Since Manny Thomas arrived at Xaverian High School, the Clippers have been the underdog. It’s a role he relished, especially when the X-Men pulled off upset wins against Christ the King, St. Raymond and Rice the last two years.
“We’ve always been the underdogs and I like the feeling of surprising people, knowing that they don’t think we have a chance against top teams like Christ the King and Rice,” Thomas said.
But this year, there’s a buzz about the Clippers. They’re the fashionable sleeper pick after Christ the King, St. Raymond and Rice, but Xaverian coach Jack Alesi thinks that talk is just premature.
Xaverian isn’t there. Not yet.
“We’re not at that level right now, but we think we can get there,” he said. “My way of coaching a basketball team is judge me in February, don’t judge me in November. To play the way we want to play, it just takes time.”
Xaverian returns starters Thomas, a 6-foot-5 Marist-bound swingman, and sharpshooting junior guard Brian Bernardi, who has offers from Hofstra, Iona and Fordham and has drawn interest from St. John’s, Virginia and Xavier.
“Manny plays the whole game, plays the game the right way, he’s a leader, the soul and face of the team,” Alesi said. “Brian can shoot as well as anybody, but he hasn’t played a game yet as a junior. To me he’s just coming out of his sophomore year. His game is developing.”
Bernardi said playing with the New York Gauchos over the summer was extremely beneficial to his development.
“I played slow usually, but now I’m getting used to playing at a faster pace and that really helped with the Gauchos,” he said.
Also returning is Travis Gill, a part-time role player a year ago. Alesi thinks he could fill the void left by leading scorer Justin Exum, who is now at New Haven. The senior guard is the sleeper player on a sleeper team.
“Travis Gill I think is the kid who is going to be the surprise player of the league,” Alesi said. “He’s a high IQ kid on and off the court, he’s athletic as anybody I’ve ever seen play. If they need someone to audition for the role of Michael Jordan in the Michael Jordan Story, he’s got that much basketball skill. I think he’s going to have a breakout year.”
Mohamed Abass, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound center is the Clippers only true size in the paint and he’s complimented by Shahkeel Kemp, a 6-foot-6 junior power forward. Vincent Dacunto is a past-first senior point guard, junior guard Dillon Burns is a solid outside shooter, junior guard Sean Taylor has shown promise and 6-foot-2 senior Greg Civiletti could play five positions on offense.
“We have good complimentary players, but we have to figure out our roles and then we have to fill the void of not having a guy like Justin who is going to win the game for you in the last minute or two,” Alesi said.
While it will take time for Xaverian, master Alesi’s offensive system, he said he needs to see a vast improvement on the defensive end of the floor if the Clippers are truly going to be a contender this year.
“You can’t win in our league without playing defense at a high level,” Alesi said. “Over the last 10 years, the best defensive team has always been the team to win the city championship. I don’t care how good we are offensively, if we don’t really raise the level defensively, then I just think we’ll be a middle-of-the-road team.”