Where there’s a Will, there’s a way for Crusaders

Seasoned vet: Ju­ni­or point guard Will Brazu­kas, as the only re­turn­ing Cru­sader with sig­ni­fic­ant varsity ex­per­i­ence, is Judge’s un­ques­tioned lead­er. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Sean Tait and Will Brazu­kas know how it looks. 

The head coach and ju­ni­or point guard of the Fath­er Judge bas­ket­ball team can see the score­board, and they’re aware of the 17- and 29-point losses to La Salle and Ro­man Cath­ol­ic to open the Cath­ol­ic League sched­ule.

But at the same time, Tait and Brazu­kas see something the cas­u­al ob­serv­er might not: pro­gress.

“If you wer­en’t at the game and you open up the pa­per the next day, you’d say that Judge got beat up real bad,” Tait said fol­low­ing Monday night’s 77-48 home loss to Ro­man, a top-five team in the city. “But there were a lot of pos­it­ives. I told the guys that for awhile, we went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the area. If we can just bottle up what we did in the good mo­ments and use it against the teams we have to beat, then that would be big for this young group.”

Tait is not un­der­stat­ing the Cru­saders’ youth and in­ex­per­i­ence. The roster is pre­dom­in­antly filled with un­der­class­men, trans­fers and oth­ers un­der­go­ing their first ma­jor varsity minutes; in fact, the only guy with any real Cath­ol­ic League ex­per­i­ence un­der his belt is Brazu­kas, the quietly in­tense, tough-as-nails point guard who kept his team in the game for large stretches against the Cahil­lites.

Brazu­kas is gen­er­ously lis­ted at 5-foot-10, which makes even Tait chuckle (the coach said 5’8’’ is more ac­cur­ate). But the guard plays big­ger than his frame in­dic­ates, and he nev­er once shied away from be­ing ag­gress­ive in guard­ing or driv­ing to­ward Ro­man’s two Di­vi­sion I back­court com­mits in Shep Garner (Penn State) and Rashann Lon­don (Drexel). The Cahil­lites played three guys reg­u­larly who stood 6-foot-5 or taller, which ul­ti­mately turned in­to a match­up night­mare for Judge, which was without the ser­vices of sopho­more trans­fer Jamir Cole­man, the team’s 6’5’’ lead­ing scorer who’s been re­cently slowed down by back spasms.

“My job as a vet­er­an of this pro­gram is to get guys in­volved,” Brazu­kas said after lead­ing Judge with 14 points against Ro­man. “I want to get them touches and looks to get their con­fid­ence up, to show them what it takes to play at a high level in this league. We have to be smarter with the ball, and win those 50/50 balls, be­cause we’re pretty small. We hung with them for a little bit, but in the end their tal­ent just pulled it out.”

Make no mis­take about it, Tait’s good friend Chris McNesby, Ro­man’s head coach, has con­struc­ted one of the top teams in the city in one of the most an­nu­ally chal­len­ging leagues in the state. This is not to say Judge doesn’t have tal­ent, be­cause the pro­gram does; it’s still just so raw, and the rest of the team’s un­for­giv­ing op­pon­ents won’t sit around and idly wait for the Cru­saders (3-8, 0-2 league) to catch up.

In ad­di­tion to Brazu­kas and Cole­man, fresh­man guard Marc Rodrig­uez comes highly re­garded and mixed in eight points against Ro­man. Jon O’Con­nor, the only seni­or who gets play­ing time on the roster, scored nine points, while ju­ni­or for­ward Pat Mulville scored eight to go along with sev­en as­sists and four re­bounds. Seni­or trans­fer cen­ter Aaron Curry is a big body at 6-foot-7, but he still needs a lot of work on his low-post game. Sopho­more guards Quincy Reed and Justin Flem­ing fill out the ro­ta­tion, and each played sig­ni­fic­ant minutes as well against Ro­man (7-2, 1-0).

All of the new faces have put more of an onus on Brazu­kas, as the team’s point guard, to make the mov­ing parts mesh to­geth­er so that Judge can be in the mix for a play­off spot a month from now (the Cath­ol­ic League sends 10 of its 14 teams to the post­season).

“For these fresh­men and sopho­mores and trans­fers, get­ting thrown in there right away against La Salle and Ro­man will only help them for the fu­ture,” said Brazu­kas, a product of St. Mat­thew in May­fair. “I think it will help them learn from their mis­takes. I hate los­ing, but like Coach said, there were a lot of pos­it­ives. At the end of the day you have to say, ‘Man, we ac­tu­ally hung with these guys for awhile.’ Maybe if we made a couple more shots, it could have gone a little dif­fer­ently.”

In the first quarter, Judge played with more en­ergy and was the bet­ter team, with the score be­ing knot­ted at 11 after one. Ro­man built an 11-point half­time ad­vant­age, and after fall­ing be­hind by 13 early in the third, Judge used rap­id fire three-point­ers from Rodrig­uez, Brazu­kas and Reed to cut it to 37-32. But the Cahil­lites held firm, build­ing the lead back up to 14 by the end of the quarter be­fore blow­ing the doors off the hinges in the fourth.

Still, un­til Tait subbed him out with a few minutes left in the fourth, Brazu­kas’ mo­tor stayed on the same speed throughout, wheth­er Judge trailed by three or 30.

“His in­tel­li­gence and bas­ket­ball IQ are off the charts, the only place he gets in trouble is his size go­ing up against these 6’2’’ or 6’3’’ ath­let­ic guards,” Tait said of Brazu­kas. “He needs to con­tin­ue to look to score, so he can be an­oth­er threat out there with Jamir and Marc. If Will can be con­sist­ent, then I think we’ll be all right by the end of the year.”

For his part, Brazu­kas knows what the Cru­saders are up against this sea­son. In the Cath­ol­ic League, you don’t just throw to­geth­er a mish­mash of kids who have nev­er played varsity ball at this level and ex­pect to win a title overnight. 

Luck­ily for Tait, he has the pieces to his jig­saw puzzle in place, so it’s just a mat­ter of put­ting it all to­geth­er. If the Cru­saders play with the same type of ef­fort on Fri­day night at Bon­ner-Pren­die, a game Tait already called “a play­off game for us,” they should have a shot. The Ro­mans, Arch­bish­op Car­rolls, La Salles and St. Joseph’s Preps of the league may have already sep­ar­ated them­selves from the rest of the pack, but how will Judge re­spond against teams like Bon­ner, McDe­vitt, Con­well-Egan and Ry­an, fel­low squads search­ing for their own iden­tit­ies? 

The an­swer to that ques­tion will con­tain Judge’s fate as 2014 con­tin­ues mo­tor­ing along.

“We’re not there yet,” Brazu­kas said. “But the fu­ture is bright.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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