It was an odd time to show their longest-sustained burst of energy, but the Arlington Catholic boys had worked for moments like these in practice.
With four minutes left in the fourth quarter of their game against St. Clement High in IAABO Board 27’s inaugural Referees vs. Cancer Holiday Tournament, the Cougars flipped a switch.
In just over a minute of action, Arlington Catholic pushed its lead from 2 points to 12 on the way to a 57-50 win in the Dec. 29 game, which was played on Malden Catholic’s home court.
Arlington Catholic coach Joel Burke has a relatively inexperienced group without much size, but demanding practices ensure that his team’s conditioning will not be among its inherent disadvantages. The players’ ability to play efficiently late in games fueled a 4-1 start to the season.
“Coach is all about conditioning,” said senior cocaptain Matt Woods , who scored 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds against St. Clement. “To start off every practice we go through our stations and get our conditioning up. That really helped us today.”
Practices begin with more of a test than a warmup. In order to see how well his players can shoot free throws or handle game situations while breathing heavily, Burke wears them down right away.
“We like to get them moving early,” he said.
First are the continuous jumps to tap the backboard. Then the suicide sprints. Then push-ups. Then the quadriceps-busting defensive slides. Then an agility drill that looks like hopscotch in fast-forward mode. After 15 minutes, the players feel like they’re in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
“You get used to it and you adjust after four years of doing it,” said senior cocaptain Kevin Connors . “But still, some days when you’re not feeling great and you’re going through it, you know you just got to push through that, and it will really pay off come game time.”
The Cougars’ approach to fitness is especially helpful when playing on courts larger than their home floor. The Catholic Central League has several gyms that were squeezed into the framework of their building; Arlington Catholic’s floor is one of them, meaning there’s more ground to cover, more running to do, on a court like Malden Catholic’s.
That is OK with Burke, who did not change game plans against St. Clement. He likes to use a full-court, aggressive, trapping defense, and although he said he believes his team still is not in peak condition, the Cougars seemed ready to handle his fast-paced style on the larger space.
“Of all the coaches that I coach against, he’s always the guy that’s going to come at you,” said St. Clement’s coach, Leo Boucher . “He’s always going to be intense. His teams are always going to play hard. He’s a great coach.”
Burke leans on both Woods and Connors to show their teammates how to play with intensity as well as endurance. A sharp-shooting forward and a pass-first point guard, respectively, they are the only two returning starters from last year’s team, which won the league title.
Sophomore center Matt Wesolowski, at 6 foot 4, is their only player over 6-1, and he will need to be strong in the paint, while senior guard Mark Fusco and senior forward Frantz Pinard are adjusting to their roles as starters.
“We have our two steadies,” Burke said. “Everyone else is going to have to improve around them. And I think as good as we’re going to be is going to depend on how the other guys develop. Our center’s a sophomore and we have two other guys that didn’t get a lot of time last year, and we’re going to have to grow as they grow. We’re certainly not a world beater right now, but I think we’ll get better.”
Despite their strong start, the Cougars know there is plenty of room for improvement. They turned the ball over more than 20 times against St. Clement and missed 14 free throws. Against Whittier Regional Tech last Sunday, in the small-schools final in the referee organization’s tournament, they fell behind 19-3 in the first quarter and suffered their first loss of the season, 63-56.
But there is time to improve, and Arlington Catholic’s players have been together long enough to know how to make each other better. Many of them — including Woods (from Arlington), Connors (Belmont), Wesolowski (Arlington), and Pinard (Arlington) — played together as middle schoolers at Fidelity House in Arlington.
“We’re all comfortable with each other on and off the court,” Connors said. “Having pretty good relationships, I think, helps not only to let guys know when they do something right and encourage them, but also not to be shy and let them know when they’re doing something wrong, and change the way they’re playing.”
When things go wrong, they know it is time to go back to practice, where they will sweat their way through their problems.
“It’s going to take some time,” Burke said. “But the more we get in the gym, the better we’ll be.”
on a winning streak
In his first season as head coach of the Bellingham High girls’ squad, Dan Nagle has the team on pace for its highest win total in three years.
As of last week, the Blackhawks were at 6-2, and on a five-game winning streak. The team won eight games last season, four in 2010-11, and was winless in 2009-10.
“The girls, the town, the administration, everybody’s been really supportive,” Nagle said. “I think everyone thought this could be a pretty good year and everybody’s really responding well, especially us being off to a good start . . . I’ve got nothing but positive support, and I’ve enjoyed every second of being at Bellingham.”
A 2005 graduate of Norton High, Nagle went on to play at Emmanuel College before deciding to focus on coaching, and began his career on the sidelines in the AAU ranks as a college sophomore. After a two-year stint as the junior varsity coach at Norton, he became an assistant for the women’s team at University of Massachusetts Boston last season, and then accepted the Bellingham job.
Nagle’s approach to half-court man-to-man defense, one he learned under Norton boys’ coach Marc Liberatore , has helped Bellingham limit opponents to an average of just 33 points per game.
Nagle credits the players — including senior cocaptain and 5-5 point guard Meg Edwards , 5-9 senior cocaptain Nikki Remy , 5-7 junior guard Karina Saletnik , and 5-6 junior guard Meg Casey — for adapting so quickly to his style. Nine of the team’s 12 players had varsity experience prior to this season.
“Two or three years ago, it was a situation where younger kids got thrown into the varsity mix because there wasn’t much else,” Nagle said. “I’m kind of benefiting from the fact that I have 12th- and 11th-graders that have had three and four years of varsity. Now it’s like they’re used to it.”
Hudson’s Loewen reaches 1,000 points
Jake Loewen , Hudson High’s 5-11 senior shooting guard and captain, scored 21 points in a 71-51 loss to Algonquin Regional on Dec. 28.
The last two had some personal significance: a pair of free throws with 15 seconds left gave Loewen 1,000 points for his career.
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.