When it hosted St. Ray’s 51 weeks ago tonight, Stepinac viewed the game as a step up in competition, a challenge meant to test players and help them get better. The Crusaders actually led the game by double-digits and were on top deep into the second half. Eventually, St. Ray’s size and depth prevailed, and the Ravens won 63-55.
Many viewed the result as a success, and it was. Only now Stepinac — like its old division rivals Mount St. Michael and Cardinal Hayes — will no longer have the luxury of lowered expectations when they meet the city’s best. Those three teams and Fordham Prep were part of the CHSAA’s realignment this offseason that landed several of its stronger “A” teams in the “AA,” including Stepinac.
The Crusaders won’t exactly ease into what has long been considered one of the country’s top high school basketball leagues. They travel to St. Ray’s at 7 tonight for their season opener and official AA debut.
The Crusaders will be hard-pressed to replace 6-foot-6 Lehigh freshman Conroy Baltimore, who scored 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a four-year varsity career and was widely considered one of the county’s best defensive players in a generation. Six-foot-6 senior transfer Devino McRae will try to provide the size and rebounding against a ramped up level of competition. He sat out last season after transferring from a charter school in the Bronx.
So far, McRae has looked solid in scrimmages against the likes of Christ the King and Wings Academy. He and the team will miss the additional size of Austin Taps, who opted not to play this season after averaging 18 minutes a game and earning some starts as a junior. Either way, Stepinac will be undersized and lean heavily on its guards, who are numerous and all talented.
Junior point guard Josh James leads the pack, but fellow returnees like senior Tyler Iacuone (pictured above, left) junior Malik Omess and sophomore Naim Thomas all earned major minutes at times last season.
A possible breakout name who could provide production on the wing and in the frontcourt is 6-1 senior Quarry Greenaway. He played sparingly as a junior but is a clear starter. At times, he was among the best players on the court during last week’s scrimmage with Christ the King.
Greenaway kind of epitomizes Stepinac’s newfound role as the underdog. Both he and the team will face serious odds in the AA, but they will embrace them.
“I’m a hustler,” Greenaway said. “I’ll do whatever it is the team needs me to do for us to win.”
Now, he’ll have to.
CHSAA basketball realignment
New York Archdiocesan
AA division: All Hallows, Cardinal Hayes, Fordham Prep, Mount St. Michael, Stepinac, St. Raymond
A division: Iona Prep, Xavier, Regis, Cardinal Spellman, La Salle
AA division: Archbishop Molloy, Bishop Loughlin, Christ the King, Holy Cross, St. Francis Prep, Xaverian
A division: Bishop Ford, Monsignor McClancy, St. Edmund’s, St. John’s Prep
AA division: Monsignor Farrell, St. Peter’s
A division: Moore Catholic, St. Joe’s by the Sea
WHITE PLAINS — On a Wednesday evening nine days ago, the No. 1-ranked Catholic high school boys basketball team in New York state and the No. 14-ranked team in the country walked into a gym in White Plains for a challenge. It brought a former all-American and a future one, not to mention more than enough sizzle to gather a couple hundred fans for a late November scrimmage.
“You have Mount Vernon and that goes without saying, but it’s not every day you get teams ranked 14th or 15th in the country coming into Westchester County,” Stepinac coach Tim Philp said.
That may soon change. The Crusaders’ preseason tussle with North Carolina-bound senior Omar Calhoun and Christ the King is about to become more ordinary. At 7 tonight at city power St. Raymond, they open up their first season in the CHSAA’s “AA” division.
A game at that level of program was once special for Stepinac — as recently as last December, in fact. Soon, it will simply mark one end of a home-and-home between division opponents.
St. Ray’s? Ho hum.
“Every night now, we have to come and compete,” junior point guard Josh James said after his team took two quarters in a competitive run with Christ the King. “It’s not going to be easy.”
When he first took over his alma mater, Philp sought to schedule challenging non-league games. Last season, that included dates with “AA” teams such as St. Ray’s, All Hallows and Bishop Loughlin, and St. Mary’s of Manhasset, the defending Class A Catholic state champ.
The grind isn’t always kind to the team’s record, but can prove beneficial. That truth became clear in 2010 when a 10-loss Crusader team improved quickly enough to win the city championship.The sustained success of Stepinac and “A” division rivals Cardinal Hayes and Mount St. Michael, along with the recent closure of some CHSAA schools — most notably Rice in Harlem — led league administrators to realign the balance of power. (Last season, all four “A” semifinalists, including Stepinac, came from the same division). So those three along with Fordham Prep were all moved from the “A” to the “AA,” one of the most storied basketball leagues in the country.