Northeast Times

Offseason outlook: Kuzmick, St. Hubert want to reach next level

Meghan Mat­thews (right) has be­come a go-to play­er for St. Hubert through her sopho­more sea­son. With the im­pend­ing gradu­ation of six seni­ors, the Bam­bies’ pro­gram will be Mat­thews’ to lead in 2014-15. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Bri­an Kuzmick has been the bas­ket­ball coach at St. Hubert for al­most a dec­ade, and the Bam­bies have been an an­nu­al lock to punch their tick­et to the Cath­ol­ic League play­offs. While that’s all well and good, like any coach worth his mettle, Kuzmick wants more.

Much more.

As a fre­quent play­off par­ti­cipant, Kuzmick has had a front row seat to a dizzy­ing flurry of post­season glory from the likes of Cath­ol­ic League stal­warts Arch­bish­op Wood, Car­din­al O’Hara, Arch­bish­op Car­roll and, this sea­son, an un­defeated Neu­mann-Gor­etti. The Bam­bies have ad­vanced as far as the quarterfi­nals, in­clud­ing this sea­son, when Car­din­al O’Hara, aided by two back­break­ing buzzer beat­ers, nipped St. Hubert 44-42. As has of­ten been the case play­ing in a league this good, Kuzmick and com­pany have scaled much of the moun­tain, only to tumble right be­fore reach­ing the pin­nacle.

“I think in any giv­en year, you have two or three really, really good teams, and then you’ve got five or six pretty good ones,” Kuzmick said dur­ing a re­cent phone con­ver­sa­tion in dis­cuss­ing the fu­ture of his pro­gram. “We’re cer­tainly work­ing to­ward the top, and we’ve been more com­pet­it­ive (with those top teams). We want to ac­com­plish things or­gan­ic­ally. I’m proud of what we’ve ac­com­plished, and the whole goal is to ac­com­plish more with the same types of kids we’ve been get­ting.

“The whole thing is … how do we do that? How do we grow a big­ger, bet­ter, faster, stronger team us­ing the same types of kids? Is it men­tal­ity? Is it X’s and O’s? The next step is fig­ur­ing out how to get them to the next level.”

Kuzmick he hopes he has an an­swer in the form of rising ju­ni­or-to-be Meghan Mat­thews, who stepped in as an im­me­di­ate con­trib­ut­or as a fresh­man and con­tin­ued to im­prove as an All-Cath­ol­ic se­lec­tion in her sopho­more cam­paign, one in which the Bam­bies fin­ished sixth in the league stand­ings.

For his part, Kuzmick be­lieves the Bam­bies’ in­ab­il­ity to climb the wave’s crest is more men­tal than any­thing else. After all, in the end, these are high school girls the same age com­pet­ing against one an­oth­er.

That’s the mes­sage he tries to get across to his girls when they storm back from a 10-point de­fi­cit like it was noth­ing, as they did this past sea­son on Seni­or Night in an over­time thrill­er against rival Arch­bish­op Ry­an. Dur­ing that game, the Bam­bies nev­er flinched when they were trail­ing by double di­gits; however, when they get down to a team with a trong a track re­cord like Wood, doubt starts creep­ing in.

Quickly.

“We’re in every game we play, and we’ve had chances to beat teams like that,” Kuzmick said. “But there comes a time where we say ‘OK, we’ve come close enough, but now is time for the do­ing part.’ This isn’t horse­shoes or hand gren­ades, so there needs to come a point when ‘close’ is no longer good enough. One of these times, we have to ex­per­i­ence what it’s like to come out on the oth­er side.”

Ad­ded Mat­thews: “I think we are really close to get­ting to that point, but we have to win one of those games to start be­liev­ing com­pletely. We only lost by two to O’Hara, and it’s im­port­ant that we do be­lieve we can come back next year and beat them. I’m ready for it. It will be a chal­lenge. The way I handle it, I don’t think it will be vo­cally; rather, it will be by show­ing. If I work hard, they’ll work hard.”

