Archbishop Riordan head boys’ basketball coach Joey Curtin watched the 2020 and 2021 Nor Cal Clash teams warm up, and smiled.
Curtin was chosen to coach the 2021 team, which mean he got to coach one of the top juniors in the Bay Area — new Archbishop Mitty forward Nigel Burris. At the same time, though, he’d have to coach against his own two best players: Bryce Monroe and Je’Lani Clark. ”It’s pick your poison,” he said.
Monroe and Clark — incoming senior guards — were the most dynamic one-two punch in City prep basketball last season on a team that earned the No. 2 seed in the NorCal Open Division playoffs. With graduation and transfers fundamentally altering the Crusaders, there’s a very good chance they’ll be the focus of an even better team.
Bowing out to Bellarmine in the NorCal Open Division semifinal, the Crusaders were knocked out in the first round of the Division I state tournament despite their dominant duo and a strong four-man senior class.
“Last year, there were a lot of expectations,” Monroe said. “We didn’t really have control. This year, it’s a whole different story. We’re a team. We feel like we’re a better team. Everybody’s gotten better, individually. We’re ready. This is the year for us.”
While Riordan lost stout defender Zachary Quanico, point guard Chime Ugbaja and starting forward Justice Turner to graduation, plus sophomore Darnay McPherson to Sacred Heart Cathedral, they will field plenty of firepower this winter. Six-foot-nine Riiny Riiny returns and 6-foot-8-Chan Ngot — who missed all last season with an ACL injury — will finally get to suit up. They also added seven-footer Sek Mor.
“It’s different, because we have size,” Curtin said. “It’s a nice change. If we had one Achilles heel last year, it was our size inside.”
A lack of size last season led to the Crusaders’ first-round state tournament exit at the hands of Folsom, who was armed with 6-foot-6, 260-pound bullying center R.J. Smith. Given the fact that driving is a major part of both Monroe’s and Clark’s games, a clogged key didn’t do the Riordan offense any favors. With Riiny, Ngot and Mor able to defend the rim on defense, and draw size to them on offense, Monroe and Clark will have the option to drive or shoot, and the entire team will now be used to defending size, seeing it in practice.
“I think we just have to really adjust how we play,” Curtin said. “You have to utilize what you have. We did that a lot this summer. I was happy about that.”
At this time summer, Monroe had just transferred from Sacred Heart Cathedral, and hadn’t played with the Crusaders during summer runs. This season, he and his cousin Clark have been able to mesh well with the underclassmen early, while last year, Monroe wasn’t able to play with the team until several games into the season. The rest of the year was spent adjusting and trying to shoehorn in the ball-dominant guard.
“We never really had a warming-up period with him,” Curtin said. “We had to insert him and figure it out. Now that he’s been around, and Je’Lani is going into his fourth year on varsity, third year with me, they’re just more mature. They’re seniors now. They’re more comfortable in the leadership role. They’re going to take us as far as we go.”
“We’re a lot more comfortable with each other,” Monroe said. “Last year, we weren’t as much of a unit as we wanted to be. We feel amazing.”
Even in the NorCal Clash, with players they’ve only played with in the summer and in All-Star events, Monroe and Clark took charge. Before the game, Curtin said that, while it would be difficult to defend the two, he knew their weaknesses. He pushed them.
The only two players representing San Francisco in the annual end-of-summer exhibition, Monroe and Clark combined for 14 points on 7-of-19 shooting, with Monroe facing constant double teams. He’s used to it, he said.
Clark added a pair rebounds, two assists and three steals, including a swipe and a slam to keep the junior class at arm’s length in the third quarter. The seniors won, 106-100.
There were moments where Curtin and his coaches could call out exactly what Monroe and Clark were about to do, from drives to pull-ups.
“It’s good. Now, we know what we have to work on,” Curtin said. “They’ll be getting some shots up.”