Mike Battaglia is the coach of the boys’ basketball team at Park School in Amherst – the defending state Federation champion in Class B.
He’s still having trouble wrapping his mind around that last part, even though he’s had about eight months to think about it.
“I can’t believe I’m even talking about it,” he said.
It’s a long, long road to become one of the few teams in the entire state to win its last game. A fraction of an inch here, and a bad bounce there, could have changed everything.
“You have to get lucky to win a state championship,” Battaglia said. “There are thousands of teams. There are good players everywhere – hundreds of them. You’ve got to have a little luck, and you’ve got to have good players.”
As the Pioneers get ready to defend their title, Battaglia can’t help but spend a little time thinking about what an interesting journey it’s been. This is someone who got his first surprise when he was interviewed for the job seven years ago.
“Seven years ago, the athletic director asked me, ‘What do you think of the program?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘They haven’t been very successful. They’ve had some bad years. I’ll teach the fundamentals and get the kids to play hard. He said, ‘I’m looking to win the state championship.’ ”
Battaglia was fine with that concept, although putting it into practice was more difficult. Slowly, Park, an institution not associated with athletic success, improved on the basketball court. One of the big steps forward came a few years ago, when it joined the Monsignor Martin Association.
“It helps in attracting kids,” Battaglia said. “The better players want to play in the better leagues. The MMA isn’t the best league in the area, but it’s right up there.
“The competition keeps you focused, helps you stay on your game. We were ecstatic when they asked us to join.”
The talent was obviously around last season, as all five starters were mentioned in The Buffalo News’ All-Western New York team. Jordan Nwora was a first-teamer, Derek Cheatom was on the second team, and Hunter Anderson, Randy Golda and Kyle Harris received honorable mention.
But that season is over. When this season’s team gathered in November, Battaglia had to remind the new group that they started over at 0-0.
“I think we’re dealing with high school kids,” he said. “Even though they know they lost two of their best players, they still rested on their laurels a little bit. But they are working hard, and I’m hoping we’ll come around.”
Any discussion about Park’s team in 2015-16 begins with Nwora. The 6-foot-7 senior averaged 23 points and seven assists last season, and shot 52 percent from the floor. When a high school player who is that is big can shoot that well from the outside, you have something special.
“He can shoot the lights out,” Battaglia said. “A lot of people are interested in him. He’s got some mid-major offers. He’s leaner and stronger this year. He’s in better shape.”
Anderson and Harris join Nwora as returning starters. “Those are the three kids who need to be stepping up this season,” the coach said. “They have to give us a degree of toughness. It’s on the three of them.”
The road back to Glens Falls for a state championship will be difficult. Park moves up to Class A this season. Battaglia wanted his team to be tested along the way, so he scheduled plenty of good teams from around the region. There are even games with Rochester-area opponents.
“I saw what Canisius did last year,” Battaglia said. “They had a really tough nonleague schedule. I think that helped them. When the playoffs started, we were ready. I think we took a page out of their book.”
Season at a glance
2014-15 Federation champions: Canisius, Park.
2014-15 Section VI champions: Jamestown (AA), Williamsville South (A), Buffalo East (B), Middle Early College (C), I-Prep/Grover (D). Canisius and Park won the Monsignor Martin titles
2014-15 All-WNY first-team underclassmen: Stafford Trueheart, Canisius; Jordan Nwora, Park.
2014-15 All-WNY second-team underclassman: Dominick Welch, Cheektowaga.
2014-15 All-WNY third-team underclassmen: T.C. Brown, Amherst; Takal Molson, St. Mary’s.
Who’s good? Canisius has been a dominant team in recent years but doesn’t look as strong. Still, the Crusaders should be good, and so will Park. Jamestown has consistently been one of the best teams in the area among public schools, and will be joined by an athletic Kenmore West squad. Williamsville North has an outstanding scorer in Maceo Jack, and Williamsville South could join it as a league champion. Two teams that could make some serious noise in March are Amherst and Cheektowaga, with their stars ready to lead them.
North of Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Medina are picked to win their leagues. In the city, Middle College has an outstanding team. Jo Jo Stanton is a top shooter, and Fred Foster is an excellent athlete who was a star for the South Park football team in the fall. To the south, Patrick Moore figures to lead Fredonia to yet another fine season, and Olean usually finds a way to make it to Buffalo State for the sectionals.
Recruiting game: Trueheart has caught the eye of such schools as George Washington, Richmond, Siena and Canisius. Nwora reportedly has been recruited by Fordham, Long Beach State, South Florida and Buffalo. Amadi Ikpeze of Amherst has signed with St. Bonaventure.
Coaching changes: The turnover was surprisingly heavy this year. New coaches will be on the bench at Clarence, Eden, Iroquois, Lackawanna, Pioneer, South Park, Southwestern, Springville, Sweet Home and Williamsville East.
Teaming up: West Valley will not have a team this season; its players will be on the Ellicottville squad.
Who will be Prep Talk Player of the Year? Trueheart and Nwora seem like the obvious favorites, and Welch, Jack and Brown – who is off to a great start – have a chance to make some noise too.