Nearly a year after winning the SCISA Class 3A championship, the Cardinal Newman Cardinals are pointed in the direction of a repeat, with little doubt of their capability.
“We feel good about it. We feel like we definitely can repeat what we accomplished last season,” said Joe Armstrong, a co-captain and the team’s second leading scorer.
Personnel changes — namely the loss of Division 1 talent Austin Ajukwa, now at Clemson — led many to doubt the Cardinals’ ability to repeat as state champs. But with additions such as Charles-Eddie Smith, formerly of Keenan, and Sam Lake, the Cardinals believe they have more than enough to make a return trip to the finals.
“Losing Austin has made us more humble,” point guard Zakki Parker said. “But we’re also more dedicated. We don’t have anybody who shines more than anyone else, and we all just have to focus on doing our jobs.”
Although players and roles have shifted, the Cardinals are much the same as last year’s squad.
“I don’t think our team mentality has changed at all,” Armstrong said. “Other people doubted us and they didn’t know how we would do without Austin. But we don’t have those same doubts, and I think it helped us to want to come out and show them that we are still a strong team.”
At 13-5, the Cardinals have demonstrated their strength.
“Actually, we have improved from last year,” co-captain John Ragin said. “We’re better defensively. We just want to win the championship, and we know what we’ve got to do now, and we have more excitement than last year.”
Smith, the newcomer who now leads the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game, is enjoying being part of the well-rounded team.
“I knew coming here that I had something to add. I knew they were a state championship team, and I wanted to do what I can to help this team win again,” said Smith, also the team’s leading rebounder. He said the Cardinals are successful despite losing last year’s star because they have a balance of talent and effort.
“Everybody carries their load on this team,” Smith said.
So although the Cardinals could be considered a team without a star, Cardinal Newman expects to shine.