NORTH SMITHFIELD – Confident … but not cocky.
Cool customers … but not too cool for school.
Notoriety is a natural byproduct of winning, especially when victories are strung, out one after another, without a blemish, like a string of pearls. Yet as North Smithfield head coach T.J. Ciolfi will attest, the wave of attention for their once-in-a-lifetime season hasn’t changed his Northmen in the slightest.
“As soon as we beat Middletown, the stories started to come,” says Ciolfi about the 57-56 overtime win over the Islanders back on Jan. 17, one that catapulted North Smithfield from the realm of obscurity to a feel-good story that inquiring minds wished to probe. “They were prepared for (the attention) and I told them to enjoy it. Read it, cut out (the articles denoting their feats in the newspaper) and put them in a shoebox.
“They haven’t shied away from it, but they don’t walk into the gym full of themselves,” added Ciolfi. “The approach I have is that ‘Hey, I like the attention too, so let’s get more!’ Every game, though, they’ve had the same attitude – go get a win.”
The pristine play of 25-0 North Smithfield matches the white uniforms that will be worn at Providence College’s Alumni Hall for a “Round of 8” state tournament contest against The Prout School Sunday night. The fifth-seeded Northmen and the No. 13 Crusaders tip off at 8:30 p.m. and will lower the curtain on what figures to be an exciting day of high school hoops.
The quadruple-header begins at 11:30 a.m. with No. 3 North Kingstown taking on 11th-seeded Barrington, followed by No. 7 seed Hope and No. 15 seed Bishop Hendricken at 1:30 p.m. Classical, the top seed in the 16-team tourney, will meet No. 8 Westerly at 6:30. Sunday’s winners advance to the semifinals, set for Friday at URI’s Ryan Center.
While Ciolfi has never been on a basketball carpet ride like the one that has carried the Northmen to their present lofty heights, he does have some experience with the concept of “stay hungry, stay humble.”
A onetime men’s basketball assistant coach at Johnson & Wales University, Ciolfi had a front row seat to the scoring clinic Providence native Lamonte Thomas put on a few years ago. Watching Thomas drop anywhere from 30-40 points nightly was pure poetry, but the way the guard who’s now playing professionally in Germany dealt with the swarm of notepads, recorders and TV cameras is something Ciolfi also remembers well.
“Lamonte came into practice everyday with something to prove. When he took over the NCAA scoring lead as a junior [during the 2010-11 season], he could have rested on that. Instead he worked harder for more,” Ciolfi said. “Reporters would come by to write or film stories, then he would go out and destroy whoever guarded him in practice.”
The North Smithfield coach has used Thomas as a shining example of striving for more even as the chips appear to be falling into place.
“We can get the attention and read the papers the next day, but on game night, you better have a 20-point lead at halftime if that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Ciolfi remarked. “I learned so much from Lamonte’s preparation and I try to bring it to these guys. Take the attention and enjoy it, but give them a reason to keep coming back.”
Last Monday night, Cox Communications sent a TV crew to Gator’s Pub, where Ciolfi & Co. gathered to find out the open-tournament particulars. As the coach explains, arriving at such an arrangement proved no trouble. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a little notoriety, especially of the good kind.
“I said to (Cox officials) that I can put together a get-together if we can get the cameras (to Gator’s Pub) and get these guys their five minutes on TV in front of the whole state,” Ciolfi stated.
On facing his second consecutive Division II squad in Prout, Ciolfi can’t stress enough how much the non-Division III teams get after it on the defensive end.
“Every Division II team I’ve seen, they come out and get stops,” Ciolfi noted.
If the Northmen can take a page out of their opponent’s playbook, their reward will not only be a trip to the Final Four, but they will also enjoy several more days of being the darlings of the Rhode Island high school basketball landscape.