Experience is a skill set that can’t be taught, and Newark Charter boys basketball head coach Joe Zang is in a situation this year where he wouldn’t have to teach it anyway.
The second-year coach’s squad is made up of 10 seniors, seven whom see the majority of varsity minutes and were all a significant part of last year’s team that narrowly missed the state tournament.
“It came down to that Caravel Academy game,” Zang said of the 65-61 overtime loss in last year’s season finale that officially knocked the Patriots from postseason contention.
The majority of the players, who walked off the court at Caravel Academy knowing that despite a 13-7 record they wouldn’t play in the postseason, tipped off this year’s season with one goal in mind: To play in the state tournament.
“They won the conference last year,” said Zang, in his second year at the helm of the program after head coaching stints at Elkton and Perryville high schools. “Playing in the state tournament is the next big thing for them.”
When putting together this season’s schedule, Zang added games against St. Elizabeth, Havre de Grace and Wilmington Friends in the second half of the season.
“Our goal is to be battle-tested down the stretch so we can make the playoffs and compete when we get there,” Zang explained. “We’ve really put ourselves in a much more challenging schedule.”
Seniors Brett Lesher, Brett Callahan, Khalil Proctor and Marvin Nwanekwu are implanted into the starting lineup, each contributing in their own way, but all with one common trait.
“All the starters buy into the philosophy of the program,” Zang said. “They are extremely hard working and really put the team first. That’s the biggest thing. It’s more the attitude than the ability. The ability is incredible, but the attitude is unbelievable. I can say that about the top seven.”
Seniors Reed Burkhardt, Ryan Stephens and Tim Cooper give the Patriots a solid rotation to fill the fifth starting spot depending on matchups in a particular game and then two very experienced reserves coming off the bench.
“They are all leaders,” Zang proudly said.
Propter and Lesher have the most varsity experience of the septet, giving Zang that next level of leadership every team needs if they are going to have success.
“Lesher’s poise and athleticism is what makes him stick out,” Zang noted. “He is a very athletic kid and always stays calm, cool and collective. He makes a lot of plays he takes for granted, but we are privileged to see him make those plays.”
Lesher is averaging a team-high 17.6 points a game and dishing out nearly three assists. Propter leads the team with 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game and is second on the team in scoring with a 12.3 average.
“Propter is a great on-ball defender and a solid shooter,” Zang said. “He defends the other team’s point guard very well every night and takes it in stride.”
Without a holiday tournament on its schedule, Newark Charter returned to action last week having not played in 20 days. Zang was hopeful his team would get back into the swing of things quickly and his team didn’t disappoint as the Patriots secured a 65-52 behind Lesher’s game-high 20 points.
The Patriots dropped their next game, 70-63, to Brandywine, but then less than 48 hours later traveled to Middletown and defeated St. Andrew’s 61-59. The Patriots outscored the Cardinals 23-11 in the decisive fourth quarter to complete the comeback.
“I think a big reason for it is experience,” Zang said of his team’s ability to make the comeback. “This team is senior-laden and has been on the wrong end of close games before, so with that comes the ability to learn and adapt to be able to come out on the right side of a close game. The other aspect is just the mental toughness that our team has. They don’t let things get too high or too low. We try to stay poised and composed and it helps us in those type of situations. It helps that we have very high character players that understand situations late in games as well.”
Zang is confident not only in his team, but that experiences like the late rally will benefit them down the road.
“A win like that is certainly something that we’ve been searching for as a program for the last few seasons,” he said. “St. Andrew’s is a great team and we knew that to beat them, it wasn’t going to be easy. They made us earn everything. The thing our coaching staff is really stressing now is that we still have a lot of season left and we don’t want to peak right now. Yes, that was a great win, but we have to move forward and focus on the meat of our schedule against more quality opponents in and out of our conference. In short, a win over a great team like St. Andrew’s cannot define our season, but rather it needs to be a stepping stone on the way to more success down the road.