WHITE PLAINS – Before last year’s Class AA semifinal, Saunders last met Mount Vernon early in the 2004-05 season. The Blue Devils lost on their home floor, but the score proved much more memorable than the result: Mount Vernon 104, Saunders 32.
Anthony Nicodemo wasn’t the coach then, but the progress since has been exponential. Friday night’s semifinal at the County Center — the second straight between Saunders and Section 1’s undisputed king — is more proof of the extent to which the Blue Devils have joined the conversation.
“They came in here and just decimated teams at Saunders, so to put us in a spot where we can compete with them, it’s exciting for the school,” Nicodemo said. “I think Yonkers people are supporting us because of that.”
Saunders played Mount Vernon tough in last year’s semifinal before falling 84-74. The teams met again on Jan. 9 in a non-league game at Mount Vernon and produced a similar result, a 62-52 Knights win, but Nicodemo believes his team’s chances for an upset have only improved.
“It’s not even close,” he said. “We were good last year. We played a good schedule, but not as good as this year. When we got bumped up to (Class) AA two years ago, I said that spring that it was all about playing one team. You have to be as good as Mount Vernon. I told my guys, ‘I don’t care about the championship.’ You can’t win the championship in Section 1 without beating Mount Vernon.”
And Saunders has been built to this point without modified or junior varsity programs to develop the players. Nicodemo once fielded a varsity roster of 21 players just to keep freshmen and sophomores in the program.
“People tend to talk about the bad things in Yonkers, but not enough talk about the good,” he said. “Not one of these kids has played JV basketball, not one of these kids has played freshman basketball, not one of these kids has played middle school basketball. We have the fewest resources of any team in the county, so for us to be in position to play Mount Vernon is a testament to our kids.”
The Blue Devils will be in transition after the season because they graduate their three best players: Seniors Derrick Felder, Anthony Miller and Vaughn Lennon. Mount Vernon will be back, but Friday is a special moment in Saunders’ once-bleak history.
“We all want to be Mount Vernon,” Nicodemo said. “We all want to have that team that wins every year, that has the talent to get to the states. For us, everything I’ve done to this point built toward this game.”