The U-16 boys basketball team, which competed in the 2013 JCC Maccabi Games in Austin, Texas, last month, quickly became a fan favorite during the Games.
“I don’t necessarily think we were the Steel Curtain,” said Mark Pattis, the team’s assistant coach, “but we aspired to be something like that.”
Playing a gritty defensive game, the relatively unknown, underdog Pittsburghers made it to the final four, just missing out on a bronze medal.
U-16 head coach Hal Shapera, who chose the roster of nine boys, ages 13 to 16, trained his squad once a month from April to July in sessions where the players got to know each other as individuals, and as a unit.
The team included Charlie Berntsen of Mt. Lebanon High School, Tyler Demchak of Shady Side Academy, Joey Fabiano of Central Catholic High School, Dylan Groff of Shady Side Academy, Etai Groff of Shady Side Academy, Daniel Holc of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, Jacob Horvitz of Shady Side Academy, Gabe Kass of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, Eli Sacks of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Daniel Vargo of Fox Chapel High School.
Five of the boys attended Emma Kaufmann Camp during the summer. About a week before the team left for Austin, the coaches traveled to EKC where they put the boys through a scrimmage against older camp staff.
“We started to get together as far as trying to really look like a team,” said Shapera, who was attending his first Maccabi Games since his playing days in 1989.
“I didn’t really know what to expect as far as how well we were prepared, what we would see, the caliber of the talent, the caliber of the coaching,” Shapera said. “I guess because I didn’t know, Mark Pattis and I pushed these kids as hard as we could in the short amount of time we had.”
The team flew to Texas on July 28, and, upon arrival, took control of the court, beating teams from Cleveland and Austin on day one of competition and Boca Raton, Fla., and Israel on day two — all by double-digit margins.
Winning earned them a following.
“We only went down with a few parents and some relatives,” Pattis said. “Most delegations had a big following, but I think because of the character of our kids we were able to recruit fans because they gravitated toward our team. So eventually we did get a decent size following.”
After going 4-0 in the opening round, the boys were seeded fourth in the bracket of the top eight teams; then they knocked off number five, Dallas, advancing to the medal round.
But they fell to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a team that boasted a 6-foot-11-inch player going into his first year of high school.
“I’ve never seen someone that size going into his freshman year of high school,” Pattis said. “I see him playing at a very elite college program.”
The Pittsburghers managed to shut him down, forcing him to foul out while playing a zone defensive scheme.
But it wasn’t enough to win, Pattis said. “The reality of it was that Fort Lauderdale beat us because of their three-point shot and not because of him.”
The team still played in the bronze medal game against Atlanta, but fell for a second time, finishing fourth out of 16 teams.
“It was a little disappointing,” Pattis said. “But now that we’ve been able to take a step back, looking at the big picture and seeing what we did, I know I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished.”
The team didn’t have one star player, Shapera and Pattis both noted. None of them averaged more than 10 points per game, but several averaged around nine points.
“It was a true team effort,” Shapera said. “Our leading scorer differed almost every game.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)