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Puzzle pieces in place for successful season for St. Joseph boys basketball

Doug Gulasy
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Saint Joseph’s Grant Bendis scores past Springdale’s Isaac Kern Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Saint Joseph’s Grant Bendis steals a pass intended for Springdale’s Ben Mayford Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Saint Joseph’s Matthew Arvay defends on Springdale’s Demitri Fritch Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Saint Joseph’s Daniel Fabregas drives past Springdale’s Demitri Fritch Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.

Matt Arvay suffered his season-ending basketball injury on the basketball court, but it didn’t happen in a practice or a game. Instead, it came in ever-dangerous gym class, as he was “goofing around” with friends, came to a jump stop and felt his knee pop.

Boom. All of a sudden, Arvay waved his junior season at St. Joseph goodbye. Then, a handful of games into the regular season, classmate Daniel Fábregas suffered a season-ending injury: a broken hand.

A promising season went by the wayside for St. Joseph, which finished with a 6-16 record and missed the WPIAL playoffs, a rarity for the small private school in Harrison.

The past might hurt, but the present feels pretty good for Arvay, Fábregas and the rest of the Spartans (8-2, 3-0), who enter the post-holiday portion of their schedule atop Section 3-A and are coming off a championship performance at the tournament they hosted.

“It’s amazing,” Arvay said. “We knew when we came into St. Joe’s, by our senior year, we were going to be good. We had nine people who were just extremely dedicated to basketball. Now that we have all of our pieces together, everything’s coming together. I couldn’t be happier right now.”

The pieces fit together like a puzzle.

Fábregas plays the prototypical floor general at point guard, supplemented in ballhandling by sophomore Andrew Sullivan, who became one of the team’s top scorers last season with Arvay and Fábregas on the sideline. Senior Grant Bendis, a three-year starter, is the team’s top drive-and-score offensive player, and Arvay is the leading outside shooter.

“It’s really key having all those guys back because they kind of complete our whole offense,” Sullivan said. “Now we have guys that really fill the roles. We have Matt shooting the 3s, Daniel looking for everyone and we all just fit together real nice.”

Arvay, Bendis and Fábregas started in 2016-17, when the Spartans reached the WPIAL playoffs while relying on a roster comprised mainly of seniors and sophomores. The trio expected to take the lead last season, but then the injuries came.

Bendis said the injuries did have a small silver lining. They allowed for the emergence of players like Sullivan, an inside-outside scoring threat and strong perimeter defender, plus others like Gabe McKernan, Evan Kuczynski and Eli Swierczewski.

McKernan joins the core four in the Spartans’ starting lineup, and Kuczynski and Swierczewski join freshman C.J. Singleton as off-the-bench contributors.

“I know our sophomore year, they weren’t in then — they weren’t a part of it,” Bendis said. “Then our junior year, they came on because we needed them to. You could just see they’re playing at a high level right now.”

St. Joseph coach Kelly Robinson has a luxury he couldn’t afford last season: depth. Bendis and Sullivan no longer have to shoulder the burden of the scoring load, as both Arvay and Fábregas can put up double-digit point efforts with frequency.

All four played significant roles in St. Joseph’s sweep of Evangel Heights Christian Academy and Springdale at the Spartan Holiday Classic, with Bendis earning tournament MVP honors and Arvay making the all-tournament team. McKernan also came through with six points against Springdale.

After some early inconsistent play, the Spartans are beginning to gel.

“They’ve been playing together for a long time, but last year the pieces weren’t there because of the injuries,” Robinson said. “Now they’re finally back together again, and they’re playing together. It’s fun to watch.”

Robinson said a 45-42 nonsection loss to Apollo-Ridge on Dec. 19 helped refocus the team, and St. Joseph responded with a narrow section win over Clairton and the two tournament victories.

“I know the rust was there when we all came back,” Bendis said. “But at the same time, when we came out freshman year, Matt, Daniel and I, we knew what to do. We knew what our goals were, and I think we all gelled from the moment we stepped on the court.”

Arvay said he sometimes still thinks about what might have been last season — “It was a grind to get back. It was painful to watch,” he said — but he also knows what still can happen this season if the Spartans can stay healthy this time.

“Looking at the end goal, obviously you want to take the season part by part, but we know what we want to do in the end,” Arvay said. “We know what our limit is, and right now we’re focused on the section title. That’s a big goal for us.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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