The 2013-2014 Frisch Varsity Cougars, especially the seniors on the team, started the season on uncertain footing, learning a new system from a new coach. They opened to a rocky start, with a “one and done” appearance in the Magen David Tournament, dropping an overtime game to DRS. The team see-sawed through the Yeshiva League season, heading into the last regular season game with a record of 8-5. In the season finale, Frisch was up against Bergen County rival TABC, a strong team that had already beaten them.
Faced with a last chance to improve their playoff position, the coaching staff shuffled the lineup, and the impact was immediate: The Cougars manhandled the Storm, leaving both Jersey teams with identical 9-5 records and forcing a rematch in the first round of the playoffs. But even by then, the newly cohesive Cougars had not completely gelled, and the Storm knocked them out of the playoffs a week later in what appeared to be the end of the road for the Frisch seniors.
And then, like manna from heaven, the Cougars got invited to Yeshiva University’s Sarachek Tournament, a 20-team, 4-Tier tournament with yeshiva high schools from all over the country traveling to Washington Heights to compete on the famed Jonathan Halpert court in the MAC Center. With new life breathed into their high school careers, the Varsity Cougars revved up their engines again and got ready to do battle with some on the best teams from coast to coast.
March 27, 2014: Game 1 - Frisch vs. Maimonides: Seeded 8th, the Cougars faced the boys from Boston, the M-Cats from Maimonides, who were seeded 9th. So skeptical were the tournament committee of the Cougars’ chances, the MacsLive website actually predicted an upset by the M-Cats, who were led by 1,000-point scorer Yoni Klausner. The prediction could not have been more wrong. Senior Forward Abba Szydlo broke the ice for the Cougars with an athletic put back for 2 points and Senior Forward Evan Cohen added a jumper of this own.
After an 8-8 stalemate in the first quarter, the Cougars made a 10-0 run to start the second, which was ignited by a 3-ball from Senior Forward Justin Hod and included back-to-back fast break buckets by Senior Guard Eli Scharlat and 3 points from Junior Guard Tyler Hod. But, after another M-Cat turnover that led to a Frisch bucket, Klausner caught Scharlat with an inadvertent elbow, opening a gash over his eye and forcing him out of the game. And just like that the Cougars were down two men, as Senior Center Jake Reichel was also limited by an ankle injury.
Rallying around their fallen teammate and spurred on by the awesome Frisch fan base (aka the “Red Sea”), the Cougars overwhelmed Maimonides the rest of the way. Senior Point Guard Rami Laifer marshalled the troops as the Cougars outscored the M-Cats 21-12 on the quarter and went in at halftime leading 29-20.
The third quarter belonged to Justin Hod, who tallied 8 more points in the stanza, and the Frisch lead ballooned to 48-29. The fourth quarter saw everyone get playing time, as Justin Hod’s 19 points paced the Cougars to a 58-38 shellacking of the M-Cats.
March 28, 2014: Game 2 - Frisch vs. North Shore Hebrew Academy: Frisch’s competition kicked up a notch as the 2-seed and defending Yeshiva League Champion NSHA Stars (ranked number 1 nationally by Jewish Hoops America) stepped on to the court for a Tier 1 quarterfinal matchup. Even missing big man Cody Cohen, who was out with a back injury, NSHA was a healthy favorite to knock off the upstart Cougars. And the Stars started off fast, racing out to an 18-10 lead. Undaunted, the Cougars clamped down with their trademark up-in-your-grill man-to- man defense. Szydlo locked down the boards, and Laifer and Tyler Hod dished the ball to Justin Hod and Junior Forward Benni Tuchman for multiple layups and open threes. Capped by a Tyler Hod driving layup, Frisch outscored the Stars by a whopping 21-2 to take a 31-20 lead into the locker room.
Everyone knew the YL would make a run, and they did. With Senior Froward Josh Cohen slashing to the hoop and Senior Point Guard Avery Lubin drilling 3-balls, the Stars cut into the Cougar lead. Clutch 3-balls by Justin Hod and Scharlat, who returned to start the game with 10 stiches and an Apache-style head wrap, held the NSHA express off and the Cougars clung to a 43-40 lead at the end of three.
Perhaps earlier in the year, Frisch might not have been able to withstand the NHSA attack, but this rejuvenated group stood tall and together. After NSHA cut the Frisch lead to 2 points at 50-48, coaches Joe Schwartz and Eli Davidoff called timeout to set up the play for a crucial possession. Just like they drew it up the motion offense led to an open back door cut and Justin Hod hit a huge baseline jumper with under two minutes left to push the lead to 4. NSHA answered with another basket, but a sweet dish form Laifer to Tuchman led to a 3-point play that gave the Cougars the cushion they needed. A huge rebound by “Big Daddy” Abba Szydlo off a missed free throw, and three more free throws for Frisch sealed the deal, as the Cougars put the defending YL champs in their rear view mirror, 58-52.
