Catholic boys' basketball unbeaten and #4 in the state

Catholic boys' basketball, unbeaten and #4 in the state

Catholic High’s boys' basketball team is undersized and undefeated. The Crusaders are 14-0, heading into Friday’s big district match-up at Walton.

But don’t call them overachievers. A year ago, as a young team, they won 23 games. Now, with a #4 MaxPreps state ranking in Class 5A, they might just be coming of age. They also may have seen this coming.

The Crusaders had good players returning, but Player of the Year Penda Wiggins graduated, and their top rebounder transferred. Coach Jeff Gill saw his backcourt, led by senior Demarius Nickerson and junior, D.J. McKenzie, and he knew last summer what they had to do.

"We really increased the tempo of our game, made it an up and down game and worked a lot on our transition offense,” Gill explained. “It may not look like it, but we're running transition with a purpose."

It’s hard to say if anyone saw a 14-0 start, and the Crusaders have beaten the likes of Pine Forest and Washington along the way. Nickerson emerged from Wiggins’ shadow and embraced his role as a quiet leader.

"When I'm down, they get down,” Nickerson said. “When I get angry, they get angry, and everything falls apart. I just got to come to myself and be like, 'C'mon. I got this.'"

He’s asked if he has to catch himself, to check his emotions, sometimes.

"Yeah, I gotta catch myself a lot of times," he said.

Gill is effusive in his praise for his senior point guard.

"Demarius just takes care of the ball. He is so good. He's averaging less than two turnovers a game, and he has the ball in his hands a tremendous amount. So that's incredible,” Gill continued. “And then, he leads the team in assists. He's a pass-first guard. So he kind of keeps everybody happy, keeps everybody involved in the game.”

Sophomore Ja’Kobe Jackson is a rising star. McKenzie is already there. He’s the team’s leading scorer, with 14 a game.

Gill said, "If he wanted to be a selfish player, he could average 20 points a game. But he knows that for us to be really successful, he's better off limiting his shot selection and doing some of the other things, too."

McKenzie is a remarkably disciplined scorer. “Y'know, you don't want to take the wrong shot here, the wrong shot there,” he said. “So, really, I give thanks to all my teammates for putting me in the right position to be successful."

That success starts with defense, and that includes 6’3” senior Luke Stringfellow and 6’2” junior Nitrell Bledsoe inside. They give up size, but little else to the big men they face every night.

Gill appreciates the contributions of his frontcourt players. “None of the other big guys on the other teams have had a very big game against us, Pine Forest being a really good example. The strength of their team is their two big guys, and I think that Luke, along with Nitrell, did tremendous in both those games.”

Gill is happiest about his team’s unselfishness, which makes everyone an offensive threat, and makes his team difficult to prepare for. He also lauds their mental toughness.

"These kids find a way to win,” Gill marvels. “And when we face adversity, seems like they just buckle down. And that's unique for a bunch of high school kids. They don't fold. They don't get their heads down. They just figure out what they need to do to win."

So far, they’ve done enough every night.

They will be tested at Walton on Friday night. They will then get another severe challenge Monday night, Jan. 22, when they travel to arch-rival Gulf Breeze. That game will be broadcast on WFGX-35, on the Hill Kelly High School Hoops series. The broadcast begins at 7:30 p.m., Monday night.

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