Snake-bitten Redbirds look to salvage season


Staff Writer

First-year head coach Kevin Gardner knew there would be some growing pains as he tried to rebuild the Allentown High School boys basketball team.

What he didn’t expect, however, was the kind of the snake-bitten season the Redbirds have gone through so far.

Allentown is 1-10 and riding an eight-game losing streak heading into Tuesday night’s home game against Hamilton West. That equals last year’s total win output when the Redbirds suffered through a 1-25 campaign.

But Gardner was up for the challenge of rebuilding the program.

“They’ve had some rough years the last couple of years,” the 42-year-old Gardner, the head coach at Howell Township the previous four seasons, said. “I grew up in this area and I went to Monsignor Donovan back when it was St. Joseph’s. I graduated in 1983, the last year it was St. Joseph.

“So we used to play Allentown and they weren’t bad. They had some good basketball players. So going by history, I knew they had some talent here, or at least they did 15 years ago, and I figured it would be a new challenge for me to try to turn the program around.”

SCOTT PILLING staff Allentown's Jeff Duymoch tries to get off a shot in front of a New Egypt defender during Saturday's game in Allentown. SCOTT PILLING staff Allentown’s Jeff Duymoch tries to get off a shot in front of a New Egypt defender during Saturday’s game in Allentown. Gardner knew it would take time and with a young roster that includes only three seniors, he was hoping his new team could take a few baby steps forward his first season on the road back to respectability.

But that was before the injury bug hit the Redbirds. Big time.

“We’re down to five varsity kids,” Gardner pointed out. “Right now we have about five freshmen playing JV and five JV players playing varsity. They all had to move up

“On Friday night (a 95-44 loss to Ewing), we lost four kids. One of the kids actually got hurt during warm-ups. We were doing lay-ups and he rolled his ankle when another kid rebounded the ball and came down right on his ankle.”

But the injuries began hitting the Redbirds long before Friday night’s game.

“The first three weeks of the season we were without one of our two top players, Chris Katzman,” Gardner said of the senior guard. “In our second or third scrimmage, he came down and badly sprained his ankle. We actually thought it was broken, but it turned out to be a bad sprain. We’ve had six different players sprain their ankles this season. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s crazy.”

But it went from bad to worse for Allentown. No sooner did Katzman rejoin the squad when Greg Amatrudo, another senior guard and the Redbirds’ other top player, hurt his back a week ago Friday.

Until his injury, Amatrudo had been averaging 15 points a game after scoring 18 a contest last year. Meanwhile, Katzman averaged 15 points as a junior.

“They were our two top scorers returning,” Gardner noted. “We hope to get Greg back this week. We really haven’t played more than a week with a full team.

“I’m not trying to make excuses or anything, but we’ve really been struck by the injury bug. A few other kids had to leave the team because of grades. I had one player leave so he could focus on his grades and I’ll never argue with that.”

But Gardner admits Allentown’s problems this season go beyond all the injuries and missing players.

“We also have not played well in certain games,” he said matter-of-factly.

Part of that could be attributed to the Redbirds’ youth on the court. With Amatrudo and Katzman sidelined at different times, the lack of senior leadership has been costly.

“But the kids work hard. They really do,” Gardner said. “They bust their butts on the court, but in a couple of games luck didn’t go our way and a couple of shots just missed.”

After Friday’s injury-plagued loss to Ewing, the Redbirds were left as shorthanded as they had been all season for Saturday’s game against New Egypt. But they still managed to stay within striking distance before losing 58-42.

“The five varsity kids I had left started, and I had six or seven JV players on the bench and they came in and played hard,” Gardner said. “But it’s tough to win games like that when you’re playing a varsity team. I don’t care who you are, when you don’t have your full team, it’s tough to win.

“Plus we’re not very big. Our biggest player is Dan Westfall, who’s 6-2, and he got hurt against Ewing.”

Katzman, who’s getting back to his old self, led the Redbirds against New Egypt with 12 points, while Mike Sanfilippo scored 11. Against Ewing, Sanfilippo, a junior guard, led Allentown with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.

“He’s doing a good job,” Gardner said. “He actually started the season playing JV, but then he replaced our starting point guard when he left the team. Mike is only a junior so we kind of threw him to the wolves and he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Forward Kyle Nielwocki has also played well lately, scoring six points in each of the last two games.

And with Katzman back and Amatrudo due back soon, the Redbirds might get close to a full squad on the floor and still be able to salvage something out of this season.

“The sad thing is they haven’t played together 100 percent healthwise,” Gardner said. “After going 1-25 last year, any win we can get would be big, but I was hoping we could get eight wins this season. That’s been cut down a little with all the injuries and now it’s four or five wins. But if we can get three or four more wins, which I think we can do, then that would be a step in the right direction.

“The hardest thing is changing the attitude. Losing is easy to do and it’s tough to get a win when you’re used to losing.”

But the Redbirds’ coach likes what he sees, even with all the tough losses.

“In our last game against New Egypt, we were losing by 20 points, but we were making a run against them and had cut it to 13. We were still playing hard and the crowd in our gym was going wild.

“At one point, with about three minutes left, I looked over at one of my [players on the bench and said to him, ‘You’d never believe we were down by 17 points. If someone walked into this gym right now, they’d think it was a four or five-point game.’ I told him it’s a tribute to you guys. That’s the kind of team we have. They’re a real joy to coach, they really are. I’m enjoying myself.”

Even at 1-10?

“As far as the won-lost record is concerned, this is probably one of my hardest seasons ever,” Gardner said. “But as far as the caliber of kids on this team, this is one of the most rewarding seasons in my coaching career. They really are a great bunch of kids.”

And with so many underclassmen, Gardner thinks a season like this could end up benefiting the Redbirds in the long run.

“It’s probably a blessing in disguise as far as the future goes,” he said. “It’s kind of a silver lining that a lot of the younger kids have gotten playing time. At this point of the season you have to start looking to the future.

“But we still want to do good this season. Everyone makes the Mercer County Tournament so, hey, maybe we can make some noise once we get everyone healthy.”