After more than two decades of guiding the Roy-Hart boys’ basketball program, veteran head coach Mark Rydza decided to retire at the end of last season. Rydza’s team provided him with one final memory in the 2013-14 Class B-2 quarterfinals: a 79-71 win over Southwestern, with then-senior Alex Stoddard scoring 32 points in the victory.
The win capped an 8-6 season in league play and a 10-10 overall mark for the Rams.
Rydza and Stoddard are gone now, and the Rams will be ushered into a new era by first-year head coach Joe Pawlak, an Albion native and Notre Dame-Batavia HS grad who honed his basketball acumen as an assistant at Medaille College, his alma mater.
Encouraged by the return of several key players, Pawlak is optimistic about his team’s chances in what he projects to be a highly competitive Niagara-Orleans League this season.
“Being from Albion, I followed the N-O all the time and the league is always competitive,” said Pawlak, who was encouraged to apply for the Roy-Hart head coaching vacancy upon learning of Rydza’s retirement via the now-defunct Medina Journal-Register earlier this year. “I think it can be anybody’s league. I think if you come up and work hard every night, you’ve got a chance. That’s why it’s a great league to be a part of; it’s so competitive. No. 1 through No. 8, the teams can all play.”
Departed seniors Stoddard, Cody Breedlove and Da’Ron Woods will be missed from last year’s team that earned the No. 5 playoff seed in Class B-2, but Pawlak is excited about the possibilities presented by junior point guard Andy Xapsos, who gained invaluable experience on the court last year as a sophomore.
Pawlak is still in the process of getting to know his players, but so far he has been highly impressed by what he has seen out of Xapsos, both on and off the court.
“Andy has been outstanding since practice started,” Pawlak said. “Great leader, competitive. He does everything I would expect out of my point guard. And he has the most experience of anyone coming back, by far.”
Pawlak also points to senior Nelson Andrade, an important contributor off the bench in 2013-14, as a player who can be expected to assume more responsibility this season.
“Just like Andy, he’s a great kid,” Pawlak said of Andrade. “He works hard, he’s competitive. As a senior, it’s his last go-round at it, and he’s really excited to help us get going.”
Other returners for the Rams include seniors Sam White, Aaron Metz and Bailey Hudson.
An intriguing newcomer is James Di Lorenzo, a soccer player who has quickly impressed the coaching staff with his positive attitude and enthusiasm for the game.
“We’ll be looking to James as a spark off the bench, a spark off the floor,” said assistant coach and junior varsity head coach Josh Kraft, also in his first season at Roy-Hart. “He’s just an upbeat, character guy, and he’ll play that role.”
As for his coaching philosophy, Pawlak stresses a group mentality and selflessness on both sides of the ball. It corresponds with his overall mission of creating a basketball program that is respected for its actions and abilities both on and off the court.
“I keep telling these guys, ‘I can’t promise how many wins we’re going to have, or anything like that, but we’re going to be tough to play against,’” Pawlak said. “We’re going to share the ball on offense and help each other out on defense. I’m all about 1 though 11 on varsity, and 1 through 13 on JV. It’s everybody going in the same direction, one program, and that’s what we’re all about.
“It’s a clean slate for everybody, a fresh start, and that’s what’s great. Besides X’s and O’s, my big philosophy is developing our standards and the culture we want to have here.”
Pawlak stresses communication as an important quality he is stressing throughout the program, as well as traits like hard work, accountability, teamwork, and having pride – as individuals, as a program, and as a school.
Pawlak takes the approach that building character off the court will lead to more success on the court.
‘Those are the things we want to be, that I want this program to be known for,” Pawlak said. “Just like in any sport, the things you learn on the court translate into life, and vice versa. I think that if we do those things, we’ll be a tough team to play against on the court.”
Roy-Hart opens its season on Dec. 9 at Oakfield-Alabama. The Rams’ Niagara-Orleans League slate begins on Dec. 18 with a trip to CSAT.