Leo Redgate doesn’t claim to be an innovator when it comes to the utilization of his talent. But Redgate’s ability to adapt to the players placed in front of him, not the ability of the players to adapt to him, is one of the reasons why Fairfield Prep continues to be one of the best boys basketball programs in the loaded Southern Connecticut Conference, as well as the entire state.
“You can’t run the same stuff every single year and hope the players you have adapt to it,” said Redgate, head coach of the Jesuits. “I’d rather take the skills and the ability our players have and adapt my game plan to suit their strengths.”
That simple philosophy helped Fairfield Prep begin the post-Terry Tarpey era with a 45-34 victory over Foran of Milford Wednesday night in the season-opener for both teams.
The Jesuits, ranked No. 4 in the state’s preseason writers’ poll, couldn’t attack the Lions with Tarpey, one of the top players in program history who led Prep into the SCC finals and Class LL semifinals last season before taking his talents to Williams & Mary.
So Fairfield Prep used balance and teamwork instead, getting a career performance out of Paschal Chukwu, a 7-foot transfer from Trinity Catholic, a solid all-around effort by rugged senior forward Tim Butala and the speed and hustle of an endless battalion of guards to turn a 22-20 halftime deficit into a runaway victory.
Chukwu dominated the paint, scoring a career-high 19 points to go along with 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Butala added 12 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots, and held Foran’s 6-foot-7 senior center Austin Woods to just five points in the second half, allowing the Jesuits to pull away.
Prep also hit the Lions with great defense, using the trapping ability of guards Tom Nolan (three steals, three rebounds), Keith Pettway (six points, four assists), Rich Sekerak (four rebounds) and promising freshman Ryan Murphy to force 12 turnovers over the final two quarters while holding the Lions to just 12 points in the second half.
Just one game is in the books, but the Jesuits are already proving they can win without Tarpey.
“We knew we weren’t going to replace (Tarpey) with one guy. We don’t have anybody like that,” Butala said. “But we knew as a team, collectively we could fill in the hole he left. Some of the guys stepped up, some of the new guys filled some of the roles he has last year, and I think as a team we’re more than capable of filling the void he left behind.”
Ask Foran head coach Tim Swaller, and he might tell you Prep could be even better than it was last season.
That’s right. Better.
“They’re definitely different,” Swaller said. “Tarpey was one of a kind, the kind of kid who did everything. He absolutely had that star power. I think this year they’re more balanced. They can attack you in different ways. Physically, just having seven feet inside, it’s tough.”
Chukwu was a tremendous defensive player at Trinity Catholic as a sophomore. He continued his dominance with four blocks and three rebounds in the first quarter, keeping the Jesuits close as they suffered through a terrible first half of shooting.
But Chukwu has also been working hard on his offense, and it showed. Prep made it a point to work the ball down low to the slender Chukwu and he responded with a number of slam dunks and easy putbacks. Chukwu scored 11 of Prep’s 14 points in the third quarter and showed great touch at the foul line, going 6-for-7 on the night.
“He runs the ball so much better in just a couple of weeks of working with him,” Redgate said. “In the offseason I made it a point to tell him if he wanted to play for us he couldn’t block shots and get rebounds and just stand there, which he had historically done. The key is to get him to play above the rim.”
Prep designed a number of plays to take advantage of Chukwu’s height, including an alley-oop dunk on an inbound pass from the sideline. The Jesuits attempted that one and failed against Foran, but it was a great indication of how the Jesuits plan to use Chukwu this season.
“I believe it’s my job to get him in the habit of playing where he should be playing,” Redgate said. “I have a very clear vision of what his game is going to look like at the end of the year, and I’m not going to stop until we get there.”
Woods, an All-SCC selection as a junior, proved he has already arrived, leading the Lions with 16 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.
“I thought Austin, tonight, played very well,” said Swaller, a former player at Foran. “He’s a three-year starter, and I thought he came out and played very aggressive in the first half.”
Foran had control of the game from a defensive standpoint in the first half, using the toughness of Woods and 6-4 senior Casey McCone to force the Jesuits into taking a ton of bad shots. But the Lions, returning just three varsity players from last season’s team, just couldn’t get any offense from anyone other than Woods and finished with just one player in double figures.
Foran let Prep off the hook by failing to take more than a 22-20 lead at halftime, then paid the price over the final two quarters.
“One of our keys was to control the tempo, and I thought we did that for a majority of the first half,” Swaller said. “They want to play fast and score a ton of points. At 22-20 I thought we did an excellent job of holding them down.”
But it was Prep that took control, using its defense and a 9-2 run to start the second half to take a 29-24 lead. Chukwu converted a conventional 3-point play to make it 32-26. After the second 3-pointer of the night by Woods cut the lead to three, two foul shots by Chukwu made it 34-29 at the end of three and the Jesuits pulled away after that, outscoring the Lions 13-5 in the fourth quarter.
They did it with a team that’s not afraid to get dirty, play tough defense and use all five players on the court to make a difference.
“That’s Prep basketball right there,” Butala said. “We want to share the ball on offense and everyone works as one on (defense). That’s the type of basketball we needed to play.”