By Mark Kitchin
It’s astounding the difference a month makes for a varsity basketball team. At Morris Catholic the difference between winning and losing is also the difference between reacting and attacking.
Oh, and having a couple of talented sophomores doesn’t hurt either.
The Crusaders are having their best season in years and the growth and development of Amir Allen and Wayne Patterson has been at the center of it. After a hesitant start, the two Morris County-based transfers have created terrific chemistry with their teammates and gained confidence with every game.
Last week’s Morris County Tournament win against Morristown-Beard showcased that improvement. The Crusaders edged the Crimson 52-49 in the game on January 7 in Morris Township. A month later in Denville, they posted a solid 48-34 win in county tournament play. Once tentative players have become more assertive and confident in that span of time.
“Coming into the first game it was on their court,” Patterson said afterwards. “We came out kind of slow. (Amir) came out saying the real Morristown-Beard hasn’t seen the real me. He came in today with that attitude. I came in with the attitude that I wanted to be aggressive and attack and I did that.”
Allen is a forward/center and Patterson is a guard. They are different sizes but their games complement each other. Allen (12 points, 10 rebounds per game) is a strong inside player with a knack for getting rebounds. Patterson (18 points, 2 assists, 2 steals) is a fine ball handler who can shoot from the outside but also has good presence on the drive.
Part of the progress involved being able to mesh with an established team. It’s not as easy a concept as it seems in a private school setting, especially since they joined a team with several seniors that probably expected more playing time. The Crusaders have been able to settle any differences among themselves and make it work.
“At times it was like that but we all came together,” Patterson said. “The only way to be successful was to mesh what they can do and what we can do. They have the experience. We have the athleticism.”
Allen had played with some of the Crusaders on the New Jersey Panthers club team. His addition was a pleasant surprise for the program. Allen, who attended Randolph High last year, joined the team too late to be involved in summer workouts, so it took a periods of adjustment.
“I committed to the school a week before it opened,” Allen said. “I wasn’t playing with them in the summer like the other guys. Now we are smooth. Everyone wants to win and they realized they need to take a step back to go forward. I’m sure they are alright with that.”
Morris Catholic coach Dave Grande was well aware that it would take a time for the players on the team to get used to playing each other. As a coach he had to alter his thinking as well. He’s still discovering how to best utilize their talents.
“Meshing takes time,” Grande said. “That’s why we lost a couple of games early that we probably wouldn’t lose today. I had to mesh. I had to learn about these guys. Not only did they have to learn about me, I had to learn about them.”
Of course, earning victories and gaining confidence in each other as teammates helps speed up the process. After a 3-2 start, the team has gotten better at working together. They were 7-4 in mid-January but then got on a nine-game win streak.
“Winning makes everything easier,” Grande said. “They start to believe. A lot of basketball is mental toughness and they start to believe what’s going on and we keep working. They are getting better and better and better.”
The sophomores are also improving in both their physical aspects and the way they are approaching their games.
“Amir has improved immensely since then (season opener),” Grande said. “His rebounding and scoring and the confidence level he has given us on offense has trickled to defense. Wayne is moving better without the ball. He’s passing the ball and he’s taking all good shots and he’s got more confidence in his teammates. Wayne’s defense has really improved so now its hard for his man to score.”
Grande said the duo’s unselfishness have helped them become good teammates. They have also gained confidence on the varsity level, helping them to be more assertive and comfortable on the court.
“This is my first year playing (varsity),” Allen said. “I guess I was nervous at first but now I’m pretty comfortable.”
The comfort level has helped the Crusaders win 9 of their last 10 games. They will now face their greatest challenge of the season against Mount Olive in the Morris County Tournament quarterfinals on Sunday. Even if they don’t succeed, they will learn from the experience.
“Game after game our chemistry builds up more and more,” Allen said. “We’re getting ready for the state tournament. I think we are a good unit now.”