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Park soars to Federation title

ALBANY – When Park School won its first state Catholic Class B boys basketball championship two weeks ago, Mike Battaglia was stunned to learn the season wasn’t over.

That’s when he first heard of the New York Federation Tournament of Basketball Champions. The coach, whose day job is being a neurologist, then did a web search to find out more about this “Federation Tournament.”

Battaglia has a pretty good idea what the event is all about now, after his Pioneers followed up their Catholic championship by becoming kings of New York State basketball in Class B.

Park won its first overall state championship Sunday night as it took down pesky New York City Public Schools Athletic League champ Maspeth, 70-51, in the Federation final. Tournament MVP Jordan Nwora poured in a game-high 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds as he flaunted all the skills that have caught the attention of Division I recruiters at University at Albany’s SEFCU Arena, while senior Randy Golda, an all-tournament team selection, added 14 points and 11 rebounds.

“It’s really special,” Nwora said. “There are no words to explain how this really feels. It was a special moment for me and my team.”

An estimated 300 watched as the Pioneers completed an unprecedented weekend of success at this tournament by Buffalo-area boys teams as the Monsignor Martin Class B Manhattan Cup winner joined Class A-sized school Canisius as Federation champions.

This is the first time since 1988 that two Western New York boys schools won Federation titles at the same tournament as Park and Canisius joined defunct schools LaSalle and Turner-Carroll in that exclusive club.

“It feels good,” said Pioneers senior Derek Cheatom, who will take his basketball talents to Division II Saint Michael’s in Vermont. “Representing Buffalo is a big thing for us. No one thinks Buffalo has a great basketball area. For us and Canisius to come out here and win is a great thing for us.”

“Canisius is an outstanding program, they’re the class of Western New York,” said Battaglia, while holding the championship plaque in one hand. “We get to be a part of all that. … I had five, six other coaches from the Monsignor Martin text me or call me, coaches from other leagues, coaches who played Westhill call me. To be a part of that is incredible. I appreciate all the help.”

The triumph is huge for Park, the tiny private school in Snyder that willfully took a step up in competition when it moved from the IAC to the Monsignor Martin Association in 2013.

The Pioneers made sure another upstart program didn’t prevent their championship dream from coming true. They did that by starting fast and never giving the fundamentally sound Argonauts an opening to rally as they did in Saturday’s state semifinal against Dwight School. Maspeth came back from a 16-point halftime deficit to earn the one-point win and spot in the final.

Nwora, who scored 18 points in Saturday’s semifinal win but none after halftime, got the Pioneers off to a fine start with six first-quarter points, including the game’s first three-pointer. Park led, 18-10, after one quarter. He added eight more points in the second quarter as the Pioneers led, 35-24, at the break.

They put the game to bed with a 15-0 run in the third quarter after Michal Bugaj’s putback pulled Maspeth (24-2) within nine. Nwora had five points and an assist during the blitz. Golda had eight during the run as Park took a 50-29 lead into the fourth quarter.

“We talked about that at halftime,” Battaglia said of the Argonauts’ knack for rallying. “Like a lot of coaches say in basketball, ‘The first four minutes of the second half are sometimes the most important part of the game.’ … They could’ve stuck around and cut into the lead but we were able to build on the lead and it was struggle for them.

“That’s a gritty basketball team. That’s a very good basketball team.”

A team that didn’t feel as if it played up to its full potential, but it also could have still been feeling the effects of Saturday’s draining comeback win.

“I’m sure that definitely affected how they played,” said Maspeth coach Anastasia Bitis, of her fourth-year program that played its first full season in the PSAL. “But we came out sort of flat, maybe nerves with what was at stake.”

Park’s starters knew what was at stake and never relented until being able to watch the final 50-plus seconds from the bench as Battaglia inserted some of his reserves so that they could experience what it was like to play in the biggest win in school history.

“It was a great feeling knowing we were about to win a championship,” Cheatom said. “I loved seeing my teammates out there. … It was a great feeling.”