Young players find progress as Judge hoops falls short

Back in early Janu­ary, in the mo­ments fol­low­ing a 29-point home loss to even­tu­al Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on Ro­man Cath­ol­ic, Sean Tait hoped for two things.

For starters, Fath­er Judge’s head bas­ket­ball coach wanted to see pro­gres­sion from his in­cred­ibly young team, which was rife with un­der­class­men and trans­fers. (In fact, ju­ni­or point guard Will Brazu­kas was the only one with any varsity ex­per­i­ence pri­or to this sea­son.) What bet­ter way to see what his young­sters were made of than to turn them loose in the bru­tally un­for­giv­ing league the Cru­saders play in, Tait figured.

Secondly, Tait hoped Judge would be in the mix for one of the league’s fi­nal four play­off spots come mid-Feb­ru­ary. With so much youth, Tait and his staff didn’t have de­lu­sions of grandeur that the Cru­saders would be a fa­vor­ite to win the league, but what Tait did say mul­tiple times throughout the sea­son is that he thought Judge would be in the mix for a 7-10 seed in the post­season (the top 10 of the league’s 14 teams qual­i­fy).

For all in­tents and pur­poses, both of these things happened. On Tues­day night, Judge met Bish­op McDe­vitt to battle for the 10th and fi­nal spot, a pre-play­off held on a neut­ral court at La Salle High. The Cru­saders (8-15, 5-8 league) led by five through three and by sev­en, but McDe­vitt (11-12, 5-8) scored 22 of the fi­nal 26 points, win­ning the fourth quarter, 23-7, and ul­ti­mately, the game, 51-40. So when the Cath­ol­ic League play­offs start, tech­nic­ally Judge won’t be there, but Tait still con­siders his team be­ing in that tie-break­er game an ac­com­plish­ment.

“Be­ing so young, we said all year how we hoped to have an op­por­tun­ity to play an ex­tra game at the end of the sea­son, even if that was play­ing for the tenth spot,” Tait said by phone on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. “We might not be play­ing to­night (when the league play­offs start), but we’re still a play­off team. If you asked me if we would have been in that situ­ation back in Decem­ber, I hon­estly would have prob­ably said no.”

Tait wasn’t say­ing that be­cause he was down on his play­ers. Rather, as a vet­er­an coach, he knows how good the league is every year, and that the Ro­man Cath­ol­ics, Neu­man-Gor­reti’s, Arch­bish­op Car­rolls, La Salles and St. Joseph’s Prep of the world wouldn’t wait around for Judge’s young roster to get ac­climated to the com­pet­i­tion. Quite simply, they had to ex­per­i­ence a full sea­son in the Cath­ol­ic League first to real­ize just how dif­fi­cult it is to win on a nightly basis.

“To win five games in this league with what we had is a real cred­it to our kids buy­ing in­to what we were teach­ing them,” Tait said. “I didn’t know if it was there, and these young guys get­ting to ex­per­i­ence a win-or-go-home game in their first year is great for them.”

Against McDe­vitt on Tues­day, 37 of Judge’s 40 points came from sopho­mores Quincy Reed (team-high 14 points) and Justin Flem­ing (12 points) and highly-re­garded fresh­man Mark Rodrig­uez (11 points). Rodrig­uez tal­lied double-di­git scor­ing totals in his fi­nal 11 league games, a re­mark­able achieve­ment for someone his age.

“He’s already ask­ing me when he can get back in the gym to prac­tice his shoot­ing,” Tait said. “As a coach, you hope when you have it right in your hands and it slips through that it will make them want to work harder and get bet­ter, and they will.”

In ad­di­tion to the afore­men­tioned play­ers, ju­ni­or Pat Mulville and sopho­more trans­fer Jamir Cole­man will be back; Cole­man was the team’s lead­ing scorer dur­ing its non-league slate, but missed the en­tire Cath­ol­ic League sched­ule due to in­jury. So all in all, the young guys pro­gressed in a big way, and seni­or Jon O’Con­nor is the only one set to gradu­ate.

Tait poin­ted to a Jan. 17 loss at St. Joe’s Prep as Judge’s turn­ing point. Though the Cru­saders lost, they played one of the league’s top pro­grams tough throughout. Fol­low­ing that game, Judge ripped off three straight wins. Tait also poin­ted out Judge’s in­cred­ibly tough non-league sched­ule as a meas­ure of his team’s mettle; of the Cru­saders’ 23 games, only six were against sub-.500 teams.

In the end, Tait com­pared the 2013-14 team to his 2009-10 team, led by ju­ni­ors Reg­gie Charles and Seamus Radtke, po­ten­tial dif­fer­ence-makers that needed a year of season­ing in the league. That sea­son, Judge went 9-13 over­all and 6-8 in the league. The fol­low­ing sea­son? 16-6 and 9-4, or, as Tait said, “We were pretty damn good.” He hopes this team fol­lows a sim­il­ar trend next year.

“And we were even young­er than that team this year,” he said. “But that 2009-10 team lost a heart­break­er to North Cath­ol­ic in the play­offs and I got this sense of un­fin­ished busi­ness. That was so sim­il­ar to yes­ter­day, see­ing their faces and guys cry­ing, every­one left that room say­ing we have un­fin­ished busi­ness now.” ••

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