By Eric Benevides, Valley Breeze Sports Editor.
To view the original article featured in The Valley Breeze, click here.

LINCOLN – Kevin Payette remembers all too well the start of his Blackstone Valley Prep boys’ basketball team’s inaugural season in the Coastal Prep League.

It was two years ago when his freshmen-only squad had dropped its first 11 games, most of them by lopsided scores, and the head coach found himself doing everything he possibly could to keep his young players’ morale and spirits up.

“We were in a (grades) 9-12 league and we were taking it on the chin,” he recalled, “but I kept on telling them, ‘Guys, we’re doing a lot of good things. Stay the course and we’ll be fine. It’s going to get a lot better.’ And they were like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure it’s going to get better?’’’

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are the basketball programs of public charter schools, but true to his word, Payette noticed things got a lot better for the Pride, who not only concluded that season with a 3-19 record, but improved to 10-13 the following winter with a lineup that was still exclusively stocked with underclassmen.

This year, the Pride still boasts the CPL’s youngest team, but the senior-less team actually has an experienced club, one that came into the week at 8-9 overall and 5-4 in the league. And not only is the Pride chasing its first winning season, but it’s trying to secure one of the top four places in the standings, which translates into a home game in the quarterfinals of the CPL playoffs.

“I have six players who have been with us since our first year,” Payette said after his team rolled to an 80-32 non-league victory over the Harmony Hill School of Glocester last Thursday night at Davies Tech. “We made some strides last year, and now we’re starting to win some games.”

Payette talked about the state of affairs with his team after the victory and answered the question that has been bounced around by some local high school fans who closely follow the boys’ hoop scene in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League: Will BVP join the RIIL next season?

Sure, the school’s girls’ basketball team joined the boys’ and soccer teams in the state’s biggest league this season. And of course, the Pride played competitive non-league games against North Smithfield and Mount Saint Charles, both Div. III-North teams, in late December.

But in Payette’s view, the best thing his team could do next year is stay in the league, especially since the CPL contains nearby public charter schools, such as Times2 Academy and the Highlander Charter School of Providence, that share the same size and demographics as BVP.

“I think we could probably get a few wins if we played (in the RIIL), but as a whole, I don’t think we could compete through the whole schedule,” added Payette. “Not right now because we’re not quite there yet. I think our best situation next season is to stay where we are because that’s where we fit and then schedule a bunch of (RIIL) teams for non-league games.

“We’re kind of still building our program. We’re gaining some momentum and winning some games, and if we go (to the RIIL) and we’re not ready to compete, I think that would be the worst thing for us. Right now we’re going to probably take it year by year. Every year, we’re going to look at our team and ask ourselves, ‘Are we there? Are we ready?’ and go from there.”

If there’s one key thing Payette needs to effectively build his program, it’s the comfort of its own gym. Not only does the Pride play its home games at Davies, but it also practices in the cramped confines of the basketball court in the basement of St. James Church in Manville, as well as the Segue Institute for Learning Charter School in Central Falls.

“We do the best with what we have, but I think having our own gym will really help us grow our program,” added Payette. “We’re supposed to have a gym when our school is built next year. I don’t know exactly when it will be ready, but I think that’s going to be a big selling point to keep some of our 8th-graders who leave (BVP) and go play for other high schools.

“We have been talking with the administration about having a regulation court with six baskets to have the option for two short-sided courts for practices, youth leagues, camps, and clinics, and other ways to get the greater BVP community involved in basketball. If they come through, that will be a game-changer in my opinion.”

As far as this season’s team, the Pride’s starting lineup contains four juniors, starting with point guard Wandy Henrriquez and forward James McKee, who are three-year starters and “have been so important for us,” added Payette. “They are the cornerstones of our program. They really kind of set the tone on how we do things, such as working out in the off-season.”

Junior power forward Mikey Correa, junior guard Ray Varone, and sophomore guard Fawas Onifade are also in the lineup, and in the win over Harmony Hill, junior forwards Misael Cortes and Olajide Adeleke were the first two players off the bench.

In the victory over Harmony Hill, Henrriquez, who is averaging a team-high 14 points and nine rebounds per game, delivered a triple-double with 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Correa added 11 points and 10 rebounds, Onifade had 15 points and nine boards, and Varone tossed in 11 first-half points.

Entering this week, BVP sat in fifth place in what has been a very tight league that has seen the Middlebridge School of Narragansett atop the standings with a 10-2 record. On Tuesday, BVP took on fourth-place Barrington Christian (6-6) in a showdown that could decide who lands the final home game in the quarterfinals.

“All the games in our league are winnable,” added Payette. “With our best effort, I think we can beat anybody in our league. We just want to keep progressing, and obviously, like anyone, you want to be playing your best come the end of the season. “But I’m really happy with my team. I have very good kids, and they’re all in with this team.”