Talk about a role model for the theory that anything is possible.
The Bergen Catholic basketball team won its season opener at home Friday night, routing Passaic, 75-40. It was the team’s first game under new varsity coach Bill Armstrong, a ’94 graduate of the program who went on to play for Division I Davidson, and then professionally in the ABA, the USBL and in Europe.
Armstrong, the JV coach for the past three seasons, is just the fifth varsity coach in the 55-year history of the team. Yet it doesn’t seem like all that long ago he was fighting for his position on the freshman team.
“I was the eighth player on the freshman team, and that’s the year I completely fell in love with this game,” said Armstrong, a member of the Bergen Record’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s. “I worked as hard as I could to improve as quickly as possible. There were times I trained and practiced until one or two o’clock in the morning.”
Friday night it appeared the Crusaders had put in some long hours in the pre-season as well. They trailed 14-10 in the first quarter before closing it out with an eight-point run, and breaking the game open in the second quarter by outscoring Passaic, 21-12.
Armstrong emptied his bench in the second half, and BC just kept pouring it on, getting up and down the court like “we’re running downhill,” said Armstrong, 60-7 as JV coach, including the team’s run to the 2011 JV County Championship. “That’s part of our game plan this year. We may use as many as 10 players a game and we want to run, and to wear our opponents down.”
Chuck Wingate, a guard now in his fourth year on the varsity, is the team’s most experienced player, and one of five seniors on the team. A strong defender, Wingate may also lead the team in “effort, enthusiasm and intensity,” according to Armstrong. Amani Adams, a 6-1 forward, Rich DeLuca, the team’s best three-point threat, Luke Cervino, and Zach Zalarick are the team’s other seniors.
Kyle Queiro and PJ Reed, a pair of 6-3 forwards, John Tsimis, are among the eight juniors Armstrong expects to make an impact, while Nadi Beciri, a 6-6, 220-pound sophomore, is difficult to miss as well.
“We don’t have a lot of varsity experience, but we’ve got some seniors who were like traffic cops out there tonight directing us,” he said. “We might not be talented enough to play a half-court game, but we’re going to catch teams on the run and open up some gaps. Defensively, we’re going apply a lot of pressure, and force as many turnovers as possible.”
Armstrong uses what he calls his Seven Keys to Success—and while he’s not divulging his entire list just yet—he’s pleased with the way the Crusaders have executed one of them: Talking.
“Already,” he said, “our team is communicating like a college team on the floor.”
As the gym emptied out around him Friday night, Armstrong reflected on Bergen Catholic in the early 1990s, and now.
“It’s difficult for me to express what it means to be back here as the varsity coach,” he said. “I look back at the extraordinary impact my coaches [Brother Jensen, and Chris Donfield] had on me, and what they taught me—which went way beyond basketball—and I want to do the same for these kids. Sure, I want to win, but I’m here because I want these kids to be in the same position I was in, and to get some of the same life lessons I was fortunate enough to get here.”
Armstrong brings innumerable basketball memories and experiences to back to where it all began for him, and there’s no doubt that someone with his basketball pedigree has the attention of his players.
“There are so many highlights, but I certainly recall that my first college game was at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse and I played six minutes,” he said. “But what really stands out is my senior year with a team that always had great seasons but fell short of winning the Southern Conference Tournament. We worked together to achieve that goal my senior year, and to this day I’d do anything for anyone of the guys on that team if they called me day or night—and I hope that’s the kind of experience my kids have playing together this season. I hope some of them have the opportunities I’ve had through basketball—the places I’ve traveled to and the people I’ve met.”
While it’s early in the season, Armstrong does see that potential in this year’s Crusaders.
“What I see is that these kids are playing for their teammates,” he said. “They have bought into the team concept. Often with teenage boys the first impression you get is ‘What’s in it for me?’ but that’s not the case with this group. It’s a great bunch of kids.”
Athletic Director Jack McGovern knew what he was getting in the former pro, and all indications are that Armstrong is in for the same type of long, successful ride his predecessors enjoyed.
“The season is just starting, but it’s clear these kids believe in coach Armstrong and that they’d run through a wall for him,” said McGovern. “This league has gotten so fast and so physical over the years and he’s engrained in them already that’s what it’ll take for them to compete this year.”
Tuesday night BC gets a chance to compete again, traveling to Paramus Catholic for a 7 p.m. start against one of the top team's in north Jersey. It's early in the season for such a big showdown, but the Crusaders already anything is possible.