Downtown's Terriers in position to challenge for NEC Championship
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
For each of the past three seasons, the St. Francis Brooklyn men's basketball team has dared to dream of capturing the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament berth while watching painfully as its Downtown rival, LIU-Brooklyn, has achieved the feat.
In 2013-14, the title-hungry program is hoping to finally take that history-making step itself, and may actually have the team to do it.
"Last year was an up and down season for us," noted St. Francis head men's basketball coach and Brooklyn native Glenn Braica, who has helped the Terriers to the Northeast Conference Tournament in each of his first three campaigns at the helm, following the team’s first official practice this week.
"We had some very good wins and some very difficult losses,” he added. “I think we have addressed some of our deficiencies in the off-season and we now have more athleticism and depth to play the way we would like. It will be a challenge to get a rotation down because we do have a lot of guys that can play.”
Also in question is how the Terriers (12-18 overall, 8-10 NEC last season) will respond to losing graduated frontcourt star Akeem Johnson, who will be playing pro ball in Finland this year while St. Francis tries to break a century-long streak of NCAA futility.
The Terriers have been bounced from the opening round of the NECs in each of Braica's seasons, and barely qualified for the eighth and final postseason spot by winning their regular-season finale against Sacred Heart last March.
In the previous decade, the Terriers had two solid chances at breaking through the “March Madness” barrier that has haunted their program, losing in the NEC Finals to Monmouth in 2001 and Wagner in 2003, with both defeats coming under the guidance of former long-time coach Ron Ganulin.
Braica was the associate head coach at St. Francis during those two near-historic runs, so he knows a thing or two about what it will take for the Terriers to get over the hump this season.
With Johnson gone, Braica realizes the importance of getting his returning starters and new arrivals to step up, especially in a conference that has been dominated of late by a team that resides just a few blocks across the way.
"The league is very good and has gained a lot of respect," said Braica, whose team will kick off the campaign Nov. 8 in Coral Gables, Fla., against national powerhouse Miami. "It's a very challenging schedule. We have numerous games on the road to start the season against very good teams.
“However, if we are tough and can learn from it then we will benefit from the schedule. We will see different styles of play in difficult environments that can really prepare us for the conference season."
Returnees like junior forward Jalen Cannon (All-NEC Second Team), third-year slasher Kevin Douglas, senior Matt Milk, junior Lowell Ulmer and backcourt staples Ben Mockford and Brent Jones hope to make this a season to remember on Remsen Street.
Mockford, a native of England, averaged 11.1 points per game last season and was among the top 3-point shooters (45 percent) in the NEC.
"Ben did a great job of shooting the ball last season," Braica said. "His three-point percentage was outstanding. This year we would like him to be more physical, tougher, and better defensively. He needs to do some more intangible things such as picking up loose balls, and not just be a shooter."
Freshman Wayne Martin (South Shore High School), junior transfer Amdy Fall and first-year guards Sheldon Hagigal and Yunis Hopkinson will be called on to bolster one of the deeper rotations in the NEC. Especially since the Blackbirds have lost a big part of the core that spearheaded their charge to an unprecedented three straight conference titles, most notably departed All-NEC forward Jamal Olasewere and guard C.J. Garner, last year’s NEC Tournament MVP.
“How quickly the new guys can adjust and how the returning guys acclimate to different roles are the biggest question marks entering the season,” Braica said.
The Terriers open the NEC portion of their schedule on Nov. 27 by hosting Mount Saint Vincent at the Pope Physical Education Center.
Their annual "Battle of Brooklyn" series with the Blackbirds will start with a Jan. 9 showdown on Remsen Street before they take on LIU again Feb. 16 at the Barclays Center.
"There are very good players that have a lot of talent [in our league],” Braica noted. “The coaches in the NEC are excellent so we have to be ready to play every night."
Off the hardwood and onto the pitch, St. Francis Brooklyn's men's soccer squad edged Harvard, 1-0, in Cambridge, Mass., last Sunday to improve to 4-0-1 in its past five games.
At 5-2-1 overall this season, the Terriers have moved up three spots in the most recent NSCAA/NCAA Division I North Atlantic Regional Poll to the No. 2 position -- the highest ranking the program has received since coming in fourth from Oct. 4-11 back in 2011.
"It is nice to be recognized by the coaches in the region," said Terriers head coach Tom Giovatto. "While it's been a great year so far, we have a lot of work to do as we gear up for the conference play."
St. Francis, which beat the Crimson on senior defender Riccardo Milano's header, will wrap up non-conference play Saturday in Newark, N.J., against NJIT before welcoming Sacred Heart to brand new Brooklyn Bridge Park for its NEC opener on Oct. 11.
In other local collegiate soccer action, Brooklyn College freshman forward Marco Thimm-Kaiser scored two goals as the Bulldogs ended a two-match losing streak with Wednesday's 2-0 victory at CUNYAC rival Lehman.
BC improved to 6-5 overall and 3-1 in CUNYAC play while earning some praise from head coach Rawle Hensford.
“It's always difficult to play against Lehman when they are home,” Hensford said. “We did an excellent job adjusting to the grass surface and denying
Lehman the opportunity to work the ball into their front line, whose physical presence was quite evident.”
Junior goalkeeper Kamil Ostrowski made five saves en route to his third shutout of the season for BC, which will get a one-week break prior to next Wednesday night's all-Brooklyn showdown against Medgar Evers at the Aviator Sports Complex.
The game will only take place if the current government shutdown is lifted.
The women's team at Brooklyn College continued to roll with Wednesday's 6-0 blanking of Lehman as juniors Shani Abrahams and Bergelie Louis scored two goals apiece.
BC will host Medgar Evers on Saturday afternoon, looking to improve its impressive season mark to 9-1.
The LIU-Brooklyn men's team, which had to cancel Tuesday's match at Army due to the ongoing government shutdown, defeated Fairfield, 2-1, last Friday night in Connecticut behind reigning NEC Rookie of the Week Kevin Lockhart's game-winner in the 88th minute.
Lockhard and the Blackbirds (2-6-1) will return to action Saturday, when they host Howard at 2 p.m.
In local high school soccer action, Brooklyn Friends ninth-grader Halima Matthews scored her 50th career goal in only her 21st game at the Pearl Street school Wednesday, helping the Blue Pride to a 6-0 blanking of York Prep.
Matthews, who played on the team last year as an eighth-grader, had four goals and two assists as BFS improved to 5-0-3 this season, including a perfect 3-0 mark in Indepedent School Athletic League action.
Junior Aoife Henchy had a pair of assists for Friends, which has yet to allow a goal in ISAL play, thanks in large part to freshman netminder Sophie Edelman, who stopped a penalty shot in Wednesday's victory.