New Castle News

March 20, 2014

Tim Kolodziej: Three lessons we can learn from ’Canes’ magical run

Tim Kolodziej
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — You can’t do it.

You just can’t.

There’s no way you can get to a state final basketball game ...

•With a team that lost three starters from last season.

•With four football players in your lineup.

•With a squad that has no “big” taller than 6-4.

•With a bench that goes only two deep.

•With all the pressure that comes from entering the state tournament with an unbeaten record.

But wait. I think I just read somewhere that New Castle will take on La Salle College on Saturday night in the PIAA championship game.

Hmm. Maybe you CAN overcome those perceived obstacles.

Maybe you CAN soar to great heights despite intense challenges, despite dire circumstances, despite uncertainty, despite (fill in your own personal blank).

Maybe I can, too.

We’ve got no excuses anymore. Instead, we’ve got a blueprint for how it’s done.

Just keep your eyes on those ’Canes. Each time they set foot on the court, coach Ralph Blundo and this team continue to teach us about sustained excellence. There are probably dozens of ways we can dissect their success this season, but here are three key lessons I’m learning from this unique squad.

And the best thing about it? We’ve still got another class to attend on Saturday.

In Hershey.

Pretty sweet.

“They’ve enjoyed the work. That’s what makes it so special. Now that the outcome is what we hoped it would be, I get to coach these guys for four more days. It’s really something special.”

1) Do it together ...

Together. That word surrounds the New Castle High basketball team like a wall of protection.

There is strength in numbers.

And “One” is the most powerful.

All in.

A single heartbeat.

A common goal.

A group purpose greater than individual desires.

That’s how a unit operates best.

Some might call the ’Canes a team of destiny.

I prefer to call them a team of “trust.”

It’s trust, not destiny, that lets Anthony Richards gamble on defense. He knows Malik Hooker has his back and is ready to turn a potential layup into a souvenir for the guy in the third row.

It’s trust, not destiny, that leads Stew Allen to bust his butt to the block on a fast break. He knows his guards are looking for the open man underneath.

It’s trust, not destiny, that Blundo feels comfortable giving Robert Natale big minutes in the quarterfinal win over Hampton. Blundo has seen Natale not only take hundreds of free throws in practice. He’s seen Natale MAKE them.

It’s trust, not destiny, that keeps this team confident even though they’ve fallen behind in the last minute of play. They know their coaches have prepared them to face the giant and ATTACK, not retreat.

You’ve got a team, too. So do I.

Whether it’s your family, your youth group, your school board, your book club, your office, your committee — whatever it might be — you are part of a team. And leadership never requires a title.

It simply requires trust.

Without trust, there can be no together.

And without together, there can be no excellence.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has said, “Your character is your accumulation of your thoughts, habits and priorities on a day-to-day basis.”

Can we trust you with those three things? Good. Then we’ve got a space for you in the locker room.

If you want your team to be great, you’ve got to ... do it TOGETHER.

“This is just fabulous. Our guys kept fighting and working. This is four years in the making.”

2) Fall in love with the preparation ...

You’ve got to enjoy what you do. You’ve got to relish the hard work.

As the wise philosopher Allen Iverson once said, “We talkin’ ’bout practice, man. Practice.”

New Castle is 30-0 for a reason. New Castle has won 86 of its last 88 games for a reason. New Castle has won three-straight WPIAL titles for a reason.

Hard work. Study. Preparation.

There’s no magic pill. There’s only effort. There’s only a passion and persistence to be a little bit better today than you were yesterday.

Success is constructed brick by brick. It’s a compound effect. Those daily deposits into your talent bank — those “little bits” — pay huge dividends over a season.

In order to refine a skill, repetition after repetition is required. Focused, deliberate practice is a must.

You can’t become great at something unless you absolutely LOVE IT. Think about it. The process — practice, film, walk-throughs, etc. — is 90 percent of a team’s weekly routine. Game time is a very small part of the high school experience.

The truly great teams must fall in love with rehearsal just as much — if not more — than performing under the bright lights with a sea of red-and-black followers cheering you on.

The truly great teams remember there is no “there.”

There is only “here.”

And “here” keeps on moving so we never settle for standing still.

I love how North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance describes it: “The vision of a champion is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when nobody else is looking.”

The ’Canes aren’t heading to Hershey this weekend because they won Tuesday.

They’ve got a chance to be remarkable champions because they’ve discovered joy in what most people find unremarkable — the preparation.

If you want to be great, you’ve got to fall in love with ... THE PREPARATION.

“They play hard. ... They have an amazing will. They get a bunch of 50-50 balls and rebound the ball well. Defensively, they get after you.”

3) Focus on the process ...

A basketball game is nothing more than a series of possessions. It’s a fight card of 50-50 battles.

•Can you beat your man to the spot? It’s the difference between a block and a charge.

•Are you willing to dive on a loose ball before your opponent? One play can win you — or cost you — a game.

•Are you willing to “find a body and find the ball” on a rebound? Second shots are second chances at success.

•Are you willing to run the floor in transition even when you’re at the point of exhaustion? Just ask Malik Hooker and Stew Allen. A fast-break layup in the waning seconds of a game can be the difference.

You’ve got to look at your scraped-up knees, cut lip and jammed fingers as badges of honor.

They’re physical evidence that you were focused on “playing present” and not worried about an outcome.

In a 32-minute game, there are bound to be bad fouls, turnovers and missed shots. A perfect record doesn’t mean you’ve been perfect all season. It actually means you’ve been able to shake off your imperfections and focus on the next thing you can do to help your team.

Next play.

Play present.

Anything else is dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Just win ... the next possession.

That’s all you have control over.

“You did such a great job of focusing on this process,” Blundo told his team following Tuesday’s game. “You never focused on the outcome. The outcome just happened.”

Think you’re staring down a huge mountain today? Follow New Castle’s lead.

Those challenges are actually a blessing. Mountains are beautiful to look at. And they are meant to be CLIMBED.

True strength is built through resistance. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Don’t look down. Don’t look around. Just stay focused on navigating the next rock, the next obstacle.

Without even realizing it, you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a gorgeous view from the top.

The team standing at the peak of the mountain never just falls there. It’s a step-by-step trek.


Enjoying the journey.

Focusing only on what’s right in front of them.

That’s New Castle basketball.

And that’s not a bad way to get through this thing called life, either.