FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Fairfield Prep’s boys basketball team reached the semifinals of the Class LL tournament last winter, and the finals in 2011. This year, the Jesuits appear poised to make another run to win their first state crown since 1997.
Prep improved to 6-0 last week by winning its holiday tournament with victories over Fairfield Ludlowe High School and Notre Dame High School of Fairfield. The Jesuits have made it look easy so far, winning their games by an average of 22.8 points. No team has yet to come within single digits.
Prep is ranked No. 4 in the latest state poll by the New Haven Register, and more challenging games await. Prep hosts No. 1 Hillhouse High School of New Haven on Jan. 15, and that meeting will provide a good barometer of exactly where Prep falls in the state pecking order. For now, though, the Jesuits look like a team that is going to have significant staying power in the state tournament in March.
“I think Notre Dame will win their tournament, so this was a good test for us,’’ said coach Leo Redgate, who is 42-9 in his three seasons as the team’s coach. “We have a tough schedule. I love these games. If we lose them, we lose them. I’m more interested in what we’re doing, every quarter, every practice, so that we’re getting better as we go along.”
Prep doesn’t have any apparent weaknesses. Paschal Chukwu, a 7-foot, 1-inch junior center, finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in the team’s 80-64 win over Notre Dame in the championship game of the tournament. “His footwork has improved 100 percent since I last saw him about a year ago,’’ Notre Dame coach Vin Laczkowski said. “He’s going to make a lot of money some day.”
Chukwu is surrounded by some terrific players, too. Senior Tim Butala, a 6-foot, 4-inch forward, would be the go-to guy on most other teams. Junior Keith Pettway and sophomore Thomas Nolan are good ball handlers and shooters. Freshman Ryan Murphy was Prep’s other starter against Notre Dame, and is regarded as one of the top freshman in the country. There is a lot of talent coming off the bench, too.
When Notre Dame tried to make a run during the third quarter of the championship game, Butala stepped up with nine points. He finished the game with 17. “I think he’s underrated,’’ Redgate said. “He made a couple of nice cuts to the hoop and got some layups. I think the puzzle is starting to come together for us.”
A lot of state basketball observers figured Prep might take a step back this season after losing Terry Tarpey to graduation. Tarpey, now playing at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, was the Jesuits’ leader the last two years. The versatile swing man could be counted on to do whatever Redgate needed, whether it was score, rebound or defend.
But Prep is powerful again, and with just one senior starter, figures to be good for a long time to come.
Laczkowski, a veteran coach who knows the game as well as anyone, likes what he sees in this year's Prep team. He’s also cautious about anointing them state champions in January. “Right now they’re loaded, really good,’’ he said. “Want me to say they’re great? We’ll see in March.”