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Scanlan basketball gets leadership from St. John’s alum

Mercedes Duke (l.) and Coach Tom Catalanotto hold a basketball. Photo by Joseph Staszewski
TimesLedger Newspapers

Mercedes Dukes was uncertain about taking new Monsignor Scanlan girls’ basketball Coach Tom Catalanotto up on his offer to be his assistant at her alma mater.

She was honored to be asked to help turn around the struggling basketball program she had once played to prominence more than a decade ago, but the St. John’s alumna had never coached outside of summer ball, camps and clinics.

Catalanotto, the former Archbishop Molloy coach, was just as wary about Dukes’ ability to commit to the job. He purposely didn’t give her any Scanlan gear that would serve as an incentive. It worked.

“Then all of a sudden I see her coming to practice like every day and I was like, ‘OK,’” said Catalanotto, who got her number from the alumni offer. “I broke out four shirts.”

They take over a Scanlan program that won just two games last season and has already surpassed that win total so far with a 4-4 overall record. Dukes, who also helped St. John’s begin the rebuilding of its program, serves as a mentor and instructor to a young team learning a new system and learning to play together.

“It’s very inspirational,” senior guard Kayla Patrick said. “She comes and she doesn’t let us get it easy .… She constantly tells us what she went through.”

Dukes is a link to Scanlan’s past. She helped lead the Crusaders to the State Federation Class C title and perfect 22-0 record as a sophomore in 2000 and averaged 18 points, five rebounds and four assists per game as a junior. Players like Rene Taylor and Stacy Claxton, who went on to play at Miami and Hofstra, joined her along with Monique Coker, who went to Old Dominion. Dukes wants to slowly bring things back to that level.

“Coming back, I want to change things,” Dukes said. “I want to bring it back to the original essence of the school where people know this school as an elite program.”

Catalanotto is working toward that also. The last time he was a head coach he was celebrating a state Federation Class A title at Molloy. He knows that talent level here right now is not what he had with the Stanners, but he’s embracing the challenge of teaching the game and skills from the ground up. Catalanotto even jumped in and had to play with the girls when they were short players.

“I’m having a good time,” he said. “I really am. I didn’t think I would.”

He’s tried to instill in the team that last year is in the past and the group can achieve whatever it puts its mind to. The early success has helped.

“Now they are starting to buy into the whole thing,” Catalanotto said.

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