By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The boys’ high school basketball season was not going according to plan for the Buccaneers of Belleville High School and their second-year head coach Jim Stoeckel.
The Bucs lost 12 of their first 14 games this season, causing Stoeckel to alter his coaching approach.
“If we’re going to change the culture here, we just had to forget about wins and losses,” Stoeckel said. “We just had to play hard for 32 minutes and see what happened. That’s been our motto. We’re asking them to play hard and feed off that. We’re not worried about wins and losses. We’re just changing the culture of Belleville basketball.”
It’s a good approach for any coach who has a 2-12 team. Some of the losses were tough to swallow, like a four-overtime setback to Caldwell and a disappointing setback against neighboring rival Nutley.
“It’s incredible,” Stoeckel said. “We had a great game against Caldwell and lost in four overtimes, then came back and laid an egg against Nutley.”
So the Buccaneers really couldn’t have high hopes as they entered the Essex County Tournament, facing a Technology team in the preliminary round of the ECT that defeated the Bucs just a few days prior.
It was actually a lot to ask for, considering the way the Bucs dropped the game against Technology, falling in the final few seconds, then finding themselves down again by 10 points after three periods in the rematch last Friday night.
“I didn’t yell or scream,” Stoeckel said. “I just told them that if they played the way they’re capable of, that they were capable of coming back. We just started chipping away at the lead.”
That happened thanks to the heroics of junior guard Andre Velez, who scored 11 of his career-high 33 points in the final quarter, spearheading a huge turnaround that led to an 18-4 fourth quarter, and the Bucs live to see another day in the tourney.
Belleville had the improbable 55-53 victory over a team that the Bucs had just lost to five days prior.
“I’m so proud of them,” Stoeckel said. “We were up three at half, then in the matter of two minutes in the second half, we were down five. The heads were down, between the knees. I was saying to myself, ‘Here we go again.’ Then we were down 10 at the end of three (quarters).”
But this was not going to be like any of the 12 prior losses. Remember, the culture is being changed. The Buccaneers just had to play hard.
“We kept chipping away at the lead and cut it to one,” Stoeckel said. “Andre got the ball with a minute left and was fouled. He made the two free throws and that put us ahead. We then got another free throw. With 10 seconds left, we kept three guys in the paint and they shot a 3-pointer instead. They bricked the shot, we got the rebound and the game was over.”
Stoeckel said that his team kept the faith.
“I told them that after all the other times we lost, we couldn’t let it happen again,” Stoeckel said. “We couldn’t give up. We knew we could do it.”
Stoeckel is hopeful that the win over Technology can lead to bigger and better things.
“Maybe this is the start of something,” Stoeckel said. “Winning is contagious. Maybe we’ve turned the corner.”
Velez has been a mainstay all season, averaging close to 17 points per game, but struggled recently in losses to Nutley and Technology. Stoeckel said that it was good to see his point guard rebound in a huge way.
“It was absolutely an amazing turnaround,” Stoeckel said. “Andre just let the game come to him. He was focused on getting us the win.”
The Buccaneers moved on to face No. 11 seed Barringer in the second round of the ECT, a game that had to be rescheduled after the Tuesday blizzard.
Senior Quayrze Smith also played a big role in the Bucs’ win.
“He played great defense for 32 minutes,” Stoeckel said of Smith, who is averaging close to eight points per game.
Sophomore Alcides “Tchi- Tchi” Dos Reis was also big in the victory, scoring a season-high 14 points.
“He has really been stepping up over the last three weeks,” Stoeckel said. “He’s been solid.”
Senior forward Antonio Tyler is another key contributor. He had 13 points in the loss to Technology Tuesday and added four in the avenging win Friday.
Senior Will Smith is the team’s 5-foot-9 center. That’s no misprint.
“He’s constantly taking on guys that are 6-foot-5,” Stoeckel said. “He’s been holding his own in the paint. He’s as tough as nails.”
Senior Joseph Al-Masri is a solid forward.
“He rebounds the ball,” Stoeckel said. “We need him to get rebounds.”
Needless to say, Stoeckel is a happy camper these days.
“I never thought I would be happy being 3-12,” Stoeckel said. “They are making me proud. I grew up in Essex County and grew up on Essex County basketball. There’s nothing like a win in the Essex County Tournament. I don’t care if we were the No. 45 seed. We got a win.”
And it was an improbable win at that, but the Bucs survived where other teams have been eliminated.