By MIKE SMITH
A group of local basketball players took home a prestigious honor last week when the Hoop Strong Warriors 14U AA team won the Division 2 National Championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orland, Fla.
The Warriors beat Maryland’s Randalstown Running Rebels 35-34 in the title game to win a field of 113 of the best Division 2 teams in the country. This is the first time ever that a New York team has finished first at the tournament.
According to Hoop Strong head coach and director Mike Matthews, the 14U team–which finished with a perfect 29-0 record in AAU play this season–showed promise from the time the team began workouts in the fall.
“I had this group with a lot of the same kids since they were in sixth grade,” Matthews said. “There was a lot of unity on this team and they became brothers right off the bat.”
Down the stretch, the team was led by Aundre Hyatt and Marcus Ellington, each of whom tallied 16 points in the final game. Harrison resident and Iona Prep student Jack Doty scored three points in the game.
For a team that is comprised of top-level players, Matthews said, it’s important for each player to find a role on the team as quickly as possible.
“I preach this to every team; we don’t have that one player that’s going to take us over the hump,” the head coach said. “We’ve got to play good team defense and do everything with a team-first concept and the team bought into that pretty early.”
Matthews feels the chance to play at the AAU level will eventually benefit his players when they return to their respective prep squads in the winter.
“When you get to the high school level, kids are going to be bigger, stronger, faster,” Matthews said. “I think playing at this level will give them a boost of confidence.”
The Hoop Strong program runs year-round, and Matthews said while his younger teams–starting with first and second graders–feature players that are committed to playing other sports throughout the year, the majority of his older players, including the athletes on the national championship squad, have begun to concentrate their efforts on basketball as their primary sport.
“It’s a high level of commitment, and we start young,” he said. “It’s good for [the younger players] because, as they get older, they know what to expect. By the time they get to eighth grade, to the level of the 14U team, running the offense becomes second nature to them.”