When the MIAA boys’ basketball state tournament kicks off this week, it will be business as usual for a number of the participating schools.
But not for Saint Joseph Prep, a neophyte program in Brighton making its first postseason appearance after failing to top six wins in any of its previous six seasons. The Catholic school became co-educational in 2012 with the merging of Newton’s Trinity Catholic and the all-girls’ Mount St. Joseph.
The fifth-seeded Phoenix (14-6) will host No. 12 Georgetown (10-10) Tuesday night in a first-round Division 4 North matchup at Cathedral High (7 p.m.).
In Alfred Chan’s third year as head coach, the turnaround has come quickly thanks to an influx of talented underclassmen.
“We’re really fortunate these young guys decided to come to St. Joe’s,” said Chan, who also serves as the school’s international student coordinator and mentor to its 34 international students.
“Right away, we felt like we could win more games.”
This season, St. Joe’s welcomed three fabulous freshmen in Tyrese Garcia-Melo, of Lynn, and the Robertson twins, Ethan and Nate, from Dorchester. They are thriving alongside sophomore holdovers Darius Peterson and Ahmadou Ndiaye, as well as junior captain Dan Grasso.
That young core took most of their lumps with consecutive losses to Austin Prep, the Catholic Central League Small champion (and Division 4 North top seed), before suffering blowout losses to league rivals Cristo Rey and Archbishop Williams in mid-January.
Partially exhausted from their first round of midterms at a rigorous academic school, the newcomers fell flat on the court, but now they’re clicking at the right time with eight consecutive wins.
“School comes first, no matter how much I love the game,” said Ethan Roberston, a versatile 6-foot-5-inch wing who has produced 73 points over his last three games.
“I’ve worked on improving my attitude and resiliency so that I could encourage my teammates and keep up my grades at the same time. I feel that the fun for me this year has been in the journey. To focus on those things and trust that we will get to where we want to go.”
Nate Robertson, a 6-3 righty, is also playing his best basketball with averages of 19.4 points and 2.6 steals per game. The fraternal twins, who play with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) AAU program during the offseason, have eye-popping potential. In their first high school campaign, they’re benefiting from the play of 6-foot-2 point guard Garcia-Melo, who is averaging 9.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists to go along with 7.2 points per game this season.
After absorbing one more loss to CCL foe Lowell Catholic, the Phoenix hit another gear. They’ve scored 70-plus points in 10 straight games and pulled off a 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter at Wilmington to earn a 77-75 victory on Jan. 29.
“There’s a tendency with younger players, when adversity hits, they might not play as much together or get down on themselves,” said Chan. “But, over the course of this winter, they’ve really learned how to pick each other up. You saw our immaturity during that tough stretch, but that was just part of the growing process.”
Then Chan’s young squad avenged earlier losses by edging Cristo Rey and Lowell Catholic. The Holy Cross graduate, who started his coaching career at the middle school level while getting his master’s at Vanderbilt, credits the midseason turnaround to a rise of unselfish play.
“During the second half of the season, our offense has really been humming because guys are buying into moving the ball and trusting each other,” said Chan. “I’m really happy with the way our guys have grown up and come together.”
Now the tight-knit community of 270 students and local sponsors, including the Sisters of St. Joseph, is abuzz with state tournament excitement.
For Chan, success on the court can hopefully bring increased exposure to a school that matriculated students to 160 colleges in 2019. In today’s climate, where former Division 4 North champions such as St. Clement and Pope John have closed despite success on the court, maintaining that success in the classroom is paramount.
“We’re definitely a program on the rise with these young guys,” said Chan.
“What makes this school special is we have a really diverse population in terms of socio-economic classes. As an educator first, and coach second, that’s why I decided to take this job, because the school allows us to maximize the potential of these young men on, and off the court.”
Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.