Sports

Guvs take down Smith, brace for Walton, Roosevelt

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There’s a lot of nostalgia to be experienced at DeWitt Clinton High School. 

Having opened in 1897, taking a stroll through Clinton’s hallways will take you back in time, to old framed photos of past championship teams that date back to when the Bronx was more farmland than the bustling borough of nearly 1.5 million people it is today.

Just outside the gym are a bevy of ancient photos adorning the walls, including one honoring the 1945 Clinton basketball team after it captured the city title. There also are pictures of the 1934 city championship football team, the 1966 men’s basketball title team, the 1910 football city champs, and many more.

Once you enter the gym, the banner hanging over midcourt boasts the 19 city titles won by the Clinton boys basketball program, with the first coming in 1904, but the last dating back to 1977. 

While there is sufficient room on the banner for more titles to be added, not even Clinton head coach Chris Ballerini thinks this will be a banner-altering season for the Governors. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be some success at the 120-year old school. Ballerini, a realist, just knows his Governors are still not a finished product.

“We’re a long ways off at this point,” Ballerini said after Clinton notched its first win of the season with a 56-45 victory over Smith Campus last week. “I think we understand as a program, as we start going up against some of the bigger opponents, that we’re going to have to play a lot better in order to compete.”

Clinton (1-1) started off slow against Smith, trailing by four at the end of the first quarter before finally catching Smith at 18 on a jumper by senior Abel Hernandez. Seconds later when Elven Amponsah dropped in a free throw, the Governors had the lead for good as they went on to build a 16-point advantage at the end of the third quarter. 

But that’s when things began to get shaky for a Clinton team still trying to find its identity. Despite a roster stocked almost entirely with seniors and juniors, the Governors began to unravel. The once seemingly insurmountable lead got chipped all the way down to a mere three points at 47-44 with 3:53 to play.

“We have players that in school years they are seniors, but in terms of basketball experience, they’re kind of young and inexperienced,” Ballerini said. “Games like this one, where we’re up 16 points and things are rolling, a lot of these guys never had the experience to understand how to push the lead up and be smart with the ball instead of turning the ball over and making things interesting as they did in this game.”

Yes, it got very interesting for Clinton, which had lost its first game of the season at home against Rucker Campus earlier last week. But a pair of free throws by Hernandez, who finished with a game-high 15 points, and a huge three-pointer from Elijah Welsh Jr., with 1:58 to play, gave the Governors the breathing room they needed to hang on for the win.

“That three just took a lot of pressure off of us,” Ballerini said. “We were due to make one of those. I think we were 0-for-the-half from three-point land.”

A win is a win, as coaches like to say. But Ballerini — who coached 10 years at American Studies and four at Clinton — knows if his team doesn’t clean up some areas of its game, they might not be as fortunate the next time a quality opponent makes a run at them.

“In all that time I realized that that first win is never pretty,” Ballerini said. “You take it and you run, and then you grow from it. I thought we played pretty well defensively, but then there was a stretch to start the second half where we only scored two points. That might be OK in this game. But against teams like Roosevelt, that’s not OK. 

“So I think it just comes down to taking care of each possession, having an understanding of knowing when to attack and when not to, and running the sets a little crisper and sharper.”

Things will get a little tougher for Clinton this week when it plays host to both Walton and Roosevelt. Roosevelt is one of the programs Ballerini feels might be the team to beat in the Bronx this season, while Walton is merely the defending PSAL A city champion.   

“We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we can compete against those teams,” Ballerini said. “With Walton and then Roosevelt, things are going to get ramped up.”

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