(Photo by James McCoy)
He was called up to the varsity squad during his freshman season in 2013 and showed some encouraging flashes. A long & energetic player, it was fascinating to wonder what his game could become years down the road. By the time his sophomore season began, the rapid improvement that had taken place was captivating. I no longer wondered what his game could become, it was obvious. After playing his way onto Second Team All-Centercourt in 2014, he took another big leap forward as a junior and earned his place with the First Team during a historic run with a team that was loaded with talent and certainly not lacking for senior leadership.
But it was his final act as a senior that sealed his legacy as a Crusader. While many wondered how Canisius would compensate for some significant losses to graduation, he had already been working all off-season on the perfect compensation package. He embraced his opportunity to be the best player on the best team, and turned in the best all around season of any player in WNY. Stafford Trueheart is the 2016 CC MVP.
"The biggest difference for Stafford this season was his confidence," said Canisius coach Kyle Husband. "He knew it was his turn this year, he knew it was his team."
He also knew it was a responsibility that he wasn't going to take lightly. His game, which had already been one of the area's finest, once again made significant strides. He averaged a double-double for the #2 ranked Class A team in NYS and led them in points, rebounds, and blocks. His 20.8 points per contest were more than a four-point increase from his average as a junior. It didn't matter who the Crusaders were playing or what the game plan was to stop him. He was always the best player on the floor and no team or player from WNY was able to keep him in check for an entire game.
"He's the most athletic kid I've ever had, and to continue to work on his skill, he's not really guardable at this level," said Husband.
Anytime the Crusaders played, you could count on some special moments out of Trueheart, and they weren't forced. If Canisius was rolling, so was he. It was common place to see him catch a little momentum and deliver multiple rim-bending slams in a short sequence. Some came on drop step moves in the post, others were a result of him running the floor in transition. And then there were those put-back dunks. It wasn't enough to simply come soaring in to snag an offensive rebound away from a defender that looked to be in good position. Trueheart was spectacular at slamming home those offensive boards before he had reached the ground again, which also took time with the way he'd have his elbows over the rim from elevating. There was no player that prompted more timeouts from opposing coach, desperately trying to keep him from any more of an outburst.
But beyond the flashy aerial shows that came easy to such a special athlete, there was a drive within Trueheart to be the best and to make his team the most successful program. Fueled by those who doubted where this season would take him and his past experiences with two very different teams, Trueheart was quietly on a mission.
"When we lost a significant amount from last year's team and when everyone's saying we won't have enough to get back to where we wanted to get back to, he took that personally," Husband said. "He saw both ends of the spectrum - he saw us lose in the semifinals in 2014 with a very good team and he saw us win the Federation as a junior with a very good team. He knew both emotions."
With Park, another defending Federation Champion that was now competing for the same hardware with them in Class A, and a new starting backcourt in the Canisius lineup, the Crusaders were far from a sure thing to repeat their successes. But over the course of the season, Trueheart methodically led Canisius to a season that will be viewed in historical context as the second greatest season in school history. They repeated as champions of the Tom Keenan Memorial Tournament, the Monsignor Martin, and the Manhattan Cup. Then, for the first time time ever, a second consecutive CHSAA State Championship.
More than simply the best player on the best team, Trueheart had his biggest moments this season in the biggest games. He was named MVP of the Tom Keenan Memorial Tournament after scoring his 1,000th career point and leading Canisius past Aquinas. In the most hyped regular season game of the year, he led the Crusaders to a 13-point comeback win at Park behind a 28 point, 18 rebound, three block performance that was one of his finest outings ever. That game included four putback dunks off offensive rebounds, one of which came in the final minute, along with a rejection in transition that was the perfect combination of talent and heart, to help preserve the win.
In the rematch with Aquinas, the eventual Federation finalists in Class AA took a late lead on Canisius, before the Crusaders turned to him on their final possession. He took a pass on the baseline out by the three-point arc and drove in, delivering an up-and-under reverse finish for the game-winner. In a victory at St. Joe's, he found himself in foul trouble early and missed much of the first half, including the entire second quarter. Against a rowdy rival crowd, he returned to the game in the third quarter to spark his team and take things over, turning a four-point halftime lead into a 20-point lead through three quarters.
But no moments on the court for Trueheart during his CC MVP campaign of 2016 was more special than his season-extending plays in the Manhattan Cup Championship during the team's third meeting with Park. In a double-double outing that also included four blocks, it was his last two swats that kept the Crusaders champions. At the end of regulation and with the game tied, Park had the ball with a chance to score the game winner. Trueheart swooped in to deny the shot from reaching the rim. Again at the end of overtime, the same scenario played out, as Trueheart once again made the defensive play, only this time it was protecting a one-point lead that gave his team another championship.
Beyond his immense physical talent and the team success he has led the Crusaders to during his tenure, it's the hard-working leader that made Trueheart the complete package.
"He comes to work everyday, he's always encouraging, and probably the most coachable kid I've ever been around," Husband said. "For a game that is turning into 'me first' on so many different levels, that is the last thing in the world Stafford is about."
When I asked Husband if Trueheart was the locker room leader for his team along with being their go-to player on the court, his response was swift.
"Not even a close second," Husband said without hesitation. "He gets it for this level, having a true leader is very difficult and he does everything the right way. He always had the right things to say...when the team needed to laugh, he was the one that was outgoing and dancing. If practice was down and he could see me getting frustrated a little, he was the one to kick everyone in the butt. As hard as it is to call someone out, he'd do that from time to time - he got it in every sense of the phrase."
His understanding of leadership and appreciation for those that went to battle with him everyday culminated in the locker room following the team's final game in Albany at the Federation Tournament semifinals.
"He addressed the entire team in the toughest moment of his career as an athlete and told the entire team how proud he was of them, and that's a special thing."
The picture at the top, of Trueheart proudly displaying the school's name on his jersey, 'CANISIUS', was something I saw Trueheart do more than once. It was his go-to celebration after big and exciting wins. Some players like to pound their chest, but Trueheart wanted you to read the name that was on his.
"He knows it's about Canisius-first and winning together as a family, said Husband. "When we have a kid like him that is able to help instill that and believe in that and show that time and time again, there's a reason why it rings true."
While Canisius-first & winning together rings true on Delaware Avenue, the 2016 CC MVP rings Trueheart.