NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - Few observers of the area's high school hoops scene gave much thought to the New Providence Pioneers after the first nine games of the 2009-10 season and for good reason. They held a 1-8 record and were turnover prone in a very big way. Sure they were coached by Art Cattano, a respected coach who has amassed over 350 wins in his career, and yes they had junior center Jack Cole roaming the middle, but what else was there during those first nine games? Not much then, but after a double-digit win over a tough Caldwell team on Friday night, there is plenty going on inside those green and white uniforms as of now. You could say that the Pioneers are hot. And you'd be right.
The Pioneers have pulled off a 180-degree turn over the course of the past 13 games. Since starting with that dreadful 1-8 record, Cattano's squad is 9-4 and has finally found its identity on the court. Led by a lightning-fast backcourt and anchored by the 6-6, long-armed Cole in the paint, New Providence is suddenly a difficult team to beat.
The Caldwell Chiefs found that out the hard way on Friday night at New Providence when the Pioneers erased a 31-28 halftime deficit and took the lead with just under six minutes to play in the third quarter. Even though Caldwell turned up the defensive pressure, the Pioneers minimized their turnovers - something that had haunted them earlier in the season - and held on tightly to the lead they would not relinquish on the way to a ten-point win.
The game started out as a clash of big men with Cole and Caldwell's bulky center Dave Levinsky going head to head. Cole blocked a shot attempt on Caldwell's first possession, but Levinsky recovered and dropped in two of his game-high 31 points on a smooth, close-range jumper. Cole answered immediately at the other end with a jump hook and the game looked as if it would turn into a battle of the big men. However, it would be the Pioneers' guard play that would be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of the game.
"We tried to space things out offensively and take advantage of our match-ups," Cattano said. "Our guards hit some clutch shots and after we got the lead we did a good job of protecting it and opening up the floor on the offensive end."
The Pioneers led 19-15 at the end of the first quarter, but the second quarter belonged to Caldwell. The Chiefs put together a strong period of play thanks to point guard Mike Fees creating havoc defensively and Levinsky dominating the paint. Caldwell also got a couple of three-point buckets from guard/forward Connor Smith late in the quarter. Levinsky hit a couple of free throws to extend the Chiefs' advantage to 31-28 at the half.
The second half got underway in defensive fashion as Cole swatted two Caldwell shot attempts on the Chiefs' first two possessions, the first of which led to a fast-break lay-up for Morgan on the other end. From start to finish, Cole was a huge defensive presence for the Pioneers, on at least two occasions blocking multiple shots on a single possession.
Cole stands 6-6, but his long, lanky wingspan makes him an ideal shot-blocker and he finished the evening with seven rejections and one thunderous two-handed dunk that ignited the crowd and his teammates alike. While the junior center finished with only 14 points - a low total by his standards - he played hard on defense and, aside from all the blocked shots, altered several others and ripped down numerous offensive and defensive boards. "I think he blocked a lot of shots," Cattano said of Cole after the game. "He's probably already broken the school record. He had 70 last year. I don't know how many he had tonight, but I think it was seven or eight. He really helps on zone-man and he helps the other guys as well. He's really nice to have [in the paint]."
Caldwell's offense continued to mainly come from Levinsky and Fees, but while the Caldwell attack was somewhat one-dimensional, Morgan, Fuschetto and Joe Meyers began to heat up in the backcourt for New Providence.
In the third quarter, Fuschetto really started to make his mark offensively. During one stretch after the Pioneers had regained the lead, Fuschetto and Meyers scored 11 of New Providence's final 12 points of the quarter.
"Our guards have really been improving throughout the whole year," Cattano said. "We tried to isolate Fruschetto a little bit because we thought we got some mismatches because of his quickness. He's also able to post kids up, even despite his size, and Joey [Meyers] has been doing a good job for us, as well."
The Pioneers led 49-43 at the end of three quarters and pulled away in the final period using the tried and true formula of Fruschetto, Morgan and Meyers running the backcourt and Cole guarding the paint to pull away and stretch the lead to 15 at one point.
Caldwell tried unsuccessfully to foul towards the end of the game, but the Pioneers were steady from the line. New Providence also displayed patience and poise in front of a relentless Caldwell full-court press as the Pioneers protected the ball well for the most part. The ball security was a marked improvement over the early season troubles that plagued New Providence.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Pioneers had an 11-point victory under their belts thanks to Fruschetto's team-high 16 points and solid games from Morgan (15 points) and Meyers (nine points).
After the game Cattano explained matter-of-factly the growth and maturity his team has experienced due to the fact they fought through those early season struggles. "The momentum is real good because we started out 1-8 and we're 10-12 now and we played some of the teams that beat us the first time and we beat them," Cattano said. "I thought us winning at St. Mary's was a huge win because you very rarely win down there. And beating Middlesex after that and [Caldwell] is a good team here. We're geared for the playoffs and happy to be in it because we think we can do some damage."
Having finally found their identity - and a winning formula - the Pioneers are a seed no team will want to draw for fear of being the ones whose playoff hopes are, as Coach Cattano puts it, damaged.