Leader of the pack

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.mor­rone@gmail.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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