DANVERS, Mass. -- With the graduation of one of the MIAA's all-time greats in Pat Connaughton, the St. John's Prep boys' basketball team is adopting a new identity in its Division 1 state title defense. Leading the charges has been senior Steve Haladyna, who last year toiled as the second banana to Connaughton (now a freshman at Notre Dame), there to pick up the scoring slack when things got stagnant, and good enough to earn a place on ESPNBoston's inaugural MIAA All-State Team.
And with all that said, teams have wasted no time going for the Eagles' jugular in the 2011-12 season. The Eagles opened the season Tuesday night avoiding a scare from the most unexpected of places, eking out a 78-76 overtime win over Division 4 St. Mary's of Lynn, thanks to Haladyna's 38 points and 20 rebounds. Thursday night against Lynn Classical, a 61-42 win, the South Hamilton resident scored 17 points and five rebounds, putting him 24 points away from 1,000 for his career.
The road doesn't get easier. Prep has a week off before starting a tough four-game stretch in Everett, defending D2 state champ New Mission, and two games in the BABC Holiday Classic, at Chelsea High School. With a fundamentally sound group of seniors guiding a talented underclass that is expected to play big minutes, can they keep last year's momentum going? Haladyna spoke with ESPNBoston.com following last night's win to talk about his elevated role, the art of the Euro step, and how he gets prepared on game day.
Q: How have the expectations changed this year? Maybe you're not as dynamic as you were last year with Pat Connaughton, obviously, but what kind of expectations have you put on yourself?
A: "I've put a lot of expectations on myself to score more. Teams are going to be scouting my tendencies more, as well as the rest of the team's key tendencies, so we have to work on our weaknesses, and we have to execute our offense. It's going to be more about our team, and picking up the scoring slack for Pat."
Q: How does the motivation change as a defending state champion?
A: "Every night, we know the other team is going to come out and give it their all. St. Mary's the other day, they came out like it was their Super Bowl game. Tonight, Classical played hard. Every team, we're going to get their best effort, so we have to be ready for every game."
Q: How do you prepare for a game? Some guys like to get loose, others more intense. Take me through game day.
A: "I'm calm, I'm rather loose about it. Me and a couple friends on the team, we go out to eat before every game. We just relax, get a bite to eat, come into the gym early and listen to some music and focus...We go to the Ninety-Nine sometimes, it varies, sometimes we go to T.G.I. Friday's, it depends. Music, right now, I'm always on Eminem, Lil Wayne, Drake."
Q: One thing that sticks out about the team is how even you guys are all-around in your game. How much focus goes to fundamentals in practice?
A: "A lot. I think we work harder than any other team in practice. We watch so much film -- after every game, we watch film and look at the fundamentals we need to work on, and then in practice we work on it. The game against St. Mary's, we needed to work on our defense, our close-outs, stuff like that. So we emphasized that in practice the last couple of days."
Q: We keep alluding to the St. Mary's game. I think everyone south of here looked at that score and gasped. What happened?
A: "They came out fired up. They hit a lot of shots, they scouted us well, we had a lot of young guys playing their first varsity game, and at that 25 minutes. It was a tough task for them, but we gutted it out and won in overtime."
Q: We talked a little bit last year about the Euro-step. You seem to have an affinity for it, based on tonight. How much do you practice it?
A: "We actually practice it in practice, coach has us doing it in drills. It's been my move for a while, since days of elementary school I've always done it. I modeled it after Manu Ginobili."
Q: How much do you have to work on that move? You got called for a traveling violation tonight. It's a tough move for a high school kid to pull off.
A: "It is, it's tough because it looks like a travel to some refs. My legs are long, and I take long strides, so I gotta make sure I do quick steps rather than slow steps so it doesn't look like a travel."
Q: What about body control? How much goes into that?
A: "Yeah, it takes a lot of body control. You have to be strong. If the defender steps in and bumps, you have to stay strong on your feet, because you're only going off of one foot. You have to be pretty strong."
Q: What is your favorite play to run on the court?
A: "Individually, it's definitely the Euro-step, on the fast break. I like to get out on the break and run. Team, I like this play 'Blue', which is an isolation play for me. You get the ball at the top of the key, and if there is a mismatch you go one-on-one with him, try to take him."
Q: Who's the best high school player you've had to defend?
A: "Probably Anthony Davis, for a little bit, in the game in Springfield last year [at the Hoophall Classic, against the Kentucky freshman's Perspectives Charter (Ill.) School]. I remember my sophomore year, I had to defend Allen Harris from Catholic Memorial, who's now at St. Anselm. He was great."
Q: Between the other seniors -- Freddy Shove, Mike Carbone, Owen Marchetti -- what makes you guys click so well?
A: "Our chemistry. I mean, we've only been playing together for two or three years now, but we work so hard in practice on our offensive chemistry, so I think we get along well. We're all kind of long slashers, so I think we work well together."
Q: What do you think will be the biggest keys for you guys throughout the season?
A: "We're going to need our younger guys to step up, all year. So far, they've done that. We're mainly going to have to play good team defense, every game. Just rotating, playing good team defense."