Editor's Note: Today's column breaks down into two parts. The first part is a story I wrote for this week's edition of the Norwood News about the Walton Campus boys basketball team. The second part, written by Selim Khan, is a playoff preview that focuses on the teams from the northwest Bronx. Above, is a slide show from Walton's first round playoff victory last week. Enjoy. And, as always, send me suggestions, feedback, hate mail, photos, video, tips, ideas, whatever, to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.
Five Schools, One Team, One Walton Campus Spirit
As the seconds ticked down to zero in the Walton Campus’s thrilling 57-53 home court victory in the first round of the boys basketball city tournament, fans, coiled from the intensity of the game, rushed the court, hugging players and coaches and each other. A group of students formed into a circle centered with spontaneous dancers near midcourt.
They chanted: “Wal-Ton! Wal-Ton! Wal-Ton!”
None of these students attend Walton High School, which, like most large schools in New York City, was phased out in 2008 and gradually replaced over recent years by five smaller schools.
These days, Walton is only the name of the building and campus these schools inhabit. Aside from the building’s walls, sport is the only thing that brings students together as a community.
“When the DOE broke up all the schools, the one thing they didn’t think about was school spirit,” said Eric Swillinger, Walton’s coach and athletic director. “The last bastion of school spirit is campus athletics.”
Inside Walton’s cramped gym, that spirit manifested itself and carried the Wildcats to its first home playoff victory in Swillinger’s 12 years working at the Kingsbridge Heights campus.
The Wildcats took an early lead that evaporated in the second quarter as their opponent, the Jaguars, a team made up of two Brooklyn schools (Global Studies and International Studies), stormed back and took the lead midway through the third quarter.
During a timeout, an animated Swillinger implored his players to protect their home court. John Davis, the father of John Davis (the fourth), a junior at High School for Teaching and Professions (TNP), wasn’t worried. “They’re going to take it,” the elder Davis said.
Sure enough, the longer, more talented Wildcats, who finished the season 11-7, began forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets, igniting the crowd in the process. Davis hit a three-pointer to break a 42-42 tie. The Wildcats stretched the lead to seven, but the Jaguars refused to give up and whittled that lead down to one with 30 seconds left. Walton would hold on by playing tough defense and making clutch free throws.
Students from the schools under the Walton Campus banner come out to support the Wildcats during the team’s first round playoff victory. (Photo by Adi Talwar)
Then, they danced as one campus, one community. “Wal-Ton!”
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said point guard Bryan Barahona, who attends TNP. “It can’t get any better than this.”
He might be right. For Bryan and his teammates, most of whom will not go on to higher levels of competitive basketball, it may never get any better than an opening round victory in front of a raucous home crowd — a victory that kept their season and hopes alive. (The Wildcats play fifth-seeded High School for Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan on March 1.)
Most of Swillinger’s players attend either TNP or Discovery High School, but it doesn’t matter, they all get along.
“We’re all brothers,” said Jovanni Rodriguez, a junior at Discovery. The team chemistry and the crowd, “helped us out a lot,” said Discovery freshman Bernard Edwards.
Clement Roach, an art and graphic design teacher at TNP, often takes photos at Walton sporting events. “They all go to different schools, but through sports, they’re able to synchronize and gel and come together as a team,” he said during a break in the action. “That’s the beauty of sports.”
PSAL Boys Hoops Playoff Preview
By Selim Khan
It’s been a long, cold winter, but things are heating up for some of the local boys basketball teams.
Bronx Science, Walton and DeWitt Clinton battled each other tough all season long in the hotly contested Bronx A West boys varsity division and JFK has been a perennial power in the Bronx AA division. All 4 teams have made the PSAL playoffs; however, they have all taken different roads to get to this point.
Bronx Science is not known for its basketball prowess, but 2nd year coach Sammel Brown sees the tide changing. “I know we are a good team now because the student body rushes on to the floor after they beat us,” he said.
The 15th-seeded Wolverines received a first round bye and will be squaring off against New Dorp. For Bronx Science to advance, they will need to shore up their rebounding. The team employs a five-guard lineup because of their shooting ability and it also allows them to run more in the open court. Captain Ezra Ritchin is very optimistic. “If we work hard, we can play for the city championship," he said. "Columbus is a 3 seed and we lost by 1 point to them.”
This season has a special meaning for the team because they’re honoring their former coach of 31 seasons, the late Ralph Bacote. His initials are being worn on the players’ jerseys. He was instrumental in bringing Brown to Bronx Science as his successor.
At one point, the playoffs may have seemed farfetched for Walton. Coach Eric Swillinger recalls a game against South Bronx, where he found his team outscored 33 – 0 to start the game. “We couldn’t do anything right, they did everything right.”
In the first round of the playoffs, the 28th-seeded Wildcats beat Global Studies & Intl. Studies and will be moving on to play HS Graphic Communication Arts.
Concerned with the team’s lack of quickness, Swillinger switched from a man to man defense to playing more zone. Depth is also a concern since a rotation of six players is used. “Foul trouble can be a concern,” Swillinger said.
A player to watch out for is captain Jovanni Rodriguez, who averaged 22 PPG this season. Swillinger can see him playing at the next level if he bulks up and continues to improve his defense and passing. Rodriguez says: “I’ve got a quick first step. Not a shooter, but I like to drive.”
Although Clinton made the playoffs, senior forward Roje Foster believes they could’ve done a better job and gotten a higher seed than 29 “if we would’ve closed out some games better.”
He was especially referring to games against South Bronx, Roosevelt and Walton where they had fourth quarter leads that got away. They’re similar to Bronx Science in that they’re undersized but they also like to get out and run on offense. In the second round of the playoffs, the Governors will be facing off against Grand. “They have tall players, but think we can attack inside the paint,” Foster says.
JFK Coach Johnny Mathis oversaw a team this season that was constantly being molded. Early on, the team had to deal with players who were academically ineligible. The team’s best player, Carlos DeJesus wasn’t cleared to play until January because he came from the Dominican Republic. Yet, coach Johnny Mathis still likes his boys’ chances, saying, “We feel we have an excellent shot because we only look at it one game at a time.”
In the first round, the Knights dispatched Martin Van Buren, and await their next opponent South Shore, who Mathis sees as “a very good team and expected them to be even better.”
Mathis likes his teams to press on defense, but has scaled back because the system is complicated and it takes time to learn. This team is full of juniors so the playoff experience will be invaluable and they should be even better next season.