After teams win their first championship, they tend to react in one of two ways. Burdened by higher expectations, they either feel the pressure and fall into mediocrity, or they respond with renewed boldness, determined to make winning a habit.
If the Collegiate School basketball team’s Ivy League opponents had any dreams of the Dutchmen faltering this year, they’ve gone unrealized thus far. And with Collegiate knocking off opponent after opponent, it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. But head coach Ray Voelkel will stop any talk that sounds like overconfidence immediately.
“I feel just like Poly Prep last year,” he said. “I want to win and I expect to win, but every other team is gunning for us.”
A year ago, Poly Prep was the longtime unquestioned leader of the competitive Ivy League basketball scene. And then Collegiate, season after season a bridesmaid in league competition, knocked off Poly in double overtime in the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) championship game. The Dutchmen followed that shocker by upending a strong upstate team in the New York Federation Tournament and then beating Upper West Side rival St. Agnes to become the “B Class” state champion. (New York high school basketball is divided into four divisions, AA through C).
For Voelkel, the team’s players and many in the Collegiate community, it was a superlative moment. Less than eight months later, though, a new season began, and last year’s accomplishments didn’t guarantee anything.
“It’s much different being the top dog than the underdog,” senior captain Christian Fisch said. “Throughout my varsity basketball career, our team has never been the best team in the league. We’ve always been overshadowed by Poly Prep. It’s awesome to be at the top and know that you’re the best.”
Even in the role of defending champions, Collegiate may have surpassed expectations so far this season. The team is currently 23-4 and clinched the Ivy League title—the school’s first since 1998—two weeks ago.
“It’s the first time that I’ve won it, so it was really important for me,” Voelkel said, his gruff demeanor momentarily fading as he broke into a sheepish smile. “It’s been frustrating because we’ve won the NYSAIS championship three times since I took over as coach, so to finally win my first league title this year has been very, very gratifying.”
The season started well enough with four early wins. Two consecutive losses followed, though Voelkel didn’t worry about those because they came against very talented teams that Collegiate normally doesn’t face. A defeat against Trinity in early February was far more concerning.
“Trinity played a great game, but I think a lot of it had to do with how we approached the game,” Voelkel said. “That loss made us a better team. It showed our guys that you don’t just show up for games. You’ve got to go out and earn every win, and we’ve played better ever since. It was quite possibly a blessing in disguise.”
After that, the Dutchmen reeled off 10 straight wins before a hiccup last Sunday against Long Island Lutheran, another strong team from a tougher division. Along the way, Collegiate beat Ivy League stalwarts like Hackley and Poly Prep twice.
A 23-4 record normally indicates dominance, but there is something curiously unremarkable about how the team beats its opponents. Collegiate lost two players from last year’s championship squad, but four starters returned: Will Pagano as the floor leader; 6-foot-6 junior Will Bartlett; and the two captains, Fisch and Harrison Green. They’re joined by new starter Brendan Harvey and notable bench contributors such as Sam Bresnick, Connor Huff and Nick Moore. Not one of them stands above the rest as a bona fide star.
Voelkel uses a complex offense that harnesses his players’ versatility. The position groupings aren’t strict, and there are no designated scorers or rebounders. Everyone scores; everyone rebounds. And everyone plays tough defense. For the fourth year in a row, Collegiate will feature four players each averaging double digits in scoring. No one during that span has gotten an average higher than 16.
“We are blessed to have consistent contributions from everyone,” Fisch said. “We lost a couple of key guys from last year, but young players have definitely filled those shoes. Our chemistry and the core of the team are almost identical to last year. At the same time we have to play hard. Nothing is a given.”
The subtle dominance of Fisch and his teammates was on display during a win over Dalton (the third this season, and Dalton is no pushover) last weekend. With a sizable crowd filling the small gym shoehorned into the third floor of Collegiate’s building at West 78th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, the Dutchmen seized a blindingly quick 21-2 lead, leaving their guests a bit stunned on the way to an eventual 65-35 victory.
One moment in the second quarter was particularly revealing. A Dalton player drained a long three-pointer that stilled the home crowd momentarily. Unperturbed, Collegiate ran right back down the floor and found Bartlett open at the edge of the arc. His three-point attempt did not swish through, but he collected a long rebound and reversed the ball across the court. Before Dalton had time to react, Bresnick and Green put together a quick give-and-go for an easy lay-up. Collegiate never appeared flummoxed, even against Dalton’s half- and full-court press.
“We allow the players a lot of freedom,” Voelkel said. “We feel confident with a lot of guys shooting the three and with a lot of guys going inside.”
All that bodes well as the playoffs get underway. The NYSAIS Tournament begins March 5, and Collegiate is the undoubted favorite. Victory would mean another trip to the Federation Tournament.
“We’re feeling very confident right now,” Bresnick said. “We’ve gone 13-1 in the Ivy League. We’ve seen everyone in this tournament. We’ve beaten everyone in this tournament.”
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