The 2000s Blue Pride: State Champs!



2003 BFS Varsity Basketball Team receiving the State Championship trophy
That Championship Season: 2003 Basketball State Champs

By Jeffrey Stanley

(originally published 2008, revised 2013)


“I’m one of the three coaches, I was the assistant coach for that season. How do you explain it? It’s a miracle.” Mike Petelka spoke with an almost childlike speed and excitement as he described the events that took place five years ago.

That season—the one still talked about as legend in the halls of Brooklyn Friends—was the 2003 basketball season in which Head Coach Vlad Malukoff’s boys varsity team won the state championship.

“We had a slow start,” Coach Mike remembered. “We lost our opening game to a school that caught us off guard, but then we just settled into an incredible winning ride, ultimately earning a 25-4 record.

“We played against really good schools like Long Island Lutheran, Collegiate, Horace Mann, and Poly Prep,” Mike’s play-by-play continued. “These were bigger, stronger and better-known programs, but we just caught on fire all the way up through a rematch with Poly Prep. That victory propelled us to Glen Falls and the NYSAAIS state championships.”

He paused, thinking back to that championship game in March, 2003. “This was literally three days after the war in Iraq broke out, and I was just coming back from a family funeral in Europe. And all of a sudden we’re back in the reality of sports.” He recalled in detail the last moments of the game: “Our best player Kyle Neptune, who later played for Lehigh University, fouled out. We had a nice lead and all of a sudden Buffalo City Honors whittled it down and tied the game at 56 with a baseline 3-pointer. I said, oh my God, we’re goin’ into overtime.”

That’s when, said the animated assistant coach, the miracle truly happened. “One of our BFS kids who had scored maybe two points a game all season played stellar defense on Buffalo City’s best player, he covered him brilliantly. And then, he shot and he scored.”

That student was Edson Elcock, who later won a soccer scholarship to Old Dominion University and went on to play soccer professionally first for the Kansas City Wizards and now for the Puerto Rico Islanders. Edson, who excelled in soccer and played more of a supporting role in basketball, was relentless in defense on that day. BFS won by a single point, 69-68, against Buffalo City Honors. “We won on defense,” concluded Coach Mike. “That’s an important lesson to learn.”

Stories like this are what prompted Athletic Director David Gardella and Andy Cohen, video teacher and filmmaker, to put together a documentary film on the 2003 state championship team. “David told me he wanted to interview the players upon their graduation from college,” said Andy, himself a coach of softball. “It was a miraculous David and Goliath story to win a state championship with nine players coming from a tiny student body. The players and coaches were a diverse group that came together to become something greater than their parts.” David and Andy are putting the finishing touches on the film, titled Blue Pride: State Champs! and plan to screen it as part of the ongoing celebrations of the Upper School’s centennial.

Was it a perfect storm? A miracle? Friendship? Good coaching? Mike Petelka perhaps summed it up best. “It was a combination of everything. The players really played as a team. They were unselfish, they really had a bond between them. We always hung in there and never gave up.” Mike stayed on after that season and has just completed his seventh year of coaching at BFS. “I really love this place,” he said. “The people you work with, for me, it’s a blessing.”


THAT CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM

PLAYERS: Edson Elcock, Ryan Fischer-Werner, Jordan Foster, Richard Hempel, Chad Levy, Kenneth Muigai, Kyle Neptune, Ian Thomas, Alap Vora

COACHES: Head Coach Vlad Malukoff, Asst. Coach Mike Petelka, Asst. Coach Maurice Washington, Athletic Director David Gardella

MANAGERS: Christina Galletti, Jyah Hoy, Audrey Jaynes 


SOME OF THE PLAYERS RECALL...

2003 BFS Varsity Basketball Team at Brooklyn Borough Hall

Ryan Fischer Werner looks back on the 2003 BFS season as the standard he has tried to live up to throughout college, especially in terms of team chemistry. “We had a group of guys who wanted to win so badly we did what we had to do.” He still keeps in periodic touch with his old teammates and coaches. As for the BFS community at large, Ryan recalled that season as a paradigm shift in their attitude toward team sports at BFS, and he credits 2003 Head Coach Vlad Malukoff, assistant coaches Mike Petelka and Maurice Washington, and AD David Gardella for that shift. He recalled the entire school being caught up in that season, with a leap in attendance at games and many driving all the way to Glen Falls to watch the state championship.

Chad Levy reflects, “It was definitely one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me,” he said of the 2003 season. “We all came together and as a team we decided to work together. Our coaches were perfect for us, they didn’t overcoach. They let us run sometimes. Everything just meshed. We were all on the same wavelength for a good 20 game stretch.” As for the change in the community, he felt it too. “We were respected. We gave the school a lot attention they never had before. It brought a different type of buzz to the school.” BFS’s small size also made the team stars wherever they went during the school day. “It was such a small school that we were the center of attention. It was fun.”

