Twice, members of the Hunter College High School boys’ basketball team said “all the way” when talking about their hopes for the current season. First assistant coach John Valinotti used the phrase, and then junior captain Len Chenfeld did the same a few minutes later. Even for a good team, it was a bit presumptive. But try to excuse their confidence. The Hawks, after all, are not only undefeated in regular New York City competition but also against the rest of the world.
Hunter, already a strong contender in the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), proved its skills against a foreign foe by beating the Tuggeranong Vikings, an Australian travel team on an American tour, 65-63 at its Upper East Side gym last Saturday evening.
“This was a nail-biting experience,” Valinotti said. “We knew what the Australian team was coming with. They brought something a lot of U.S. teams are missing, which is basic, fundamental basketball. This team was fundamentally sound. Street ballers here in New York have forgotten that.”
Maybe the street ballers have, but the Hawks evidently have not. They proved that by jumping out to a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game thanks to three baskets by Chenfeld. At that point, any feelings of international amity were seemingly parked on the bench. Several of the Hunter players hosted their Australian counterparts for a couple of days before the game, but no one was going to let new friendships get in the way of some tough basketball.
The boys from Tuggeranong, a private sports club located in Australia’s capital, Canberra, regrouped and pulled ahead 15-12 by the end of the first quarter. Not just anyone gets to join a travel team, even in a country where basketball takes a back seat to at least five other sports in national popularity. The Vikings quickly showed what made them dangerous: blazing speed, a quick-paced transition game based on clever passing and a bombs-away attitude from beyond the three-point line. Daniel Mills, the long-range threat for the Australians, finished first among all scorers with 24 points. One of his shots came from so far away that it struck an overhanging light fixture.
“They play very smart, a lot smarter than most teams we face,” said Matt Schoener, Hunter’s other captain.
Even though the Hawks entered halftime ahead 32-30 after a seven-point run, they looked clearly outmanned in the third quarter. The Vikings were leading by 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter, but then, with Hunter facing its first loss of the season, the pace of play became truly frenetic. And slowly, the gap began to close.
“I said, ‘We are not losing this game,’” Chenfeld said. “Unfortunately, we came out so flat in the third quarter. But once we got back into the pace of the game and improved our defense in the fourth quarter, we had a chance.”
Led by Chenfeld, Schoener and junior Kyle Waney, the Hawks edged closer. Schoener sank a couple of baskets to bring his team within range, and then Chenfeld nailed a runner with less than a minute remaining to tie the score at 63. Hunter got the ball back off a traveling violation, and Chenfeld provided the heroics again, going the length of the court and rolling home a layup on a blazing drive into the lane with only a few seconds left.
“Matt got us to that point with a couple of shots, and then I just saw the lane clear out and knew I could get to the basket,” Chenfeld said.
Chenfeld, a speedy point guard, finished with 21 points, six rebounds and four assists. Schoener had 12 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
The excitement of the victory underscored the surprising competitiveness of Hunter, which has made a big leap this season from the PSAL “B” Division to its “A” Division. But the Hawks, 13-3 last year against ostensibly weaker competition, were 8-0 as of press time in its new league. They’ve also bested seven non-league opponents, including their visitors from Down Under.
“The ‘B’ Division was tough last year, but we were very nervous going up to ‘A,’” Valinotti said. “We’re here and it’s a challenge, but we’ve been rising to meet it. We finally have everything going on all cylinders. It’s coming together. I think this is the talent that has been coming up from middle school and junior varsity for some time.”
That talent goes beyond Chenfeld, the team’s floor leader, and Schoener, its post presence. Behind the two captains are a variety of capable role players, including the tough forward Waney, Cole Garson, Pranab Karki, Jason Lupatkin, Gianni DiCioccio and a dazzlingly quick guard named Marley Akonner. All of them stepped up at various moments on Saturday to grab an important rebound or hit a clutch shot.
As recently as three years ago, Hunter finished a disastrous 1-15. Schoener, an inexperienced freshman at the time, suffered through that season. A year later, he and Chenfeld helped start a turnaround that continued under the leadership of Neil Potter, who took over as head coach last season. Now, with a perfect record and plenty of talent, the Hawks are brimming with confidence.
“There’s no team we don’t think we can beat,” Schoener said. “We don’t think we’re going to lose any game if it’s close. When it gets to the end, we just don’t panic.”
They sure didn’t panic on Saturday, and the result was one of the wilder, more satisfying victories of their season.
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