Mahopac scrimmaged Putnam Valley, a barometer which simulated not only the grind of post-season basketball, but Mahopac’s next foe: No.12 Suffern.
Rife with ball-hawking guards and featuring a purified scorer in Zach Coleman, Putnam Valley looks to fill Gold Ball aspirations existent since the summer. After going 18-3 in 2013, capping the resurgence with a County Center berth, the theme of unfinished business emanates from the Tigers' locker room.
The Indians were tested against the Tigers, a team capable of sniping in the half court set and creating a transition game mirroring Florida Gulf Coast University with Ryan Basso lobs and Jelani Bell-Isaac's violent, two-handed dunks.
Though they gave up some transition leak-outs, Mahopac minimized the damage.
Bolstered by a frontline with the average height of 6-foot-5 last season, the Indians devoured the Tigers during last year's post-season scrimmage.
This year, the scrimmage between two of North County's elite was closer and a bit more for entertainment value.
Ryan Simone, who has rapidly ratcheted into one of Section 1's explosive scorers and workaday double-double threats, leaned on his mid-range game and popped short jumpers. Having established supremacy on the glass and expanded his overall game, Simone was the most lethal player on the court Tuesday night. The Indians needed a gauge of this type, especially with the snow-blanketed streets creating long layoffs and cancellations.
“It’s a good test for us, plus they have Jelani (Bell-Isaac) who is freakishly athletic,” Indians head coach Kevin Downes explained.
“We needed that because it would have been a week layoff in between games. If any team was going to be preparation for Suffern, it was Putnam Valley. From looking at film, Suffern likes to play fast-paced as well."
No. 12 Suffern has reaped the rewards of a rugged Rockland County basketball climate. In this zip code, the only easy game was yesterday’s game.
Matchups against Pearl River with 6-foot-8 Fairfield-bound Kevin Degnan and vaunted Spring Valley have rendered the Mounties a battle-tested team.
Kevin Jefferson is an established scoring threat. The 5-foot-10 guard has led a balanced attack this season, scoring in the high-teens and providing big shots during crucial junctures.
Anticipate a run-and-gun style from the Mounties, who may have slipped below the radar this season.
Mahopac will lean on the shooting hand of All-Section guard RJ Martinez, the author of a late-season tear. Martinez is a central component of the Indians all-or-nothing style, leaving his fingerprints on every category of the score book.
Martinez torched his former team, Carmel, for 23 points, eight boards, and four assists, in one of the most wild games in Section 1 this season. Few games on this side of Rye/Harrison and Mount Vernon/New Rochelle or Mount Vernon/Poughkeepsie (at the County Center) can match the fanfare and raucous crowds of Mahopac/Carmel. Martinez' 33-point eruption catapulted Mahopac to a league-clinching 53-48 win over Somers, the Indians’ fourth consecutive league crown.
Ed Wallach, who was fired for non-sense reasons, has been supplanted by Mike McDonnel. While Wallach was synonymous with a tough-to-break press and in-your-grill defense, first-year Tigers coach Mike McDonnell has etched his imprint with a new conditioning system and Xs and Os.
The result? The Tigers have become one of the more finely-tuned teams in the Section, sparked by a revitalized running game that typically ends with Bell-Isaac's skyward-bound theatrics.
Most notably, the Tigers have displayed a flair for crunch time. They've avoided late-game dramatics with cool, calm, veteran Section 1 poise.
Sixth man Kevin Fitzsimmons banged in a game-winning, 22-foot 3-pointer in a 44-41 win over Brewster.
Zach Coleman evaded upset-hungry Yorktown’s pressure with a 21-point performance, as he wound up 9-for-10 from the free throw line.
Basso has been more active in the passing lanes this season.
That much was evident against Lakeland, when he had four steals and six deflections. Deflections is a statistic McDonnell values only in his own point system, which charts off-the-books stats.
These are coaching quirks that motivate. The Tigers subscribe to them because of the results. While Wallach's untimely and shady dismissal left those inquiring minds scratching (and shaking) their heads, a pebble-smooth transition has occurred.
The Tigers backcourt is loaded with shooters in Basso, Coleman, and Zack Nolan, a multi-sport junior who can dent defenses from beyond the arc.
If perimeter defense hounds them, the Tigers have the luxury of whipping it inside to Bell-Isaac.
A once piecemeal core, which labored through years of futility under a floundering system, has grown into a grizzled veteran unit.
The experience of this senior-laden varsity team, which has overcame early woes as a resident in Section 1's rotten cellar, has helped shape their solidarity.
When they arrived at the doorstep as freshmen, the program’s doldrums were setting in. An early 0-6 free-fall had surfaced. Folks were eagerly calling for then-coach Ralph Smith’s job.
How much of an afterthought had the then-reeling program become?
Marcus Given, a 6-foot-3 guard and one of the school’s best basketball player, opted not to return for his senior season.
Given, known primarily as a stud receiver in football, feasted on the townies in Ray Gallagher’s open gym league instead.
At the pace the program was migrating, few could blame Given. It's always a portent of tough times when one of the school's best players isn't even on the roster.
The growth and revival of the Tigers, which has gone from shambles to sugar as quick as any program in Section I, is jaw dropping.
They’ve been starved as freshman and sophomores, watching storied programs get fat off of Section I championships.
It's their turn.
Ray Gallagher photo