NORTH SMITHFIELD — About 26 hours after the North Smithfield High boys' hoop squad had received its R.I. Division III championship plaque inside the Pizzitola Center, head coach T.J. Ciolfi, assistant Brian Chuey and the guys congregated with parents, family members and friends inside the Gators' Pub reception room Monday night.
The fete wasn't so much a celebration of the Northmen's first-ever state basketball crown, one achieved with a perfect, historic 24-0 mark, but instead to learn which team it would face in the 16-team R.I. Open (or all-inclusive) Tournament beginning tonight.
When they discovered via a Cox Communications Sports Selection Show, hosted by NBC-10 Sports Director Frank Carpano, that they had drawn the No. 5 seed and would battle 12th-ranked Shea in a Region IV quarterfinal at 6 p.m., Thursday at Roger Williams University, the room erupted with applause, hoots and hollers.
“I haven't really seen them play, so I don't know much about them,” senior tri-captain Daniel Jordan stated after the telecast. “I caught a little bit of (Shea's) championship game against Cumberland (earlier Sunday afternoon, one in which the Raiders delivered a superlative, late comeback but lost, 60-54), and they looked pretty fast.
“It seems they like to play uptempo, and I think we play a similar style. I didn't see much height on them, so I hope (junior) Pete (Keenan) and (fellow senior tri-captain) Matt (Walkow) will dominate the boards like they usually do.
“Walker (Strick) and I are just going to keep doing what we've done all year,” he noted of his backcourt mate and senior tri-captain. “We're going to run the trap, try to force turnovers and play good, gritty defense.”
Ciolfi admitted he's seen Shea, which fell to 17-8 overall with the title-tilt loss, play twice this winter, and explained he thought the Pawtucketers were well-coached by mentor Matt Pita and assistant Henry Coleman.
“They've got terrific balance and terrific depth,” he offered. “They're a solid team, and I think they're going to be tough to beat. The good news is we have all Division II teams in our region.”
When asked if he thought the Northmen could compete with the likes of those squads in upper-echelon leagues, he scoffed. Still, his contingent was the only D-III representative chosen for this tourney (as its based on power points compiled by Rhode Island Interscholastic League officials during the regular season and playoffs), while eight from D-I and seven others from D-II received invitations.
“Of course we can compete,” he stated. “I don't think it's a matter of 'They've got 1,000 or 1,800 kids in their school' because they can only play five guys, just like us. Let's put it this way: If our top six guys were going to their school, there's no way they'd get cut. I feel our guys can play with just about anybody.
“We've got two very good points guards (in Jordan and Strick), we've got two deep threats (in senior sharpshooter Cody L'Heureux and junior Breno Pena) and two 6-4 post players (Walkow and Keenan). That's a good recipe for success right there.
“Obviously, there are teams out there I'd probably prefer not to play, just because of the matchups, but by the time you get to that part of the tournament – if you get there – you're going to have to play them anyway. There's no place to hide.
“I think we're faster than all of the other teams in our bracket (including Shea, Cumberland and Prout), though I'm sure there are people who don't see that. I mean, how many people think of North Smithfield as a track powerhouse? But I think we're 'basketball-fast.' We play the game fast on both sides of the floor, offensively and defensively.”
Ciolfi also was queried as to how he felt about his unit being seeded fifth overall statewide, behind only top-seeded Classical, then La Salle, North Kingstown and the Clippers.
“Man, that's the 'Who's Who of Rhode Island high school hoop,'” he responded. “To be on the same tier as them, that's certainly something to be proud of. Think of it: They've ranked North Smithfield ahead of Hendricken – in basketball? That just doesn't happen. Maybe that should never happen, but we've got a very special group of boys who have worked really hard and pulled it off.”
Pita's Raiders have some extremely talented players as well. They rely on 6-3 senior co-captain Eli Itkin's ability not just to drain the trey but also pass with aplomb and even rebound; others (such as 6-3 senior forward Alvin Semedo and 6-1 classmate Nathan Lopes) can “sky” to the rim and pull down the boards; and fellow 6-3 co-captain/swing Tito DoCouto does a lot of things solidly.
As for the Northmen's 66-55 conquering of gutsy East Greenwich in the D-III finale Sunday, both Jordan and Ciolfi indicated it still hasn't sunk in – the unbeaten record or the fact they're state champions.
“Are you kidding? I was up all night; I didn't get much sleep because I was so excited,” Jordan grinned. “I watched (our) game on the Internet (www.riil.org .) a couple of times, (as) I wanted to do a little bit of scouting. I was watching for things we did or didn't do ourselves, what we'd need to do to get better, keep improving.
“I finally got to bed about 3:15-3:30 (a.m.), but – like I said – I didn't sleep much,” he added. “We had school today, and we got there a little after 7 (a.m.). As soon as we got out of our cars or off the bus, the teachers, faculty and staff were there at the bus loop welcoming us back.
“They had made posters saying, 'Congratulations!' and 'Division III state champs!'” he continued. “I was shocked, but psyched, too. Everyone was buying into what we're trying to do here. You know, when we went down to Roger Williams to face Johnston in the semis, I saw at least 12-15 teachers there to support us, and there were more at Brown. I was thinking, 'Man, this is the real deal!'
“When we got off the bus and walked into Pizzitola, we were feeling good. We got a chance to see how the Cumberland fans responded to their state title, and that pumped us up. That got us to want what they had; it got us hungry to start playing right then.”
Ciolfi called the atmosphere surreal.
“It hasn't hit me yet,” Ciolfi smiled. “There was so much going on, and there still is, with this open tournament looming and this get-together. I really haven't had quiet moment, but I started to get a feeling of what this meant right after the awards ceremony.
“My wife and I were walking out to the team bus to drop off something, and a man came up to us and explained who he was,” he added. “He said he used to coach football (at North Smithfield), like 30-plus years ago, and thanked me for a great season. He told me what it meant to him and his wife to see us win a state championship in his lifetime.
“I'll tell you, that hit me like a ton of bricks. He told me about the '73 team that had won the division, but then went on to states and loss. He said he remembered all that; it showed me that everything we had accomplished wasn't just about our team and the families, but the entire town. It was so special, I was, like, 'Whoa!'”