On paper, an 18-4 basketball team playing one with an 8-15 record seems like a tremendous mismatch.
But the games are played on hardwood, not paper, and that’s exactly how heavy underdog Frankford approached their Tuesday evening Class AAAA semifinal at Public League Division A rival Martin Luther King High. Yes, the Pioneers had lost twice to King during the regular season en route to an 0-10 division mark, but they had also played better of late, winning their regular season final against Central Bucks South before capturing a 66-55 first-round home playoff win over Bartram last week.
So the Pioneers approached this game like they had nothing to lose, because hey, let’s face it, they didn’t. The result was ultimately a 65-59 King win, probably one of the most hard-fought of their now 19 total victories. King led 10-5 after one, 28-20 at halftime and 45-35 after three, but Frankford kept coming.
“We were very familiar with one another, and both teams struggled scoring early on,” Frankford head coach Dave Huzzard said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “They had us on our heels at times, but we were certainly in the game the entire time.”
The Pioneers cut the deficit to as few as two points, but as Huzzard said, “We really struggled to get over the hump. It would go from two to five points, then we’d cut it to three, then they’d get it up to seven and back down to three or four, and so forth. We just never got that big basket when we needed it.”
Huzzard did get a season-high 29 points from junior Ladji Fofana, who had just two points in the win over Bartram. Though he will lose key seniors Aaron McFarlan, Rob Simmons and Joe Ricketts to graduation, the Pioneers are mostly young and are viewing this season as a building block to transitioning into a hopeful Division A frontrunner in 2014-15. It won’t be easy — nothing in the Public League ever is — but Huzzard’s feeling is yes, his team went 0-10 in the division, but they also got to compete against some of the city’s best players. Not only is Fofana eligible to be back, but so are fellow juniors Mussa Ba, Quadire Truesdale and Odanis Betances, all of whom played major minutes this season.
Of course, expecting an entire Public League roster to return intact is akin to expecting to win the lottery — yes, it would be great, but it’s also a long shot.
“As far as that goes, I’ve learned my lesson,” Huzzard said. “You kind of just cross your fingers and hope. But if we do get everyone back, we’ll enter next year with an extremely strong nucleus. They all got a lot of floor time against the city’s best. They got better and know what it’s like now. They can be a very strong team next year.”
Against King, Huzzard, a veteran coach, showed that even those in charge of a team are vulnerable to making mistakes that can be learned from during the course of a game. With Frankford down just three, Huzzard saw a King player step out of bounds with the basketball right in front of his bench, a play the officials failed to see. Huzzard lost his temper and ended up receiving a technical foul.
“I made a huge mistake and got on the ref,” he said. “He didn’t like my reaction, so he T’ed me up. They made both free throws to make it a five-point game, and we never got closer than three the rest of the way. I need to keep my cool, and I apologized to my team after. I take full responsibility.”
So in the end, the 2013-14 season was a learning experience for both Huzzard and his players. And after an 0-10 division mark, they all know that the only way to go from here is up.
“It was nice, the last couple of games we stopped forcing shots and being selfish,” Huzzard said. “Two-thirds of the way through the season, it felt like we were headed nowhere. It’s nice to end on a positive note, as opposed to a month ago where we were in a dead-end situation and not getting through to the kids. Things kind of came together for us at the end.” ••