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St. John the Baptist, the new era

Newsday's tour around the catholic league takes the hop, skip and step to West Islip today, as I, your overly-verbose bball writer, preview St. John the Baptist.

How they fared: 'Twas an up-and-down year for Jim Plate's squad. On the one hand, the Cougars finished atop the CHSAA with an undefeated regular season in league. On the down portion of things, Baptist fell to No. 3 Holy Trinity in the CHSAA semifinals. If anything, the Cougars' season typified how this uber-competitive league is rife with unpredictability up top, even for seemingly unstoppable teams.

Player to watch: Dante Thompson, SF, Sr., 6-7. Thompson is the Cougars only key returnee, and he wears the title well. A transfer last year who has only played organized ball for 2 1/2 years, his natural athleticism is now giving way to certifiable basketball smarts. He has a decent outside shot, and a good pull-up jumper, but is at his best driving to the basket. This kid is as naturally adept as anyone on the court and it'll be fun to see his progress as a player since, get this, he's a 16-year-old senior.

Team strengths: Size, speed, athleticism, defense. Let's kick it off with the center, Kyle Williams, a cool 6-8. Also, he's a freshman. "He can run as fast as anyone," Plate said. "He's very coachable." Willem Fortune and Tim Rowland, both guards, are also new players, while the Cougars have an interesting new point guard in Keith Williams. Don't sleep on this guy. The Upper Room transfer who has made hasty contributions so far, with 23 and 17 points in Baptist's first two non-league games.

Team weaknesses: Other than Thompson, Baptist doesn't have any returning starters. Having someone as raw as Kyle Williams as the five is a leap of faith, but he's big, and it's definitely a gamble that could pay huge dividends. They have the natural attributes to be great, the question will be whether Baptist can get all its pieces working together and in harmony.

Outlook: Call me an optimist, but, though it's unlikely that Baptist will be as dominant as it was last year, the Cougars will be much closer to the top than the bottom. The fact that guys like Thompson (last year) and Keith Williams (this year) seem to buy into what the program is teaching is a very good sign. And they have size! Not too many teams in the CHSAA can trot out a 6-7 and a 6-8 kid on a game-to-game basis. That's huge. (Pun very much intended. I'm sorry.)

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