— Bryan Okolo and Archbishop Ryan got off to a perfect 2-0 start in Catholic League play.
Bryan Okolo will be the first to admit that the offensive system his Archbishop Ryan basketball team runs hardly resembles the explosive, run-and-gun style of, say, the United States Olympic team.
For Okolo, that’s just fine. What the Raiders lack in sexiness they more than make up for in efficiency — as well as relentless intensity on the defensive end — an approach that more often than not leads to victories.
“I like our offense,” the Raiders’ senior guard and leading scorer said. “It’s nice and slow, but it gets us the points we need.”
Okolo and the Ryan offense certainly got what they needed in Sunday afternoon’s 55-38 Catholic League victory over Conwell-Egan. It wasn’t the most exciting effort in the world, but in this cutthroat league any win comes with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
The Raiders quickly built a 14-6 lead after one quarter and never gave the Eagles an opportunity to come back. Ryan smothered Egan with a shutdown defense (no player on the young Eagles scored in double figures) and that aforementioned efficient offensive attack that head coach Bernie Rogers’ teams always seem to do well.
Against Egan, Okolo connected on three of five three pointers en route to a team-high 19 points and nine rebounds. The victory gave Ryan two wins during its league-opening weekend, beating West Catholic, 55-43, on Friday night.
The schedule will only intensify as January progresses, so a perfect weekend to start Catholic League play was just what the doctor ordered.
“It was good for our guys, because they needed to see the intensity level of these games and how fast it picks up,” said Rogers, whose team is off to a 7-4 overall start. “On Friday night, before the game, I told them they were down to 13 chances in the best league in the state. You can’t take a night off, because every win gets you one step closer to the playoffs, which is our goal. You’ve got to show up every time, and every win is a good win.”
The team knows it needs to execute in these early league games so that it can prepare for the top teams in the league when they come calling (St. Joseph’s Prep, Neumann-Goretti, La Salle, Roman Catholic, to name a few).
And for a team that won 18 games a season ago (including nine in the Catholic League), expectations run high for the Raiders. Most of the eyes are fixed on Okolo, and rightfully so. As a junior, he emerged as a top scoring threat, but his game appeared more one-dimensional a year ago. Then, his offensive game was predicated mainly on three-pointers with the occasional mid-range pull-up.
Now, the 5-foot-10 Okolo resembles a different player. On Sunday, he confidently put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim, either looking for his own high-percentage shots beneath the rim or kicking the ball out to open teammates on the perimeter. When he himself pulled up from the perimeter, Okolo’s shot possessed some refined gusto. He credited a dedicated offseason, as well as last year’s leadership of graduated seniors Christian Rivera, Kyle Slawter and Nick Augenbaugh, to his own senior season emergence.
“Last year shaped me a lot,” he said. “Christian, Kyle and Aughie were all great leaders, so I just tried to imitate what those guys did. Most days this offseason, I just came over to Ryan and took a lot of shots, mid-range and three-pointers. I also worked on my dribbling, because I knew I’d be handling the ball more this season.”
His coach notices the difference.
“He worked really hard in the offseason and he expanded his game to include more driving and posting up,” Rogers said. “He’s so confident in his skills that he’s making the other guys better. He’s not strictly a scorer, as maybe he was last year. He can do a little bit of everything, and here we like guys that can pass, dribble and shoot.”
The Raiders have several efficient, interchangeable players on the roster to complement Okolo. Against Conwell-Egan, senior Gage Galeone was constantly around the ball en route to 12 hard-earned points, and junior Brendan Horan mixed in four points, three rebounds and three assists in the first quarter while Okolo took time to get going. Senior Shawn Miller was also a quiet contributor, and 6-foot-7 Billy Dykan, despite being saddled by foul trouble, gave the size-challenged Raiders a new option in the lane. Ryan has a team full of role players that can produce success for the team when everyone is working hard in his defined role.
“We have four or five guys who can make shots, and they all work for each other,” Rogers said. “Because we aren’t a big team, our kids have to have that hungry, competitive mindset where we gang-rebound the ball. We don’t have one guy hovering around the rim cleaning everything up for us, so we’ve got to work a little more collectively.”
The Catholic League typically features the usual suspects at the top of the standings, so it remains to be seen how much of a dent this Raiders group will be able to create. But after winning 18 games a season ago using largely the same philosophy they currently employ, the Raiders believe they will be a tough out for the opposition every time they step on the court. And this time around, they have an even better Okolo leading the way.
“When we work together, we’re a great unit,” he said. “If we do what we did today, then we can be there with anyone at the end. We truly believe that. If we let one up, then it’s one more we’ll have to make up in the standings. And for me, I know there’s no next year, so I have to go get it now.”
Rogers agreed with his star’s assessment.
“Bryan is a good person, and when you have good people that want to be coached, that usually translates onto the court,” he said. “He’s pretty quiet, but guys respect him and follow his lead. They see a kid doing things the right way and getting positive results, and that’s easy to follow. They see that’s how it’s done and how you get better.
“These kids experienced some success last year, and they want to either keep that, or even raise the bar just a little bit more.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org