It was after 11:00pm on Friday, January 18 when the Varsity Boys Basketball team stepped off the Norfolk Academy bus in the Seaport District of Manhattan, a few blocks from New York City Hall and Wall Street Plaza. As some players pulled luggage from the bus, others looked across the street and gazed upward at a nearby skyscraper. Head coach Eric Acra looked at assistant coaches Bruce Rosenfeld and Ari Zito and said, “How great is this? The Dogs take on New York!” Acra’s excitement would be a fixture throughout the team’s two and a half days in the city, even after the boys lost 64-44 the following night to national powerhouse Our Savior Lutheran (OSL) from the Bronx.
For the fourteen players, three managers, and coaching staff, It would be a once-in-a-lifetime weekend of sightseeing, history, competition, and team bonding. The impetus for the trip was a call from the organizers of The Big Apple Invitational, a premier event now in its fifteenth year, featuring major college recruits on each of the dozen participating teams. Along with Glenelg Country School (MD) and Bishop O’Connell (VA), Norfolk Academy was one of three schools from outside the tri-state (NY-NJ-CT) area. The event organizers were eager to welcome Academy and 7’0” junior Mark Williams, who is considered one of the nation’s top 10 centers in the Class of 2020, according to ESPN.
En route to Manhattan, the team took in a Big Ten basketball game in Piscataway, NJ between Rutgers and Northwestern. Players enjoyed cheering from the student section in The Rutgers Athletic Center and taking the court after the game (a Northwestern win) to shoot around with NBA champion Ron Harper, whose son is a freshman for Rutgers. Rutgers is one of nearly 30 Division 1 programs recruiting Mark Williams. The Scarlet Knights’ head coach, Steve Pikiell, visited with Williams and his family after the game and made the trip into the city the following night to watch the Bulldogs play.
On the morning of Saturday, January 19, the team walked the fourteen blocks to Battery Park and took a ferry ride to Liberty Island, where they climbed the Statue of Liberty, and to the immigration museum at Ellis Island.
The team met back at the hotel for a special pre-game session with four Academy alumni who live and work in New York City. Lauren Morgan ’96, Aaron Hurwitz ’04, Pierce Derkac ’06, and Derek Melvin ’01 spoke to the team about how lessons learned from their Academy days have translated to success in college and in their careers. Morgan encouraged the boys to embrace the challenge of tough practices, as it will enable them to thrive in the working world. Hurwitz discussed gaining a psychological edge by playing with something to prove. Derkac emphasized how being a team player fosters team success and can eventually open doors in the business world. Lastly, Melvin talked about how losing can inspire athletes to raise their game and defeat opponents who had previously beaten them.
Morgan and Derkac accompanied the team via subway to Xavier High School and served as honorary captains for the game, sitting on the bench and encouraging the team during timeouts and halftime. In the stands wearing orange Academy caps was a sizable contingent of Academy alumni from New York City as well as parents and family members who had made the trip.
Coming off a win in the Virginia Preps Invitational at Green Run High School the previous weekend against 2018 state semifinalist Grafton, the Bulldogs were eager to see how they would stack up against a talented OSL team, which plays a national schedule and has several Division 1 prospects. However, five minutes into the game, the Bulldogs found themselves on the wrong side of a 14-2 start.
“After we got down early and called a timeout, we realized that we could play with them,” said Mark Williams. Fueled by tough defense and quick ball movement, the Bulldogs pulled within four at 18-14 with 6:00 to play in the first half. Unfortunately, it was as close as Academy would get the rest of the way. Turning the Bulldogs over, scoring in transition, and hitting shots in the halfcourt, the Falcons went on another run to push the advantage to 34-17 at the half.
The Bulldogs offense would come alive in the second half, with Williams converting on several dunks, Jabril Lewis knocking down a pair of corner threes, and David Byler adding a three from the wing. Steven Weinstein’s steal and fast-break lay-up plus the foul had the Bulldogs’ bench and fans on their feet. The team never stopped fighting, matching the Falcons basket for basket throughout the second half.
Williams led Academy with 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He was presented with the game’s Sportsmanship Award for his efforts. “I think the game made us stronger as a team,” remarked Williams. Added fellow captain Neil Malik, “We got to see what really talented high school ball looks like. It will definitely help us in the long run.”
Despite the loss and the icy rain falling after the game, the team voted unanimously to stick with the itinerary, taking the subway north to Times Square for sightseeing and dinner. “It wasn’t that cold,” reflected varsity newcomer Ellis D’Domenicus. “But Times Square was even bigger than I had thought it would be.” D’Domenicus was one of five players who had never visited the city prior to the trip.
Before getting back on the road on Sunday, January 20, the team paid a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. At sixteen to eighteen years old, the players and managers were either not yet born or less than two years old on September 11, 2001. Drew Duffy was a mere five days old. “My dad often reminds me of that fact,” said Duffy. “The museum was tough to go through but important. The room with pictures of all the people who died was overwhelming.”
Duffy and teammates interacted with the display by searching a database for names of people they knew about who had been killed in the attacks. Afterwards, the team went outside, where it was still drizzling under a grey sky, and stood around the North Pool, one of two nearly-identical memorials built in the footprints of the Twin Towers. “The visit to the memorial was the most meaningful part of the trip,” Malik observed. “Going through the museum, I was amazed to see how everyone came together after the attacks and cherished the importance of family.”
Reflecting on the weekend as a whole, Malik said, “This trip was about getting closer with our teammates and coaches.” It was a sentiment echoed by others, including D’Domenicus. “Everyone got to know each other better. We have much better chemistry now.”
Currently at 14-4 (4-1 in conference), the Bulldogs enter the toughest portion of their conference schedule, a stretch that includes games at Bishop Sullivan on February 1, home against Cape Henry on February 8, and at Walsingham on February 12. The next few weeks will determine just how well the team has gelled. Yet whatever happens, this group will look back on their New York City adventure as a game-changer in more ways than one.
By Ari Zito, Upper School English teacher and assistant coach of Boys Varsity Basketball