York Catholic boys' basketball coach Blaine Claiborne won't ever lack confidence in his team.
Rarely this year has he had any reason to doubt the talent on his roster, but even when the Fighting Irish went into a game looking like the inferior side, Claiborne always felt he had a squad that could, at the very least, compete with the opposition.
Heading into Friday's PIAA Class 3-A first round state tournament game against Neumann-Goretti, York Catholic probably hasn't been a bigger underdog this season, yet Claiborne won't admit it. He knows the task is tall, but he sees little reason why his Fighting Irish can't pull off something that has only been done once in the last seven years against the Saints in the state tournament.
"My mentality was to always go out and play," Claiborne said. "I didn't really care who my opponent was and that's what I try to pass on to my team. If we play the way we can play and believe in each other, I've said this all year to our guys, I'll put our talent up against anybody in any classification in the state of Pennsylvania and if we play hard and play together, we can beat anybody."
For the most part this season, too, the players on York Catholic haven't let down their coach. Aside from a season-opening loss to eventual District 3 3-A champion Trinity, a semifinal loss in the York-Adams League tournament to eventual champion and District 3 5-A champion Northeastern and a double-overtime loss to Lancaster Mennonite in the District 3 3-A semifinals, the Fighting Irish have had their way against teams this year.
Strong season: They're hardly your typical small, private school team with the talent they possess and they've showcased that. Senior forward Melik Martin (16.7 ppg) and junior guard D'Andre Davis (15.7 ppg) both rank in the top-12 in scoring in the Y-A League. York Catholic went toe-to-toe with the Bobcats in the league semifinal, a program immensely larger than the Fighting Irish, and only lost by three points. Then, in the loss to Lancaster Mennonite, York Catholic had the game all but won on a pair of occasions, but a buzzer-beating 3-pointer forced overtime and then a last-second field goal in the second OT frame finished off the Fighting Irish.
At 22-3, this is already one of the most successful teams in program history in recent memory, but it'll take something special to keep the season going past Friday night.
Perennial powerhouse: Neumann-Goretti is a program that's won six of the last seven Class 3-A state titles, including the last three and is fresh off a District 12 championship. The Saints also possess a lineup that can run eight or nine guys deep and has a pair of high-level Division I college prospects. Point guard Quade Green will play for John Calipari and Kentucky next season, while 6-foot, 9-inch Dhamire Cosby-Roundtree will be staying in the Philadelphia area to play for the reigning national champions, Villanova. They're a duo as talented as any that York Catholic has and will face this year. Claiborne isn't so sure you can stop them all together, but just try to slow them down.
"I don't know if you can manage them," Claiborne said. "Green is the guy who runs everything. He's such a smart guy and talented and reminds me of (Spring Grove's) Eli (Brooks). ...Cosby-Roundtree, he's a big dude, athletic, long, got great range in terms of getting around of the court. So, you just gotta look at those guys like they're just basketball players. That's the mentality that we have to have. We have to respect them, but no fear and no hesitation. Go right at them. They can be beaten just like anyone else can be beaten."
Trying to slay a giant: In order to become just the second team in the last eight seasons to hand the Saints (19-8) a loss in a state tournament game, the Fighting Irish have to focus on what they can control. On the offensive end, Claiborne said that it all comes down to having good shot selection because, if York Catholic starts putting up bad shots, it'll allow N-G to get out on the fastbreak and dictate the pace of the game. On defense, Claiborne said his team can't give the Saints second and third chances on a possession. Controlling the glass will be crucial, especially going up against a large front court, but if the Fighting Irish can limit N-G to one-and-done when it's on offense, that'll give York Catholic the chance to pull off the upset.
Claiborne has instilled a level of confidence in his players that hasn't wavered once this season. Friday, the Fighting Irish will need to feel like they belong if they even want a chance to extend their season into next week.
Claiborne feels it in his heart that his team can earn a victory. But, he knows that his feelings don't matter once the game starts. Then, it'll all come down to his players.
"I watched Neumann-Goretti play on Saturday and I left the gym feeling confident and feeling like the same things I've been telling my guys all year," he said. "It's up to them if they're going to believe it or not. I can't tell what's in their heart and head, but that's what's in my heart and in my head. If we play our game, then we got an excellent opportunity to go down there and win and have an opportunity to continue on in the tournament."
Friday's game is set for a 6 p.m. tip at South Philadelphia High School.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com