By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Even 10 years later, it still doesn't quite make sense.
How could a team with nine players from a tiny Downtown private school, only eight of whom actually made the trip to the New York Federation Basketball Championships in Glens Falls, N.Y., have defied all odds to capture a coveted Class C State title by knocking off one heavy favorite after another?
"It was mystical," former Brooklyn Friends School head basketball coach Vladimir Malukoff explained to the Eagle on Saturday night during the team's 10th anniversary celebration on Pearl Street. "They just had a great sprit and togetherness that year."
That togetherness was on full display Saturday as Kyle Neptune, Chad Levy, Edson Elcock, Jordan Foster, Ian Thomas, Ryan Fischer-Werner, Kenneth Muigai, Alap Vora, Richard Hempel and assistant coach Maurice Washington strolled in, one after the other, to the school's auditorium for a screening of BFS athletic director David Gardella's full-length documentary feature on the team's fabled run to greatness in Glenns Falls.
After a moment of silence for dearly departed assistant Mike Petelka, Gardella, who was in his first full year on the job as AD that winter, got choked up recalling how the Blue Pride overcame virtually every obstacle in their path to put together a school-record 25-4 season, which ended with a wild celebration after a stunning 69-68 overtime upset of Buffalo City Honors in the 2003 Championship Game.
"It's hard to put into words what this team accomplished," noted Gardella, who worked alongside Andy Cohen in producing and directing the film. "It was an extremely special place to be, an extremely special time and an extremely special group."
It was also one of the most unbelieveable yet underreported sports stories of the previous decade, mainly because it caught so many people, including the participants, by surprise.
"If you told me at the beginning of the year that we would be [in Glens Falls], I wouldn't believe it," admitted Washington during the film as he and Petelka watched TV in their hotel room on the eve of the title game.
BFS began its journey to greatness that season with a heartbreaking two-point loss to Birch Wathen Lenox, then reeled off a season-high 12-game winning streak.
But despite their midseason surge, the Blue Pride didn't finish up strong, dropping two of their final three regular-season contests, including an overtime defeat at neighborhood rival Packer Collegiate on Joralemon Street and a humbling 20-point setback to perennial Bay Ridge powerhouse Poly Prep to close the campaign.
One could hardly have predicted a run to the state tournament following the loss to the Blue Devils, who were led by current NBA All-Star Joakim Noah, who at 6-foot-11 had at least seven inches on BFS' tallest player.
After beating Park Slope rival Berkeley Carroll, Packer and Collegiate in their first three playoff games, the Pride got another shot at Poly in the semifinals of the ACIS Tournament just one week following their last visit.
Malukoff recalled the opposition having its post-game celebratory spread all laid out before tip-off, and admitted he wasn't very confident his unit could compete with the bigger, deeper Blue Devils. But midway through the second quarter, it became evident that Neptune, who went on to a solid NCAA career at Lehigh and is now coaching at Division I Niagara, was up to the challenge along with the rest of his teammates.
"We fronted Noah all night, and he didn't really hurt us till the fourth quarter," said Malukoff, whose team miraculously escaped the hostile gym with a 71-64 win that evening.
Down 17-4 early against Horace Mann in the ACIS Final, the Pride came roaring back with a big fourth quarter to capture the league crown with a 62-54 triumph before boarding the bus upstate that would take them to their ultimate destiny.
A mediocre first half in the state semifinals didn't faze BFS as it once again caught fire following intermission, cruising to a 56-50 victory over Cathedral Prep. The state championship against Buffalo City appeared to be in hand late in the fourth quarter, but Neptune and Foster both fouled out, forcing seldom-used bench players Hempel and team jester Vora to play crucial minutes.
Hempel jumped into the hero's role, blocking a potential go-ahead shot on one end and scoring a key basket down the stretch in overtime as BFS held on for the one-point victory.
As they accepted their state championship medals that night, the eight men who made the trek upstate -- only Muigai was unable to attend due to a previous commitment -- couldn't have imagined their exploits would still be chronicled and celebrated a decade later.
"With all the negative stuff that goes on in sports these days, that 2003 championship was so pure," Gardella said.
Even as they parted ways Saturday night in Downtown Brooklyn, returning to their lives off the hardwood, the members of that oh-so-special team did so with the knowledge that they walk together forever as champions.
While the 2003 state championship boys team will always hold a special place in BFS athletics history, girls varsity hoops star Janna Joassainte made some history of her own this past season.
The senior scored her 1,000th career point on Feb. 20, becoming the first female athlete to do so on Pearl Street. She finished her BFS career with 1,016 points, joining Neptune, the men's program's all-time leading scorer, as one of the elite players ever to suit up for the Blue Pride.
Over at Bishop Kearney last week, seniors Amanda DiLeo, Kristin Ferrigno, and Samantha Simon celebrated Senior Day in style last week, pulling out a dramatic 56-54 win over Petrides as sophomore Gabriella Monferato scored the game-clinching basket off a perfect feed from Christina Hayer with only 19 seconds to play.
Hayer scored a game-high 19 points for BK, which was slated to begin the playoffs Tuesday.
DiLeo, Ferrigno and Simon were honored in a dinner ceremony following the game. A slide show captured the highlights of the seniors' basketball years at the Brooklyn school while teammates offered moving speeches. Family, friends and teammates all wore "We Will Miss You" t-shirts.
In local college hoops action from this past weekend, the Brooklyn College women's team suffered a 73-62 loss to top-seeded Baruch in the CUNYAC title game on Saturday at CCNY, but did earn the top overall ranking in the upcoming ECAC Division III Metro Championships, which kick off Wednesday with the Bulldogs (22-6) hosting No. 8 Purchase at the West Quad Center.
The BC men fell to top-seeded College of Staten Island, 71-65, last Thursday in the CUNYAC Tournament's semifinals, completing their campaign with a 12-14 mark.
The LIU women's team fell to 3-13 in Northeast Conference play with a 51-39 loss at Mount St. Mary's on Monday night.
The Blackbird men (15-13, 10-6 NEC), who are coming off Sunday's two-point loss at Wagner, will try to get back on track Thursday against Sacred Heart at the Wellness Center.
Over on Remsen Street, the St. Francis women squandered an 18-point lead to visiting Wagner Monday night, but still had reason to celebrate after clinching their first NEC Tournament spot since 2008.
Led by first-year coach John Thurston, the Terriers (11-16, 8-8) will be hosting their annual “Shoot For a Cure” and National Girls & Women in Sports Day (originally scheduled Feb. 9) on Saturday, which is also Senior Day.
The St. Francis men got a career-high 29 points from junior sharpshooter Ben Mockford on Saturday, but it wasn't enough as the Terriers (11-16, 7-9) dropped a 73-65 decision to Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md.