If the Archbishop Ryan High School boys basketball team was any scrappier, they’d probably be stripped for parts and sold at the local junkyard.
The Raiders are short up front and don’t wow anybody on offense, so exactly how they’ve won their first two games of the season isn’t entirely clear on the surface. But then, if you look closer, you would probably see a team that outworks the opponent in every hustle aspect of the game. What the Raiders lack in offensive firepower, they make up for in sheer grittiness, and there’s no greater example of the team’s mentality than Christian Rivera.
Rivera, an undersized forward/center who probably would be playing guard on most teams, is Ryan’s senior emotional leader. With three years of varsity experience under his belt, Rivera is one of the Raiders’ most experienced players; he’s also the poster boy for why a team that often looks so lost on offense finds itself 2-0 in the very early stages of the 2011-12 basketball season.
Take Friday night, for example. In the team’s season-opener against non-league opponent Bensalem, the Raiders had many cringe-worthy moments. They managed just 10 points in the first half, and 22 through three quarters. Ryan missed eight of its first nine free throws, and had so many problems with Bensalem’s full-court press that the multitude of turnovers had head coach Bernie Rogers shaking his head and covering his face with his hands.
But the Raiders hung in there, never falling behind by more than 14 points. While a flashier Bensalem team threw alley-oops and knocked down three-pointers, Ryan stayed within striking distance. Then, all of a sudden, a team that looked so confused on offense erupted for 28 fourth-quarter points (six more than they had through the first three frames) and stunned Bensalem, 50-44, in the season-opener.
“I don’t know where that fourth quarter came from,” Rogers said with a laugh. “We weren’t ready for their press, and soon one mistake led to another, and another. But I thought our defense was good enough to keep us in the hunt, or at least keep us from being down by thirty. Even though the offense struggled through three quarters, the intensity never changed, and that’s how it’s going to need to be this season if we want to win some games.”
Ryan fans may not want to accept that, but a small sample size shows that Rogers’ prediction is likely true. The Raiders won’t be able to take a play off the entire game, and Friday night was an indication that this team understands that. They understand who they are, and that identity starts at the top with Rivera, a physical, hard-nosed player who always seems to be around the ball, whether he’s trying to score, find his teammates or is fighting tenaciously for a rebound or loose ball.
“We just keep fighting,” Rivera said. “We don’t really have a choice. We know we have to play better defense than our opponent, because if we do that then the score should be lower, and if that’s the case then we’ll be in a lot of games.”
Being in games is nothing new for the Raiders. They posted an 11-13 overall record last season, losing in the first round of the playoffs to Archbishop Wood. But Rogers knows that if the final minutes in some of those 13 losses had gone just a tad different, then people might be telling a different story about his team.
“By my count, we lost seven games in the final minute or two that we were either leading or at least that we were in,” Rogers said. “This year, we have to turn those close losses into wins, and I think our experience will allow us to build off of and learn from last year. The thing about us is that even though we’re small, we’re also balanced. We share the ball well, we play good defense and we’re smart, even if we didn’t show it for a lot of Friday night. If we can get better at closing out games, then we can be a much improved team.”
Rivera, as expected, had his hand all over the comeback win over Bensalem. He scratched and clawed his way to a hard-earned 14 points and seven rebounds. While Rivera was down in the trenches fighting to get his team back into the game, junior guard Bryan Okolo scored all 12 of his points in the final frame. Players like seniors Nick Aughenbaugh and Kyle Slawter and juniors Gage Galeone and Tyler Reed stepped up and made plays when they were needed the most.
Rivera, whom Rogers calls “the most unselfish kid I’ve ever coached,” shoots down the notion that he has to score more on offense for his team to succeed.
“I think my job is to score when it’s there for me,” Rivera said. “If I’m not scoring, I can kick it out to our other guys until one of us gets an open look. Our guards can shoot, as Bryan showed in that fourth quarter, and we play together as a team. We trust each other, and we challenge each other to play hard every single play.”
Even Rivera himself concedes that this Ryan team may not compete with perennial Catholic League powers like St. Joseph’s Prep and Neumann-Goretti, but he also sees the Raiders posting a better mark than their 5-10 league record a year ago. Without former leading scorer Eric Fleming, who graduated, Rivera understands the only way the Raiders will be in a lot of games is if they work harder than everybody else, or at the very least make the other team exert itself by working just as hard.
“We might not be the best team in the Catholic League,” Rivera said. “But we want to be the toughest. We want to be the team that nobody wants to play because of how hard we’re going to make them work. And with three of our starters now having three years of varsity experience, we know what it takes to win games in this league. We’ve got a lot of heart, and that goes a long way.”
If the Raiders can knock down their free throws (they shot 11-of-12 after their early druthers), play defense, cut down turnovers and fight for every rebound and loose ball, then people might be able to buy into this Archbishop Ryan team. Granted, it’s a large checklist, but there’s something fascinating about watching this Ryan team fight for every inch out there.
“Our practices have been just as intense as the game against Bensalem,” Rogers said. “And it’ll have to stay that way. We know that. If we keep working hard and fix those mental mistakes in the meantime, then we like our chances.” ••
Reporter Ed Morrone can be reached at Edward.firstname.lastname@example.org