In the minutes just before the tipoff of the first basketball meeting of St. Joe’s and Canisius at Canisius College this season, two members of Canisius’ large “Blue Crew” student section stood just off the baseline as St. Joe’s players went through warmups.
Each of them held signs. One read “Park 73.” The other read: “St. Joe’s 65.”
The makeshift human scoreboard referred to Park’s victory over St. Joe’s on Dec. 19. It was one rival’s dig at the other, and on the surface it made sense, as did the Blue Crew’s chanting of “Park! Park! Park!” at the Marauders.
However, as any one who has seen The Park School play this season can attest, the Pioneers are no punchline. Park has been ranked in The News small school top 10 for the entire season, reaching a high this week tied at No. 4 with Yale Cup power Middle Early College.
It has earned voters’ respect for not only the win over St. Joe’s but against large schools Iroquois and St. Francis as well as ranked small schools Silver Creek and Nichols. Two days before beating St. Joe’s, Park played Canisius to a 69-57 loss, playing the No. 1 large school tougher than perennial powers St. Joe’s (20-point loss), McKinley (27-point loss) and Olean (18-point loss). On Tuesday, the Pioneers lost a close one (76-71) at No. 4 large school Bishop Timon-St. Jude.
“We’re defying the odds,” said junior captain Randy Golda. “People didn’t expect us to do very well coming into the season. They expected us in the first year to come in and maybe do a little bit well, but we’re coming in and making an impact in the league.”
That league is the Monsignor Martin Association, where Park moved to after playing for many years in the much smaller Independent Athletic Conference.
“Last year we took Nichols to double overtime and split with Cardinal O’Hara and Niagara Catholic, so we thought we maybe would be ready to move up into the Monsignor Martin Association,” said Michael Battaglia, in his fourth year coaching at Park. “We applied, they accepted our application and we were able to move forward.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that we had good players, I knew they were good kids and I knew they worked hard. I didn’t know how we would fit in. I thought we probably could be competitive … I didn’t think we would be this successful.”
I was among the many taken back by the early success of Park, which has had success in basketball but it was more than a decade ago. So naturally, there were some questions:
Who are these guys and where did they come from?
Battaglia, a board-certified physician in neurology and psychiatry as well as an associate professor of neurology at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, coached modified for eight years at the Waldorf School in East Aurora and coached one year of junior varsity at Nichols. He played at Lew-Port for coach Jim Walker, and “has been playing ever since,” he says. When Battaglia arrived at Park, the goal was to build the program, and one of the steps was to hold a regular open gym.
His team is a young, six-man rotation whose talent and size is clear, but its success is rooted – like any good basketball team – because it is playing smart and playing together. Park starts two juniors – 6-4 Golda and 6-3 Derrick Cheatom – and three sophomores: 6-5 Fred Foster, 6-3 Hunter Anderson and 6-1 Kyle Harris. Blaine Brown, a sharpshooting 5-7 freshman, comes off the bench.
“We’ve got everything,” said Anderson. “We’ve got athleticism in Fred, Kyle is a good shooter, I’m a good ball-handler, Randy’s going to hustle and get rebounds and Derrick is an all-around player.
“We’ve been working hard for it, so I think we deserve it,” Anderson said of the team’s success this year after he was part of a team that went 14-8 and 8-0 in winning the IAC last season. “It’s not a shock to me. … It feels real good – I’m not really used to it, but it feels real good.”
Battaglia is proud of the team’s resiliency, having battled back from several deficits this season. That was the case last Friday, when Park came back to beat Nichols despite falling behind by nine in the third.
Foster stole the show late with a tremendous dunk off just a couple of steps in the lane, an overpowering finger-roll move down low, and two steals in the final seconds to seal the 77-75 victory. But just as impressive was the quick, unselfish ball movement that helped put Foster in position to score and the defensive pressure that turned Nichols over.
“It’s our chemistry,” said Golda. “We’re always talking, and we treat each other like brothers on the court.”
So why is Park’s record 7-8?
Park had to forfeit its first five games of the season – all wins – because it had used an ineligible player. Melvin Henley transferred last year from Cheektowaga, and Park asked that he repeat a grade. This year academically he is a senior, but according to Monsignor Martin rules he had used up his eligibility.
“As soon as he found out he wasn’t able to play, we forfeited the five wins,” said Battaglia. “Melvin is a class act. He’s an assistant coach now and he practices with us, he’s an outstanding player.”
While the ruling was tough to digest for Henley, he participates in drills with the rest of the team and says that having a different perspective has changed the way he plays.
“At first it hurt, I’m not going to lie ... I didn’t practice for a couple of days ... worked hard over the summer to come back for my senior year, and it got taken away from me,” said Henley, who said he plans to play at either Gannon or Daemen. “But I bounced back. My team supported me. So I just come here and practice with them and try to push them so they can get better.
“As a player now, as I’m practicing as a coach, I’m doing everything right – as a player I was like constantly being reminded about what to do.”
Who’s that guy watching Park games who looks like Reggie Witherspoon?
That is Reggie Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, who was fired by the University at Buffalo after 14 years as head coach, has been friends with Battaglia for about 25 years.
“This summer I went to his house and I said ‘Reggie, I need you to show me your offense, I need something different,’ ” said Battaglia. “He showed me some video, and I said ‘That’s not good enough. Please come.’
“Gradually he started coming to our practices and showing us different things. After a while, I think he just got hooked.”
Witherspoon has demonstrated his motion offense for several colleges and high schools (Williamsville North asked him to come in after they scrimmaged Park and liked what they were doing) and even was at a Toronto Raptors practice recently.
A major-college assistant texted Witherspoon: “Your offense is all over college basketball,” it read.
After Battaglia asked for his advice, Witherspoon invited Battaglia to come along with him when he met with Kent State’s team late last summer.
“He’s been exceedingly helpful,” said Battaglia. “I feel like I have a teacher or a mentor every single day in practice. It’s been a great thing.”
Witherspoon kept coming and kept coming. At Park home games, you’ll likely see him leaning in the locker room doorway just beyond the baseline, well away from the bench, just observing.
“We’ve been friends for a long, long time ... I would always talk to him about his team, and how things were going last year,” said Witherspoon. “I think initially when Mike asked me, he was giving me some therapy. I didn’t go into a gym for a longgggg time. … At first I said no. I said no for a while.
“Then I said I would come, and it was as much me just getting out and seeing people as anything else,” joking that his family wanted him out of the house. “I came in and it started to be more and more.
“It’s been fun. It’s been fun to see the kids again, and see them in a situation where it’s genuine. It’s not them pretending to be interested, and all of these kids are not attempting to play college basketball – but they attempt to come in and learn as much as they can. That’s enjoyable, too.
“They share. They really do make every attempt to play together. They seem to get out and make every attempt to use each other to be successful. They’re young. And I think they’re embracing this whole challenge of Park School going into another league. I think it’s good for them individually, I think it’s good for the Monsignor Martin Association, and I think it’s good for basketball in Western New York.”