Growing up in “The Port” neighborhood of Cambridge, just a few doors down from legendary Cambridge Rindge & Latin point guard Lou Ford , Angel Price-Espada fully appreciated the rich basketball history of the city.
But the driven young man wanted to go a different route.
Price-Espada struggled academically during his middle school years.
Under the behest of Kyle Morris, who runs the Jumping Across Barriers (JAB) Step training mentoring organization, he decided to attend Arlington Catholic.
Prior to his sophomore year, he transferred to Saint Clement in Medford. But the Catholic school closed last May, forcing Price-Espada and his teammates scrambling to find another program.
Fortunately, Pope John XXIII in Everett opened its doors to many of those students and hired former St. Clement coach Leo Boucher to take the helm of the boys’ basketball program.
“Their high school closed right underneath them. We were expecting to make a run at St. Clement and that was over,” said Boucher.
“I was leaning towards not coaching, but when our athletic director [Ryan Murphy also came over [to Pope John], I knew it would be a smooth transition for the kids, socially and academically.”
With four former St. Clement players joining a roster of returning players, the team was forced to make the transition quickly.
To ease that process, Michael Thompson, a St. Clement transfer, was voted a cocaptain along with returning starter Marquise Bouyer .
“That was critical because that’s one of the things you could worry about,” Boucher said. “But the kids decided right then and there they were going to be a unified team. They decided, we want to be a family, one cohesive unit. We want to be a fist, not four fingers and a thumb.”
And the catalyst behind Pope John’s 15-1 start this season has been a junior guard from Cambridge.
Sporting an unmistakable high-top fade, the 5-foot-9 Price-Espada is averaging 22.6 points and 7.7 assists per game.
He netted a career-high 49 points in an 89-81 shootout win over Lowell Catholic Jan. 23, scored 39 in a narrow 61-60 win over Arlington Catholic in December and recently, carried Pope John to a 70-57 win over Matignon to grab a stranglehold on first place in the Central Catholic League’s Small Division.
Price-Espada points to his work ethic for his breakout season.
“Over the summer, I worked out six days a week, three times a day and jogged on Sundays,” said Price-Espada.
“I usually put up 500 shots a day, but in the summer I needed 500 makes. Now when I get in the game I have confidence in what I can do.”
That dedication has translated to the classroom, where the junior is sporting a 3.5 GPA at a highly-regarded academic school.
The goal for Price-Espada: Block out the external noise and focus on becoming the first member of his immediate family to attend a four-year college.
“I just want to go to college to do something in life,” said Price-Espada. “We’ve been struggling for a while and it would mean a lot to me and my mom.”
Last August, Price-Espada was named MVP of the Cambridge Summer League after leading his team to a championship. While he has strong ties to his hometown, Price-Espada maintains that an academic career at Pope John was the best decision for him.
“I realized you don’t have to be like everybody else,” said Price-Espada. “I believe that mentally, you can really expand your life and I wanted to go to the best school for me to grow as a person.”
Former Rindge star Jakigh Dottin, who grew up alongside Price-Espada in Cambridge, said that the Pope John star is “like my little brother” and expressed his support.
“When Angel first said he wasn’t going to come to Cambridge it was definitely a surprise,” said Dottin.
“But what can you say? The kid is talented and had his own aspirations. We support him from the sidelines and in the last couple years, from a basketball standpoint, he’s really made a name for himself in the city. Everybody knows him as that kid with the cool hair who can really hoop.”
For Morris, his mentee exemplifies the slogan that he preaches to many students at Jab Step, “Scholarships over championships.”
After seeing Price-Espada grow up, Morris is proud to use the teen as a positive example.
“From eighth grade, [Price-Espada] has gone from class clown to class scholar,” said Morris.
“All his hard work is coming to fruition now with his grades and his play.”
■ When Marblehead hosts Malden on Tuesday night, the Magicians will honor 11-year-old Sophia Smith , who was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor in March, 2017. The Smith family travels to London for cutting edge treatment. Last summer, Marblehead players Derek Marino and Billy Ackerman ran a 3-on-3 basketball tournament with all proceeds going towards Sophia’s treatment. Sophia will be honored on the court during player introductions and there will be a 50/50 raffle during the game that goes directly toward her fund.
