The moment the West Orange High School freshman boys basketball team stepped foot on the practice court, head coach Bryan Ille and assistant coach David Grant knew this team would be different than the ones in the past.
The roster had a great mix of size, but it was something that couldn’t be found on paper that had the coaches enthusiastic about the season.
"The players had a true passion for the sport," said Ille, whose teams have gone 51-9 the past three seasons. "The team chemistry was very strong the first three weeks of the season. The kids seemed to come together on and off the court."
The boys put together what is arguably the most successful freshman season in school history.
Finishing 21-0, the freshmen squad posted its best record and first undefeated mark in at least four decades.
On average, the Mountaineers outscored the opposition by nearly 22 points per game, doing it with each player fulfilling a key role.
"You don't usually see players fall into their roles so quickly but they seemed to understand them very quickly," said Ille, who has been at the helm for eight seasons.
Jeremiah Boone-Alexandre (16.5 points per game) and Andy Fleurantin (16.0 ppg) paced the offensive attack. The 6'4" Boone-Alexandre supplied a versatile presence in the frontcourt, while Fleurantin had the ability to score from anywhere in the offensive end. The offense went through point guard Christian Breeden, who did a solid job distributing the ball to help generate about 56.1 points per outing.
"Christian has tremendous court vision and court awareness," Ille said. "He is the type of player that makes everyone around him better."
It wasn't unusual to see the team practicing on typical days off like Super Bowl Sunday and battle though rigorous sessions to prepare for games. The team was also aided by its depth with up to nine players used in a game.
"We believed in practicing hard and competing at a high level," the team’s third leading scorer and second leading rebounder Jarod Yvent said. "We controlled outcomes of games with the belief in each other and the confidence that if we executed, our talent would take over and we would be very successful."
The freshmen Mountaineers used their defensive intensity to force numerous turnovers that led to easy transition baskets.
Even though many of the games were lopsided, Ille pointed to the team's second victory over a surging Orange team that put together a 16-game winning streak as evidence of the team's resiliency. Staring at a six-point deficit with 1:20 left, the Mountaineers rallied behind Fleurantin's hot shooting. Fleurantin nailed a pair of 3-pointers, and Dominic Pizzano posted a key steal. Yvent capped off the victory with a game-winning shot with 2.1 seconds left to preserve the undefeated season.
"I can honestly say I loved this year," said Fleurantin, who posted a season-high effort of 31 points against Newark Central. "I knew we were going to make history."
The team also rallied around teammate Avery Thompson, who was battling leukemia during the season. The team fed off of Thompson's determination to help post the unblemished mark.
"When I was first diagnosed, I felt isolated from everyone," Thompson, who participated in the first two weeks of practice. "My team was very supportive of me in my darkest time. Thanks to my team, I realize I can beat this disease and like them, I will let nothing defeat me."
"Avery is an inspiration to us all," Ille added. "The courage and resilience he demonstrates on a daily basis motivated us to never give up and always works hard."
Among the accolades for this year's team were the 2011 Elmwood Park Holiday Jam championship and Super Essex Conference title. But even more valuable is setting a solid foundation in place for the future of West Orange basketball.
"I told them this is only first link of destiny," Ille said. "We have to take it one step at a time. It's all part of creating a solid program which is what trying to do here in West Orange."