Aflakpui injured but never absent for Carroll

RADNOR — Even when his arrival isn’t heralded by the metallic click-clack of crutches, Ernest Aflakpui rarely succeeds in being inconspicuous.

With his knee still housed in a hefty, hinged knee brace nearly four months after surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the 6-9 center has had ample opportunity to recede into the background, to look ahead to his future with Temple and beyond the present that he can’t participate in at Archbishop Carroll.

But Sunday afternoon, there’s no place Aflakpui would rather be than at Carroll’s practice, sporting a red sweatshirt and somehow condensing his 240-pound frame into a courtside folding chair as the Patriots go through their motions. It’s what he’s done all season, a constant fixture on Carroll’s sideline in a campaign that for him ended after three games.

As the Patriots enter the second round of the PIAA Class AAA Tournament Tuesday against Steelton-Highspire (8 p.m., Reading’s Geigle Complex), Aflakpui will be on hand, doing whatever he can to chip in.

“I can’t be in there and play, so all I have to do is show up as much as I can and talk to the guys and lift them up, let them know that I’m here for them,’ Aflakpui said. “As much as I’d love to play and I can’t play, I’m still here.’

Of all the talent on a squad that boasts five likely Division I players, Aflakpui was the one piece coach Paul Romanczuk could least afford to lose. In his third year at the school, the Ghana native’s upside was so alluring as to attract Temple, among other Division I suitors.

Aflakpui’s game had advanced leaps and bounds in the States, transforming him from an unpolished mound of potential to a sculpted, refined post player with a dogged determination on the glass. While never quite under the radar in averaging 10.4 points per game as a junior, this season was tabbed as a breakout campaign. Aflakpui reinforced that hope by scoring 16 points in each of his first three outings, but it all came crashing down when he landed awkwardly in practice one December day.

“When he first went down, none of us really thought it was anything as serious as it was,’ junior guard/forward John Rigsby said. “But then as we found out how bad it actually was, it was hard, especially on him but on all of us. He’s such a good kid, and he would always be there for all of us, and now we have to make sure we’re there for him and keep his spirits up.’

The realization from the outset was that it would take a village to replace Aflakpui. Chief among that effort has been Derrick Jones, who at 6-7 would slide into the de facto center role. Despite transitioning to a more perimeter-oriented game akin to what he’ll play at UNLV next season, the immediacy for a team with state championship aspirations — not to mention the desire to ease the loss of someone he’s grown so close to the last three years — was too great to shy away from.

“It’s what my team needs me to do so I’ll do it,’ said Jones, who has responded to the tune of 18.5 points per game this season. “I want to be that guy to step up and I’m going to take that role and try to do it to the best of my ability.’

Up and down the roster, roles have shifted to compensate. Guards like Samir Taylor and David Beatty have shouldered more of the scoring and rebounding burdens. Ryan Daly, a 6-4 guard, and Rigsby, at 6-3, have deputized at power forward, a niche where they’ve excelled thanks to their height and guile.

Aflakpui, though, hasn’t been an absentee in the process. Though he’s not scheduled to be back on the court playing until May, he’s at as many practices and games as his other obligations allow. When the schedule was shifted last week due to snow, moving Carroll’s game from Friday night to Saturday afternoon, Aflakpui scrapped plans to attend Temple-UConn to bus to Council Rock South and witness Carroll demolish Octorara, 83-49, in a first-round encounter.

He’s lent his voice and wisdom to his teammates, particularly sophomore Jesse McPherson and junior Tony Thomas, the players groomed to replace him and Jones next season. Above all, Aflakpui takes immense pride in two aspects of the season: The way in which his teammates have continued on to a 20-6 record despite naysayers who thought they’d be sunk without him, and the continued maturation of Jones’ already ethereally-talented game.

“Watching Derrick play, I have not seen anything like that,’ Aflakpui said. “I just think he grew up this year a lot with me getting injured. Stuff that people thought he couldn’t do, he’s showed that he could do them. And the team as a whole grew from my injury. Watching them has been great.’

The praise is bilateral, with teammates overflowing with gratitude for Aflakpui maintaining the guidance of a captain off the court. Though his name is absent from boxscores, his influence remains omnipresent.

“He’s always there,’ Rigsby said. “He sits on the bench. He’s always motivating us. He’s just as much of a leader as he always was off the court.’

“He’s just been that one person that you need, and he’s been a leader,’ Jones said. “Even though he’s not playing, he’s part of the team. He’s been a leader in stepping up and letting people know what they’re doing wrong, what they should do better.’

Aflakpui’s eyes still light up when the prospect of winning a state championship is broached. As a spectator, the emotion would be different but hardly diminished.

“It would be great. It would make me proud,’ he said. “I’m proud of them and have always been. I can’t explain with words. It would be great. All I care about is us winning. I don’t really care if I’m not playing. It hurts that I’m not playing, but I’m their biggest fan.’

Responses like that are why, among the myriad motivations to capture a long-sought title, playing for Aflakpui has become one of the foremost incentives.

“One of the reasons we’re playing is definitely for Ernest,’ Taylor said. “We’re definitely trying to give our all just for Ern and to get him a championship.’

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