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.” ••