The start of pre-season practices has always brought a smile to Billy Turnage’s face. Every year the same excitement flows through the body of the Wings Academy coach, the way he used to get as a player at Andrew Jackson (now Campus Magnet) in Queens.
But there is something different about this season, an extra bounce to his step. Turnage played down the ebullience until junior guard Dashaun Wiggins’ name was mentioned. He didn’t play down the winter possibilities any longer.
“Oh, yeah,” Turnage said, referring to having Wiggins for a full season. His grin, Turnage admitted, “is maybe a little bigger this year.”
Wiggins isn’t the only reason. Wings returns everyone from last year’s Bronx borough championship team, one that jelled late with the addition of Wiggins come postseason time. It also took time to blend in junior Mike Buffalo and Krystian Foriest, transfers from Mount Vernon and St. Raymond, respectively, with the current crop of homegrown players who made the city semifinals as sophomores.
The Wings should be near the top of Bronx AA and possibly the rest of the city, Turnage said, because he has a bevy of scorers who are virtually interchangeable, similar to the 2006 team that featured Jamie Harris (now at Drexel) and Kidani Brutus. At the season’s outset, the third-year coach said he will probably go eight deep, but by January the rotation will expand to 10, given the expected maturation of several underclassmen.
“We’re very confident playing anybody in any situation,” said Turnage, who served as an assistant coach under Paul Gilvary at Holy Cross for two years and at St. Mary’s in Manhasset for eight years before that. “This is the deepest team I’ve had since I’ve been here. There isn’t one guy I’m not contemplating playing.”
Wings Academy is a charter school, established 14 years ago, and a small one at that, it’s student body approximately 550 students. Players must carry at least a 75 average to be eligible – the PSAL minimum is 65 – a rule, Turnage said, that has turned some away. The gym is tiny, pillars separating a court that wouldn’t be proper for any youth recreational league. So Wings practices at the Forest Community Center, 20 blocks south of campus on Tinton Avenue and their home games are at Bronx Regional High School.
“It does make it tough,” Turnage said. “Coach (Johnny) Mathis (of JFK) has 300 kids (tryout).”
The team goes from Ronald Baker, the senior guard who prefers to spend his summer lifting weights and working on basketball drills than making the rounds in the AAU circuit, to Buffalo, a 6-foot-3 junior that Turnage thinks could be one of the city’s most versatile players, and Forest, a 6-foot-5 forward that can hit 3-pointers with as much ease as dunking over the opposition.
“On any given night,” Buffalo said, “each of us can score 20.”
“If all of us are on, teBut when college coaches visit Wings for his exposure workouts, he is the one they discuss the most.
“He’s the biggest sleeper in the city,” Turnage said. “Had he played AAU, he would be committed to a Division I school, but he’ll get that by the end of the year I think.”
Those players are just the tip of the iceberg. Turnage is confident in his role players: 6-foot-6 senior center Dalen Hulen, senior guard Drimir Ferguson, junior brothers James and Jabriel Blue, sophomore guard Dylan Ennis and freshman forward Steven Gomez. It is a fine blend of veterans and talented newcomers, a mix that was refined last year, through the surprising run to the borough title and disappointing 21-point, second-round loss to Campus Magnet in the Class AA playoffs many of the Wings have used as motivation.
“That left a sour taste in our mouth,” Buffalo said.
Despite the obvious talent, Turnage is well aware the Bronx could be the city’s toughest division.