By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2023-24 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
The theme of Chris Roantree’s first two seasons at Father Judge was growth.
Each time out on the floor, Roantree hoped his group would pick up more and more of the little things that contribute to a winning culture. There have been tangible results to prove that’s been the case.
After inheriting a team that won two Catholic League games the season before he took over at his alma mater, Roantree’s squads have won four and six PCL contests, respectively, in the past two seasons. Judge has climbed from 15th to 11th to 9th in the league standings.
The goal in 2023-24 is to keep growing.
“We’ve been building to take the next step, so how do we get to the top of our league?” Roantree told CoBL earlier this fall. “We’ve gone from 11 to 9, now, hopefully, we can get into the top six of our league and get out of that play-in game.”
Father Judge senior Laquan Byrd was a second team All-PCL selection last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
Judge’s ninth place finish in the league last season was its best since 2017. The Crusaders went 11-12 and 6-7 in the PCL and made their first Catholic League playoff appearance in six years, falling to Archbishop Carroll, 66-61, in the 8 vs. 9 game.
Though they came up short in the postseason, winning two of three late in the season against Carroll and Bonner to solidify a postseason spot showed growth from the season before when Judge lost those two games late and finished one spot out of the playoffs.
“I think it’s the experience of the maturation of our program,” Roantree said. “The year before we had a win-or-go-home game against Bonner and we didn’t play well. We didn’t show up. Last year, we won a couple games to get in at the end and we had a chance down at Carroll. We played well, and I think the difference was last year that they had a great senior leader. So how do our guys take the next step in learning how to win?”
It all starts with senior LaQuan Byrd.
The 6-foot-3 guard earned second team All-Catholic League honors after averaging 14.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg in 2022-23, which were both team highs. He and senior forward Anthony Lilly (2.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg), who made 20 starts a season ago, are the most experienced members of the senior class.
“The big thing for (Byrd) is his focus and his attention on the defensive end and rebounding because can put the ball in the basket as well as anyone in our league,” Roantree said. “It’s how he takes the next step defensively, for us, is gonna be key and his leadership. He’s a senior leader this year, been around the program for three years. How he takes that next leadership step is gonna drive a lot of how we are.”
Byrd started his high school career as a freshman at Constitution but joined the Father Judge program in Roantree’s first year. In his third year, he is confident he can continue the Crusaders’ upward trajectory.
“It was very disappointing but that experience taught us a lot,” Byrd said of last season’s playoff loss. “That made us better as a team. It made us come together as a team and knowing what we gotta do to get to that next step in the playoffs. Don’t let up.”
“We feel like we’re going to be at least top four in the PCL this year,” he added.
Junior point guard Kevair Kennedy will be looked upon to run the show once again. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
The likes of Archbishop Ryan, Archbishop Wood, Roman Catholic and Neumann-Goretti are some of those who stand in Judge’s way.
However, there was quite a bit of turnover in the league this offseason with only seven of the 20 first and second team All-PCL selections, including Byrd, set to return to the court.
Judge certainly has a few others who could be poised to break into that group this season and help elevate the Crusaders to the upper echelon of the league.
Junior 6-1 guard Kevair Kennedy (8.0 ppg, 5.8 apg, 4.9 rpg) is in his third season at the varsity level and will be the team’s floor general for the second year in a row. He, Byrd and Lilly were all starters last season while the Crusaders graduated their second and third leading scorers in Ernest Shelton (11.5 ppg) and Kyle Jones (10.7 rpg), who are playing at Gannon and Albany State, respectively.
Sophomore 6-4 guard Derrick Morton-Rivera (10.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is an emerging star and classmate Max Moshinski, a 6-5 wing, is ready to make his imprint at the varsity level. Senior Mike Browning, juniors Kevin Beck and Kiev Rucker and sophomore Rocco Westfield could potentially carve out bigger roles as well.
Added to the mix is 6-foot-9 junior center Everett Barnes, who averaged 9.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg at Burlington City (N.J.) as a sophomore last season, and 6-3 freshman guard Nazir Tyler, who averaged 13.3 ppg as an eighth grader at Germantown Friends last season.
“We’re deep. We can play 8, 9 to 10,” Roantree said. “We feel comfortable going that deep. Now, it’s who’s going to step up and take that 5, 6, 7 role because I don’t want to play 10 guys. It’s a matter of getting guys to step up and compete for that last spot right now.”
The late wins against Carroll and Bonner last season proved Judge made progress last season, but lopsided losses to West Catholic (76-49), Archbishop Wood (88-57) and Roman Catholic (70-45) showed how far the Crusaders still have to go to reach the top of the Catholic League.
That hasn’t damped down Judge’s goals this season. If they continue to grow, the Crusaders believe a Palestra trip is within reach.
“That’s gonna be a big thing is learning how to win and building the culture of a winning program,” Roantree said. “How do you take that next step where every possession matters? And you kind of grow into the role of consistently winning. I say to our guys, ‘It’s hard to get to the top of the mountain.’
"You look at all the guys who have won and it’s been Roman and Neumann who have been there forever, John (Mosco) now in his ninth year at Wood is always at the top, Joey (Zeglinski) with Ryan. It’s how you get to the top. It’s easier to stay there than get there. It’s how you change the culture and every little thing matters. I think that’s where we’re getting to now.”