Basketball: Northern 4A basketball squads ready for final push | RecordCourier.com

Basketball: Northern 4A basketball squads ready for final push

by Joey Crandall

The high school basketball season is unique in that it allows schools to play extended preseason schedules during the first month of the season while mixing in a couple of key league games.

While the preseason allows coaches to try different mixes and strategies with their lineups, it also creates a month-and-a-half-long pressure cooker of a league schedule through January and February.

The first of the year marks the ceremonial halfway point and if the first month of the 2011-12 season is any indication, the Northern 4A should be quite entertaining to watch on both the boys’ and girls’ sides down the stretch.

Reed, Reno and Manogue have set themselves as the early frontrunners on the girls side, to the point where if two of those three don’t make the regional final, that could be considered the surprise of the year.

On the boys’ side, though, things appear to be wide-open. Bishop Manogue, winner of the past two regional championships, is clearly down this season, but still has enough depth and height to make a solid postseason run, if not win the entire thing.

Every other prospective frontrunner – Hug, Douglas or Galena, for example – has at least one puzzling loss on its record, leaving open the possibility of an upstart Reed, Spanish Springs or Damonte Ranch of jumping up and grabbing an upset or two in the playoffs.

Coaches across the league will agree that a team has to come prepared to compete every time out on the remaining schedule as every school has at least just enough to come up with a big game on any given night.

The Douglas boys are coming off a stretch of 15 games in 21 days to open the year. The team had just seven days of practice with a full roster heading into the year (seven players joined the team after finishing the extended football season) and had only five days of practice once games got underway. For those counting, that’s more games than practices.

“We’ve had to learn on the fly, no question,” Douglas coach Corey Thacker said. “Our kids have worked very, very hard, but they’ve had to figure things out during games in a lot of situations. It’ll be good to get some practices in and get some things set.

“I think even just the volume of the games we were playing, the kids learned how to play through fatigue and play on the road. It was nice to see how they stepped up and responding. It’s good to be able to realize what your body is capable of.

That’s a big thing, mentally.

“We learned a lot about ourselves in pressure situations … in games. We’ve found some guys that will be leaders at times when we need them. We learned in a short amount of time what our strengths and weaknesses are and now we can settle in and build on those.”

Douglas took on an exceptionally tough non-league slate, that included nationally-ranked Long Beach Poly as well as defending Washington state champion Lakes, and Southern California powers Corona Roosevelt, Villa Park, Palm Springs and Inglewood.

The Tigers emerged with a 9-6 record, including impressive wins over Lakes, Inglewood, Birmingham, Calif., and Manogue, and stuck with the elite-level programs on its slate. Their worst margin of defeat this season was 17 points to Long Beach Poly, currently ranked No. 25 in ESPN’s Powerade Fab 50 Rankings with an 11-1 record on the year.

They’ll bring that experience into what is shaping up to be a balanced and competitive league playoff race in which no program has established itself as a clear-cut favorite during the first month.

Spanish Springs has been solid out of conference, going 5-4, but has floundered in league play, losing to Manogue, Reed, McQueen and North Valleys.

McQueen has beaten Galena, Damonte Ranch and Douglas, but lost badly to Hug and had a puzzling loss to Reed. In the middle of all that, the Lancers had just a seven-point win over Truckee.

Galena has beaten Hug and Manogue, but lost to Damonte Ranch.

Hug, which entered the year as the regional favorite in many’s books, has won four league games by an average of 24.8 points since the puzzling Galena loss.

Reno has been another puzzle, with easy league wins over Wooster and North Valleys, but a big loss at Hug. Expect the Huskies to pull off a couple upsets down the stretch and possibly even in the first round of the playoffs.

Damonte Ranch has the best overall record in the Northern 4A, and has wins over McQueen and Galena (by 15 points) to help back that up. The Mustangs also stuck relatively close to Hug in a 68-51 loss, marking its only defeat over its first nine games.

Reed is perhaps the biggest dark horse out there, having suffered losses to Wooster and Sparks while much of its roster was still playing football. In the time since, the Raiders have rattled off four impressive league wins, including avenging the Wooster loss by 32 points.

Douglas has been strong in non-conference play and would be the apparent regional favorite, but has the loss to McQueen and a win in a struggle over Wooster as knocks against it.

“Our strength is our height,” Thacker said. “That’s where we are right now, we’ll be pounding the ball inside and letting everyone feed off of that. It opens up the guards shooting outside. We just need to create easy scored and easy buckets for ourselves.”

The frontcourt of 6-7 junior standout Hunter Myers, 6-3 senior forward Trevor Shaffer, 6-4 senior Matt Wylie and 6-10 sophomore James Herrick has proven to be a tough combination of matchup difficulties for opponents to handle. Perhaps the biggest development of December, though, was senior Nick Maestretti developing in his ability to slash to the basket and create open space for his teammates, particularly in late-game situations.

Maestretti, already one of the better defenders in the north, turned a switch on offensively and has helped provide what could potentially be a devasting element for opposing defenses.

“There are some things that need some attention,” Thacker said. “We’re going to retouch our defense. We want to be hard-nosed and hold to our goal of keeping teams under 50 points. Overall, we’re just trying to peak toward the end of the year. Now that the preseason is over, it’s time to get to work.”

On the girls’ side, Reed and Reno have done nothing to lose their claims to the elite program label while Manogue has emerged as a legitimate regional title candidate.

Galena is down from its regional-final run last season, but should still be able to lock down the No. 2 spot in the Sierra League.

Spanish Springs has played a tough non-conference schedule and emerged with a solid record. The question will be whether the Cougars can break through against a Reno or a Reed during league play.

One of the biggest wildcards heading into league play will be Douglas, which has already put itself in strong position for a playoff spot.

The Lady Tigers boast one of the best defenses and best group of rebounders in the region. If they can find a way to cut down their turnovers and up their shooting percentage by about 10 percent, they could realistically have a shot to win every game remaining on their schedule.

Of particular note has been how Douglas has played in close games this year. When they’ve been within two or three points down the stretch, they have found ways to come away victorious.

“Every close game we’ve been in, they’ve found a way to get it done,” Douglas coach Werner Christen said last week. “That’s a good thing. There’s just no way to coach that. It’s just something they do.”

A key league matchup with Carson tonight will go a long way toward determining where the Tigers fit in the overall playoff picture. Both the boys and the girls travel to Reed Friday night before travelling to Galena Tuesday and Hug on Jan. 13 to complete a crucial league stretch.

Joey Crandall can be reached at (775) 782-5121, ext. 212.