■ Catholic Memorial (14-4, 7-1 Catholic Conference) clinched the Catholic Conference for the fourth time in five seasons . . . Arlington (15-2, 14-0 Middlesex League) wrapped up its third Middlesex League title over the past four years . . . With a 59-47 win over rival Franklin, Mansfield (17-2, 13-1 Hockomock League) has the inside track on an eighth league title in a nine-year span . . . Whitman-Hanson avenged a loss to Hingham earlier this season with a 68-51 win Friday, pulling into a tie with the Harbormen at 11-2 atop the Patriot League . . . Boston Latin, which currently leads the Dual County League Small Division, clinched a state tournament berth for the first time since 2012 with a 60-48 win over Waltham.
■ Triton senior Will Parsons scored a game-high 27 points and became the sixth 1,000-point scorer in program history. But the Vikings fell, 63-49, to Lynnfield on Friday night . . . Whittier Tech senior guard Anthony Buckley also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark with 15 points in a win over Manchester-Essex.
■ The Comcast/Board 27 Tournament at Woburn High headlines a full slate of tournaments over Presidents’ Day weekend. The boys’ games begin on Sunday, Feb. 18 with Division semifinals between Brighton and Belmont at 2 p.m., followed by Lynn Classical (3:30). BC High and Lowell meet in a D1 semifinal matchup at 5 before Needham and Arlington clash at 6:30 p.m. The victors will compete for hardware on Monday, Feb. 19: the D2 championship is at 5:15 p.m., followed by D1 at 6:45 p.m.
Other holiday tournaments include the Rebel Hoop Classic at Walpole, the McIntire Board 130 Tournament at Beverly and the Franklin Holiday Tournament.
Players of the Week
Walter Dew-Hollis, TechBoston — His name has become a recognizable one across the state, and for good reason. The senior guard exploded for 37 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks to help keep the Bears undefeated (15-0) in a 73-58 win over Latin Academy on Friday night.
Andy Johnson, Apponequet — The three-year starting guard reached the 1,000-point career plateau, propelling the Lakers (16-0) with 20 points in a 68-36 victory over Bourne.
John McCoy, Mansfield — The senior began the week scoring 29 points in a Hornets 64-46 win over Attleboro. Then the power forward ended the week delivering a 16-point, 5-rebound and 6-steal performance in a key 59-47 conference win over Franklin.
Tayjuan McKenzie, Winthrop —The senior guard sank a game-winning 3 in the closing seconds of a 59-58 win against Gloucester as part of a game-high 25-point performance.
Dante Rivera, Methuen — His team-high 26 point effort in a stunning 69-67 win over Lowell not only handed the Red Raiders only their second loss of the year. The victory also locked up a tourney spot for the Rangers (10-6).
Games to Watch
■ Tuesday, Lawrence at Lowell, 7 p.m. — In an explosive Merrimack Valley clash that is sure to set off fireworks, the Lancers will once again try to get the best of the Red Raiders — this time on their court. Lawrence cruised in the first meeting, 89-65, on Jan. 12.
■ Tuesday, Newton North at Needham, 6:30 p.m. — The Tigers ended the Rockets’ undefeated season on Jan. 26, 55-47. And this is the final regular-season clash for stars Ethan Wright and Thomas Shaughnessy, this is a can’t miss matchup.
■ Friday, Brockton at Catholic Memorial, 7 p.m. — The Catholic Conference champion Knights will have a tough task ahead against the one-loss, high-flying Boxers. Possibly a sneak-preview of a possible matchup in the Division 1 South tournament.
■ Sunday, Everett at St. John’s Prep 6 p.m. — A pair of Division 1 North contenders clash as the headline of St. John’s Prep’s Invitational Tournament.
■ Sunday, Needham at Arlington (at Woburn High), 7 p.m. — The Spy Ponders will test their mettle against the reigning Division 1 South champions in the semifinals of the Comcast/Board 27 Tournament at Woburn.Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Correspondent Karl Capen also contributed to this story. He can be reached at email@example.com.