Photo courtesy of Moving Pictures/Hector Martinez
By David Cordova
Every year in high school basketball, there is a big-time rivalry that gets people excited. There is energy in the stands and rival fans from both schools trying outduel each other in heckling or anything else, and the actual teams that are playing on the court are battling each other from start to finish.
Welcome to Westchester County, which is considered suburbia to those from New York City. The main event in this area is between two Catholic schools that have a huge presence in the tri-state area when it comes to hoops. The schools are none other than Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains and Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle.
The two schools, both of whom are five miles apart from one another is Westchester County’s version of Duke-UNC. They are rivals in every sport, including basketball.
Last year, both programs met up with each other three times in one season. On January 5th, in front of a crowd of 3,000 fans, they met up in the Westchester County Center in White Plains, with Stepinac taking that game in overtime, 82-78. On February 2nd, they would meet up once again, this time on the campus of Iona College in New Rochelle, with the Gaels winning that one, 75-67.
There was also the third and final matchup on February 24th at Mount St. Michael Academy in The Bronx, in the CHSAA Archdiocesan semifinals, as Stepinac would win by a 17-point margin, 75-58. The Crusaders would go 27-5 and goon to win both the CHSAA championship and the New York State Federation championship. The Gaels would go 21-8 and make it as far as the CHSAA quarterfinals.
Now, in the present day, both teams have regrouped. Last year’s seniors from both schools are now college freshmen or either off at a prep school, trying to increase their chances of gaining a Division I college scholarship.
This time around, the Gaels were much younger and inexperienced and the Crusaders had plenty of returning talent coming back from the championship team. However, there was a difference between both teams. Iona Prep, although inexperienced, were 6-2. Stepinac, on the other hand, struggled through a tough schedule them to a 2-7 record.
The true test for both programs, would be against each other in the first matchup of the year at the second annual Crusader Classic, hosted by Stepinac, on January 4th, at the County Center. The question was, which of the two teams would emerge as the victor? That question would be answered once 32 minutes of action turned into 0:00 on the clock.
Early in the game, the intensity of the game was very high, as both teams matched each other’s shot and gave each other fits. But the experienced Crusaders finished the first quarter leading 16-13, after a three by junior guard Matt Brand, with more than 30 seconds to go.
In the second quarter, the young Gaels would fight back and give their counterparts everything they could muster. However, a layup by senior guard, Ed Sanchez, gave Stepinac a seven-point lead, 27-20, with 3:59 to go.
Then Iona Prep came storming back, countering with baskets by freshmen Isaac Gonzalez and R.J. Greene, as well as senior guard Will Rubin, as the Gaels held a five-point lead, 32-27, with 50.5 seconds to go in the first half.
After a three-pointer by junior guard R.J. Davis went in as the clock ran out, Stepinac trailed by two, 32-30, as both teams went into intermission. The second half would be a different story, as the stakes would be raised even higher.
From the beginning of the third quarter, both teams were on a mission, as it was a see-saw battle as both squads matched shot for shot. With 50 seconds left, Rubin would make a layup to give the Gaels a two-point lead, 45-43. But at the other end, Davis finished out the quarter with a layup, as both teams went into the final quarter, tied at 45-45.
In the fourth, both teams rallied and made crucial plays to either take the lead or tie the game. However, the Crusaders would unravel and the inexperienced Gaels would surge ahead, behind baskets by junior guard Aidan Hilderbrand and Greene as they would lead by four, 57-53, with 34.6 seconds left.
At the other end, Davis would be fouled and kept hope alive for Stepinac, as he hit two free throws with 26.1 seconds left, to cut the deficit to 57-55. But much to their dismay, what would happen a moment later would seal their fate.
After receiving an outlet pass, Greene would speed downcourt and throw down a two-handed dunk with 21 seconds left to give Iona Prep a 59-55 lead. Rubin would then be fouled with 5.6 seconds left, and would then hit one of two from the free throw line to shut the door on Stepinac, as they would win this first battle, 60-55.
In the press conference, Iona Prep head coach Steve Alvarado was satisfied with his team’s effort. “The one thing I can say about this group is, I know they’re going to come out every game and play really, really hard,” he said, “And because of that, it gives us a chance now, we can execute and when we prepare for teams, we think we’re going to ourselves a chance to compete and beat anybody. And we talked about that all week, and said, ‘You’re ready, and we’ve given you enough tools to go out and compete effectively against a very good Stepinac team.”
On his team’s experience, he added: “What it’s done is allow us to get that in-game experience, where it’s down the stretch and we continue to keep our poise, and make plays when it’s necessary.”
For Stepinac, head coach Patrick Massaroni had a positive outlook on the game. “The outcome tonight, our guys battled, just some plays, crucial parts of the game that, 50-50 balls that we didn’t get, which was a big part of the outcome, and give Iona a lot of credit, they got some loose balls and some and-ones that just, could’ve gone our way.”
As far as what they need to work on from thereon out, Massaroni replied, “Yeah, I think our guys are battling, they’re playing hard, we’ve lost nine games, seven of them have been by six or seven [points] or less, so as a coach, it’s obviously frustrating, our guys are frustrated, playing [on] a stage like we did tonight, and to not get over the hump, that’s definitely a teaching moment for many. But I think our group is still together in the locker room, and I think that they believe in each other, but just making the extra play and going over the hump, that we haven’t been able to do this year.”
With one team getting a big win and another suffering a devastating loss, it made for a good affair. With a big crowd for a high school game, it brought plenty of excitement. As the season continues for both programs, character building will bode well, especially when both teams meet up next month.
For one night only on a cold January night in White Plains, the Iona Prep-Archbishop Stepinac game at the Westchester County Center was the place to be.
Since the game took place, both teams have struggled to win. Archbishop Stepinac has found some light in their dismal season, as they defeated Holy Cross on December 8th, but then lost the next two games to St. Raymond and Roselle Catholic, rated the No. 11 team in the nation by USA Today. As for Iona Prep, they have dropped four straight games to schools such as Chaminade, Christ the King, Cardinal Hayes and Wings Academy.
However, both teams have as many as 11 games to go in the regular season, and both plan on making huge strides in time for the impending CHSAA city playoffs, which will start in late February.
But, there is great news for both program. Stepinac-Iona Prep II will once again be played at the Hynes Athletic Center on the campus of Iona College in New Rochelle, on Saturday, February 2nd at 6 PM. What will happen next in this storied rivalry remains to be seen. Will there be another sellout crowd? Will the Gaels sweep the regular-season series? Or will the Crusaders split the series? We’ll all find out on that date.
More good news is on horizon for the rivalry game. The third annual Crusader Classic will once again be held at the County Center on January 3rd, 2020. As long as the teams play competitive basketball, this one game will always keep the seats packed.
Courtesy of Moving Pictures/Hector Martinez.