By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
After hearing that the Troy Flying Horses lost their rivalry meeting with Christian Brothers Academy for first place in the Big 10 Tuesday night, the Amsterdam Running Rams' thought process could have gone one of two ways.
One: "Ah, man -- seriously? Troy had to lose by 16 points the game before playing us? What are we in for now?"
Two: "CBA blew out Troy? We almost beat CBA a couple of weeks ago. ... Hmmm. ... Hey, you know what? Bring on Troy!"
So, which tact did the Rams take in advance of Monday's meeting -- which is postponed from Friday -- with the Flying Horses, a club that beat Amsterdam by 31 points a month ago?
Option two, of course.
"I think if we come out hard and play like we did against CBA, we should stay right with them," says Rams senior forward Zach Dufel. "[Troy losing to CBA] makes us feel a little bit better. Knowing that we played with CBA and we were up on them for most of the game, that gives us confidence to go against Troy and maybe knock them off."
But that is just the sunny take from a high school kid, right?
"They're convinced we have a shot. We know we have a shot," says Amsterdam head coach Tony Orapello, who is decidedly not high-school age.
"We know we have a shot after the way we played CBA," he continues, saying that the Rams' 80-49 loss to Troy the first time around was not as lopsided as it looked on the scoreboard.
The crazy thing, actually, is that there may be a dose of truth to Orapello's point. Amsterdam was within five points early in the third quarter of the teams' first game and Troy head coach Richard Hurley did not remove his best player -- 6-foot-9 Javion Ogunyemi, who is bound for Siena College this fall -- until the final minutes of the contest.
"We weren't knocked out in that game," says Orapello. "They wore us down, but we weren't knocked down."
An advantage for the Rams Monday in Troy should be the presence of Dufel, who missed all but four minutes of the first game between the two teams. Early in that game, the forward suffered an ankle injury early in the game that took away part of his senior season, giving Dufel some extra motivation for this game.
"It definitely is a little more exciting," he says.
The rescheduling of Friday's game to Monday gives the Rams a back-to-back slate to finish its regular season. After playing at Troy Monday night, Amsterdam will travel Tuesday to Schenectady for its Big 10 finale. The Section II seeding meeting is slated to take place Wednesday, when the Rams will find out what their draw is for the Section II Class A playoffs.
The flurried finish to the regular season is likely a welcome development for Orapello. In the past week, the head coach has wondered aloud whether his team might have been better off getting to sectionals a little bit quicker. With the team's record -- 4-12 overall, 3-11 in league play -- long ago leaving the Rams out of the Big 10 title picture, Orapello thinks his team's focus may have shifted more to the postseason, when the club will take on teams from schools that are Amsterdam's size.
"The second season is coming and that's what's more important," Orapello says.
For their part, the Rams' players say that they have not been looking ahead to sectionals -- though, throughout the season, the club's players have mentioned the point of playing against the Big 10's best teams is to prepare themselves for stepping down to Class A competition.
"Right now, we're not focused on sectionals," said AHS senior Luis Laboy. "We're focused on the Troy game and, then, we'll be focused on the Schenectady game. We're focusing on one game at a time, and we'll focus on sectionals once we get to there."
Dufel says the club does think about sectionals from time to time, especially in regards to how the club's losing record will be viewed by the seeding committee. It is possible some might look at the Rams' resume and give the team credit for playing in the area's toughest league ... but it is also possible that the Rams' 4-12 record might be too much to overcome for many on the committee.
"We think about it, yes, but we don't worry about that," says Dufel. "I think we can contend with pretty much anyone in Class A, though. We'll see what happens and hopefully we can go far."
Much like the team's optimism heading into its game with Troy, the Rams' coach agrees with the sunny assessment of the future.
"In the second season, anything could happen," Orapello says. "I still believe that -- especially with this team."
One thing potentially getting in the way of a successful future for the Rams is the health of the legs of the club's best player, Laboy, who leads the team in scoring and steals.
