taking bigs away from the rim with a dependable short-range jumper.

Thomas tore down 33 rebounds in a single game, just a few short of the still-standing NJCAA record. In another jarringly workmanlike performance, Thomas hit the glass to the tune of 31 rebounds, re-scripting the program record books in the process.

 Jockeying for position underneath the rim, boxing out and snaring down rocks until the final whistle, Thomas never stopped hustling.

Following Westchester’s berth in the JUCO national tournament in Kansas, which saw Thomas score 11 points, rip 13 boards, and dish out four assists, he was smothered by a sudden uptick in interest and several late recruiting pitches.

 During those weeks, he made a note to never pick up his cell phone unless he recognized the number.

The kid who fell so deep under the cracks of obscurity, who everyone had pigeonholed as over-the-hill and never be heard from again, was suddenly sought after.

New York recruiting presence Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, an assistant at Arizona, made a late push for the crisp-passing behemoth.

At age 23, Thomas is proof that you can still teach an old dog new tricks, especially among young pups.

WCC head coach Ty Mushatt called Thomas "one of the hardest working guys we've had here," often likening his kill-or-be-killed philosophy to that of a NAVY SEAL.

Fordham ramped up their aggression, busting out every recruiting tool imaginable to help sell Thomas.

Ultimately, the Johnnies' front court deficiency helped Thomas realize the instant impact opportunity he'd have at Steve Lavin's nearby program.

 Lavin has recruited a bevy of high-risk, high-reward players of Thomas’ caliber. Though he's not exactly Tarkanian in his philosophies, Lavin's propensity for recruiting those with checkered pasts indicates he's a firm believer in second chances.

 Yet the grim fact surrounding Lavin remains. He has not garnered an NCAA tournament since 2011.

 That memorable season, the Johnnies were led by hyper-clutch guard Dwight “Buckets” Hardy. Hardy's flair for the end game revitalized the program following an era of disappointment and ineptitude.

The Johnnies have sputtered, mired in mediocrity ever since.

They were bludgeoned by Northeast Conference foe Robert Morris, 89-78, during an NIT home disaster last spring. The tournament’s No.1 seed, the Johnnies buckled and crumbled under an early 19-2 run.
Lavin, he of the West Coast coaching resume, has yet to secure a Class of 2015 commit.

 He has yet to author the same recruiting success he had his first year, when he supplanted the oft-scrutinized Norm Roberts.

Because of New York's pressure cooking environment and the city's unavoidable and hyper-intense media machine, Lavin must win and win often this season.

If not, he can expect to hear fans calling for his job. As often as Roberts did during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns, that is.

Thomas played just one year of high school basketball at Yorktown, spearheading the Huskers to the Section 1 Final Four. A rediscovery of how much he loves the game allowed Thomas to return from a multi-year sabbatical.

The graduation of Orlando Sanchez and Godsgift Achiuwa opens up the potential for immediate playing time for Thomas and massive 7-foot, 322-pound freshman Adonis DelaRosa.

Many have likened “KT” to a more athletic version of Justin Brownlee, a former Johnnie forward known for his jack-of-all-trades adaptability.

"It's hard to pinpoint Keith's best attribute as a player and that's became he's always working on all components of his game," explained Mushatt, who played at St. Raymond's under the legendary Gary DeCesare.

"He's always in the gym. The best part about him though, is that he doesn't take prisoners. It doesn't matter who you are playing."

Thomas has turned his life around, his dicey background no longer an issue.

He staged a comeback on the AAU scene and continued to ply his trade in Yorktown, immersed in constant pickup games.

Thomas is the nephew of former Mount Vernon guard Randy Brunson, who won Sectional titles alongside current NBAer Ben Gordon in the early 2000s.

Weighing his options, Thomas decided to renew his basketball jones at Westchester. He professed a newfound love for the game to Mushatt a year ago today. In a move to gauge his seriousness, Mushatt told Thomas he would need to try out.

It was an opportunity Thomas simply couldn't let slip. Thomas knew wistful reminders of what could have been could haunt him down the road.

The rest is history.

Thomas authored efficiency during his freshman year.

He turned in a mammoth 29-point performance against Harcum Community, shooting 13-for-14 from the field. He nearly duplicated this with a 22-point performance, on 10-for-11 FG, against Orange County Community College.

At the tail end of the regular season, with a Regional Player of the Year award hanging in the balance, Thomas scored 28 points and tore down 17 rebounds, en route to a 82-70 win over Baltimore City Community College.

With the dark past in the rearview and the bright current opportunity to stabilize St. John’s frontline ahead, Thomas relishes the challenge of vaulting New York’s team back into the realm of respectability.