By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
It was early January and the Trenton Catholic Academy boys basketball team was having its troubles. The Iron Mikes were off to what would become a 1-7 start, long-time head coach Fred Falchi had stepped down and assistant Eric Elliott had been promoted to head man and was trying to figure things out.
During this difficult time, Sister Dorothy Payne, the team’s president and No. 1 fan, came to practice for a pep talk.
Photo Gallery: TCA boys defeat Trenton Central in MCT championship
“She said just to keep playing hard; she knew we would be better,” junior forward Jamir Watkins said. “She told us keep playing hard and we’ll be fine.”
Sister Dorothy was absolutely right. Sadly, she passed away at age 79 on Feb. 3 and was not there in person to see the fruits of her pep talk, when TCA defeated Trenton Central, 62-57 in the Mercer County Tournament championship game at Trenton’s Cure Insurance Arena Feb. 21.
But the Iron Mikes knew she was watching from her place in heaven with happiness.
“Ever since she passed, we tried to dedicate the season to her,” Elliott said. “Not only in games but in practice. We know in everyday life, sister’s watching. We try to do our best for her. We know she’s here with us. She used to sit across the court every game. We gave it our all and the guys did a great job.”
Especially senior Khalif Battle, who scored 25 points against Trenton and earned the MCT’s Most Valuable Player award.
“We got this for Sister Dorothy,” Battle said. “We got this for the school, and we got it to show everyone doubted that us at the beginning.”
Sister Dorothy was never one of the doubters.
“Without her, none of us would even be here accepting this trophy,” Battle said. “I’m just proud to say I met a lady like her and I’m proud to say I went to Trenton Catholic.”
Battle will take his talents to Butler University next year; but for now he is trying to help TCA with a strong state tournament showing. The 7th-seeded Iron Mikes carry a 15-9 record into their NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B opener with Holy Cross Feb. 27, having won 14 of their last 16 games.
“We had to get over some humps, losing-wise,” said Battle as he clutched the team and MVP trophies. “To hold this trophy up right now means so much for the school, it means so much to us. We know we worked hard for it, so it’s icing on the cake.”
Trenton tried to make it a stale cake as the Mikes biggest rival within the county held a 16-7 lead near the end of the first quarter and only trailed 50-49 early in the fourth. Battle then came to life with two straight buckets to spark an 8-2 run, but the stubborn Tornadoes pulled within 58-55 with 1:27 left. EJ Evans then hit a bucket to start TCA on another spurt to end it.
Evans finished with 11 points while Watkins scored 11 of his 15 in the second half after sitting out most of the first with foul trouble. In his first two touches of the third quarter, Watkins dribbled straight to the basket for lay-ups like a man possessed.
“I was just tired of sitting on the bench in the first half,” he said. “I knew I had to get in and keep my team going.”
It was a typical performance by the dynamic duo. In a semifinal win over Notre Dame, Battle had 27 points and Watkins 24. If one doesn’t get you, the other will.
“If he’s not going good, I try to get myself going or help him and get him going,” Watkins said.
Battle had a more descriptive way of putting it.
“I don’t want to say it’s Batman and Robin,” he said with a grin. “It’s like a one-two punch. It’s like when you come across with that right, a left hook’s coming right back also.”
While Battle, Watkins and Evans provided most of the scoring, the deep Iron Mikes also got contributions from Donavin Crawford, Terrance Jones, Naji Wright, Peter Sorber, Jean Bernard and Lamar Burgess.
“It was a great team win, our guys pulling together and pulling a tough one out,” Elliott said.
And it helped take away the sting of last year’s championship game loss to Nottingham, when the Mikes blew a six-point lead in the last minute.
“It was definitely heart-breaking last year,” Battle said. “It crushed me. But to win this this year makes it that much better. It’s my last year. Coach gave me the keys to the well and we won. I told my teammates we’re not losing regardless. I know they’ve got my back, and I’ve got them to fall back on.”
Elliott also deserves some credit for inheriting a tough situation and turning things around.
“He’s done a good job,” Watkins said. “He came in in a big spot with Falchi leaving. He’s a good coach. He taught us a lot. It’s not like he changed things, he just added to it.”
“There was a lot of adversity, a lot of challenges,” Elliott said. “There were some days we came to practice we didn’t look so good. We stayed the course, we came together. That was the biggest thing. Just do it together. We’re brothers, we’re a family. It wasn’t pretty tonight, but we did it.”