After a successful last season, Cantwell looks to make the team one to watch
Working with a team of athletes rather than a squad of basketball players, Carle Place head basketball coach John Cantwell turned the Frogs program around last season.
With a run-and-gun style offense centered around ball movement, his team—who had combined for five wins the previous two seasons—won 12, stunning No. 1 seed Oyster Bay, 56-36, in the Nassau Class B semifinals during their first playoff appearance since 2005.
After an outbracket victory against Wheatley to reach the playoffs, Coach Cantwell wanted to switch things up against the team who had beaten them by double digits twice during last year’s regular season.
“I said to the guys, ‘Be prepared, because tomorrow we’re changing our offense completely,’” Cantwell said, referring to his locker room talk days before the semifinal. “Oyster Bay had seen us, this would be their third time, so they knew our offense. They knew exactly what to do and how to play us.”
The simple man-to-man and zone offenses put into place a couple days before instrumented involvement from more guys, leaving Oyster Bay confused. The offensive switch along with the boys’ will to win set the stage for the upset.
“[That] group of kids did not want to lose,” said Cantwell, who has been coaching competitive basketball for 25 years and is heading into his third season at Carle Place. “It was just an unbelievable year and it was fun to watch these kids perform the way they did.”
But this year’s Carle Place team is brand new, as four of five starters have graduated, leaving junior Chris Kelly as the only returning impact player. While the Frogs’ revival season gave a glimpse of the program’s potential after a streak of dark years, Cantwell said trying to live up to last year’s team is unnecessary pressure. Instead, he hopes to build off the season and rid the Frogs of their bottom-feeder reputation.
“We’ve got 19 games, nobody knows anything about you guys, you’re back to the same old Carle Place,” Cantwell told his boys in practice. “The team last year created rivalries for you, they laid the groundwork for you guys to go out there now and be feared a little…Now it’s up to you.”
The Frogs opened up the season with a 40-32 win against Division, their first of eight non-league games before they commence conference play Jan. 6 against East Rockaway High School. Senior point guard Liam Pizza—who had very limited playing time last season—had a team-high 13 points while Kelly anchored the paint with 11 rebounds. Chris Ruscillo, John Locurto and Eric Chiappone rounded out the starting five.
Though Cantwell hopes to match last year’s win total, the third-year coach’s mission lies more in learning about what kind of team he is working with. After all, while Carle Place will play conference games against Cold Spring Harbor and East Rockaway, those teams will not compete in Class B’s playoffs due to school population. That leaves Malverne, Oyster Bay and Wheatley as the only conference foes come postseason, meaning each Class B team, including Carle Place, will make the playoffs.
With that said, instilling the philosophy of passing the ball and seeing the floor is more critical than wins at this point, and are qualities he is seeing from his team so far. To do that, Cantwell, a former college basketball player and current personal trainer of Division I athletes, brings the idea of “the Four P’s” to each athlete and team he coaches: potential, patience, process and progress.
“I told these guys I don’t want the word potential to be the same word in January because the definition of potential is you’re not there yet and that means we’re not getting where we need to be,” Cantwell said.
Carle Place will meet defending county champions Malverne Jan. 12, Cantwell’s former team Cold Spring Harbor Jan. 15 and last year’s No. 1 seed Oyster Bay Jan. 19. While the Frogs have struggled with shooting in preseason and haven’t played together since sixth grade like much of last year’s team did, they have the makings to do something special as the season progresses.
“They know that effort will take care of any kind of mistake that they make,” Cantwell said. “I always say if you run hard, you work hard, you play defense hard, you communicate loud, it takes away mistakes that people don’t see.”