There are always new faces from new places at Long Island Lutheran, given its status as a private school with an elite boys basketball program that thrives on transfers.
But this season, there were times when the melting pot of talent -- players from four different nations and both Long Island counties -- overflowed, requiring a little cleanup. "There was so much competition for playing time all during the year, it was difficult for chemistry," coach John Buck said. "It was tough for everyone to be happy with their roles."
So the Crusaders lost a half-dozen games against their usual grueling independent schedule as Buck shuffled players in and out, trying to find the right combination so the team would peak for the state Federation Tournament in Albany.
"Work in progress" was Buck's favorite description of the team throughout the winter. There was stability up front, as rugged power forward Ryan DeNicola transferred back to LuHi after spending a year at Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.). "A workhorse all season on defense and down in the low paint," Buck said of DeNicola, who averaged about nine points and nine rebounds. "He has a nose for the ball and the will to go get it."
That was evident in the state Federation Class A Tournament last weekend, when DeNicola totaled 27 points and 15 rebounds in two victories that brought the Crusaders their second consecutive state championship.
Junior center Kentan Facey, from the island of Jamaica, totaled 19 rebounds and showed flashes of the physical gifts that prompted Buck to say: "He'll be tremendous next season. He was very good this year."
Brandon Alford and K.J. Lee, the only returning starter, were consistent on the wings. Alford hit three from downtown and made eight steals in a 66-56 semifinal victory over Brooklyn Collegiate in the semifinals. Lee, formerly of Whitman, who averaged 11.5 points for the season, scored 10 points and made the key assist on Anthony Pate's winning trey in a riveting 62-61 victory over Harborfields in the championship game March 24.
Pate, a junior, led the team in scoring at 12 points per game even though he wound up coming off the bench for the second half of the season. "He was easily our most explosive offensive player," Buck said. "He has great elevation on his shot, which allows him to pull up at any point on the floor and be a threat. He brought a lot of confidence to the Federation."
Pate was voted tournament MVP after his 18 points in the title game, including that sweet swisher from the corner, right in front of the Crusaders' bench, with 1.1 seconds remaining. "You're more hungry when you come off the bench. You want to contribute," said Pate, who is a native of suburban Toronto. "I was glad that Coach called a play for me during the timeout."
Buck's best call of the season, however, might've been the one he made in late January, when he promoted freshman Chris Atkinson, formerly of Hempstead, to the varsity to be the starting point guard. "He brought extreme quickness to the floor and great court vision," Buck said. "The guys really embraced him. There was no jealousy when he moved up from the junior varsity. He made big strides and I felt confident with him making big plays in big situations."
Atkinson delivered upstate, with eight assists in the semifinals and perhaps the biggest shot of the championship game when he drilled a three-ball with 1:51 left that cut Harborfields' lead to 59-57 just when it looked like curtains for the Crusaders.
"When there's a big spot, they put the ball in my hands," Atkinson said. "I don't get nervous. I don't even think about it. I'm just grateful they trust me."
The trust factor emerged in practice the week of the trip to Albany when Buck said the team, unprompted, "decided to put aside their egos and not worry about their stats. They said, 'We just want to win it again.' "
Lutheran did just that, finishing 23-6 and making it back-to-back state titles and three of the last four. The new faces found their way to an old place.