A Hawthorne high school basketball team is proving elusive to its divisional foes.
On the television sitcom “Seinfeld,” the character George Costanza shunned intensely intellectual pursuits.
To the good fortune of The Academy at Palumbo boys’ basketball team, 1100 Catharine St., first-year coach Tim Castanza favors mental endeavors, and the Griffins have used the head man’s calls for brain power to return themselves to contender status, with Jan. 10’s 51-43 home win over A. Philip Randolph High School giving the Hawthorne-based ballers a share of the Division D lead.
“I see the whole team as a feel-good story because my guys push themselves and take great pride in their development,” Castanza, of Fourth and Pemberton streets, said after the triumph, which boosted his squad’s overall mark to 9-6, including a 6-1 league mark, with the lone blemish coming in a Jan. 2 road tilt against the co-division pacers, the Kensington Tigers.
The Queen Village resident serves as the director of the seven-year-old school’s special education department and as a philosophy teacher. The athletes have benefited from his latter role, as it has allowed them to strike a balance between successes and setbacks.
“I would say we have much better chemistry this year,” co-captain Calvin Francis, a senior guard and three-year starter, said. “We’re taking matters game by game, even minute by minute.”
The West Philadelphian has not needed much cerebral support, as he holds a 3.9 grade point average and knows amassing victories requires courting team unity instead of personal plaudits.
“Calvin is a quiet contributor who’s all about working for everything,” Castanza said of the sure-handed figure, whom he also lauded as a true student of the game.
Francis received a bitter education last season, as the Griffins, who emerged in his sophomore year as Division D’s co-champions, along with the Universal Audenried Charter High School Rockets, 3301 Tasker St., on their way to a 19-3 campaign, registered a 7-15 mark as they struggled to adapt to Division C opposition. Their decline sent them back to Division D, and with the graduation of guard Demetrius Davenport, who tallied 1,009 points, and the departure of coach Steve Gittleman, whose units made three playoff appearances, few could have blamed them if they had begun this year feeling fearful. The mythologically-named charges, though, have bought into the positive philosophies that Castanza espouses.
“We all want to work hard here,” leading scorer and senior forward Jameal Tucker said. “It’s been fun to watch the commitment bring great results.”
Another West Philadelphia inhabitant, the four-year presence aids Francis as the squad’s other captain and, like his fellow senior, he excels in the classroom, carrying a 3.8 grade point average. The two set out to ground the Raptors and continue their push for the postseason, where their program has yet to celebrate at the final buzzer.
“Play as if it’s February,” Castanza said to his team during the Randolph game. “Rattle them, and play our game.”
His players could have used a griffin’s talons in the first quarter against Randolph, as their hands poorly handled the ball. Managing only four field goals, they needed tight defense to keep the visitors from racing to a comfortable cushion and received two swats from junior center Mike Chau as highlight helpers. Trailing 10-8 after eight minutes of action, the Griffins maintained their rapid pace for the second quarter and relied on their athletic edge and size to create high percentage opportunities.
Tucker, who has been drawing scouts to watch his 6-foot-5 body show off its versatility, including a game-day visit from a Chestnut Hill College representative, used his low-post skills to collect nine points, and sophomore guard Shafi Meachum contributed five. Heading into halftime with a 30-25 edge, they knew their defense required slight tinkering, as the guests had only a pesky rim to blame for their layups and short shots not falling.
“We’re playing well, but we aren’t playing well enough to be able to last into February,” Castanza said of the shortest month, which has given Palumbo the longest list of regrets.
Sound defense kept both outfits from making much noise in the third, with the opposition gaining better looks yet failing to make them count. The Griffins stretched the lead to 40-33 and relied on seven foul shots and a pair of final frame field goals to seal the verdict.
“So many schools have pure basketball players,” Castanza, who guided University City for two years before heading to Palumbo, said. “We have kids who play basketball, and there’s a big difference in that because our work ethic is that much more selfless and intense.”
“This is the best team I’ve been on in my time here,” Tucker, who has been a part of two playoff participants, added after scoring 16 points. “I love being among guys who will do whatever for the benefit of the program.”
Francis, who chipped in seven points and whom Castanza said desires to be an engineer, hopes to design a lengthier run for his postseason-hungry peers.
“If we stay as dedicated as we’ve been, we can definitely go as far as we want,” he said.
Throughout his four seasons as a basketball player for The Academy at Palumbo, 1100 Catharine St., Jameal Tucker endeavored to learn and subsequently teach his teammates the rewards of hard work.
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