Elmira Notre Dame may be the only boys basketball team left in the state with a starting six. The Crusaders could go even beyond that.
“What we have is really not even a starting six,” said senior center Nate Niles, who has shared a starting role with senior guard Jonas McCaig. “We can go as far as a starting eight, a starting 10. Our whole team could start if it came down to it.”
The Crusaders’ versatility and teamwork has been on display throughout a 20-1 season that has produced the program’s second Section 4 Class C title in three seasons and the No. 2 Class C ranking from the New York State Sportswriters Association.
From the thunderous dunks of junior guard Darius Garvin to the 3-point shooting of McCaig to the inside play of Tom Agan to the defense of Derek Marshall, the Crusaders beat you with a variety of people contributing in a number of ways.
“I think we all know Darius is a special player and I think the guys know that, but they also know there’s other weapons Darius can use and he does,” Crusaders coach Bill Hopkins said. “Here’s another special quality: They all can pass. They’re very good passers. When they play together at both ends of the court and they pass the ball, I think they’re a really hard team to beat.”
Only Newark of Section 5 has found the formula to beat the Crusaders, who have outscored opponents by an average of nearly 24 points per game.
After holding on for a 65-62 win against defending champion Moravia in the Section 4 Class C final, the Crusaders’ next obstacle is Section 3 champion Waterville in a state quarterfinal at 3:45 p.m. Saturday in Syracuse at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena.
Three victories are needed for a state title, but as Hopkins reminds the team at times, “It’s not the most important game. It’s important because it’s the next game.”
“We knew we had the talent and we knew down the road we were going to play Moravia, and we got past that game and it was awesome for us, but we’ve just got to keep pushing forward and keep going,” senior guard Hunter Thomas said.
With a lot of talent returning from a 16-4 team that lost to Watkins Glen in the sectional semifinals, this season began with high expectations.
The only underclassman on the starting unit is Garvin, who was a key member of the 2012 sectional champions as a freshman. Agan recovered from a torn ACL suffered last December and Thomas, Niles, McCaig and Marshall returned along with fellow seniors Eric Brennan and Zach Jones.
Most experienced of all is Hopkins, who has been coaching for 40 years at the high school and college level.
“He knows his stuff. We listen to everything he has to say,” Niles said.
That experience also brings a familiarity and a closeness reflected in the team’s unselfish style of basketball.
“They all get along great,” Hopkins said. “The seven seniors and Darius and Parker (May) and Joe (Prunier), they’re all great teammates to each other. It sounds probably kind of corny, but they really get along and they enjoy each other’s company, and they enjoy playing with each other. That cohesiveness has helped us at both ends of the floor.”
McCaig and Niles have swapped starting roles based on matchups without complaint. Not only do the players not mind when they score under their averages, they are each other’s biggest cheerleaders.
“What we have is a brotherhood,” Niles said. “Whenever we see one of our brothers succeed, it helps us to succeed because we gain excitement and joy off of that.”
Contributions from all over
Watkins Glen coach John Fazzary called the Crusaders “a nightmare” to defend. All of the starters can hit from 3-point range and Garvin’s quickness enables him to get into the paint for a layup, a dump-off or a pass outside that often leads to a wide-open 3-pointer.
Notre Dame averages 11 turnovers per game and its turnover-to-assist ratio of 1.42 to 1 is extremely impressive for a high school team. Hopkins said the team’s basketball IQ is high and the players pick up new plays in no time.
“We definitely know how to share the ball with each other,” Agan said. “We played in the summer league all summer with each other. We’ve been playing with each other for years and we all know where we’re going to be on the court.”
On the defensive end, Notre Dame holds opponents to 42 points per game, 32 percent shooting and forces more than 20 turnovers on average.
The 6-foot-2 Garvin averages 17.8 points and 5 rebounds per game and leads the team with 88 steals. He’s good for two to three dunks a game and when he puts his hand up on the baseline, get set for Thomas to lob a pass for an alley-oop slam.
“When that happens we all get fired up for that,” Thomas said. “It’s a great play and we all get excited. It gets our bench going, it gets everyone going.”
Hopkins said he watched his players as Garvin dunked on a breakaway against Moravia and all of his teammates pumped their fists at once.
“He’s got it all. He can shoot, he can drive, he can jump, he can rebound,” Marshall said. “He’s our leader probably on the court. He slows things down and knows what to do. He plays (basketball) year-round, so he has the right to do that.”
The 6-foot-5 Agan is second on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game and the top rebounder at 7.7 per game. He also was a big part of the success two years ago.
Marshall is the leader on the defensive end and averages 6.2 rebounds to go with 5 points a game.
“He’s an unsung hero not just offensively, but defensively he’s an Energizer Bunny,” Hopkins said. “He’s all over the place. If you listen, you’ll always hear him. The rest of the guys are sometimes quiet. We talk about communication, but you’ll always hear Derek talk.”
McCaig averages 10.5 points and leads the team in 3-pointers (49) and 3-point percentage (38.6). At a camp this winter, Hopkins introduced him as maybe the best shooter in Section 4.
Thomas played quarterback in football and has continued delivering passes on the court, with a team-high 88 assists to go with 6 points per game.
Niles, averaging 7.7 points, is a 6-4 center who can step out and make 3-pointers. Hopkins said Niles understands the game to the point where he expects him to be a coach someday.
All of the starters have stepped into the role of No. 1 option at times. Marshall doubled his season 3-point total by hitting two 3-pointers against Moravia on Saturday and Niles scored a season-high 19 points in a win over Lansing in the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School final.
Off the bench, May nailed six 3-pointers in a win over Thomas A. Edison and Brennan has provided a physical presence with his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame.
“We’ve got a lot of attributes,” Marshall said. “We have more than one ball handler, more than one shooter, more than one five man, more than one post player, a five man who can shoot threes. We’re putting it all together as a team.”
Newark, a Class A team that finished 17-3, beat the Crusaders 60-39 in the finals of the Josh Palmer Fund Elmira Holiday Inn Tournament at Southside. Newark was the only team to keep Garvin out of the paint this season on a night he hurt his back.
Marshall said that loss showed the Crusaders they’re not untouchable. Niles said even with all the success, the team is always a work in progress.
“Every single morning we wake up and we say, ‘Today, we’re going to get better.’ ” he said. “I think day by day, game by game, we get better as a team. Really, it’s scary how good we can really be.”
No matter whether the season ends in Syracuse or Glens Falls, it has been a blast.
“I wake up in the morning after four or five hours sleep and I put a smile on my face and I say, ‘This is going to be fun.’ ” Hopkins said. “The next game whenever it is. Because I know I have my guys who are pretty special young men both on and off the floor and I know they are ready to make the next jump whatever the obstacle may be.”