By Steve Sears
He’s used it now, that and a lot of other significant words to describe his club defeating their rival, and defending Passaic County Champion, the Wayne Valley Indians, in the 2019 Passaic Valley Tournament Championship game, 61-46. Deziah Gonzalez led DePaul with 25 total points, and Wayne Valley’s Briana Neary had 14 points in the losing effort.
The Spartans, strengthened by Ava Peiser’s superb 16-point first half total and buttressed by outscoring the home team 20-3 in quarter number two, took a 44-19 into the dressing room at halftime and kept the 2nd seeded opponent at bay to claim the title. Add to the fact that the victory was on Wayne Valley’s home floor only added to the accomplishment.
The road win wasn’t the only one in unfriendly confines during the PCT road for Andre’s 12-12 Spartans, another testament to the team.
Andre, who was Head Coach at Paterson Catholic until its 2010 closing, and the Assistant Head Coach at DePaul prior to taking over head reins, speaks to the Spartans basketball history. “They won the county championship in 1996, and then again in 2011 and 2013. We’ve had many great players, and Coach Paula Lasalandra, she has almost 400 wins here, and she was here for years, and is obviously one of the all-time Passaic County wins leaders. We’ve had 2,000-point scorers like Maureen Garvey and Alicia Charles, so there’s a pretty strong history.”
The Passaic County Tournament itself started in 1975, and the competition has always been fierce with the likes of Paterson Eastside, Paterson Kennedy, Paterson Catholic, Wayne Valley, Lakeland and West Milford. “A lot of strong clubs,” Andre attests.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, Andre and his coaches and players felt they could do something special. “We knew we had the patience, we weren’t over-confident, we knew we had to work really hard, but I think that we kind of knew we had a good squad and if we played defense like we knew we were capable, we could do a lot of special things.”
“Special” is an apropos word to describe the Spartan’s victory trail. Yes, the title game saw them down the 2nd seed on their home floor, but DePaul Catholic also needed come-from-behind road wins over the 4th seed, Hawthorne (45-42), and number 1 seed Lakeland (49-45) in order to get to the title game. “True,” says Andre, when asked about his team never giving up. “Last year the team had a lot of talent, but just could never get over that hump. This year, even though we were down in the second half of the Hawthorne game and the Lakeland game, the kids never felt it was an insurmountable lead. It took a little longer than we wanted, but we never kind of wavered. We just kept doing what we were supposed to do and eventually the tide turned. We just kept at it and the tide finally turned.”
After the two before-mentioned wins, the Spartans were more than ready for Wayne Valley. “We had scrimmaged them earlier in the year,” Andre says, “and we knew they were a very talented and well coached team, but we were kind of familiar with their personnel and so that really didn’t bother us. We had played a really tough schedule all year long – we had played IHA, Paramus Catholic, Holy Angels, we played Kennedy earlier in the year, we played Lakeland. We also played a couple of independent games in showcases, so we weren’t really concerned with the big game. We were concerned what they were going to do and their personnel, but we weren’t overly concerned with the magnitude of the game. The kids were not afraid of the moment and the spotlight. Playing all those other teams kind of prepared us for the final.”
For Andre, the preparation for he as a coach is always the same: give the players the tools to do their best. “It’s no secret that it’s a huge game; the kids are not naive. They know it’s a huge game, we know it’s a huge game, but I think the preparation throughout the season is what makes it a little more normal. We’re not preparing for something we haven’t done before. Lakeland was a really good team, Hawthorne was a quality team, but all the other games we played throughout the year were against quality teams, but I always like to think that a tough schedule doesn’t always give us the best record, but it prepares us for games like this. So, we don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary, but just continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
The Spartans impressed Andre with their fortitude on defense during the season. “Obviously we could shoot the ball and score when we had to, but I think that the mentality and the toughness that he kids displayed was the difference this year. It was just a tougher, grittier type team. Those are the types of teams that tend to win championships. We grinded out those games when we had to and that was the difference.”
The antennae are now turned to the 2019-20 season. The Spartans lost three key seniors that were a key to the team’s success, but there are many returnees. “I think,” says Andre, “those kids (the returnees) are hungry to prove themselves again.”
And, with regard to his title team? “I am very proud of these kids.”
In addition to Gonzalez and (Ava) Peiser, team members included Sam Buttitta, Vanessa Lomakin, Jess Fedroff, Olivia Peiser, Riley Sikorski, Pauline Lombardo, Jaime Roberts, Marcela Toledo, Kayla Bower Kayla Gonzalez and Arianna Silva. Andrea was assisted by Sheniqua Hairston-Kitchings and Kara Leslie, and team trainer was Nancy Keil. Joe Lennon is the DePaul Catholic Athletic Director.