One gigantic change on the bench. Sweeping changes on the court. A change in overall height, and perhaps a minor shift in philosophy.
Yes, the St. Joseph boys basketball team will certainly be taking on a new look this season as Chris Watts takes over as head coach for the newly-retired Vito Montelli, a legendary figure on the state basketball scene who stepped down after 50 seasons and 878 wins in September.
The Cadets, coming off an undefeated regular season in the FCIAC and their second straight Class LL state title, are also looking to build on their recent success without 6-7 forward Timajh Parker, All-FCIAC point guard James Jennings, and 6-foot-7 center Pat Hopkins.
For Watts, who has spent half his life wearing the red and gold as a player and coach at St. Joseph, it’ll be business as usual when the Cadets kick off the season Wednesday night at Ridgefield against Kurt Steidl and the Tigers.
Watts, a 1987 gradute, was a star at St. Joseph before going on to enjoy a solid four-year career at Providence. He’s had two stints as an assistant coach under Montelli, first from 1992-94 and again from 2006-2012. For the Cadets, the transition should be a smooth one.
“It was exciting initially knowing you’re going to fill the spot as head coach for St. Joe’s,” Watts said. “After giving it time to sink in you start to think, I am a part of this program. I’ve been a part of this program. I went to school here. I played here, and I’ve been a coach under coach Montelli for quite a while. I’ve been intimate with the program for years, so it’s a comfortable spot to be in, for me and the players.”
That doesn’t mean Watts wasn’t totally flattered to be the one to take over a nationally-recognized program Montelli built from the ground up, and to be hand-picked as the replacement by the man himself. Watts is now the proud owner of a job that seemed would never belong to anyone else but Montelli.
“It’s an honor to be the one to take over this great program that coach Montelli built,” Watts said. “It’s comforting to know coach Montelli feels that strongly about me, to push the way he pushed. Not that he pushed too hard, but just to be mentioned in the same breath on the same day of his retirement that I was going to be his replacement, it is truly a great honor.”
One thing Watts doesn’t expect to see change is St. Joseph’s winning tradition. The Cadets will be without the inside force of Parker, an All-State forward now playing at Division I Towson, without the rebounding skills of Hopkins and without their floor general, Jennings.
The Cadets should still be a formidable bunch with the return of junior guard Quincy McKnight, one of the top all-around players in the FCIAC. St. Joseph, which went 18-0 during the regular season before being upset by Bassick in the FCIAC quarterfinals, also has an emerging star in junior point guard Raekwon Reid, a sharpshooter and solid defender in junior guard Jon Dzurenda, and a fantastic athlete in senior Jake Pelletier, who should bring the same competitive fire to the basketball court that he did as a record-setting receiver for the Class M quarterfinalist football team.
“People always say St. Joseph never rebuilds, it reloads,” Watts said. “I think that’s what we’ve done again this year.”
Because Parker, Jennings, Hopkins and McKnight ate up so many minutes last season, no one was able to see how good St. Joseph’s backups really were. Watts saw it every day in practice, and he’s liking what he sees right now.
“I think our success came from our second team, the kids you’ll be seeing this year,” Watts said. “Those are the kids who pushed our starters every day. You want to be able to give you’re first-team a good look in practice and simulate what you’re going to see in a game, and I think with our second team last year, now our current team this year, we were able to do that. We were able to give our first team a good look and simulate pressure, pressure that you’ll be seeing this year.”
The Cadets will continue to focus on the defensive side of the ball without the height Parker and Hopkins gave St. Joseph last season.
“We’re going to continue to play a sound brand of basketball,” Watts said. “We’re going to play hard from rim to rim. We’re not as tall as we were last year, but we’re going to make up for it with our quickness.”
Watts is also concentrating on creating a more system-based offense instead of relying on the prowess of Parker and the shooting and playmaking ability of Jennings and McKnight, as the Cadets did last season.
“I’ve thrown a lot at the kids over a week’s time because I do want to put my own thumb-print on things,” Watts said. “Coach was big on defense and I continue to emphasize defense. However, over the years I think we might have been a little stagnant offensively. If we’re playing good defense, we don’t need offense. That’s something coach (Montelli) instilled in the kids. Play some hard defense and the offense will come. I’m of the same thought. I want to play good defense. But let’s play some good offense, too.”
Junior Florian Judenick will share time with Reid as they both hope to fill the void left by Jennings.