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Aquinas moving to avoid Kearney? "Pfffffttt!" say the Little Irish, after a Grade AA performance

After Saturday afternoon's Western New York High School Football banquet, I checked out Rochester private school power Aquinas's visit to Canisius

It was a great matchup, of course, between two teams that are considered by many (including this guy) as the best teams from the Buffalo and Rochester areas. What I saw in Aquinas was a very, very good team that beat Canisius -- but more on that later. 

I also figured I'd ask -- since they were in town -- how it was that they ended up in Class AA this year. Aquinas won Class A in Section V (Rochester area) last season, and beat Buffalo's East to advance to the state final four. 

Aquinas returns key components from that team -- namely 6-foot-7 senior forward and Canisius College recruit Phil Valenti and senior point guard and Monmouth College recruit Christian White. So they certainly would appear to have the pedigree for Class AA.

But more than one person (again, this guy included), have wondered alound about how convenient it was that this season -- one in which Bishop Kearney (also in Section V's A) will also be a major force (the Knights have already beaten Niagara Falls and Long Island power St. Mary's) -- was the one that Aquinas decided to move up to AA.

Aquinas' response? To paraphrase: "Pffffffft!" :-)

"People saying we're trying to avoid Kearney are wrong," said Aquinas coach Mike Grosodonia. 

"They're a very good team, and they almost had to move up, too. They fought to stay down, so you can go both ways with it." 

Just for the record: Aquinas has beaten Kearney six times in a row -- which doesn't exactly make them the team the Irish would like to avoid. And they are playing twice in the regular season. But come playoff time, Aquinas will be in AA, Kearney in A.

"Obviously our public school didn't want us there [in AA], let alone even in the section. But we wanted to be in the highest one. For us, we had won A and we had a shot to win states, and we came up short. We just thought we wanted to play the best class, with the best teams, and our kids wanted it. They wanted to play the AA schools. We still play Bishop Kearney twice, we play Canisius, the teams we really want to play to get better. It was more of our kids wanted to go and play in AA and give it a shot there."

Said Valenti: "It's a better challenge for us. We play Bishop Kearney twice this year, we played them three times last year -- it has nothing to do with Kearney. There are better teams in the section [in AA]. It doesn' t matter who we play, there is going to be a great team in the crossover [Section V's AA final]."

Sounds good to me. I hereby apologize for wondering aloud about Aquinas' intentions. The important thing is that arguably the strongest team in the section overall is playing in Class AA, where it should be playing.

Kearney should be there as well, especially with the influx of talent in recent seasons. Kearney might say it is playing "up" in Class A because it has normally been in Class B. False. A private school located in the city the size of Rochester playing in Class B is a joke, but that's where we have seen Kearney show up quite a bit in the Far West Regionals.

When Aquinas' move to AA was announced during the fall, it prompted me to write something I've espoused in live chats and blogs for years: that Aquinas football, which is inarguably one of the best football programs in New York State and has been for about a decade (at least), should be playing in Class AA (it has played in Class A for all of that aforementioned decade). 

And now, some of you out there might be thinking: "Isn't this guy a little obsessed with Aquinas?" Not the case. Aquinas is just a lightning rod for something I am certainly obsessed with: Seeing the state tournament be run as fairly and as equitably as it should be. When teams aren't classified correctly, it warps the entire thing.

* * * 

And now, back to the game.

Aquinas is talented. And they are mean. I got to the game in the second half, and that's what I saw: a team that wasn't just good but played with a serious edge. It sure sounded like Aquinas used that edge to take control of the game from the start.

"They walked into our building, kind of punched us in the mouth, and it took us unfortunately 10 to 12 minutes to realize that we just got hit and to kind of fight back a little bit," said Canisius coach Kyle Husband. "Toughness and energy -- those things go a long way in this game. They had way more of it than we did. Phil and Christian are just, they're not only really good players, but they're physical and they've got attitude, and those things mean something."

It sure looked that way to me. White runs the team, has a great shot, a great handle and is tenacious on defense. When going upcourt with the ball or driving the lane, he has what seems to be a bull-in-a-china-shop appraoch: he's almost willingly looking for defenders trying to get in his way, initiating contact and using his positioning (including some savvy positioning of his off-arm) to power his way downcourt or to the basket.

Down low, Valenti got rebound after rebound while he also displayed some range. He also plays with great energy and intensity, and sometimes he goes too far. He certainly did in the third quarter, after he followed what was an outstanding follow while being fouled with a clear, full-throat, in-your-face yelling taunt at a defender. He was called for a technical and he should have been. After he nailed a three in the fourth quarter gave Aquinas an 18-point lead, his fired-up celebration, complete with a big smile and what seemed like a laugh, bordered on mocking the opposition. But it's not like that's never been done before. 

That's fine. Aquinas is good. They play with an edge. You want to beat these guys? You've got to play smart, physical, intense, team basketball just like the Little Irish.   

"That's what we're about," Valenti said after I asked him about how the team plays with an edge. "Being tough, not backing down from anyone."

* * * 

And now, for one of the strangest things I've seen at a scorer's table: 

In the fourth quarter, a foul was called on (I'm pretty sure) 6-6 junior Jake Cercone. The scoreboard said it was his fifth foul. The Canisius scorekeeper (an adult) said that was wrong, that it was the fourth foul. The students running the table, who had thought it was the fifth and thought it might be time to sound the horn for a disqualification, did not. The Aquinas scorekeeper (an adult) started yelling, the Canisius scorekeeper said it was the fourth foul, the students running the table said the scoreboard was a mistake, and play resumed. Then the Aquinas scorekeeper jumped out of his seat, continued to yell, alerted the Aquinas coaches, and then the officials stopped the game.

An official came over to the scorer's table, asked what was up, they looked to the home scorebook, which is the official book, he had four fouls, and that was that. For the record, Cercone wasn't in the game that much, and I would have been surprised if he had five fouls. 

Scorekeepers are supposed to work together in a situation like that -- especially adults. Even if there is an important discrepancy, they are supposed to work together, not jump up and down like the place is on fire. It's just bad form. 

And it also encourages something yelled a few moments later from one of the Aquinas adult fans: "Hey, why don't you put 10 minutes back on the clock, too?!?!?!" (Hilarious.). There were quite a few Aquinas fans there -- they travel well, and let's just say that they play with an edge too :-).  

* * * 

And now, for the classless move of the month:

[I swear I am not picking on Aquinas or its fans. I have the utmost respect for the athletic program and I certainly admit to having problems with where they are classified. But this stuff happened at the game, and I would have written about both of these last two items if they involved a local team.]

At the end of the game, the Canisius student who was doing the PA from the scorer's table, closed out the afternoon of basketball (the teams' freshmen and JV teams also played) by recalling those results and then he added that, in the varsity game, something to the effect of that the Crusaders had lost but it was a "fine effort by Canisius."

And adult male fan from Aquinas, who was making his way out of the bleachers, followed that up right away with, audible to anyone within earshot, an adolescent, mocking retort of: "Well, it wasn't good enough."

And a Merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Scrooge. :-)

---Keith McShea

(@KeithMcSheaBN on Twitter)


Basketball | Canisius
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About Prep Talk

Keith McShea

Keith McShea

Keith McShea has covered high school sports at The News since his hiring in 1999. The 1995 University at Buffalo graduate and Long Island native (North Babylon Bulldogs) covers — and live blogs — everything from scrimmages to state championships & helps head The News' All-Western New York selections.

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