Paul Romanczuk is standing on the foul line addressing a collection of mostly freshman basketball hopefuls about what to expect when hoops tryouts commence. It’s a sunny mid-November Thursday, and the head coach is running the last “open gym” of the fall at Archbishop Carroll High School.
Romanczuk smiles as he describes his expectations and breaks down the Patriots’ signature full-court weave drill. He tells them that he’s a “demanding coach” and that he wants his team “to do everything with an aura of excellence.” The players shuffle nervously along the baseline, trying to make sense of his breezy tone, which seems to run counter to the message. Come Monday, it’ll be replaced by the all-business approach of a guy with big plans. “I’m a pretty impatient person,” says Romanczuk, now in his 12th season as Carroll’s boss.
The Patriots are among the favorites for the state championship this year, as Carroll returns four of its top six players from last season, when it reached the PIAA Class AAA state final. A strong crop of freshmen and a pair of experienced transfers should make the Pats deep, versatile and dangerous.
“Last year, we had six or seven players who we knew would play,” says Romanczuk. “Now, we have 10 or 11 guys who can see minutes on any night. Our biggest challenge will be if we can keep 10 or 11 guys happy.”
One player who shouldn’t have to worry about his time is 6-foot-6 junior wing Derrick Jones. This past summer, Jones went from a skinny kid of local interest to a jumping-jack phenom. With a top-20 ESPN rating, he’s been drawing attention from elite programs around the country. Syracuse University has offered a scholarship; University of Kentucky coach John Calipari has called.
Norm Eavenson, a scout for renowned recruiting expert Bob Gibbons’ All Star Sports, describes Jones’ “freakish athleticism.” Among a packed crop of juniors in the region, Jones “really stands out,” he says.
During July’s Reebok Classic Breakout at Philadelphia University, Jones splattered highlight-reel dunks all over opponents, showing just how far he’d come from his freshman year, when Romanczuk could only use him close to the basket. He’s now much more than long arms and ridiculous leaping ability.
Romanczuk expects Jones to lead the break at times and defend just about any position on the perimeter. Whereas many outstanding players start with superior athletic ability and develop skills, Jones has improved both his athleticism and game. More than that, he’s willing to work, responds well to coaching, and seems genuinely happy to be a part of the Carroll program. “It’s big to be playing on a team like this with a lot of talent and a lot of good young players,” says Jones. “We’re fast, and we’re going to be one
of those teams that can get up and down the floor.”
The Patriots’ remarkable combined talent is due to a concerted effort to attract good players from all over. When Romanczuk played at Carroll as part of the 1995 Catholic League championship team, the school drew its students from a predetermined geographic area, as did the rest of the archdiocesan high schools.
Today, there’s open enrollment. Jones lives in Marcus Hook; guard Austin Tilghman transferred this year from St. Andrew’s School in Delaware; sophomore guard Josh Sharkey of Jenkintown comes to Carroll this year from Abington Friends School; and heralded freshman David Beatty just moved to Roxborough from Northeast Philadelphia. Center Ernest Aflakpui hails from Ghana—but it’s not like anyone made the trek to West Africa to scout the 6-foot-9 big man.
The success that began with Chester’s Andre Wilburn—a linchpin on the 2009 state title team—has snowballed to include D.J. Irving and Yosef Yacob from Chester, and Juan’ya Green of Elkins Park, not to mention this year’s diverse makeup. Such an accumulation of talent doesn’t come without some casualties. As Romanczuk was bulking up this year’s roster, junior Nick Jones transferred to Lower Merion High School. The Aces suffered heavy graduation losses after last year’s state title run, and Nick saw an opportunity for more playing time.
That’s the nature of high school basketball these days. The impact of transferring—which once meant leaving friends and upsetting academic progress—has been softened by the desire to advance one’s hoops profile. “I’m not going to say no to someone who wants to come to Carroll,” says Romanczuk. “But I will say, ‘Let me give you the scenario here and the reality of the situation.’ I want them to know what to expect.”
Fans of the Patriots expect a lot this year, and so do the players. At press time, the team was 2-0, soundly defeating its competition by a combined total of 43 points. But trouble still looms in the form of Catholic League rivals Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic high schools, and Imhotep Institute Charter High School is loaded once again and could be a thorn come tournament time. But having great talent doesn’t guarantee anything, which is why Romanczuk is so meticulous in practice. “I’ve been trying to tell the new guys coming in that he will get on their case for everything,” says sharpshooting senior guard Joe Mostardi. “He wants everything perfect. And if you don’t like it, you can leave.”
In fact, there may well be some defections by players unhappy with their playing time. Jones isn’t likely to be one of them. He continues to grow—and his national profile should do the same. “He had an amazing year last year, and all of a sudden, [Syracuse coach] Jim Boeheim is coming to practice,” says Mostardi.
The potential for great achievement is there. But without a coalescence of the Patriots’ many components, the ultimate goal may be out of reach. “People say we’ve got problems on our hands, but they are good problems,” says Romanczuk. “We’re talented, and that’s a good problem.”