By Mike Smith
Rye Neck might not have come out of the gate swinging on Jan. 6, but, in the end, poise, confidence and a veteran presence helped the Panthers come away with a 46-36 win over rival Valhalla.
In the early goings of the season, the experienced Panthers squad has proved tough to beat, finding a number of ways to take over ball games to post a sterling 6-0 record.
That undefeated streak seemed like it was in jeopardy early on Monday, though, as the host Vikings (5-2) jumped out to a 15-3 lead over the Panthers in the first quarter. According to Rye Neck coach Shawn Lincoln, the combination of a confident Vikings team and a venue in which the Panthers have not fared well in the past could have been cause for concern for the Panther faithful.
“Playing there, it’s kind of been like a house of horrors for us,” the coach said. “We expected it to be a competitive game, and they had two weeks to prepare for us, and I think that really showed early in the game.”
But the Panthers were able to right the ship, relying on their numerous veterans to slowly take over the game. Behind the efforts of Ryan Aquino, who notched 12 points and 10 rebounds, and center Matt Franks, who finished with 11 and nine, the Panthers were able to string together a 17-5 run in the second quarter and kept applying the pressure, effectively burying the Vikings.
“I think in the past, we might have folded a bit, but one of the things about this year’s team is that I have really 10 seniors on the roster,” Lincoln said. “But these guys just shrugged it off and made a big comeback.”
In addition to the early hole they found themselves in, the Panthers played Monday’s game without starting point guard Chris Pennell, who was sidelined with a wrist injury. Junior Jake Sevean filled in admirably, playing the entire game without turning the ball over once. According to Lincoln, depth has been a particular strength for the Panthers, as a number of players have all contributed in big ways to each of the team’s six wins so far.
“It seems like each game, there’s a different guy performing,” Lincoln said. “Whether it’s [Ryan] Aquino scoring 28 against Irvington or guys like Angelo Spedafino stepping up against Westlake or even Chris Cascione, who had 13 rebounds tonight, we’ve always had different guys step up.”
In keeping with the team effort theme, Lincoln has been quite pleased with the defensive effort of his team this year as the Panthers have given up 50 points or more on just one occasion this winter.
“Defensively, we’ve been consistent all year,” he said. “They scored 36 tonight but, if you look at it, they had 15 points in the first quarter, so we really did a great job the rest of the game.”
The Panthers’ defense—and undefeated record—will be tested in the coming week, as Rye Neck sets to square-off against two tough Class A teams in Harrison and cross-town rival Rye.
“We look at it, being a small school and we relish the challenge playing against the bigger schools in the Sound Shore area,” Lincoln said. “Especially playing against Rye, these kids grew up playing against one another, playing at the Rye Y, it’s definitely an added challenge for the kids.”