When Billy Turnage is asked to point out his go-to guy, the player he has the highest expectations for, the Wings Academy basketball coach simply smiles.
Turnage talks about Deonte Houston, his junior point guard, first. Then it’s sophomore sharpshooter Ian Vasquez. And sophomore wing Steven Gomez. Senior guards and brothers Jabriel and James Blue and senior forward Krystian Forriest, still recovering from off-season knee surgery, are the few holdovers.
The grin widened as Turnage talked about all of them, his group of talented, yet little-known youngsters.
“I love them, they love me, they love each other and that makes for great chemistry,” he said.
Kumbaya in the Bronx, indeed.
The fourth-year coach rarely spoke so glowingly last year. The Wings had plenty of talent, high-profile scorers like Ron Baker and Dashaun Wiggins. But that team struggled to get along, on the court and off it. There were cliques, half the roster going in one direction, half in the other.
It wasn’t just the players, Turnage said, but the hangers-on – parents, friends, and others – that wore on the club, complaining about playing time and shot selection.
“Those issues are gone now,” Turnage said.
That was clear Thursday night when Wings rallied for a thrilling, 57-55 victory over Forest Hills in the prestigious iS8 Nike Tip-Off Classic in South Jamaica. Trailing by 12, 40-28, early in the fourth quarter, Turnage’s team came alive by turning up the intensity on defense and sharing the ball on offense.
Wings celebrated the victory like it had clinched a division championship. But this is an important time for the inexperienced group of players, many who will get their first taste of varsity basketball this winter. It is why Turnage signed them up for three highly competitive fall tournaments – iS8, Beacon 158’s Back to School tournament in Bayside, and Bingo Cole’s Tru-Ballaz in the Bronx – consisting of the best programs in New York and some from New Jersey.
When word spread that Wiggins would be attending Bridgton Academy (Maine) and Dylan Ennis, a junior point guard, had left for Lake Forest Academy (Ill.), several Wings players were caught off guard by the defections. They were losing one of the city’s top talents (Wiggins) and a veritable playmaker in Ennis. Yet they also looked at it as an opportunity.
The Wings are all in the same boat: Everyone’s looking to make a name for himself. Though last year that led to bickering, this group seems to understand the better the team does, the more each player will benefit. Turnage mentioned Wings’ chemistry several times as what has him so excited.
Wings is one group. They hang out with one another before and after games, on weekends, and eat meals together.
The Wings have bonded over the low expectations. Several players were miffed when various preseason rankings were published on local Web sites and Wings wasn’t included.