Crusaders could surprise the Catholic League


In this second week of Janu­ary, it’s still too early for Sean Tait to know just how good his Fath­er Judge High School bas­ket­ball team can be. Still, that doesn’t stop the Cru­saders’ fourth-year head coach from en­vi­sion­ing his team’s path on a step-by-step basis.

Judge is com­ing off a 9-4 year in the Cath­ol­ic League (16-6 over­all), a sea­son that saw Tait’s bunch qual­i­fy for the post­season be­fore suc­cumb­ing to Ro­man Cath­ol­ic in the first round.

The Cru­saders gradu­ated sev­er­al key seni­ors from last year’s team, though a re­gres­sion in the stand­ings does not seem likely. The team is still loaded with tal­ent, tal­ent that had car­ried Judge to an 8-1 non-league mark and a league-open­ing, nail-bit­ing 56-55 win over West Cath­ol­ic last Fri­day night. (The Cru­saders played St. Joseph’s Prep after the Times went to press this week.)

The win over the Burrs was an im­port­ant first step for Tait’s team, one that the coach hopes is all part of a big­ger plan to sur­prise some people in the buzz saw known as the Phil­adelphia Cath­ol­ic League.

“Real­ist­ic­ally, I see us as a play­off team again,” Tait said. “We try to take this step by step, and be­ing a play­off team is the first step in the pro­cess. We want to be a play­off team that gets to host a game at home. Then, once we’re there, we want to win that home game.

“If we do that, we’re in the top four in the league, and then if we win the home game, we get to play at the Palestra (which hosts the semi­finals and title game),” he con­tin­ued. “Once we get there, we know any­thing can hap­pen, and if we win two down there then the whole plan comes to fruition.”

Tait cer­tainly makes it sound much easi­er than it will be, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that Neu­mann-Gor­etti has all but ad­op­ted the cham­pi­on­ship trophy, hav­ing taken it home sev­en of the last 11 sea­sons. They are con­sidered the run­away fa­vor­ites again.

But the coach also knows hav­ing a blue­print for suc­cess is the only way to hold serve in a league that an­nu­ally rep­res­ents a mine­field to all of its par­ti­cipants. The bot­tom line for every league mem­ber, as it is each year, is that there are no off-nights in the Cath­ol­ic League.

Take West Cath­ol­ic, for in­stance. The Burrs went just 7-17 over­all last year, and aren’t ex­pec­ted to make too much noise in the league in 2012. Pair that with the fact that they just learned on Fri­day that their school will close its doors in June, after 97 years, and it would be dif­fi­cult to fault West for not show­ing up with their best ef­fort each night.

In­stead, the Burrs gave the Cru­saders all they could handle in a game that went down to the fi­nal pos­ses­sion. Head coach Guy Moore has some ex­per­i­ence in this de­part­ment, as he was at the helm in North Cath­ol­ic’s fi­nal sea­son in 2010 and helped will the Fal­cons to the post­season. Now, Moore will dir­ect an­oth­er team that is play­ing with two huge mo­tiv­at­ors — pride and tra­di­tion.

“Guy has been down this path be­fore, and it was really tough for me to have to have the same con­ver­sa­tion with him again be­fore the game,” Tait said. “Those guys are in my pray­ers, and I wish them good luck on the sea­son, which is ob­vi­ously a mean­ing­ful one for them. I give them a lot of cred­it for still giv­ing us all they had with the news of their school clos­ing still so fresh on their minds, but I ex­pec­ted noth­ing less from a Guy Moore team.”

Des­pite the odd cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the pregame fest­iv­it­ies — in ad­di­tion to hon­or­ing West Cath­ol­ic, Judge also paid homage to its cheer­lead­ers from sis­ter school St. Hubert, which will also close for good in June — Tait said that there was “un­for­tu­nately still busi­ness to take care of.”

The Cru­saders handled their busi­ness, but it of­ten wasn’t easy on the eyes. Care­less turnovers and ex­tremely sloppy work on the de­fens­ive glass had Tait see­ing red at times, though it’s something he ad­mit­ted he ex­pects for his team, at least in the early stages of the league cam­paign.

Part of this stems from Judge’s in­ex­per­i­ence. The Cru­saders gradu­ated four of their top five scorers (Seamus Radtke, Reg­gie Charles, Joe Ke­hoe and Nick Sul­li­van), with ju­ni­or Steven Griffin the only one back with any varsity ex­per­i­ence. Seni­ors Bri­an Hen­nes­sey and Con­nor Dono­hoe, as well as ju­ni­ors Sean Hanna and Joe Robin­son, were either play­ing JV or not at all for Judge last sea­son. Against West, all made key plays at the right time for Judge; the fourth quarter was es­pe­cially en­cour­aging to Cru­sader fans, as the home team turned a six-point de­fi­cit in­to a one-point vic­tory, in­clud­ing sev­er­al frantic de­fens­ive stands over the 20-second span that was West’s fi­nal pos­ses­sion.

“Those last twenty seconds seemed like five hours,” said Tait, whose team held the Burrs without a shot over the course of the pos­ses­sion. “In terms of the turnovers and yield­ing so many of­fens­ive re­bounds, that’s a mys­tery to me be­cause we haven’t had too many prob­lems there yet. But I thought we really made up for it with our de­fense and our abil­ity to be smart in our de­cision-mak­ing on of­fense.”

Tait un­der­stands that the Cru­saders will likely go as far as scorers Hen­nes­sey (12 points) and Griffin (14 points) can carry them, but without key con­tri­bu­tions from guys like Joe Robin­son (12 points, 11 re­bounds) and Dono­hoe (eight points), Judge will likely fall be­hind the eight ball.

“Steve Griffin was second-team All-Cath­ol­ic last year as a sopho­more, so we know he’s got all the abil­ity in the world,” Tait said. “Bri­an is a heck of a shoot­er even though he didn’t show it to­night, and Joe Robin­son is long and ath­let­ic and we really love his abil­ity to fin­ish around the bas­ket, which he showed in spurts against West. We only run about sev­en deep, so we’ll need those guys to con­tin­ue to be our cata­lysts out there.”

As the cal­en­dar con­tin­ues to pro­gress fur­ther in­to 2012, the Cru­saders hope to get pos­it­ive res­ults from this early learn­ing ex­per­i­ence to the point where they end up at the head of the Cath­ol­ic League class. The pieces are cer­tainly there, es­pe­cially when the team plays as a unit. Tait knows what his team is cap­able of, but can they ex­ecute on the court against some of the city’s best teams? Only time will tell.

“Are we a top-four team in the league? I think so, and I tell the guys that,” Tait said. “But I also try to keep them humble, and I say that, just like that, we can be a bot­tom-four team if we don’t play to­geth­er out there.

“The good thing about hav­ing some tal­ent and play­ing in the Cath­ol­ic League is that we know any­thing can hap­pen,” he ad­ded. “We’ve all seen be­fore how crazy this league can be. We have the same goal as every­one else, which is to make the play­offs. After that, who knows what can hap­pen?” ••


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