It’s been nearly two months since I ranked the area’s top boys basketball teams. I stuck to my playoff rankings moratorium, and it was pretty instructive in some regards, but not entirely.
Here’s why: At the top, nothing really changed for weeks and weeks. This was a very rare season in that regard.
Back in late November, it seemed pretty certain that Spring Valley, Woodlands and Haldane were good enough to advance to Glens Falls and that Woodlands gave Section 1 its best chance to win a state title. Truthfully, it was fun along the way, but there were really few surprises. Even Mount Vernon joined the ranks of heavy favorites early on and didn’t disappoint.
Upstate, Woodlands ran into an elite Class B opponent in Westhill, but it was still the only team to advance to the final and actually led the game midway through the third quarter. It was a fantastic season for Woodlands, a team that played with as much cohesiveness and displayed more basketball aptitude as any in the area.
Not all that surprisingly, Spring Valley had the second-best chance at winning a state title, and, in some small way, squandered an opportunity to do so. When you consider the Tigers were arguably the better team than Scotia-Glenville when both teams were at full strength — and the fact that Scotia went on to win the state title — it is not an outlandish statement. Still, Spring Valley met its kryptonite and simply could not quite adjust to a tightly-officiated game. In the end, a few minutes late in the third quarter were the difference between a semifinal exit and a state title.
Next you had Haldane and Mount Vernon. Both were in a similar position, facing teams they didn’t quite have answers for. Haldane was overmatched once Lake George’s complementary players caught fire. Mount Vernon was never overmatched, but the Knights — young as they were — couldn’t physically withstand Shen’s massive front line. They also seemed to lack a go-to guy down the stretch. Shen neutralized them on the offensive boards and just made it hard to score with its zone. (It’s worth mentioning that Shen’s zone completely bottled up the state’s best post player, Jessie Govan of Wings, a week later. He had three points and was 0 for 9.)
The area also produced the two best regular-season CHSAA teams in the AA and A ranks. Iona — fueled by one of the best trios the area has seen in years — fell a possession short in the AA semis, while Kennedy went on to win. The Gaels ultimately lost to Canisius in the state final, but that loss is much more palatable for Kennedy after Canisius went on to win the Federation title as well.
All in all, despite an absence of state titles, it was a very strong year for the area top to bottom. All four Section 1 reps lost to the eventual state champ, as did Kennedy. There’s no solace in finishing runner-up, but it’s nothing to scoff at either.
1. Iona Prep (22-6) — If you’re judging teams based on both success and quality of competition, as I am, this is clearly the area’s top team. Iona beat a parade of quality programs, most of them by double digits: Christ the King, St. Ray’s, Boys & Girls, Cardinal Hayes. The Gaels boasted three of the area’s top players, including the runner-up for CHSAA player of the year, Ty Jerome, and the state’s Mr. Basketball, Matt Ryan.
2. Spring Valley (23-2) — Although the record never really had any blemishes, the level of play at Spring Valley dramatically improved over the last two months of the season. Rickey McGill developed into the team’s leader, and the eight-man rotation was as well-defined as you’ll see. There were no weak links. The Tigers were absolutely dominant in the Section 1 tournament. Sure, Spring Valley will probably rue a state semifinal it felt slipped away, but producing the school’s best team in 33 years is quite an achievement.
3. Mount Vernon (19-4) — When I saw Keith Benjamin speak to Mount Vernon two days before its trip to Glens Falls, he told the players about how he looks up at the gym walls and still sees a banner missing. Benjamin, a key piece of Mount Vernon’s great 2004 state and Federation championship team, believes the program let a state title slip by the year before, in 2003. If these Knights develop into the school’s next powerhouse, they may one day look at this season the same way. But, to me, what separated them from Iona Prep and Spring Valley by a hair was the veteran leadership. We saw Jerome and McGill deliver signature moments in key wins. We saw the seniors on both teams sense a weakness and smother weaker opponents. Next year, Mount Vernon will be that team.
4. Kennedy (26-2) — Likewise, Kennedy probably found itself a year away from knowing how to win when it counted most. The Gaels had plenty of talent, but their players had not earned reps in big games. This season will help them immensely in that regard. They’ll miss Sean Delaney and Brandon Parker, but Kennedy should enter next season as one of the top teams in the area. If the Gaels can develop a few more pieces on the bench and define who they are, they can be dynamite. A lot of that will come with more experience.
5. Woodlands (22-4) — As I said above, no one in the area played with a better sense of who they were than the Falcons. Bob Murphy’s team — thanks in large part to four very intelligent, hard-working seniors — was a coach’s dream. In the state final four — a total of 64 minutes against two of the state’s top Class B teams — Woodlands committed just five turnovers. Some teams cough up that many in half a quarter, but that speaks to how smart the Falcons were. This will surely go down as one of the best teams in school history. They were always a pleasure to watch.
6. Clarkstown South (16-6) — Although it didn’t end in the championship they wanted, Conor McGuinness and his teammates took the Vikings on a wild ride. Remember: This was a team that graduated four staters from the season before, but that didn’t prevent them from getting one step further. Their effort in the Class AA championship game was more than worthy. They might not have been the best team at the County Center, but the Vikings sure left a mighty impact. They truly played their best basketball in February and March.
7. Arlington (20-1) — How difficult is it to finish the season undefeated? Well, when you consider that ZERO teams in the state accomplished that feat, it shows you just how hard it is. Arlington learned that in the Class AA semifinals. After roaring back to take the lead, the Admirals met a player and a team they simply couldn’t hold off in the final seconds. They were that close to reaching the final and playing for a gold ball. Considering their credentials before that moment, I can’t put them more than a spot behind South.
8. Saunders (18-3) — None of the teams in the Class AA final four had anything to regret, and Saunders is clearly on that list. Twice in the first half against Mount Vernon, Saunders appeared to be on the ropes, but the Blue Devils not only fought back, they eventually played their best basketball in the fourth quarter. Derrick Felder was always a high-quality player, but he really became an all-around star this season. Saunders should challenge for a return trip to the County Center next year for sure.
9. Tappan Zee (15-6) — The Dutchmen put themselves in the position they wanted to be in. They wanted Spring Valley at the County Center, and they wanted to force the Tigers to beat them. Spring Valley was more than ready, and, truthfully, just had more talent and more hunger to win. Still, I think the championship game (and TZ’s three matchups during the season) proved that this was Class A’s second-best team.
10. Byram Hills (18-4) — Despite a nightmarish final against Spring Valley, Byram had a strong season. The Bobcats won a war against Somers in the semifinals and had quality wins during the regular season in winning a tough league. Although he went out a step short of the ultimate goal, senior Andrew Groll capped a decorated four-year career by leading his team to the final. The Bobcats have some quality young players returning and will be heard from in the coming years.
On the bubble: Fox Lane (15-5), Somers (17-4).
Small-school rankings —
5. Rye Country Day
Class AA —
1. Mount Vernon
2. Clarkstown South
5. Fox Lane
8. Horace Greeley
9. New Rochelle
10. North Rockland
Class A —
1. Spring Valley
2. Tappan Zee
3. Byram Hills
6. Pearl River
10. Hen Hud
Class B —
4. Putnam Valley
6. Palisade Prep
10. Blind Brook
Class C/D —
4. Clark Academy
1. Iona Prep
5. Rye Country Day