Looking for the CHSAA Class A intersectional champion? The odds are pretty good that team is coming out of the stacked A-North division.
The division is home to last year’s two finalists – Archbishop Stepinac and Cardinal Hayes – and perennial powerhouses Mount St. Michael and Iona Prep. The four teams' combined record last year was 78-29.Rallying from a 13-point deficit, Archbishop Stepinac captured its first Class A title since 1993 a year ago. The Crusaders were a bit of a surprise considering division foes Iona Prep and Mount St. Michael were the favorites to get to Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym.
Archbishop Stepinac and Cardinal Hayes could meet back at Fordham for a rematch of last year's Class A title game.
This year, Stepinac isn’t surprising anyone.
“I know everyone is going to come after us, that we have a target on our back, but we just have to work hard,” said Conroy Baltimore, a Lehigh-bound senior forward who is arguably the best post player in Class A.
The 6-foot-5 senior dominated around the basket last year, but The Bronx native has worked on his shooting during the summer as he prepares to make the leap to the next level.
“He’s improved on his outside shooting and he just keeps getting at it,” Stepinac coach Tim Philp said. “He doesn’t ever stop working hard and that’s his biggest strength. He’s a great rebounder, he constantly gets after it and he runs the floor well.”
Tough-as-nails guard James Chillemi is also a returning starter from last year’s squad and he’s joined by fellow senior Julian Wright as the Crusaders' leaders. Stepinac has forged a reputation as a solid defensive squad and that doesn’t change this year.
The Crusaders, who also feature football standout Austin Taps, freshman Naim Thomas, Josh James and Malik Omess, have more quality players this year, which means stiffer competition for playing time.
“We’re deep so guys can’t get complacent,” Philp said. “If they get complacent and lazy, it’s easy to rotate guys now.”
Cardinal Hayes overachieved by reaching last year’s title game, according to coach Joe Lods. This year, that’s the only option.
“We’re supposed to make it to the final,” Lods said. “Anything else besides the final and I say we didn’t have a good year. There’s no way we can’t improve off last year. If we don’t get back, I think I screwed it up.”
That’s because a talented group of sophomores who gained valuable experience a year ago are now juniors. Leading the way is Amadou Sidibe, a 6-foot-7 rebounding machine who has offers from Iona, Fordham, Quinnipiac and, with a 90 average, has interest from Ivy League schools Yale, Princeton and Columbia.
Jalen Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 forward, has also drawn interest from Quinnipiac and Fadil Yacoubou has Division I interest, as well.
“He spent the whole summer playing on the perimeter and making shots,” Lods said. “He’s only 6-foot-3, but because he’s got such good interior moves, you just want to post him all the time. He might be the best shooter we have this year.”
Senior Davon Sylvester is a scoring guard, but he may be asked to distribute more without a pure guard on the roster. That’s the Cardinals most pressing need.
Mount St. Michael has more than its share of guards, allowing coach Tom Fraher a versatility he didn’t have a year ago.
“What I like is that we have a bunch of kids who can handle it and it shoot it, which we really haven’t had in the past,” he said. “We have a lot of balance when it comes to that. We’re going to defend pretty well and we should rebound pretty well.”
The Mountaineers are led by three-year starter Peter Aguilar, a 6-foot-3 senior scorer who has drawn interest from Manhattan, Fordham and Canisius. Malik Gill, who started at the point as a sophomore “guards the ball better than anybody in the city,” according to Fraher. “He’s strong, he’s low and he can really get after you,” he said.
Clarence White, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is also back and he’s joined by talented shooter Anthony Maestrae, who is up from the junior varsity.
Brandon Cunningham and Omari Manhertz are the leaders in the frontcourt. Manhertz, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior who played on the Mountaineers football team is the younger brother of Chris Manhertz, a feared shotblocker at Cardinal Spellman last year who is now at Canisius College.
“I think he’s more athletic than his brother,” Fraher said. “He doesn’t have the post game Chris had, but he can really get up and down.”
On the strength of Jeff Mack, Jordan Bronner, Sandro Carissimo and Brian Voelkel, Iona Prep won the Class A title two years ago. Fraher believes he can have similar success with his personnel.
“I think we’re going to be hard to guard,” he said. “If you man us, we’ve got four guards who can break you down and get into the lane and if you collapse we can kick it out and we have guys who can make shots. That’s why Iona was so effective.”
After going 66-12 the last three years, the Gaels, who were shocked in last year’s quarterfinals by Xavier, are expected to struggle with Carissimo and Voelkel at Vermont, Bronner at New Hampshire and Mack at prep school.