La Salle Academy boys’ basketball coach Eric Simonelli has a rather simplistic formula for his team that arguably could be found in a textbook labeled “Basketball 101.”
“It’s a very simple formula in my eyes,” said Simonelli. “New faces, new team, same approach, same expectations – win the (state) Open Championship and win Division 1. “That’s why we’re focused on peaking in March and not February.”
Through games of Jan. 13, the Rams are 5-1 in Division 1 and 9-1 overall. Their only loss came to Hendricken, who’s annexed 8 of the last 11 state championships and who beat the Rams on Jan. 6. In addition, the Hawks beat La Salle in the semifinals of the Open Tournament last season after the Rams beat Hendricken in the Division 1 semifinals en route to the Division 1 title.
Arguably the last thing Simonelli wants to do is place an inordinate amount of emphasis on any regular-season game against Hendricken.
“The general public views Hendricken-La Salle games much bigger than they are,” said Simonelli. “The game against Hendricken was as big as the games against Coventry (January 9) and Classical (January 12). Our objective is to play our game, win as many games as we can and get enough points to qualify for the Open Tournament.
“We would love to play any team in the state in a one-and-done tournament and show what we have in a pressure situation.”
In retrospect the over-emphasis placed on Hendricken-La Salle games – regardless of which team wins – doesn’t cause Simonelli to reach for an ulcer medication.
“We did exactly what other teams that have won the (Open) state championship did,” he said. “Last year we were the best Division 1 team in the state. We’ve changed our approach regarding how we’re going to play out the rest of the season and the Division 1 Tournament.
“Our goal is not just to win the championship but to focus on our 16 regular-season Division 1 games, get enough points to get into the Open Tournament and win four more games.”
One aspect of the playoff format that makes it difficult for any Division 1 team to win the Open Tournament is that it could play an opponent as many as three times before the final buzzer sounds to end the season.
“Any time you’re playing a good team that’s well-coached, it’s hard to beat a team three times,” said Simonelli. “In my eyes, it’s the law of averages. After winning the Division 1 Tournament (last season), we lost our edge against the same teams. In my eyes, it’s the law of averages.”
Simonelli also sees something else in his “eyes:” An experienced team that boasts a balanced scoring attack (through 10 games, La Salle is averaging 70.4 points per game while allowing an average of only 49.5 points per game).
This season’s team consists of four seniors and 10 juniors. And the top four scorers are juniors: Lawrence Sabir (18.0), Mike McCourt (13.0), C.J. Waite (12.0) and Jim Pare (11.0) while the highest-scoring senior on the team is Brendan Nigro (8.0).
“The junior class has been with me since I started at La Salle three years ago,” said Simonelli. “They understand the expectations we have in the off-season and in the weight room plus our approach every day during the season. Our juniors must continue to progress and get better. The more contributions we have, the better we’ll be come playoff time.
“The seniors have been with me for two years so we have a really tight-knit team. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last three years. But we have our eyes on bigger things this season.”
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey, plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y. he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.