Mat­thews will be one of the few re­turn­ers with varsity ex­per­i­ence for Kuzmick next sea­son. He will gradu­ate six seni­ors, play­ers that have helped Kuzmick win a lot of games. But on the flip side of that coin, the head coach said an at­ti­tude ad­just­ment is in or­der to be able to van­quish the league’s top teams.

“After the sea­son I asked some of our seni­ors if they were over the loss to O’Hara yet,” Kuzmick said. “And some said they were happy to lose the way they did be­cause they didn’t want to get blown out by Wood again (in the next round). There was no thought of a po­ten­tial trip to the semi­finals in God knows how long. They didn’t men­tion the thought of play­ing at Phil­adelphia Uni­versity in front of a big­ger crowd with a chance to show those people what our pro­gram is all about. They said they were happy about the way it ended.

“As the head coach, I can’t let that men­tal­ity per­meate through the pro­gram. One of the hard­est things to over­come is that pre­de­ter­mined out­come, not giv­ing your­self a fight­er’s chance be­fore you step on the court. We’re tal­en­ted enough to beat any­one, and I want them to see those res­ults.”

Kuzmick isn’t alone. Rising Arch­bish­op Ry­an sopho­more Ash­ley Smink said after the Rag­dolls’ sea­son ended in the quarterfi­nals to Wood that she and her team­mates could no longer play scared against the league’s top-line op­pon­ents. Get­ting to the semi­finals, Smink said, would change the way the rest of the league and city views the Ry­an pro­gram, which would be one of a le­git­im­ate title con­tender year in and year out. As Mat­thews cor­rectly poin­ted out, “It’s not that much dif­fer­ent of a play­ing field.”

So once the play­ers at Ry­an and St. Hubert ac­tu­ally be­lieve it can be done, half the battle is already won.

“Win­ning breeds win­ning,” Kuzmick said. “When you win, the con­fid­ence level goes through the roof, in­stead of that feel­ing of get­ting so close so many times. It’s crazy, we joked about it last week, say­ing that if we put Ry­an jer­seys on the oth­er teams in the league, I guar­an­tee you we go 10-2. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m re­mov­ing my­self from the pro­cess, be­cause us coaches go over it and over it and over it think­ing about what we can change to help us get there. I know I need to grow more as a coach, but I also know someone needs to step up as a play­er, either through their ac­tions or their words.”

Of course, the cru­sade to get bet­ter and get over the pro­ver­bi­al hump be­gins now, in the off­season. Sev­er­al of his play­ers, in­clud­ing Mat­thews, play AAU ball in the sum­mer, which is good, but not ne­ces­sar­ily enough. At this level, most play­ers par­ti­cip­ate in AAU, so it’s the ex­tra in­di­vidu­al work out­side of those one or two prac­tices a week and week­end games that can make or break a play­er’s de­vel­op­ment.

“It’s an­oth­er thing that kids in this area don’t fully un­der­stand,” Kuzmick said. “You need to get bet­ter between March and Novem­ber, as an in­di­vidu­al. You need prac­tice. You need to shoot every day, you need to weight train, you need to work out, you need to run. If we have six play­ers who are in much bet­ter shape the fol­low­ing year, that’s only go­ing to help us get over the hump.

“It’s a cru­cial mes­sage to get out there that if our play­ers want to go to the next level, this is a step they’ll have to take. We need to get faster, stronger. If this is what they want and this is where they want to go, these are the things they have to do to get there.”

In Mat­thews, Kuzmick thinks he has his first dom­ino in place to get the rest to fall in line af­ter­ward, and he doesn’t shy away from pla­cing these ex­pect­a­tions on his sopho­more star play­er.

“Meg Mat­thews ab­so­lutely has the God-giv­en abil­ity to be the best play­er to come through St. Hubert in a really long time,” he said. “If she puts in the com­mit­ment to be­com­ing a high-level ath­lete, she’ll be 100 per­cent good enough to carry us to that next level. And I 1,000 per­cent be­lieve in that.”

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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