ELIZABETH, N.J. — Bryce Aiken remembers sitting in the stands at the Rutgers Athletic Center watching the star-studded St. Patrick teams of Dexter Strickland, Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist when they played in big-time games against arch-rival St. Anthony.
“I was kind of young, but I remember the intensity of the game, how packed it was and the players that were on the court,” the 5-foot-10 Aiken told SNY.tv Monday after practice at the Mickey Walker Community Center.
“I like how they played and Kyrie obviously, everyone likes him.”
Over the summer, Aiken, a skilled point guard considered one of the top players in New Jersey in the Class of 2016, opted to transfer to The Patrick School (formerly St. Pat’s) from Pope John in Sparta, N.J. And now he and his teammates are intent upon bringing the school back to the lofty heights they enjoyed when Kevin Boyle was the coach and St. Pat’s was a perennial national powerhouse.
“I definitely believe that as a team we definitely can,” Aiken said. “We have a lot of weapons. Our team is young. We’re still working. By the time the season starts, I think we should be at a point of all of our games that we can take that team to the next level again.”
One of the top high school coaches in the nation, Boyle has moved on to the greener pastures of Montverde (FL) Academy, where he finally won his elusive national championship last April with a team that included former St. Pat’s big man Dakari Johnson, a current freshman at Kentucky.
St. Benedict’s Prep, which lost a heart-breaking 67-65 decision on a last-second 3-pointer that spoiled the dreams of current Syracuse freshman guard Tyler Ennis, coach Mark Taylor and the rest of the Gray Bees.
Back at The Patrick School, Chris Chavannes, now in his third year as head coach after serving as Boyle’s longtime lieutenant, has resuscitated a program that was in danger of fading into oblivion after St. Pat’s announced in February 2012 that it would close due to financial reasons.
Determined to keep the school going, St. Pat’s leaders opted over the summer to reopen at a building near Kean University as The Patrick School.
“It was a lot of work but I wouldn’t say there was ever any doubt that we were going to get going,” Chavannes said.
Thanks to financial contributions from Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard, and at least one anonymous donor who is sponsoring half the kids in the school, The Patrick School has new life despite having to close its eighth grade. Chavannes said there are 141 students now — “significantly more than there were last year” — and the academic program has undergone a major overhaul.
“As a whole the school has done very well,” said Chavannes, who also serves as the Director of the school. “It’s to the point where we’ve had to order more lockers and more iPads and things like that, so that’s a big plus. And every day we register two or three more kids so there’s more coming in which is a good thing,” he said.
“We’ve hired an entire new faculty that has their credentials with Masters or Doctorates, and we have a whole new academic philosophy. For what was a very, very nerve-wracking experience, the most turbulent time of my entire life, when you look at the location of the school, when you look at where the kids are academically, it’s been an absolute blessing.”
“That’s always been the goal since Day One is to get the program back to where it was,” Chavannes, whose team went 24-4 last season behind current St. Joe’s freshman DeAndre Bembry, told SNY.tv.
“That’s always been the goal, to slowly build it back to where it was, and do it through youth.”‘
The current varsity roster has just two seniors and three juniors, six sophomores and three freshmen.
“This year even though we’re very, very young it’s a very, very talented group of guys and they’ll decide whether they’re going to get it done this year or in the future,” Chavannes said.
With the tremendously skilled Aiken, who models his game after Irving and Steph Curry, the team seems set at the most important position on the floor for the next several years.
He holds offers from Seton Hall, Rutgers, Auburn, Manhattan and Detroit, with interest from Syracuse and Florida.
As for his transfer to The Patrick School from Pope John, Aiken said: “Here I really felt that Coach Chavannes, Coach Reggie [Carter], all the experience they have as a school could really push me to get to the next level.”
At The Patrick School, he has competed against Irving, his onetime hero, in open gyms, learning the tricks of the trade.
“It’s helped a lot,” Aiken said. “He’s always attacking. He always tells me to always attack, never back down, so it’s helped me play harder so I go at everybody.”
In 6-3 sophomore guard Andre Wilson, a Bishop Loughlin transfer, 6-1 freshman Jamir Harris and 6-4 frosh guard Marcus McCleary, Chavannes feels he has three of the top young guards in the New York/New Jersey area.
Freshman Sudanese 6-10 big man Bul Bior Ajang, has “high-major talent,” Chavannes said.
Isaiah Still, a 6-6 junior wing who transferred from Roselle Catholic, is a talented wing with offers from Iona, Harvard and Siena, with interest from Princeton, Rutgers, Minnesota, Penn State and others.
Still said he chose The Patrick School because “it’s a better fit for me, I can play right away.”
Like Aiken, he knows something of the history of St. Pat’s and hopes to help live up to it.
“My AAU coach used to coach here so he used to always tell us about the St. Pat’s history,” Still said. “We’re really good this year and we can definitely get back to where St. Pat’s used to be.”
Chavannes and Boyle remain close and The Patrick School will travel to play in Montverde’s home tournament in February.
Photos: The Star-Ledger