Friday, December 12, 2014

Saunders Looking To Change Culture In Baller-Barren Yonkers

Yonkers is where throwback jerseys are in and prep school attire is out.

 It's an 18 square mile city that has seen countless prodigious schoolboy basketball talents come and go.

Only a select few have panned out, as the city longs for a superstar to call their own.

Names such as Jim Bostic, Bernard Toone, Devon "Kobe" Baker and most recently Iowa State guard Dustin Hogue are all examples of local talents who've made it to the grand stage, though wistful reminders of what could have been are everywhere.

The vast number of schools in the city, the merry-go-round style in which kids transfer and the lack of feeder programs and funding have created a severe talent deficiency the last 20 years, with Yonkers paling in comparison to the baller-laden city bordering it.

There have been calls to combine programs together and empower the city's elite with one top-shelf team.

 While those hopes may never come into fruition, the ever-evolving program at Saunders has injected much-needed life into this side of Section 1.

 The Blue Devils were once a veritable punching bag for programs such as Mount Vernon.

They were once a product of their environment, another congested school with a program that lacked the commitment, lacked thr discipline, lacked the personnel, and lacked 12-month focus. Like others alongside it, Saunders played in a bandbox little gym before pin drop quiet crowds.

 The essential team tenets, all necessary to become a reputable force, were virtually non-existent.

Times have changed, the pages of program history are suddenly bound to be rewritten.

"If you can get the city's best players on one team, you're going to win," said Blue Devils head coach Anthony Nicodemo.

"We're at the point where the best players in the city now are on our team. However that worked out, it worked out. It certainly wasn't something that was going to be a one-year thing."

The Blue Devils nearly sent shockwaves throughout the Section this week, going eyeball to eyeball with Spring Valley in a 74-72 loss.

Spring Valley, led by one of the Section's most established inside-outside tandems in Rickey McGill and Kai Mitchell, recovered after almost spitting out a double-digit halftime lead under Saunders rising pressure.

And though the game exemplified the sheer man-child that is jack-of-all-trades forward Kai Mitchell, who turned in a quadruple double (15 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 11 blocks), it opened additional eyes to electrifying Blue Devils guard Derrick Felder.

Felder scored 22 points, grabbed 10 boards, and pick-pocketed eight steals.

 Since he arrived at the doorstep as an introverted freshman two seasons ago, Felder has led Saunders in points, rebounding, steals and assists.

With slashing ability, athleticism, and a diversified scoring aptitude which Nicodemo likens to former New Rochelle guard P.J. Torres, Nicodemo envisioned Felder inheriting some ownership of the Blue Devils this season.

The junior has become more reliable finishing around the basket, showcasing a series of one-handed dunks in practice.

 His coaches and teammates are waiting for Felder to bust out on the break and crush one in a game.

He's developed a touch from behind the arc and Nicodemo has no problem having Felder run the point from time to time, given how rapidly his vision and game sense have blossomed.

Felder put himself on the same stratosphere as the area's elite following a 27-point, 19-rebound outburst against Cardinal Spellman at the Slam Dunk Challenge as a sophomore.

While Nicodemo is cognizant Felder won't ditch his demure side--though he's been trying get him more vocal in practice--he has implored his alpha dog to lead by action. He got a kick out of watching Felder chuck a ball at the wall in practice to make a statement earlier this season--finally a sign of some emotion from the junior.

Felder's game has grown and so has his supporting cast.

Nicodemo can now play 11-12 guys comfortably. The power in numbers has made for some intense in-practice balls.

"Being a deep team has definitely helped us," said Felder, who has an offer from Concordia and a wide variety of D-2 interest in the mix.

"When we're in practice, the teams can get split up evenly and it will be a good war. It gets you ready for big games."

The Blue Devils have plenty of those this season.

 Tomorrow, they entertain a yardstick matchup against vaunted Iona Prep at the Harry Jefferson showcase in White Plains.

The Gaels feature a Division-1 three-headed monster with Matt Ryan, Ty Jerome, and Tom Capuano.

Lacking a J.V. team at Saunders has created a challenge.

Some some will catch the deer-in-the-headlights look during their first dose of meaningful minutes.

The Blue Devils have sidestepped the issue with year-round open gyms.

Nicodemo said putting some freshmen and sophomores on this year's varsity over a few seniors was a tough process, albeit the program is now held to a higher standard.

Workouts start as early as 6 a.m. on some Saturdays and there's major emphasis on a constant basketball schedule from March to October.

Yet for all the program has done reviving itself following years of dungeon-dwelling obscurity, there's still pressure to make up for lost time.

"We have to win a playoff game, we have to get a crack at the County Center," Nicodemo said.

"We run a quality program but the bottom line is I've been here five years and we haven't won a Sectional game. That's always in the back of my mind."

The ardous out-of-conference schedule takes into consideration the talent at Nicodemo and his staff's disposal.

 They want to compete with the who's who's of the Section, but are fully cognizant preparation for late February is the be-all.

Tomorrow, against Iona Prep, Nicodemo will find answers to two vital questions: "How good are we and how much better do we need to get?"