As the starting five from St. John the Baptist, wearing Freddy Krueger masks, posed in their defensive mode for a Newsday photographer at practice Friday night, coach Jim Plate couldn't resist. "I've never seen you guys get into that good a stance before," he cracked.
Presumably, all five players smiled, but it was hard to tell because you couldn't see their faces. And really, that's the whole point of the Cougars' self-proclaimed "Monster defense" -- or as the players like to call it, with a nod to the horror movie that spawned the masks, "The Nightmare on Cougar Lane."
"If you're a good defensive team, you're an unselfish team," Plate said, espousing the philosophy of his old high school coach at Seton Hall of Patchogue, Frank Layden, who later coached Niagara University and the Utah Jazz. "You don't see their faces [behind the masks] and there are no names on the uniform. A good defender is an unselfish player."
Of course, there's another method to Plate's madness. The masks are a gimmick to help him sell the Cougars' all-out defense that he introduced last season, his first as the school's coach.
"We're trying to tell our opponents that when you play against St. John the Baptist, you have to earn every basket," Plate said. "That's the 'monster' defense. We try to pressure the ball all the time. It's a full-court zone trap with man-to-man principles."
Plate learned the system from Layden, whose 1964 team averaged 95 points a game and was photographed by Newsday that year wearing masks, with Plate on the far right. He showed the yellowed clipping to his players, who at first were amused. "They asked me which one I was and I said, 'The one with the best stance,'" Plate said.
He purchased the Freddy Krueger masks for the kids, who wore them for a school-produced video. "We wanted to encourage the student body to watch us play," Plate said. "They walked toward the camera wearing their masks and saying, 'Come out and see The Nightmare on Cougar Lane.'"
Gimmicky? Sure. But it's catching on. "At first, we just humored him," said star guard Josh Elbaum, who averages 15 points, 12 assists and seven steals, thanks to the aggressive system that uses defense to create turnovers and fast-break baskets for the offense. "But we knew it meant something to him and now we like the whole idea."
It helped that after a 12-12 record in Plate's first season, the Cougars are 15-2 overall, 4-1 in the CHSAA and tied for first place with St. Dominic. They average 75 points a game and surrender only 47.5.
"Last year, it was hard to get used to everything," forward John Brown said. "New coach, new system. But we practically lived at each other's houses and worked out together for this year. Our defense is really working and we're all buying into it."
There was no better example of a monster mash than on Jan. 16, when SJB defeated a good Chaminade team, 71-41, on the road. "That was the best defense I've seen played at St. John's," said Brown, a senior. "Every shot Chaminade took was contested."
Plate said he couldn't envision such a game last season when he took the varsity job after three years as the school's JV coach and a long stint on Wall Street.
"I had a lot of trouble selling it," Plate said. "I tried telling them it was a 20-month season and that they'd see the benefits this year. It's working. They know if they get tired but can't come out of the game, they rest on offense."
The defense, however, never rests.
It has become the Cougars' best offense, a real two-headed monster.