Clifton Park high school travel hoops team starts its own title defense

J.J. Wolek readies to take a shot during his team's senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)J.J. Wolek readies to take a shot during his team's senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)

BY MICHAEL KELLY
Gazette Sportswriter

CLIFTON PARK — That the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team won an area and state championship earlier this year is no secret.

With less publicity and fanfare, though, another hoops squad made up of seniors from the high school has started its own title defense. Clifton Park’s town travel team of seniors in the Capital District Senior League — a travel hoops league for high school kids — won the championship last winter, toppling the town’s then-senior squad in the division for juniors and seniors.

But winning titles is not the main aim for the 11 local high school seniors who make up the roster for head coach Mike Hyland and assistant coach Chris Caputo’s Clifton Park Lightning squad.

“It’s a great group of guys,” said Zack Hyland, the coach’s son. “We have a good time, fool around a bit, and still get to play competitive ball.”

A trio of players converge near the rim during the team's senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)

A trio of players converge near the rim during the team’s senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)

“The kids that are here, they’re here to have fun,” said Frank Massa, one of the league’s co-founders. “They’re here because they love to play.”

Massa said this year’s season of the CDSL is its eighth. Prior to the formation of the league — which has two divisions; one for juniors and seniors, and another for freshmen and sophomores — opportunities for area high school kids not on a school team to play competitive basketball were slim.

That changed when the CDSL started — and fast. The first year of the league, it only had one division of eight teams from throughout the region; this year, Massa said, there will be 34 teams between the two divisions, including five teams from the town’s program.

“It’s gotten so big,” Massa said. “It’s outstanding.”

The league uses high school rules, with the exception that games consist of two 16-minute halves instead of four eight-minute quarters. Kids on school teams are not allowed to play in the league.

“The rule of the league is you can’t be wearing a varsity, junior varsity or freshman uniform,” Massa said. “It’s for kids that are very good athletes, but don’t devote their full year to basketball.”

Like the kids who make up the town’s team of seniors. Most of the players competed in travel leagues growing up, with some playing at one time or another within the school program. Basketball is a passion for these 11 seniors, but not one they want to devote time to all year.

For many of them, that’s because they already make a full-year commitment to another sport. From just this past fall, a pair of the team’s players, Mason Munger and Mike Ross, starred with the Shenendehowa golf team; Moazam Afzal went to the state championships with the Shenendehowa boys’ volleyball team; and a few players competed for the Shenendehowa football team.

Moazam Afzal is shown during his team's senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)

Moazam Afzal is shown during his team’s senior-level travel basketball practice in Clifton Park on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Michael Kelly/Gazette Sportswriter)

J.J. Wolek, a team member, said he is grateful something like the CDSL exists so he can still play competitive hoops. Wolek plays for the Shenendehowa boys’ lacrosse team and works on his stick skills throughout the year. With his basketball team — which practices once a week and plays one or two games a weekend during the winter months — his commitment is strong, but not as time-eating.

“With lacrosse, I’m focusing and trying to play in college,” Wolek said. “But this [basketball team] is for fun. I just love playing basketball.”

The same goes for Ben Tashjian, who played football for the Plainsmen. He added that the more low-key nature of the league, in comparison to school hoops, is appealing to him.

“The standards are still high and it’s competitive, but I’m comfortable here,” Tashjian said. “It’s not as big of a stage and I’m not afraid to mess up.”

The seniors’ 18-game regular season season started the first weekend in December, with the Lightning recording double-digit wins against teams from the Albany JCC and East Greenbush. When the playoffs come, the games will get very serious — and coach Hyland said his team already takes its role as defending champions very seriously.

“We’ve reminded these guys already that we don’t want this year’s junior group to repay the favor for last year’s seniors,” he said.

About the Author

Michael Kelly
Michael Kelly is a sports reporter for Your Clifton Park and Your Niskayuna, weekly print publications of The Daily Gazette. Kelly grew up in Clifton Park and graduated from Shenendehowa High School in 2006. He is also a 2010 graduate of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. Kelly's work has been honored by the New York News Publishers Association, the New York State Associated Press Association, and the Associated Press Sports Editors. His work has previously been featured in The (Amsterdam) Recorder, The Saratogian, and Albany Times Union.