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Running afoul

The St. John Neumann coaching staff looks stumped, while the players sit on the bench with their heads down. One look at the scoreboard explains the scene.

St. Joseph’s Prep, 88; St. John Neumann, 53.

On Friday, the local squad didn’t resemble a championship-caliber team with a 10-1 record. The Prep dominated the Pirates in every aspect of the game. After the contest, the Neumann athletes spent 10 minutes huddled in the Kelly Fieldhouse, trying to overcome the pain of the lopsided defeat. Once the locker-room doors opened, so did the floodgates of frustration.

"It’s the most embarrassing game of my life," said junior Richard "Tabby" Cunningham.

Senior teammate Antwain Wynn agreed that the loss was difficult to digest.

"We played bad today," he said. "They just came out and hit a lot of good shots. We didn’t come to play at all."

The Pirates couldn’t take advantage of many mistakes, as the Prep connected on 21 of its first 26 shots, including going 9-for-11 on three-pointers. Even St. Joe’s coach Bill "Speedy" Morris, who won the 700th game of his coaching career earlier last week, was amazed by the performance.

"To think we could come out and beat them like we did was an unthinkable thing," said Morris, the former longtime men’s basketball coach at La Salle University. "I was hoping to win a close game, maybe at the buzzer, who knows."

For the Pirates, the loss will serve as a wake-up call as they prepare to defend their Catholic League title. Neumann, who will close out the regular season tomorrow against West Catholic, is locked into second place because both of its losses came against top-ranked St. Joe’s Prep. A January contest ended with a much closer 52-48 score. Coach Carl Arrigale said he believes overconfidence may have contributed to the most recent loss.

"We were coming off a pretty decent game against [nationally ranked] Oak Hill Academy," he said. "As a staff, we thought it would help us, but I think it may have hurt us because I think [the Neumann players] came in here thinking this team is nowhere near Oak Hill. We just had [Oak Hill] down to the wire.

"[The Prep] would’ve beaten a lot of teams today, not just us."

St. Joe’s Prep built a 15-point lead after one quarter, which grew to 28 by halftime. Neumann had scored 70 points or more in its previous five outings. This time around, though, the Pirates had no answers for the Hawks’ explosive offense.

St. Joe’s had four players tally 14 points or more, highlighted by a game-high 29 points from Mark Zoller. For the Pirates, Todd Johnson and Kenny Fulton were the only players to reach double figures in the scoring column with 11 apiece.

"Obviously, you think you can do a better job defensively," Arrigale said. "There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot we could’ve done differently. We are a good man-to-man team, but today they just carved us up."

With the Catholic League playoffs starting at the end of the month, Neumann players and coaches can’t afford to dwell on this defeat, especially if the two teams meet again in the championship game.

The majority of this year’s athletes were key contributors on last year’s championship team, which suffered late regular-season losses to Monsignor Bonner, Roman Catholic and the Prep.

Like last season, the Pirates will aggressively prepare for the playoffs.

"I think this one is going to be out of our hands," Cunningham said. "Our coach is going to take over. He is going to make every decision."

Even though the Prep dominated Neumann last week, Morris believes the defending champions are ready for a comeback.

"They’ll be a formidable foe for anybody in the playoffs," the coach said. "If we can get to the finals and they are there, I would pay to see that game. It should be a very good game."

Neumann senior Wynn added that the Pirates’ ability to recover will say a lot about the team.

"Hopefully we can learn from this game because this is truly embarrassing," he said.

Catholic League

Southern Division standings

St. Joe’s Prep 11-1

Neumann 10-2

Roman 9-3

Carroll 6-6

Bonner 5-7

West 4-8

O’Hara 3-9

Kennedy-Kenrick 0-12

No sparing another title

The St. John Neumann Pirates might not be talking about a three-peat quite yet, but once again it’s a possibility.

The team officially clinched the Southern Division title last week, which comes with an automatic bye into the semifinals. Neumann will host the winner of today’s quarterfinal match Tuesday at St. Monica Lanes. The winner will advance to the March 1 championship game at Boulevard Lanes.

If the Pirates, who finished 39.5-8.5, strike gold again, it will be their second three-peat in seven seasons, and 10th Catholic League title overall.

"The word ‘three-peat’ hasn’t been mentioned yet," coach Gene Mattioli said. "We are a very inexperienced group in the playoffs."

Of course junior Matt Stankiewicz knows what it takes to win, being the only full-time starter returning from the last two championship teams. His 191 average has earned him a First Team All-Catholic nod, while teammates Mike Zarella (188), Steve DiGiovanni (186), Matt’s younger brother Joe Stankiewicz (182) and Rob McGinnis (179) also rank among the Catholic League’s best.

Come Tuesday, the team that knocks down the most overall pins after three games will advance to the championship game. Heading into the playoffs, Northern Division squad Father Judge is averaging 954 pins a game, while Neumann is at 920. The Pirates plan to get in a few practice frames before stepping into their home court on Tuesday afternoon.

The local squad might be considered the early favorite, but the players are sitting tight: Three years ago, the Pirates saw their pursuit of a four-peat die in a semifinal loss to Archbishop Ryan.

"We have to make sure we are ready to get the job done and that we don’t take anything for granted," Mattioli said.

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