It was supposed to be a solid bounce-back basketball season for the Friars of St. Anthony, especially after losing in the NJSIAA Non-Public B semifinals for the first time in over a decade. The Friars won 24 games but lost an uncharacteristic five times, coming off their brilliant undefeated season to remember in 2007-08. The Friars took an early exit out of the state playoffs, courtesy of Paterson Catholic, packing away the balls and the uniforms in early March, which was a complete abnormality.
But this had the makings of a return to glory for the fabulous Friars. They were set to welcome back a veteran squad, filled with players who had already made verbal commitments to attend major college basketball institutions. Not as many as the six from the team that won the national title two years ago, but four from one team moving on to the world of big-time college hoops is nothing to sneeze at.
So with four college prospects on the roster and a host of promising and talented newcomers, the Friars appeared to have all the pieces in place to make a run at rival St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth for both the Non-Public B state crown and the overall Tournament of Champions.
But then something happened on the way back to the lofty standards of St. Anthony basketball. Six-foot-eight forward Ashton Pankey, who had given a verbal commitment to play at the University of Maryland, suffered a stress fracture in his leg and will more than likely miss the first eight weeks of the season.
Then, 6-7 multi-talented forward Devon Collier, who had given a verbal commitment to go to play for President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson at Oregon State, became academically ineligible.
Bingo, a 1-2 punch to the solar plexus before the season even begins.
“During the summer, we spent our time having all three big people [Pankey, Collier and 6-6 forward Derrick Williams] all playing together so they could get used to each other,” said legendary head coach Bob Hurley, who begins his 36th season as the head coach of the Friars, just 49 wins shy of the immortal total of 1,000 career wins.
Added Hurley, “Now, we lose two of them and we had to change things around a little. I’m not uncomfortable doing this, but we’ve been a work in progress. I didn’t think we would have a young team, but we’re more of a young team now. There will be many times when we have three sophomores on the floor.”
As for Pankey and Collier? Hurley’s not counting on much from either college prospect.
“By the time they’re ready to come back, they just won’t be able to contribute like we hoped them to,” Hurley said. “They’ll have to work their way back into the swing of things, and that’s not going to be easy after we’ve played so many games.”
So the bulk of the scoring responsibility will fall on senior guard Elijah Carter, who has already given a commitment to St. Bonaventure University. Carter, who was forced to play point guard last year, will be more comfortable this year playing the shooting guard role.
“He’s probably going to lead us in scoring,” Hurley said of the 6-1 Carter, who averaged eight points per game last year. “I think he’ll get somewhere between 15 and 20 per game this year. Elijah has developed into a very good offensive player.”
Williams, who has already declared his intentions to go to the University of Richmond, will also play a major role. The bulky Williams, who has dropped 25 pounds from his frame, is also going to be more of an offensive force this year.
“He’s also going to be somewhere between 15 and 20,” Hurley said. “He’s worked hard on becoming more of a factor. He understands his position and has more basketball sense. He’s also now way more versatile than he was.”
Sophomore Jerome Frink is a 6-5 forward who has worked his way into the starting lineup.
“He was really going to be held back, but when we lost the other two, he was thrown right in there and has handled himself well,” Hurley said of Frink.
Tyon Williams, a 6-5 junior, has also shown some signs in the preseason scrimmages. He will also be in the mix up front. Jimmy Hall, a 6-7 sophomore, is “all arms and legs,” according to Hurley, but “he’s getting better every day and I think he’s going to be a good player,” Hurley said.
The point guard is going to be 5-9 sophomore Matt Johnson, who is fitting the role of a typical St. Anthony floor leader.
“He is doing very well,” Hurley said of Johnson. “He reminds me a lot of Derrick Mercer [the former Friar guard who had a standout career at American University]. Matt is a hard worker who has knack for picking things up quickly. Our returning guards left the position open and Matt came in and took it. He will play a lot as a sophomore.”
Senior Matt Rista, who had some moments of brilliance as a 3-point shooter last year, returns and will fill the same role again. DeMarcus Owens is a 5-6 senior who will back up Johnson. Dytrel Bracey, a 6-2 senior, and Lucious Jones, a 6-5 junior, will also see time. Junior Jordan Quick is a 5-10 speedster who adds depth to the backcourt.
Another player who may find his way into the mix later in the season is talented 6-5 sophomore Rashad Andrews, who has the potential to be one of the best players on the Friar roster. Andrews has not performed well in the preseason, so he’s been demoted to the junior varsity. But Andrews, who in the past has looked like the second coming of Rodrick Rhodes, has a world of talent.
“He’s a work in progress,” Hurley said.
The Friars open their season at home against Edison Academy, then face Plainfield and Colonia in the Hoop Group Classic. Because they anticipated having a great team, the Friars have booked a highly competitive schedule, one that will also include a showdown against local rival St. Peter’s Prep in the Dan Finn Classic at the Jersey City Armory on Jan. 16.
“It’s one of the toughest schedules we’ve ever had,” Hurley said. “We’re going to play a lot of sophomores and that’s fine, because they’ll eventually gain experience and get better. That’s what we’re counting on.”
We’re counting on the Friars to collect at least 25 more wins this season, maybe more.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.