Alap Vora concurs with Chad’s recollection of the season’s impact on the community. “I remember it vividly. We really got a lot of attention from everyone at the school. We always had a good crowd; we had teachers coming to the games who’d never been before. There was a lot of buzz in the papers. It put BFS athletics in the limelight for the first time; people definitely knew who we were.” Alap considers himself a lifelong basketball aficionado but of the armchair variety, considering himself probably the weakest player on the 2003 team. “The team was already strong when I joined. I wanted to be a part of it, but it was really Kyle Neptune who convinced me and said, ‘Look, you just really need to stop whining and suit up.” Alap and Kyle had been best friends since childhood. “I was the least talented and he was probably the best player, but we always stayed good friends.” They still talk nearly every day.

Kyle Neptune, the acknowledged star of the team, went on to play Division I basketball at Lehigh, and has played professionally in Latvia, Lithuania and Puerto Rico. “It was definitely a once in a lifetime mix of players because we were all friends,” he said quite simply. “I just saw Chad, Jordan, Alap. We’re lifelong friends, that’s why we were so cohesive as a unit.” He said it wasn’t the perfect season some remember: people got hurt, people got sick, people fouled out. “But the reason we pulled it off is because we were close friends.” He also credits the coaches. “You’ve got a lot of egos, mine was probably the strongest. It was the biggest thing for them to let us be ourselves and still have us be a team, and to not overcoach us. Kyle feels a certain pride at having put basketball on the map in the minds of the BFS community. “Before us it was just girls volleyball and boys soccer. Nobody really paid attention to basketball. But if you’re winning, people want to see it.”


2003 BFS Varsity Basketball Coach Vlad MalukoffVERBATIM: HEAD COACH VLAD MALUKOFF LOOKS BACK ON AN EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME

“I tell you, I’m not one for these mystical explanations, but there was this feeling I had that I experienced only one other time coaching—that whatever we did wrong, we’d get out of it somehow, that these guys had a spirit to win the game no matter what.

But that feeling was very brief. If you shoot 26 foul shots and you make 8, that’s awful. That’s what we did in one of the games. For most of the year I thought we played below our ability.

We made it to the playoffs though, and had to go up first against Poly Prep, a sports powerhouse. They had a 6’ 10” kid, a junior, Joakim Noah, you know him? He went on to lead the University of Florida to the national championships in the NCAA and he now plays for the Chicago Bulls. Poly beat us by 20 points, 71-51 in a regular season tournament game. If you asked me then, what do you think? I’d have said we’re not really playing up to our potential. See, the year before had been more gratifying, and I thought we hadn’t really built on that.

Now comes the big change. The next game we played we won, which put us into the league tournament. We had lost to Poly Prep on a Friday. We then beat Packer in the ACIS finals the next Wednesday—we ran them out of the gym. Beat ‘em by like 25 points; we dominated them. The next day we played Collegiate. This is like the Ivy League and we had an inferiority complex in comparison to them. We beat Collegiate. We’re seeded 5th and Collegiate is 4th so they get the home court advantage, but we beat them by like 10 points.

Our next game is against Poly Prep: we’re going back to the lion’s den to play them on their home court. They already had a whole room set up for their post game celebration, everyone was sure they’d win. We beat them by 7 points. Chad Levy and Kyle Neptune were the team captains, and Edson Elcock, he was more of a soccer player, was the point guard. Every time we had a time out, Chad Levy would say, “Let’s go out and have fun.” He was like my good luck charm. He had real leadership skills. We knew Poly Prep was going to pile onto Kyle Neptune because he’s our best shooter, so someone else will have to shoot. So Chad stepped it up and started taking shots, and making them. As a coach I did two things, which is not brilliant coaching: for Noah, you got a guy 6’ 10”. So you front him and make them lob it over your head. They had a lot of good guys. The next tallest guy was 6’ 4”. I told Kyle not to guard him, just stay in the middle and whenever the ball goes to Noah to run and help the defender. It worked. This left their 6’4” kid totally confused when he got the ball and we took it away from him. Poly was the best team we played.

We had one day off, then we had to play Horace Mann, another powerhouse. But our guys in just one week turned from being disappointed to being overwhelmed at what they were able to do. Not that it was a miracle, but I saw an attitude change in them, a real determination that no matter what happened they were going to win. We blew Horace Mann out in the third quarter. It was like 75-67. And that’s what got us to Glens Falls.

At the last game there it was a really weird feeling. With 4 minutes to go, a little less, Kyle has his hands up, moves a bit, and they called technical foul on him. So Kyle fouls out. Buffalo City Honors ties the game up with a 3-point shot at just two seconds to go. If you’re a betting man, you say we’re going to lose. But our guys stepped up.

A Buffalo player lobs a little hook shot. Richard Hempel, 6’ 3”—one of the two juniors on our team – not only blocks the shot, he grabs it out of the air, and throws it off to Edson, who gets in front of their best player and makes a winning shot. We win by 1.”