The Park School reflected on its past glory on the basketball court before embarking on a new title quest.
Celebrating their second consecutive New York State Catholic championship season with a pregame ring presentation Saturday night, the Pioneers came back in the fourth quarter to beat University Prep of Rochester, 77-70, in the opening game of the program’s first foray into playing an independent boys basketball schedule.
— Jonah Bronstein (@lebronstein) November 30, 2019
Park opted out of defending its Manhattan Cup and state titles this season, leaving the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association in October after the league ruled 6-foot-10-inch senior John Orogun ineligible due to transfer restrictions. Orogun returned to Park following a year at St. Benedict’s Prep School in New Jersey, where he transferred after helping the Pioneers win state Catholic and Federation championships during his sophomore season.
There is still a path for Park to return to the New York State Federation Tournament of Champions in Class A. The Pioneers would have to win the New York State Alliance of Independent Schools title by beating Albany Academy, Park’s opponent in the 2018 Fed championship game victory as well as in last year’s semifinal loss.
In standing behind their big man, however, Park athletic director Marcus Hutchins and coach Rich Jacob had to hustle to remake the schedule after losing 11 games against league opponents. The only remaining game from that slate is at St. Joe’s on Jan. 27.
“I am so grateful,” Orogun said. “I know that no other school in Buffalo would do the same thing for me. Changing the schedule and going independent for just one person, I feel very blessed.”
“This institution stands for what’s best for the students,” Jacob said. “And in this case, we absolutely wanted to support John and have him play.”
Park has 22 games scheduled and Jacob said a 23rd game will be added soon. The Pioneers will travel to New York City for the Super 16 Showcase (Dec. 21-22) and the BK Post City Challenge (Jan. 11-12), visit Rock Hill, S.C. for the Blue Star Invitational (Dec. 27-30) and participate in the Toronto Showcase (Jan. 10) against opponents that are still to be determined.
Local games on Park’s schedule include: hosting Middle Early College on Sunday, at Lewiston-Porter on Wednesday, against South Park in the Pastor-Cooper Showcase at Villa Maria College on Friday, at Orchard Park (Jan. 2), the Can-Am Showcase at Villa Maria (Jan. 19) and home against Health Sciences (Feb. 3). The schedule also includes matchups with some of Rochester’s best. The Pioneers have a home-and-home set with Aquinas (hosting Dec. 16 and visiting Jan. 13), travel to Rochester for games at McQuaid-Jesuit (Dec. 13) and East (Jan. 18), and close out the regular season at home against Bishop Kearney (Feb. 6).
“I look at this as an opportunity to take our program to the next level,” Jacob said. “We know there is a lot more that needs to happen, but we can take this program to new heights. The opportunity to work toward becoming a national program is exciting. But we need to take it one day at a time.”
The first step required rising to the challenge from UPrep, Class AA finalists in Section V last season coached by former Niagara University star Demond Stewart.
Jalen Bradberry energized the overflow crowd of several hundred with an emphatic jam on an early fast break and finished with 23 points in his Park debut. Already a 1,000-point scorer in his high school career, Bradberry transferred from Niagara Falls, where he was a second-team All-Western New York selection as a sophomore.
— Jonah Bronstein (@lebronstein) December 1, 2019
The Pioneers also got strong play from the rest of its foursome of junior guards: Caleb Hutchins (18 points, six rebounds), Keonjay Carter (16 points, eight assists, five steals) and Desmond Davis (nine points). Hutchins hit 6-of-7 shots from beyond the arc and Carter’s two-way impact was exemplified by a breakaway slam off a steal in the fourth quarter that rivaled Bradberry’s dunk in the face of U-Prep leading scorer Kayshawn Ross (24 points) for highlight of the night.
Orogun contributed 11 points and 17 rebounds despite battling foul trouble and an up-tempo game that did not suit his strengths. Orogun was often unable to assert his considerable size advantage but his presence on the offensive boards emboldened the Pioneers’ perimeter shot creators and limited how far UPrep could extend its pressure defense.
“He’s an incredible difference-maker,” Carter said. “There aren’t too many teams with a 6-10 big like him.”
Park led for much of a back-and-forth first half before UPrep utilized its mid-court trap and an 11-2 run to open a 44-37 lead shortly after halftime. Carter got the Pioneers going when he threw a no-look pass over the top of the zone to Orogun for a two-handed stuff. Hutchins hit a 3-pointer to put Park ahead 55-52 in the first minute of the fourth quarter and swished another with 5:28 remaining that gave Park a 60-58 lead it would not relinquish.
“I’m feeling good about this victory, but they really showed us what we have to work on defensively,” Jacob said. “We gave up too much penetration and too many uncontested shots. It was a good matchup. They are fast, they are deep and they are very good. We have to get to work on those things that they exposed immediately.”
Noah Hutchins, the catalyst of Park’s back-to-back championship seasons, took part in the pregame ceremony and sat on the Park bench during the game. Home on Thanksgiving break during his prep year at IMG Academy in Florida, the 2019 Buffalo News Allen Wilson Player of the Year doesn’t expect the Pioneers to struggle in his absence.
“This year’s team reminds me of my sophomore and junior seasons,” he said. “They have a lot of talent and as much potential as we did. The independent schedule, I think it’s going to help them, the travel, the experiences, the competition. And especially since they only have one senior, things are only going to get better for them next year.”