By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
Before tonight's 6:30 p.m. tip against Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, each of the seven Amsterdam upperclassmen -- Billy Carr, AJ Centi, Zach Dufel, John Hardies, Luis Laboy, Rayshawn Rollins and Robbie Sherlock -- will get his due in a ceremony marking the evening as the Running Rams' Senior Night at Amsterdam High School.
It will be a nice moment for the soon-to-graduate Rams, but the Amsterdam seniors are more concerned with how they will feel after tonight's final buzzer.
"This is a really big game for us," says senior forward Zach Dufel. "It's not just about it being Senior Night. It's a Class A opponent and a possible sectional opponent, so I'd rather get the win than focus on Senior Night. I'm much more focused on the game than what happens before it."
"We've got to come out strong like we did like we did against CBA and come out like a family," says Laboy. "If we do that, we'll get the win."
Amsterdam (2-10, 2-9) defeated ND-BG (1-11, 1-10) earlier this season, 62-57.
While a lot has changed since that game for both teams, what has not changed from the teams' first meeting is the urgency with which each team approaches the contest; playing in the Big 10, the Rams-Knights rivalry is the only one in which each of those two programs gets to play against a fellow Class A team, giving these matchups some extra oomph.
"We've got to win this game," says AHS head coach Tony Orapello. "We have to win this game."
But there is an emotional aspect to tonight's contest, even if the senior Rams are fighting it in favor of focusing on the game itself. Sophomore forward Marcus Pritchard, who has spent his first varsity season competing with Dufel and Sherlock, says it is tough to think of tonight's contest doubling as the Rams' Senior Night because it means the close of the campaign is nearing.
"It makes you want to work harder," he says. "It makes for an emotional game."
That emotion could feed the Rams, who are coming off a strong performance a Friday ago in a close loss to CBA, the four-time defending Section II Class AA champions.
"We've seen real flashes of improvement now," says Orapello. "These guys, they're glowing. They're very proud of the way they played. ... That was the best game we've played this year."
Early in the season, the turnovers and the lopsided defeats were wearing on Orapello, who had a hard time connecting with his team's seniors
"We were strangers to each other," says Orapello. "The uncertainty of the roles, of what they were, that was a part of it, too."
The program now under his control, Orapello struggled to figure out how to use his one-year players -- and how to relate to them.
"I think half the battle was for us to get along together," says Orapello. "The younger kids, they had had me and they knew me, so it wasn't a problem with them. But the seniors didn't know what to expect."
Step by step, though, Orapello and his first batch of seniors have figured it out.
"I think I've convinced them about where we're going," he says. "We didn't know each other at the start, but we've grown to get each other."
At full strength
For the first time since the start of the Rams' first game of 2013, Amsterdam should have its full complement of players available tonight.
Dufel, who has missed the Rams' last four games, says his sprained left ankle is "a lot better," though it is still swollen. Dufel estimates his physical condition at "80, 85 percent," but he expects to play tonight, a sentiment Orapello backs up. The head coach says he plans to start Dufel tonight, along with fellow seniors Carr, Hardies, Laboy and Sherlock.
Also, Eric Robertshaw expects to return after a one-game absence from the Rams' rotation. The junior forward missed Amsterdam's game with CBA after spraining his right thumb the day before the game. Robertshaw ditched the protective guard on his thumb earlier this week and has been practicing without restriction.
"I'm fine," he says. "I'm all set."
Orapello's plan is to return Carr to the starting lineup tonight, a place where the senior has not been since the Rams' 85-64 loss La Salle Institute two weeks ago.
In that contest, Carr had four early turnovers before he was pulled. After playing just a few minutes in the second half of that contest, Carr barely played in the Rams' next game before earning 12 minutes against CBA and scoring eight points.
"I was energized for that game and Coach kept faith in me," says Carr. "That gave me confidence."
Carr says he had been battling an illness for the past couple of weeks, depriving him of some of his strength. He thinks that factored into his less-than-steady play of late; since his 11-point, nine-assist effort against Mekeel Christian Academy on Dec. 28, Carr had struggled before the game against CBA.
Now back in the lineup, Carr says he wants the seniors to make sure tonight's game is a successful one for the Rams.
"This is one of our last times playing together," says Carr. "We want to finish strong together."
A bright spot
In the course of recording 11 consecutive losses to start the season, the logical thing for the Knights to do at some point would have been to pack it in, call it a day, wait 'til next year -- you pick the expression.
But head coach Jay Mahoney's squad does not subscribe to the notion that its season is finished, instead opting to keep plugging along.
That faith was rewarded this past Friday, when ND-BG scored a 43-42 victory against Albany. Mahoney says it was tough for his squad to keep playing and practicing hard, not knowing if a successful outcome was ever going to be its for the taking.
"At this time of the year, it's always tough because you've been going for so long," says Mahoney. "But we finally got a win. We played well as a team and, finally, every thing we talked about that we needed to do to win a game -- to be successful -- we put it all together for 32 minutes.
"It was a testament to the kids," Mahoney finishes.
The key for the Knights in the victory was the play of Brandon Maloney, who led the squad with 16 points. All season, ND-BG has been looking to find a secondary scorer to play alongside Dwayne Freeman -- who scored 11 points against Albany, but is second in the Big 10 in scoring with his 19.8 points-per-game average -- and Mahoney thinks he has found it.
"Brandon, he's doing a good job getting to the glass and getting some offensive rebounds," says Mahoney. "He's getting it (his points) all around the hoop and he's doing a great job."
Around the league
Unofficially, this is "Rivalry Week" in the Big 10. Besides the Class A matchup between Amsterdam and ND-BG, CBA takes on LSI in a battle of the league's top two private schools; Troy and Catholic Central square off in a Collar City matchup; and, Albany and Schenectady collide in a public-school tussle between the league's largest two cities. ... Freeman's second-place standing in the Big 10's scoring race puts him behind Catholic Central's Anthony Mack, who is averaging 21.4 points per game. ... Troy leads the Big 10 in scoring as a team, averaging 71.4 points per game. ... ND-BG is the lowest-scoring team in the Big 10 at 45.4 points per game.