Offseason outlook: Kuzmick, St. Hubert want to reach next level

Meghan Matthews (right) has become a go-to player for St. Hubert through her sophomore season. With the impending graduation of six seniors, the Bambies’ program will be Matthews’ to lead in 2014–15. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Brian Kuzmick has been the basketball coach at St. Hubert for almost a decade, and the Bambies have been an annual lock to punch their ticket to the Catholic League playoffs. While that’s all well and good, like any coach worth his mettle, Kuzmick wants more.

Much more.

As a frequent playoff participant, Kuzmick has had a front row seat to a dizzying flurry of postseason glory from the likes of Catholic League stalwarts Archbishop Wood, Cardinal O’Hara, Archbishop Carroll and, this season, an undefeated Neumann-Goretti. The Bambies have advanced as far as the quarterfinals, including this season, when Cardinal O’Hara, aided by two backbreaking buzzer beaters, nipped St. Hubert 44–42. As has often been the case playing in a league this good, Kuzmick and company have scaled much of the mountain, only to tumble right before reaching the pinnacle.

“I think in any given year, you have two or three really, really good teams, and then you’ve got five or six pretty good ones,” Kuzmick said during a recent phone conversation in discussing the future of his program. “We’re certainly working toward the top, and we’ve been more competitive (with those top teams). We want to accomplish things organically. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and the whole goal is to accomplish more with the same types of kids we’ve been getting.

“The whole thing is … how do we do that? How do we grow a bigger, better, faster, stronger team using the same types of kids? Is it mentality? Is it X’s and O’s? The next step is figuring out how to get them to the next level.”

Kuzmick he hopes he has an answer in the form of rising junior-to-be Meghan Matthews, who stepped in as an immediate contributor as a freshman and continued to improve as an All-Catholic selection in her sophomore campaign, one in which the Bambies finished sixth in the league standings.

For his part, Kuzmick believes the Bambies’ inability to climb the wave’s crest is more mental than anything else. After all, in the end, these are high school girls the same age competing against one another.

That’s the message he tries to get across to his girls when they storm back from a 10-point deficit like it was nothing, as they did this past season on Senior Night in an overtime thriller against rival Archbishop Ryan. During that game, the Bambies never flinched when they were trailing by double digits; however, when they get down to a team with a trong a track record like Wood, doubt starts creeping in.

Quickly.

“We’re in every game we play, and we’ve had chances to beat teams like that,” Kuzmick said. “But there comes a time where we say ‘OK, we’ve come close enough, but now is time for the doing part.’ This isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades, so there needs to come a point when ‘close’ is no longer good enough. One of these times, we have to experience what it’s like to come out on the other side.”

Added Matthews: “I think we are really close to getting to that point, but we have to win one of those games to start believing completely. We only lost by two to O’Hara, and it’s important that we do believe we can come back next year and beat them. I’m ready for it. It will be a challenge. The way I handle it, I don’t think it will be vocally; rather, it will be by showing. If I work hard, they’ll work hard.”

Matthews will be one of the few returners with varsity experience for Kuzmick next season. He will graduate six seniors, players that have helped Kuzmick win a lot of games. But on the flip side of that coin, the head coach said an attitude adjustment is in order to be able to vanquish the league’s top teams.

“After the season I asked some of our seniors if they were over the loss to O’Hara yet,” Kuzmick said. “And some said they were happy to lose the way they did because they didn’t want to get blown out by Wood again (in the next round). There was no thought of a potential trip to the semifinals in God knows how long. They didn’t mention the thought of playing at Philadelphia University in front of a bigger crowd with a chance to show those people what our program is all about. They said they were happy about the way it ended.

“As the head coach, I can’t let that mentality permeate through the program. One of the hardest things to overcome is that predetermined outcome, not giving yourself a fighter’s chance before you step on the court. We’re talented enough to beat anyone, and I want them to see those results.”

Kuzmick isn’t alone. Rising Archbishop Ryan sophomore Ashley Smink said after the Ragdolls’ season ended in the quarterfinals to Wood that she and her teammates could no longer play scared against the league’s top-line opponents. Getting to the semifinals, Smink said, would change the way the rest of the league and city views the Ryan program, which would be one of a legitimate title contender year in and year out. As Matthews correctly pointed out, “It’s not that much different of a playing field.”

So once the players at Ryan and St. Hubert actually believe it can be done, half the battle is already won.

“Winning breeds winning,” Kuzmick said. “When you win, the confidence level goes through the roof, instead of that feeling of getting so close so many times. It’s crazy, we joked about it last week, saying that if we put Ryan jerseys on the other teams in the league, I guarantee you we go 10–2. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m removing myself from the process, because us coaches go over it and over it and over it thinking about what we can change to help us get there. I know I need to grow more as a coach, but I also know someone needs to step up as a player, either through their actions or their words.”

Of course, the crusade to get better and get over the proverbial hump begins now, in the offseason. Several of his players, including Matthews, play AAU ball in the summer, which is good, but not necessarily enough. At this level, most players participate in AAU, so it’s the extra individual work outside of those one or two practices a week and weekend games that can make or break a player’s development.

“It’s another thing that kids in this area don’t fully understand,” Kuzmick said. “You need to get better between March and November, as an individual. You need practice. You need to shoot every day, you need to weight train, you need to work out, you need to run. If we have six players who are in much better shape the following year, that’s only going to help us get over the hump.

“It’s a crucial message to get out there that if our players want to go to the next level, this is a step they’ll have to take. We need to get faster, stronger. If this is what they want and this is where they want to go, these are the things they have to do to get there.”

In Matthews, Kuzmick thinks he has his first domino in place to get the rest to fall in line afterward, and he doesn’t shy away from placing these expectations on his sophomore star player.

“Meg Matthews absolutely has the God-given ability to be the best player to come through St. Hubert in a really long time,” he said. “If she puts in the commitment to becoming a high-level athlete, she’ll be 100 percent good enough to carry us to that next level. And I 1,000 percent believe in that.”