Central forward comes to forefront

Photography by Alice Mary Herden

A year ago, the Central boys basketball team managed a grand total of seven victories. With Tuesday’s win over Hernando, the Bears improved to 8-1.
It has been a long time since Central enjoyed prosperity on the court. The Bears have had one winning season since their last regional playoff appearance in 2003-04.
This season’s squad would like to reverse that trend, and senior power forward Axel Wisniewski-Mendoza has played a major role thus far in that endeavor.
“It’s way better,” Wisniewski-Mendoza said of this season compared to last. “We have a better chance of winning the district than last year. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to be the number one seed (in the district) and make the state (regional) playoffs.
“We were supposed to be underdogs. Everyone thought we’d be last in the district and now we’re 8-1.”
Wisniewski-Mendoza is a microcosm of the Bears’ current turnaround. As a junior, in his first full season at the varsity level, he appeared in 16 games and averaged 1.1 points, 0.6 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 0.4 blocks. Through the first seven games this season: team high’s of 13.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 steals, plus 3.7 assists.
“He’s the type of player doing all the dirty work for us,” Central head coach Matt Zandecki said. “He’s a smaller player, but he plays bigger than he’s listed (6-foot-1). He’s a kid you don’t really draw up plays for, but he has a knack for being around the ball and doing the little things. He gets to 50-50 balls. He does the little things. He’s done a tremendous job for us.”
“I let the game come to me,” Wisniewski-Mendoza said. “I don’t force any shots. Play off the ball. I’ve got to wait for the game to come to me.”
He initially came to the game five years ago. A former soccer player, he found that most of his friends were involved in basketball. Once he joined them on the hardwood, he left the pitch behind.
However, he doesn’t necessarily have big dreams of playing at the next level. He’d appreciate the opportunity, yet admits his choice will come down to academics.
That’s not just lip service. He currently has a 3.8 GPA and aspirations to become an orthopedic surgeon. Zandecki called him “a very savvy businessman” and noted that Wisniewski-Mendoza dabbles in penny stocks.
“He’s a brilliant kid,” Zandecki said. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s such a good kid and I’d never put anything past him. He’s one of those kids that if he puts his mind to it he’s going to achieve it.”
That happened over the offseason when he worked on his game. He said he concentrated on improving his ball-handling, a skill that could help him if he opts to play in college since he likely projects as a guard.
Though both he and Zandecki describe him as someone who plays well off the ball, the numbers indicate that he’s hardly a role player. He’s joined by Caleb Johnson and Brandyn Smith as the team’s most reliable performers.
“To me he’s one of the biggest overachievers on the team. He’s a wild card for us. When he plays well, we’re hard to stop,” Zandecki said. “He brings a toughness; he’s a tough kid. He’s the definition of a student-athlete. He’s the total package.
“We’ve got tough kids. … I was worried about our inexperience in the beginning of the year. But we’ve overcome our inexperience with effort and heart.”
Central will need to continue with that over the remainder of the season if it hopes to accomplish Wisniewski-Mendoza’s primary goal of collecting a district title.
“I’m more worried about wins and losses. I’m not so worried about the stats,” Wisniewski-Mendoza said. “Knowing that I played my best and played as hard as I could have played (would be satisfying). Not have any regrets. To know no matter what happens we played our hardest.”

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