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.” ••