In each of the team's past three games, Laboy's shooting percentage has suffered, dipping well below 50 percent. Part of the reason for that may be teams sending extra defensive attention Laboy's way, but the senior guard also seems to be having a tough time keeping his legs fresh.
"I'm just tired," he says. "When Coach subs me out and sits me down for five minutes or so -- and then we get halftime, too -- I need to stretch my legs out again."
Laboy says there is no injury to his legs; rather, it is just that when he sits out lately, his fatigued legs are cramping up and he finds it tough to get loose again when he heads back into the game.
That rationale may help explain Laboy's most-recent game, in which he started well -- 2-of-5 shooting in the first quarter for five points -- before struggling after the quarter break. In the first three minutes of the second quarter, Laboy missed his first five field goals before sitting out the rest of the half. Following the halftime break -- some of which Laboy spent stretching out his legs while waiting in layup lines -- he never looked comfortable, as he missed all eight of his field-goal attempts in the second half.
Famously -- or infamously, if one prefers -- Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers used to make similar negative claims about the relationship between too much time on the bench and his body's health, using that to demand he never come out of games. But Laboy swears he is not pulling a stunt to angle Orapello to just keep him in for the entire game.
"Oh, no," he says, laughing. "He doesn't got to do that. I just can't be sitting for too long."
Finding his mark
After a rough stretch, Amsterdam's Andrew Rouse has found his shot again.
The junior was one of the Rams' best 3-point shooters for most of the early part of the season before he entered into a midseason slump. In the month of January, Rouse -- likely the Rams' best on-ball defender -- made just three 3-pointers and saw his shooting percentage dip after a solid December.
"But I've got my confidence back now," Rouse says.
In the Rams' past two games, the junior has made three 3-pointers, connecting on more than 50 percent of his tries. The rediscovering of his long-range touch has allowed Rouse to stay on the court for longer stretches of times, helping out the Rams' defense.
With still two games left to play in the regular season, the Rams' overall grade for the campaign is an "Incomplete," but the club has earned high marks in Orapello's book.
"I think we've improved an awful lot this season," Orapello says.
In his first season back coaching the Rams -- Orapello coached the men's team at Fulton-Montgomery Community College for most of the 1990s, but led the Rams before that -- the coach says he knew the season would be a rocky one for the club. The combination of playing as the smallest public school in the ultra-competitive Big 10 and installing his system of play was bound to not be easy, but Orapello thinks his team handled the season as best it could.
"I think we're a very gutsy team," he says, crediting his team for being in pretty much every game this season. With the exception of the team's first three games and the club's second-half-of-the-season visit to La Salle Institute, the Rams were within striking distance in the second half of each game it has played so far this season.
"I'm satisfied. I'm not walking around hanging my head," says Orapello. "I know we've pretty much given everyone a battle."
Once the Rams get done with the Flying Horses Monday night, the team will turn its attention to its Tuesday visit to Schenectady to take on the Patriots.
In between now and that game, Schenectady head coach Eric Loudis will continue tinkering with his club's playbook.
"Opposing teams have done a very good with adjusting to our players," says Loudis. "So, we've had to change a lot of things around."
The biggest change for the Patriots -- who lost Thursday night to LSI, 62-48 -- has been the need to find additional scorers to supplement senior Darius Macon's production. The 6-foot-6 center has found himself double-teamed constantly in the second half of the season, causing his individual numbers to drop. For instance, in the first half of the Big 10 season, Macon averaged 16.4 points per game; in the second half, Macon's scoring has slipped to 11.9 points per game.
"Darius Macon has been our guy, but teams have come up with some nice schemes for him," says Loudis. "The people around Darius have had to step up."
When those other players -- guys like Clarence Stanford and Keishaun Wheelings -- have stepped up, Schenectady has won its share of games. But the times when the supporting cast has not stepped up has kept the Patriots (8-9, 8-7) from leaving the Big 10's middle to join CBA, LSI and Troy in the league's top tier.
"We're right in the middle of the pack. ... For us, (our level of play), it is hit or miss; it depends what kind of night you get us on," Loudis says.