May 7, 2010
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, slides into it's off-season mode with a men's basketball feature on forward Antonio Pena.
Since he first went to the sidelines with a minor knee injury in the early stages of the 2006-07, Antonio Pena has known this day was coming. But with final exams now complete, the native of Brooklyn, N.Y., will watch as two of his closest friends, teammates Reggie Redding and Scottie Reynolds, put the finishing touches on their Villanova experience with Senior Week and then, on May 16, graduation.
"Reggie and I were just talking about that the other day," says Pena, who will return to the Main Line in 2010-11 as a fifth-year senior. "It's sad. It went by so fast. They're my friends and I'll miss them. But I also learned a lot from them about leadership this last year and now it's my turn to take on that role."
Indeed, while the official school calendar tells us that these are the final days of the 2009-10 year, inside the Villanova Basketball Family it is already 2010-11. That, of course, is an annual ritual that commences a few short days after the season wraps. Once the team meets for a final time to review its campaign, the focus immediately shifts to what lies ahead.
In the case of Pena and his fellow soon-to-be seniors, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, that means the burden of mentoring a still youthful roster is now theirs. It is their charge to outline and emphasize the guiding principles of Villanova Basketball to the rest of the squad.
"At the end of the season, you do get the feeling that it's time to step up," says Pena. "We learned from Scottie and Reg, and Dwayne (Anderson), Dante (Cunningham), Shane (Clark) and Frank (Tchuisi) before that, about what it takes to be a Villanova basketball player.
"You do kind of feel it right away."
To those young Wildcats still developing their sense of self here, the role of elder statesman seems almost idyllic. Team leaders are consulted often by head coach Jay Wright and his staff on day-to-day issues involving workout schedules, meetings and other matters. In season, they tend to be the ones the coaches lean on, especially in the latter stages of close games.
What those younger eyes frequently overlook, though, is the constant responsibility left in the hands of the veterans. The burden of leadership demands that the captains care not only about their own success, but the ebb and flow that affects every athlete in the locker room.
Wright is already on record declaring how pleased he is thus far with the response the senior class of 2011 has made to its new identity. It has been attentive to detail as the remaining Wildcats, minus Redding, Reynolds, and walk-on Russell Wooten, begin to gear up for the challenge of a new campaign.
"It's been good," states Pena. "Everyone has been open to learning and, really, we're all learning. This is all new to Fish, Stokes and me too."
Part of this spring's process has been placing the events of 2009-10 into perspective. The disappointment inherent in the end of any season, but especially one in which the club climbed as high as No. 2 in the national polls, has slowly given way to a steely resolve.
"It could have ended a lot better," states Pena of a junior season in which he averaged 10.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. "We all wanted to go further for our seniors. They did a great job of leading us. But we know we played hard and worked to be the best team we could be at the end of the year. Now it's up to us to get ready for next year."
On an individual level, Pena made strides last season. The Philadelphia Big Five named him the City Series' Most Improved Player and also selected him to it second team.
As a sophomore, Pena had willingly ceded his starting role to Clark when the latter regained his health over the second half of 2008-09. It was the kind of selfless, team-driven act that gives him an internal credibility that cannot be measured in any statistical analysis.
As a junior, Pena was Villanova's most experienced and reliable option on the interior. At the outset of the campaign, he was the club's starting power forward as the `Cats rolled to opening week victories over Fairleigh Dickinson and Penn. But three days later everything changed for VU with news of the illness that would sideline starting center Mouphtaou Yarou for six weeks and set his development back even further.
Yarou's absence meant that at 6-8 Pena would spend the bulk of the season engaged in duels against centers. Pena never shied from the challenge and often held his own, especially in the immediate aftermath as he earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Classic in San Juan as the Wildcats glided to the title of that event.
Late in the year, as Yarou regained the form that had made him one of the BIG EAST's most intriguing newcomers, Pena shuttled back to power forward. In Providence, Maurice Sutton saw more time in the middle too. The ability of those two sophomores to handle the workload in the middle going forward could grant Pena the freedom to work at his natural position.
"When we're in the weight room one of the things Coach Lon (Record) tells them is, `you've got to get stronger to help `Tone," says Pena with a smile. "Having those guys in there to play center helps me a lot."
Pena, ever the loyal soldier, will embrace whatever role the coaching staff has in mind. It's a character trait he shares with his former sidekick on the interior, Cunningham. In each of the last two seasons Pena has quietly assumed less glamorous roles than he appeared targeted for in the pre-season. As a sophomore he went from starter to reserve. As a junior he shifted from scoring power forward to undersized center.
He's also too mature to fret over the possible frontcourt permutations that lie ahead. The season is more than five months away and, for now, Pena's place on the court is less critical than his position off it. With the exit of Reynolds and Redding, he is the final link to the era that altered the direction of Villanova Basketball in the first decade of the 21st century, having played alongside Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi and Will Sheridan in 2006-07. He has been tutored by Anderson, Cunningham, Clark and now says goodbye to his original classmates, Redding and Reynolds.
It's all part of the natural cycle of things and so too is his ascension to a leadership post.
"I think it's going to be a great experience," says Pena.
Between now and then, Pena is dedicated to the cause at hand. Following a brief return home to Brooklyn this month, he will be on campus for summer sessions with the intention of steering the Wildcats alongside Fisher and Stokes at a time on the calendar when the workouts are limited to players only. It's a quiet time but one that can pay huge dividends in the loud arenas of January, February and March.
Asked what his individual focus will be on, Pena's response is succinct.
"Toughness," he says.
Spoken like a true leader.