Adversity. It's an aspect of life that simply none of us can eschew. No matter how hard you try, nobody gets out of life unscathed. Last season, the St. Francis (Pa.) men's basketball team's pursuit of the Northeast Conference post-season took a bone-crushing hit when center J.R. Enright left school after the sudden, tragic death of his girlfriend.
The 6-10 Enright averaged 12 points to go with 10 rebounds as a presence in the paint, but missed the final five games of the season as he returned home to Omaha, Neb. A functional surrogate family situated in the Boondocks of Pennsylvania (the town of Loretto has a population of under 2,000 and is roughly 1.02 square miles), the Red Flash showed endless support for their teammate in the wake of tragedy and grief. The Red Flash managed just five NEC victories throughout the brutal 2006-2007 campaign, but grew closer as a team and hasn't kept Enright far from their thoughts.
"They've continued to stay together through adverse times," explained coach Bobby Jones, who's now in his ninth season with the Red Flash. "I was a little bit surprised, particularly in the way we finished last season. Obviously going through that adversity with J.R. and his girlfriend (was a tough experience). But the team certainly rallied around, certainly pulled together." Jones admits he'd like to wash last season away from his memory bank. St. Francis slipped into a program-record 15-game free-fall and never smelled the NEC Tournament. Youth and lack of communication were two problems that surfaced during the drought.
Those problems have faded away quickly this season, as a young team with a well-balanced offense and the bit-by-bit burgeoning inside-outside tandem in Cale Nelson and Bass Dieng looks to re-write the script this season. Despite falling into an early 0-6 hole, sporting a scanty 5-16 record (3-7 in conference play), St. Francis has their eyes pasted on a playoff spot. The new-look Red Flash is beginning to gel and have left a statement with recent victories over St. Francis (N.Y.) and Central Connecticut State.
"The chemistry has been real well," said super sophomore Devin Sweetney. Sweetney, a 6-6 wing and the cousin of Chicago Bull Michael Sweetney, is second on the team in scoring (12 ppg) and is averaging 5.1 boards per game. "These guys have been together. This is our second year together, we'll be together next year as well. Every day that goes by, we're just getting closer and we're bonding together as a team. We know each other better than we did last year." Fitting, because Jones knows Sweetney better than he did last year. "Devin is a tremendous athlete, he has great size, great anticipation skills," Jones explained. "I think he's at his best when he's running the floor hard, when he's defending hard, able to get a few deflections, and really rebound the basketball." Jones said that games in which Sweetney asserts himself are paramount to success this season. He was quick to add, however, that the Washington, D.C.-bred Sweetney too often gets complacent and settles for jump shots.
In the victories over the St. Francis (NY) and Central Connecticut State, Sweetney poured in 21 and 18 points, respectively. He shot a blistering 16-for-26 in those two games and grabbed a season-high five offensive boards against the Terriers, who the Red Flash took into three overtimes in a wild 92-84 triumph that made headlines.
"The last couple ball games, he's really starting to play like Devin we all now that he's capable of," added Jones. Jones pegged Sweetney and Nelson - a junior who's averaging 12 points and a team-high 4.2 assists per game - as this year's captains. It symbolizes a team that's using youth as a charm this season. "(Coach) tells us to go out there, lead by example," said Sweetney.
"Regardless of what happens on the court, we try to play through your mistakes, and keep the team together, you know?" Junior off-guard Marquis Ford, the NEC Rookie of the Year in 2006, has come alive lately after playing a diminished role at the start of the season. Ford led the conference in three-point shooting last year, hitting a knot over 50 percent from beyond the arc. Ford has switched from the point to the two-guard to fully utilize his ability to score off the ball and come off screens and curls looking to shoot. Ford adds depth to a backcourt that also features Grant Suprenant (10 ppg). Dieng, who hails from Dakar, Senegal, has discovered his niche in the paint this year, after looking raw and undeveloped for much of last season. Dieng is averaging 10 points and seven boards in an enhanced role this season. The 6-9 center has copped a pair of double-doubles this season and recently scored 18 points in a loss at Quinnipiac.
Down the road, however, Jones sees Nelson and Sweetney dictating destiny in a conference that features a surplus of guards.
"If you look around the league, guard play is so critical at every level - whether you talk high school, college - particularly Division I and certainly in the NBA. If you look at the teams that win consistently, I can show you good guard play."
They've had a lot to overcome. The Red Flash is still St. Patrick's day-green. The nation's hotbeds have been scoured for talent, and the seeds have been certainly been planted for the future. A playoff appearance, however, would be testament to the harmonious hard work and perseverance.