Leading a team to a state championship is something that most high school coaches hope to achieve. For Keith Bland, that notion isn’t any different. But for him, no season has been quite like the current one.
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|The Paramus Catholic Paladins are currently 16-0. (Photo/MSG Varsity) || |
Bland is currently in his fifth season as head coach of the Paramus Catholic squad. His team is currently 16-0, and has scored 111 times in those 16 games in addition to only allowing a mere 16 goals. That dominance has driven them to the top of the standings in the Big North Conference
Gold Division and to number three in The Record’s Top 10 rankings
. Bland says that the leadership of the players on his team has been a key cog to this season’s success.
“The leadership for this year’s team is actually very good,” Bland reveals. “In years past, we’ve always had that star guy, that go-to guy that everybody would look to. This year, the leadership has been tremendous across the board.”
Bland added that his captains have left a good impression on his younger players as they have taken charge of the team on many occasions.
“My captains and assistant captain have led by example,” Bland suggests. “We’ve had a couple of practices where we’ve started off slowly in practice. Those guys had seen that I wasn’t happy with the way practice was going and they kind of stopped it and said ‘Hey we need to be better here. Let’s get our act together.’ They’ve handled that very well.”
The leaders of the currently undefeated Paramus Catholic squad, according to Bland, are senior captains Dan Sowinski and Matt Cofrancesco, along with assistant captain Bryan Nagy. Leading scorer Alex Fleishmann, who has an astonishing 44 points in 16 games, has also played a key leadership role on this team, helping to carry the load and lead by example. Bland says that having multiple players to rely on this year as opposed to relying on one superstar has aided this team’s ability to succeed.
“This year, the leadership has been tremendous across the board. My captains and assistant captain have led by example, knowing what to expect from me. From being able to get to practice on time and setting up the drills, and getting to the rink ahead of schedule, it gives me more time to worry about other things, rather than having to be hounding them and keeping right on them. - Keith Bland“This year, its spread out a little bit more than we’ve had in the past. I’ve been playing three lines here regularly during the season,” Bland explains. “Scoring is spread out; we have a couple of freshman playing regular minutes, both defensively and on the third line. Playing three lines has made a difference so far, as everybody’s contributed and chipped in.”
By winning so many games by such a large margin, it has been a difficult task for Bland to keep his team focused. But he suggests that in spite of winning many games by large margins, complacency has not set in for this group. His team keeps their eyes on the prize, and is continuously working hard to achieve their goals.
“I think that’s been the toughest part, trying to keep everybody playing the way that the game is supposed to be played, keep doing the right things so we don’t get into any bad habits,” Bland says. “We know we’re going to come down to a tough stretch in the second half of the season. We’re just trying to be prepared and get better every day.”
For Bland, winning has obviously aided in the enjoyment. But because his team has remained focused, coaching this team has been an enjoyable and ultimately gratifying experience.
“It’s fun to come to the rink. The guys have bought into what I want to do, they want to learn and get better. So it makes my job a lot easier,” Bland states. “It’s been fun to see the guys improving. We have a couple of freshman that have come in that I’ve seen a huge difference in. Not only them but some of the older guys as well, it’s nice to see those results.”
In 2012, Bland’s squad made it to the semifinals of the state tournament, and experiencing being so close to winning a state title has kept this year’s team motivated.
“I only graduated five or six players from last season when we were 18-5-3,” Bland says. “We had a very good run, and I think they got a little taste of that success and say ‘Hey, you know what? We can do this if we put our mind to it and buy into the system, and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’”
Despite currently being a favorite to make a deep run into March, potentially culminating in a trip to Prudential Center for a shot at a state title, Bland doesn’t let the hype get to his team. And while he doesn’t see any reason why his team can’t make it far into the state tournament, taking it one game at a time is the ultimate goal.
“Realistically, it’s going to be a tough road there’s no question about it,” Bland says. “We’re looking to get into the state tournament, and just going to play our game. We’ll take our chances down the road when they come, and we’ll see where the pieces may fall.”
On their quest toward a state title, the Paramus Catholic group will face off against The Record’s top-ranked team in Don Bosco Prep in the championship game of the Bergen County Tournament on Wednesday, January 23 at 7:15 p.m. at the Ice Vault in Wayne.