HARTFORD — Prince Tech boys basketball coach Kendall May gathered his team together just before the final quarter of its unbeaten battle with visiting Fitch in Hartford Thursday night, a game between two teams anxious to make their presence known on the statewide stage.
With Prince Tech clearly dominating the proceedings, May had a mission statement for his squad, whose players were giddy already about their performance:
“We for real!” he yelled, his voice echoing across the home gymnasium. “We for real!”
“Yessir,” the players responded in uinison.
The fourth quarter was just a showcase as Prince Tech, already ranked No. 8 in the latest GameTimeCT Top 10 Poll, put the finishing touches on a 70-53 victory.
It was yet another step for the Falcons in their ongoing quest to cast off the Tech school stereotype that has dogged the program despite reaching the state semifinals in Division III the last two years.
Frankly, these Falcons are done with such criticisms.
“Everybody thinks that, because we’re a tech school, we’re not going to go far anywhere,” said Kazell Stewart, Prince Tech’s athletic, 6-foot-4 forward.
To be sure, Tech schools across the state haven’t done much to squash those doubts.
COURTSIDE WITH JOE MORELLI: INTERVIEW WITH KAZELL STEWART / KENDALL MAY OF PRINCE TECH
In the final five years of the CIAC Class playoff format, Tech schools went 4-32 in state playoff games vs. other CIAC schools. The new divisional power-rated format, instituted in 2018, has helped level the playing field somewhat, with Tech schools going 8-17 against other CIAC schools.
Prince Tech accounts for half of those victories over the last two years, signaling its success in breaking that mold. Led by senior guard Delshawn Jackson Jr., whose eponymous father Delshawn Sr. starred for the program in the late 1990s, the Falcons reached the Division III semifinals in 2017, losing only to eventual champ Waterford.
With Jackson Jr. graduated and now playing at St. Joseph’s College for Jim Calhoun, Prince Tech managed to repeat the feat thanks to the emergence of Stewart. But they were ousted from last year’s Division III semis, again by the eventual champion Farmington.
Despite their success, the players and coaches say they’re not getting their due.
“They always want to put us down when they see ‘Tech’ next to our name,” said May, a Prince Tech alum now in his 21st season as head coach and 29th season overall. “So when we buy jerseys now, we just have ‘Prince.’ We try and kind of distance ourselves from ‘Tech.’ We understand we’re a tech school, but we don’t play a tech schedule.”
Indeed, May has bolstered his program’s regular season schedule with all manner of CIAC public schools.
Last season, Prince Tech challenged itself with nine non-tech games, including two against New London and games vs. Bloomfield, Fitch and Trinity Catholic. They went 7-1, not including a forfeit win vs. Weaver.
This year, they’ve played East Hartford, Manchester, Bloomfield, Bulkeley, Capital Prep, Fitch — all wins — and still have Wilbur Cross, Weaver and Bassick remaining.
“Any team that’ll give this lowly tech school a chance, we’ll go and play it,” May said.
Just by having Stewart, who was already a man-child as a sophomore and junior starter, makes Prince Tech a threat to any program. The swingman has now fully developed into the team’s leader. He’s averaged over 24 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks per game — and he’s good for a few acrobatic, rim-bending dunks more suited to an all-star game.
Stewart says he’s been dogged by questions about what he’s doing at Prince Tech, rather than some other high-profile school.
“Everybody tells me that every day,” he said. “I just say, it’s a story. Anybody can go anywhere and make a story for themselves. I don’t feel like you gotta go Prep or you gotta go anywhere to be a big name.
“If you go to the right house, and you work hard every day, then you can become somebody great.”
Stewart has indeed attracted his share of college scouts, primarily from junior colleges up to mid-major Division I programs, including Marist, Iona and Bryant. May said Stewart’s focus has been on boosting his grade-point-average and prepping for the SATs in March.
“Kazell, he’s a phenom,” May said. “But he’s a likable kid. He doesn’t get too high on what he’s doing. …He works on his body. You know how you get high schoolers who don’t hit the weight room, and they don’t do it consistently. Kazell stays in the weight room, works hard in the weight room and doesn’t take days off, even when he’s not feeling good and his knees are sore from all that jumping.
“His commitment and what he shows on the court, it drags the rest of the kids along with him.”
That’s the important thing, May said. Stewart has a strong supporting cast that thrives in his orbit and makes Prince competitive, regardless of whom the Falcons are playing.
Among them are junior point guard Tyshawn Jackson, Delshawn’s younger and brother who plays just as scrappy and determined. He’s second on the team with a 17-point scoring average and 5.3 assists and nearly 3 steals per game. “Tyshawn, he brings us life,” Stewart said.
Sophomore Dajon Nelson is averaging 10 points a game. The Falcons also rely on senior forward Hector Rodriguez (5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg), senior guard Kenny Fuentes (7.2 ppg, 2.3 apg) and forward Jaycob German, a forward who’s become the beneficiary of Stewart double teams, averaging 6.7 points and is second on the team with over 7 rebounds per game.
“We have the component pieces,” May said. “When DJ (Delshawn Jackson Jr.) was the man, Kazell was too young. Now, Kazell’s up and he has the supporting cast. If you focus on Kazell, he’s a smart enough basketball player to know if there’s two on him, he’ll find the open man. He’s starting to get happy when he has more assists than points.”
Prince Tech is now 14-0 as of Feb. 5. After overwhelming Fitch and handing the Falcons their first loss of the season, Fitch coach Charles Silvan said Prince Tech’s drive to cast aside doubts was evident.
“They’re hungry,” said Silvan, whose team lost to Prince in last year’s Division III quarterfinals. “They’ve been knocking at the door for three-or-four years now and they want to kick it in. They want to kick it in.”
But this year, Prince’s playoff road got harder. Due to their success in Division III, the CIAC’s tournament formula has bumped the program up to play in this year’s Division II tournament, much to May’s dismay.
“We have been fighting and clawing and scratching to get a state title and we’ve got a pretty good team that could probably win it all in D3, and they pushed us up to D2,” May said. “So we have to fight our battles and play a little bit of a tougher schedule to try and fight to get up the mountain.
“But we’ve stayed the course. The kids are buying into what I’m selling, and what I’m selling is: If we stick together there’s no telling where we can go.”