When the season began, even the most ardent St. Raymond’s followers needed a copy of the Catholic school league’s media guy to identify the Ravens.
Darryl (Truck) Bryant, the all-time leading scorer in the Bronx school’s illustrious history, graduated, moving on to West Virginia. Omari Lawrence and Kevin Parrom, seniors expected to lead the Ravens this fall, transferred to South Kent, and have since signed Division I letters of intent, to St. John’s and Xavier, respectively.
“It hit all of us,” said point guard Tyreak Johnson, the lone returning starter. “I saw it as an obstacle. We all had to work harder.”
There wasn’t a lot expected from St. Ray’s. This was supposed to be a down year, a time for sophomores Jose Rodriguez, Sidiki Johnson and Joey De La Rosa and prized freshman Nkeruwem Okoro to gain valuable experience. A funny thing, however, happened for the Ravens on the road to rebuilding – they’ve won their first five games and have developed faster than anticipated.
Led by 15 points from Rodriquez and 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks by De La Rosa, St. Ray’s routed All Hallows, 61-40, at Manhattan College Tuesday afternoon, turning a tight contest into a blowout with an 18-4, fourth-quarter run.
“We’re all young, but we can do different things,” Rodriguez said. “We’re definitely getting better every day. I think we’re better than a lot of teams (in our league).”
On a night when Sidiki Johnson had a rare off night, his teammates made up for his lack of production.
Rodriguez helped expose holes in All Hallows’ zone in the first half by knocking down three 3-pointers. With room to work in the paint, the raw yet skillful 6-foot-10 De La Rosa capitalized on space in the paint to work with, owning the inside. Tyreak Johnson, in his return from an ankle injury, added nine points and two assists.
“That’s a sign of a good team,” coach Oliver Antigua said of the balanced scoring.
“If one guy has an off night,” Rodriguez said, “other people will step up.”
After losing in the CHSAA intersectional quarterfinals last March – despite the presence of three soon-to-be Division I players – to eventual runner-up Christ the King, Antigua wasn’t sure what to expect this winter. He just hoped to see improvement, for his team to develop an identity of intense pressure defense and unselfishness.
He didn’t expect so much so fast. While Tuesday was just the Ravens’ second league win – the other victory was over usual doormat St. Francis Prep – they have already comfortably beaten Queens power Campus Magnet in the PSAL-CHSAA Challenge and private school Poly Prep of Brooklyn.
“I’m satisfied these guys accepted their roles,” Antigua said.
Johnson, the senior point guard, said the difference in his teammates between now and October is a large divide. They are playing stronger, smarter and tougher, not hanging their heads after mistakes, but always looking to make plays. Johnson thinks his injury actually helped the cause, forcing the younger Ravens to step to the forefront with their leader on the bench.
“It built their confidence,” he said. “We’re a more focused team.”
St. Ray’s first real test comes after Christmas when it travels down to Raleigh, N.C., for the Glaxo Smith Kline Holiday Invitational. Rodriguez said the Ravens are excited about the opportunity, as much for the exposure as the heightened competition.
“My guys are ready,” Johnson said.
His return buoyed St. Ray’s hopes. The Ravens played well without him, but in a high-pressured environment, having their leader back is integral. He played against All Hallows on the still-yet-healed ankle to make sure his team headed into the holidays on a high note, still undefeated.
“He’s like a coach,” Rodriguez said, “on the floor.”