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Globe North Sports

St. John’s steels for challenges

Steve Haladyna practiced with his team Wednesday evening at the St. John’s Prep gymnasium. Steve Haladyna practiced with his team Wednesday evening at the St. John’s Prep gymnasium. (Photos by Brian Feulner for the boston Globe)
By Nick French
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2011
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Winning a championship is difficult. Defending that title is even tougher.

And that is the challenge facing the St. John’s Prep basketball squad, the reigning Division 1 state champion, which will be absorbing everyone’s best shot at every game.

“It’s different than last year. Being the champions everyone is going to be bringing the big crowds and coming after us,’’ said senior guard Steve Haladyna. “We’re ready for every game and we’re not going to take any team lightly.’’

With the graduation of Pat Connaughton, the state’s player of the year who is off to an impressive start as a freshman at Notre Dame (9.4 points in 25 minutes per game), coach Sean Connolly is trying to temper expectations.

“We have a long ways to go; losing a guy like Pat and all the intangibles he brought is tough,’’ said Connolly. “Guys have to really step it up if we want to have any shot this year.’’

Replacing Connaughton’s 23 points and eight assists per game production will be difficult, but the cupboard is not bare.

“We have four or five guys who have been in these big pressure games so you know what to expect going into a tough game,’’ said the coach.

The return of Haladyna is a good starting point.

“Now he’s the go-to guy, and everyone is going to be keying on him, so he’ll have a lot more pressure this year,’’ said Connolly. “But he’s definitely capable of doing it on his own.’’

With size, speed, and athleticism, the 6-3 swingman can get to the rim on anyone, but he can shoot the ball as well too, which will create matchup problems for foes.

The Tufts-bound Haladyna has worked hard in the offseason, both in the weight room and getting shots up while focusing on it being a clean slate for his team.

“Coach said in the first practice that we needed to forget about last year and it’s all about this season, so we don’t really talk about last year. We’re totally focused on this season.’’

Senior guard Mike Carbone can really stretch a defense with his shooting ability and should make the Eagles more guard-oriented, allowing St. John’s to spread the floor.

“It’s going to be tough,’’ said Carbone. “Everyone is coming at us, and we’re going to be getting everyone’s best shot. Without Pat it’s going to be a different game for us.

“It’s more of a team offensive game now instead of just one guy, so we’ll see how it goes.’’

At the point, the Eagle will be green, especially early on. Projected starter Drex Costello is out with an injury for a couple of weeks, putting a pair of freshmen in the spotlight. Marcos Etcheveria will be asked to bring the ball up in Costello’s absence, and Ben Judson will also see some time off the ball.

“We’re going to have to come together as a team and pick up the scoring slack,’’ said Haladyna.

And on the boards too.

Minus the 6-5 Connaughton, the Eagles lost their best rebounder.

And it is a bigger issue with the absence of projected starting junior center Isaiah Robinson, out until after the New Year with a knee injury.

Rebounding and team defense have been the focus for the Eagles since practice started.

“We need guys to rebound, to make up for the 20 rebounds a game Pat used to get, because we are small,’’ said Connolly.

“We have to get a lot tougher, and be physical.’’

Up front, the Eagles will be counting on senior Owen Marchetti, and sophomore Max Butterbrodt.

“We have to box guys out and get tougher as a team; it can’t just be one or two guys,’’ said Connolly.

The guards are also going to be counted on to help limit teams to one shot, but while they may lack size up front, the Eagles benefit from the size and strength of both Haladyna and Carbone in the backcourt.

“The big thing is rebounding. [Connaughton] got overlooked rebounding; he’d grab 20 rebounds, and that’s so big holding teams to one shot,’’ said Carbone.

“That’s going to be one of our main concerns, limiting teams to one shot.’’

The Eagles will be tested right away, with tournament teams such as St. Mary’s of Lynn, Lynn Classical, and Everett on the schedule before Christmas.

But having those games at home should help the newcomers get used to the varsity experience, and the rest of the team used to life without Connaughton.

Prep will also play defending Division 2 champ New Mission in the Chelsea Tournament over the holidays. And the Catholic Conference is always a grind.

“Everyone will come out with their best,but we like that,’’ said Connolly. “Hopefully we can stay up there; it’s going to be tough with a lot of good teams.’’

Nick French can be reached at nfrench33@gmail.com.

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