— With a roster crackling with team chemistry, the Crusaders are hoping for a different end this season.
Sean Tait isn’t sure how much more talented this year’s version of the Father Judge basketball team is compared to last season’s counterpart, but the fourth-year head coach knows this much: the 2012-13 Crusader team is light years improved in terms of selflessness.
Last year, the Crusaders got off to a torrid non-league start, winning eight of their first nine games. Judge also had an impressive Catholic League win over league stalwart La Salle, and played St. Joseph’s Prep, another perennial power, down to the wire before losing.
But somewhere along the line, things started falling apart for the Crusaders. They began limping midway into their league slate before completely collapsing at the finish line. They lost the final four games, including a first-round playoff game to La Salle.
Tait blamed the fall from grace on selfish play from some of the team’s former leaders. As a result, the coach employed some “addition by subtraction,” as he likes to put it, hoping to improve the overall team chemistry even if it meant shedding some offensive firepower.
“Without a doubt, the brightest spot so far has been our unselfishness,” Tait said of the Crusaders’ first five games, three of which they’ve won. “It’s been a big positive.”
The most recent sampling of the new-look Crusaders came during a 63-47 non-league home win over Strawberry Mansion on Friday night. At times, it wasn’t the smoothest of performances, as unforced turnovers were a problem that often had Tait red-faced on the sideline.
But Judge employed impressive balance throughout, which is why there never seemed to be a palpable threat of Mansion taking the game over. The Knights crept to within a handful of points in the second half, but, for the most part, Judge led by double digits.
A few weeks ago, Tait spoke of Judge’s need to get contributions from every member of its eight-man rotation. That occurred on Friday, with four players reaching double digits in the scoring column. (Senior guard Sean Hanna led the way with 12, while slashers Malik Robinson and Jeff Siegafuse contributed 11.) Junior James Bogans and sophomore Will Brazukas, who are splitting point guard duties, combined for 15 points.
“Balance,” Tait said when asked the key to the victory, something that will have to continue if the Crusaders want to avoid another season like last year. “Those three guys (Hanna, Robinson, Siegafuse) … we’ll go as far as they take us. Jeff and Malik especially have to be good, because a lot of Sean’s offense comes from what they create for him. We have the tools, and I think we’re flying under the radar a bit, which is good for this group. I think we’ll be OK.”
Surely Tait won’t know too much about how his team will fare this season until the Jan. 4 Catholic League opener against La Salle. The Crusaders will play three more games between now and then, games Tait wants to use to solve a rampant turnover problem, as well as finding more of an offensive flow as a unit.
“We were up one with three minutes to go against Central Bucks South (on Dec. 19) and we just gave it away with too many turnovers,” Tait said. “I think we could be 5-0 without them.”
One of the keys to Judge’s season, however, may come in the form of Franklin Towne Charter transfer Brandon Maguire. Maguire, a Bridesburg native who attended North Catholic as a freshman before the school closed, ended up at Towne because it was close to home. There, he became the starting goalie on the much-improved Coyotes soccer team, one he helped guide to a Public League championship game appearance this season.
Long before the soccer season ended, however, Maguire began the necessary steps to transfer to Father Judge. According to Tait, it was important for the 6-foot-5 senior and his family that he graduate from a Catholic League school, much like his older brother and late father did from North. An admissions delay meant Maguire wouldn’t be able to enroll at his new school until Nov. 1; however, now that he’s arrived, he’s helped improve Judge every time he’s stepped onto the court.
And while Maguire is still refining some of his skills and translating them to the Catholic League style of play, he is making an immediate impact for the Crusaders. He’s been giving them the talented, difference-making big man they’ve been lacking since the 6-foot-9 Seamus Radtke graduated two years ago.
“Brandon can score from down low either straight up or with his back to the basket, and he can also pull up and shoot from the perimeter,” Tait said. “He can rebound and block shots, and he’s pretty smart defensively. Once he’s 100 percent comfortable, we think he can be an All-Catholic-caliber player.”
Maguire’s impact was felt against Mansion, even if it just came in spurts due to foul trouble. The center contributed 10 points, six rebounds and a couple of blocked shots
“His abilities are on the college level, and he will play at the next level,” Tait said of Maguire. “I’ve been getting on him to even be a little more selfish offensively because he can have such an impact. Once he figures it all out, he’ll really help us.”
After just five games, Tait hasn’t doesn’t quite have his finger on this Judge team’s pulse, but one thing does remain clear: the coach is ecstatic with the team’s balanced, selfless style of play, one that will go a long way over the course of the entire season.
“Since our first game, we’ve gotten better every time we’ve stepped onto the court,” Tait said. “We need a ‘good win’ because we don’t necessarily have one of those yet. All wins are good, don’t get me wrong, but we need one that will really give us the confidence we need.
“I’m seeing guys start to make plays they wouldn’t have made a few weeks ago. Honestly, it all comes down to making shots and not turning the ball over. La Salle is bringing the same team back, more or less, and we’re not, but we’re in a better place, chemistry wise.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org