Once again, the pundits were left shaking their heads and the “Red Sea” stormed the court as the Cougars moved into the Tier 1 Final Four.
March 30, 2014: Game 3 - Frisch vs. HAFTR: This game promised to a barn burner from the beginning. The HAFTR Hawks (ranked number 4 nationally by Jewish Hoops America) were the tourney 3-seed, stood at 12-2 in the Yeshiva League season, and played like a powerhouse all year. With three talented scorers and a 6”6’ big man, the Hawks presented the toughest challenge the Cougars had seen so far.
For the Cougars, they were finally back at full strength, with big man Reichel returning to full speed from a sprained ankle and Scharlat having recovered more over the Shabbos break. The timing was fortuitous because Frisch would need all hands on deck to ground the Hawks. And, with the best total team effort of the roller coaster season, that is exactly what they did. But it did not start well. Coming out in a zone to try to deal with the HAFTR shooters, the Cougars found themselves in a quick 9-1 hole and down 16-6 at the end of one quarter. Faced with an uphill battle, Frisch returned to its bread and butter: that suffocating man-to-man defense that brought them this far. Unfortunately, a few too many turnovers and missed free throws undermined their comeback hopes and left the Cougars looking up from the bottom of a 23-15 halftime deficit, with star Justin Hod being held scoreless.
The next 16 minutes would define the Cougar season. Maintaining their “refuse to lose” mentality that had brought them this far, Frisch came out and dominated the beginning of the third quarter, when so many games are won and lost. Scharlat started things with a nifty paint pass to Justin Hod for an easy 2 and then Reichel flexed his muscles (as he did at all crucial moments of the game) and dropped in a bucket. A Laifer steal and fast break score by Scharlat made it 23-21 and forced a HAFTR timeout as the Hawks did not know what hit them. As the quarter progressed, Frisch continued to hawk the Hawks with Laifer-led ferocious and frenzied intensity on defense and clawed their way back to take the lead at 26-24 on two Justin Hod free throws. With Reichel manning the boards with Szydlo, the Cougars led 31-28. It was a lead the Cougars would not relinquish.
Fighting off every challenge in the last period, including seeing the lead cut to two at 38-36, Reichel (who played his signature high school game with 10 points and 7 rebounds), Tyler Hod (who showed flashes of brilliance with dazzling passing and 10 points), Tuchman (4 timely points) and Laifer (4 “ice in the veins” free throws) held the fort and lead the Cougars to another upset victory. As the buzzer sounded, Frisch vaulted to the Tier 1 championship by a score of 43-38.
By any objective measure, with their fierce defense, selfless team play, and clutch scoring from nine different players, the Cougars had made mincemeat of all the predictions and shocked the Jewish Hoops world. There was one more hill to climb: the 1-seed YULA Panthers, champions of the Memphis tournament and ranked number 2 nationally by Jewish Hoops America.
March 31, 2014: Game 3 - Frisch vs. YULA: The championship game smacked a bit of 1985 Georgetown vs. Villanova. With another 6”6’ center, surrounded by a talented and athletic team, YULA was not the prohibitive favorite to win the tournament by accident.
Thinking about none of that hype and ignoring his injured knee, Justin Hod came out on fire, scoring the first 5 points for Frisch and showing again why he is one of the elite players in Jewish Hoops America. Bolstered by an unprecedented and squished standing-room only Red Sea surge of student fans, the Frisch Varsity rode the wave of support and showed they can play with anyone, anywhere.
The Cougar defense matched the Panthers step for step for three quarters, and was energized by huge, crucial minutes by Senior Center Aaron Lauer who held the Panther center scoreless. The teams were knotted at 26-26 going into the last 8 minutes of the season. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the first four minutes belonged to YULA, and their 8-point run proved too much for the Cougars to overcome. Fighting to the end, the Cougars finally ran out of miracles, and fell to the mighty Panthers, 45-35.
While Justin Hod was voted First Team All-Tournament and Tyler Hod and Benni Tuchman were voted All-Stars, anyone who has followed this team knows that the Varsity, which finished with a record of 13-8, achieved success by coming together as a team in February and embarking on one of the most impressive March runs to close out a season in recent memory.