La Salle (R.I.) seeking D1 state title

After his team began the season with a 14-game winning streak, La Salle Academy boys’ basketball coach Eric Simonelli wasn’t inclined to excoriate the Rams after they were edged, 69-61, by Smithfield on Feb. 6 in a Division I-North game.

Rhode Island“The reality of Division I basketball in Rhode Island is there are a lot of good teams,” said Simonelli whose Rams lead their division with an 11-1 record – which is the best slate of all 15 D-I teams in the state – and are 16-1 overall. “North Kingstown beat (perennial state champion) Hendricken twice and Smithfield has reeled off nine in a row. The difference between winning and losing is minimal. If you’re not ready to play Division I ball in Rhode Island, you’re not going to win.

“The reason we lost to Smithfield was we got outplayed and outworked.”

La Salle put an abrupt end to that one-game “losing streak” by outlasting St. Raphael Academy, 64-61, on Sunday.

Assuming the Rams defeat sub-par Woonsocket (3-11) on Friday night, that game will set the stage for a key matchup on Sunday when La Salle hosts Hendricken (10-3 in I-South and 10-4 overall).

“We expect to win every game we play,” said Simonelli. “But we’d rather lose a game like that (versus Smithfield) now because you crown a champion in March and not in mid-February.

“Whether or not we lose a game again, our goal is to put a banner on the wall.”

The last time the Rams hung a boys’ state basketball championship banner on the wall was at the end of the 1997-98 season when the players on the current team weren’t even in kindergarten.

“It’s very evident to everybody at La Salle that the team is aware of the fact the school hasn’t been able to win a title in almost two decades,” said Simonelli. “When I was hired last year, that’s why we’re here and trying to build (a champion).

“The first thing you learn when you come to La Salle is the history and the passion. I wanted the challenge of putting together a staff that would go to work every day and get that championship. Our goal at La Salle is to win state championships. Right now, we’ve put ourselves in the mix.”

La Salle is “in the mix” for the state championship for a variety of reasons.

For starters, the team boasts a balanced offense led by Adrian LaFleur and Keon Wilson who are each averaging 15 ppg. LaFleur also is fourth in the state (i.e. over all divisions) with 40 three-point baskets.

Center Doug Harrison, a captain on the 2013 football team, sophomore Mike McCourt, and Lawrence Sabir, the Rams’ “sixth man,” are each averaging nine points per game.

“We have five guys that are pretty close to double digits,” said Simonelli. “We’ve been able to spread the wealth.”

The Ram who insures his teammates get the ball in the right position at the right time is point guard Brendan Nigro, who’s averaging seven assists per game along with his six points a game.

“Brendan’s guarded the opponent’s primary ball-handler and their best shooter and has done very well,” said Simonelli.”

If LaFleur’s name sounds familiar it should because he’s the son of Providence College associate head coach Andre LaFleur.

File this under the heading of the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Adrian spent time in Australia, and his mom (Alana) has some athletic genes as well,” said Simonelli. “Coming from an athletic background, he’s had some great experiences.

“He came to La Salle in his sophomore year and has been a big part of what we’ve done the last two years. This year as a captain, he’s really stepped it up.”

While La Salle is averaging a commendable 67.9 points per game, the fact the Rams are allowing opponents an average of only 50.8 indicates they invariably “step it up” on defense.

“That’s the strength of our team, to play every possession hard and to rebound the ball,” said Simonelli. “When you play good defense it leads to offense.

“We’ve been able to take advantage of the transition game. Without a doubt, that’s been the difference between being 16-1 and losing a couple of more games. The team has bought into playing defense.”

Tragedy at Central: What only could be classified as a senseless/heartbreaking tragedy occurred last week when George Holland II, the starting center and a four-year member of the Central High football team, was shot to death while visiting his girlfriend at her house.

According to Providence police reports, Holland wasn’t the intended target but, instead, proved to be somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Providence police earlier this week arrested four young men in Holland’s death.

Police reports indicated that one of the young men who was arrested knocked on a kitchen window with the intent of enticing another person to approach the window.

The shot that was fired smashed through the window and struck Holland, who became the city’s third homicide of the year.

Holland, who was planning on majoring in criminal justice at CCRI, will have his No. 55 retired according to Knights head coach Pete Rios.

Nasuti passes: Long-time Woonsocket High athletic director George Nasuti passed away Tuesday night after incurring head injuries when he fell and hit his head while officiating a youth basketball game last weekend.

Nasuti, 52, was the Villa Novans’ A.D. for over 10 years and in 2010 was named the Athletic Director of the Year by the R.I. Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

Nasuti played a major role in raising funds to avert high school sports from being eliminated due to proposed budget cuts.

Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y, he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.