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Change for the better: Newtown coach cracks down on academics

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Pat Torney made up his mind. He’d had enough.

The seven-year boys’ basketball coach at Newtown has seen more than his share of quality players pass through the Elmhurst high school, but when it comes to being eligible to attend a four-year college right away, those same players weren’t making the grade.

Instead, they were forced to attend a junior college or a community college before making the jump.

“I look back at the last seven years and we’ve had a lot of kids go on and play college ball, but I think only three or four of them went to a four-year school right away,” Torney said. “That’s a shame because there certainly wasn’t a question about their basketball ability.”

Two of the school’s better players in the past five years — Chris Sandy and William “Smush” Parker — both struggled academically at Newtown and each had to attend a junior college before going on to play Division I basketball. Sandy is currently the starting point guard at Fresno State while Parker runs the floor for Fordham.

Torney said all five players to start on the 1997 PSAL finalist couldn’t get into a four-year college out of high school.

After a conversation with St. John’s basketball coach Mike Jarvis at the first annual Frank McGuire High School Coaches Seminar at St. John’s University last spring, Torney got an idea on how he could put the brakes on the alarming trend.

Torney, who said grades were never a concern for him when he played high school ball at Power Memorial in 1974, decided to raise the minimum passing grade from the city-wide score of 65 to 70 for players to be eligible to start for his team.

“What the NCAA clearinghouse requires and what is allowable by New York state regents standards are two different things,” Torney said. “So our kids can go through four years of eligibility, never miss a game, do everything the state requires and when the time comes to go to college, they’re on the outside looking in because they don’t have the numbers that the clearinghouse requires.”

Even though he told his players during the summer about the new requirement, some didn’t take Torney seriously at first.

Eugene Waldo was one of those players, but when the Pioneers opened the season against Murry Bergtraum, he was one of several players to be on the bench. The Pioneers went on to lose the game, one of just four losses on the season.

“I took it as a joke. I didn’t do what I had to do, which is a mistake, but now I’m working harder,” said Waldo, who was academically ineligible to start in the first grading period and was suspended in the second because of his attitude. “He’s just trying to get us to the next level. I want to be an overachiever, not an underachiever.”

While the third quarter report cards aren’t out yet, Waldo said an informal poll of his teachers shows he has about a 75 average, up nine points from the first marking period.

“I’m not asking them to do something they can’t do,” Torney said. “The one thing they understand these days is playing time. You want to play, get the grades. I don’t know where it’s going to go from here but this is a starting point.”

Andre Cole is another player to be affected by the new requirement. Heading into his junior year, Cole knew he would be one of the team’s biggest impact players, but when he didn’t get at least a 70 in the first grading period, he sat as well.

“I wanted to start. It’s my junior year. I wanted to step up and help out my team but I had to do what I had to do in order to start,” Cole said. “It’s a good idea. He’s helping us out for our future. It’s going to make us work harder and make us achieve something in life.”

Torney said the next step is to get the grade requirement instituted on the junior varsity level at Newtown, which is something he said should be enacted next year. But as far as getting it city-wide, Torney knows it’s a long shot.

“I hate to say it but the coaching fraternity is resistant to change and not everyone has the same ideals,” he said. “A lot of people are just looking to win and that’s the bottom line. I’d like to see something like this instituted, but we have to start small first.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

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