Injuries Give Senior Guard A Chance To Shine

hoopsBy Jim Whelan

Sacrifice, determination and hard work are the essentials for the success of every basketball player.

On the hardwood, every player must understand their role. All five players must work together as a unit to achieve their goal on the court. A player must be ready at all times because he may never know when his number will be called to move up from sub to starter.

The injury bug has bitten two of the St. Patrick Celtics’ standouts this season. Dexter Strickland was out with a nagging knee injury for the better part of January. More recently, sophomore Michael Gilchrist broke his leg. Strickland, who committed to North Carolina, is back; Gilchrist, the number three-ranked sophomore by Rivals, will not participate in the Union County Tournament and may the miss the rest of the season.

Without the services of Strickland and Gilchrist, St. Pat’s found themselves relying on some bench players. No team of the caliber of St. Pat’s wants to find themselves in this position.

Overcoming obstacles is something that this year’s Celtic team is getting accustomed to.  Strickland went down in early January; impact transfer Kyrie Irving was not eligible to play until mid-January. Now with Gilchrist out indefinitely, the bench players had to step up the workload, once again. Yet, this year’s Celtic team has overcome all those obstacles and are still ranked number one in the state and are favored to win it all. Gilchrist’s injury levels the playing field in the county and state tournaments.

One player that has plugged the holes in the dam for the Celtics is senior Dean Kowalski.

“Our team just works better with Dean in the game,” said St. Patrick head coach Kevin Boyle. “He doesn’t fill up a stat sheet, (but) he doesn’t make a mistake on the court either.”

The Celtics are looking to repeat as Union County champions and will square off against the Linden Tigers in the Frank Cicarell County semi-finals on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. after making quick work of Roselle, 73-37, on Saturday. Kowalski played, but did not score a point. The game was mirror image of the season he and the Celtics are having. Many hands make light work for the Celtics.

Both Strickland and Gilchrist, like all of the “blue chip” Celtic players before them, receive invites to high-profile camps and clinics to improve and showcase their game to college coaches. The remaining Celtics, however, don’t sit back and wait till November to “lace up” their game. To maintain continuity, many teams compete in summer tournaments and fall showcases in preparation of the upcoming season.

The Celtics are used to being without a standout player here or there in the off-season because they are off at a camp or for various other reasons. “It is something that we are used to and we prepare in practice,” said Kowalski of missing key players.

Unlike most teams, Celtics players go up against some the best players in the country–themselves. “In practice we are going up against Dexter (Strickland) and Kyrie (Irving), they make the whole team better,” Kowalski said.

Dean Kowalski is a heady 5’9 senior guard for the St. Patrick Celtics. He made a commitment to play for national basketball powerhouse St. Patrick as a freshman and has stuck with the program for four years.

“It was a tough last minute decision, but I felt it would be a good fit for me and reaching my goals,” said the senior guard. “I wanted to play basketball and go on to college and play at a high academic institution. I felt that St. Pat’s would be the best option.”

Every day, Dean Kowalski would make the daily trek from his suburban Westfield home into Elizabeth. The decision was not an easy for Kowalski or his parents. The middle of three children, the obligation to commute to the Elizabeth school would impact his parents. After all, they had to drive him to school everyday. “My parents were supportive of me and wanted me to succeed and trusted my decision,” Kowalski said.

Coming in as 5’3 freshman, Kowalski first familiarized himself within his new confines at the small Catholic school on 221 Court Street in Elizabeth. Paying his dues was something that he was prepared to do.

“I knew I wasn’t going to play right away,” said the Celtics senior. “I was looking at my junior and senior year to get onto the floor.” Unlike his fellow classmate Dexter Strickland, who already had a buzz around him and high expectations, Kowalski was the undersized kid who nobody knew anything about.

Then St. Pat’s junior Corey Fisher (now at Villanova) was heavily recruited by every top program in the country while he still had two years of high school eligibility left. Last year senior guard Jermel Jenkins, now at Iona, took over after Fisher’s graduation which created a logjam of guards. The waiting game for Kowalski was in full effect. This year’s injuries have put Kowalski in a position to contribute for St. Pat’s.

Kowalski has put the time in the classroom as well as on the court — he will be the class of 2009 valedictorian at St. Patrick’s. Boyle said, “Dean wanted to play at the highest level of basketball and he also getting it done in the classroom too.”

The success on the court and the classroom has Kowalski looking to turn in his Celtic kelly green uniform for an Ivy League uniform. “He has been a pleasure to coach. Dean is a very unselfish player,” Boyle said.

At the start of his senior season, Kowalski was looking at D-III Tufts or looking to walk on at some other academic institutions. That might not be the case now, as Ivy League universities Columbia and Brown are in the mix for Kowalski’s basketball and academic services.

This year Kowalski is getting an opportunity to contribute. “He grew and he put time in the weight room and built up his frame,” Boyle said of Kowalski. The added strength, a few more inches, and being a member of one of the best basketball programs in the state has the Celtics turning a possible abysmal season into another opportunity for a state title and Tournament of Champions crown. With Gilchrist down, the Celtics will need the senior guard. His four years of waiting will be tested in the next three weeks.

Kowalski said, “A T of C crown would be the perfect ending for my career”

In sad news, Kevin Boyle’s brother Neil has succumbed to cancer. The coach will most likely miss Tuesday’s game against Linden.

Dean’s favorites:

Favorite meal: Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs

Favorite player: Steve Nash

Pre-Game ritual: “I don’t have one, but (teammate) Kevin Boyle borrowed my sneakers and had a great game. Now he wears my shoes every game so I have to bring two pairs of sneakers to every game.”

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