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?” ••EndFragment