The Saugerties High boys’ varsity basketball team kicks off its season this week by hosting its annual Shane Geisler Memorial Tournament, an opportunity to honor the late coach while giving the team a first look at a few of the teams they’ll be challenging as the season progresses. Among the teams competing in the three-day tournament are Onteora and John A. Coleman Catholic, the latter a growing powerhouse from a deceptively small school.
The Sawyers are looking to improve on their 2010-11 season, one which ended with an 8-7 record and a tough 51-36 loss to New Paltz in the sectional quarterfinals. They’ll have an opportunity to avenge that loss when they travel to New Paltz on Tuesday, Dec. 20, their last game before a long winter break that sees the team return to action with a road game against Red Hook on Friday, Jan. 6.
How head coach Mike Tiano keeps the team focused and in playing shape during that lengthy period away from official games could be determined by a practice and scrimmage schedule that might resemble the one the team underwent in the month heading into the opening of the regular season. It culminated Monday afternoon with a scrimmage at Rhinebeck.
“The outlook for this year is promising,” said Tiano. “The guys have really worked hard in the offseason to get better and I am hoping it pays off.”
The Sawyers return five players from last year’s varsity squad, including co-captains Marc Whitaker, a senior, and Scott Melville, a junior. Also back on the varsity squad are senior Drew McClain and juniors JT Elmendorf and Josh Gibbs.
New to the varsity team are senior Tristan Francis and juniors Ardie Cherwin, Paddy Defino, Nesta Gordon, Dylan Hill, Brody Maloney and Aelijah Wilson.
The Sawyers have seven games scheduled before their winter break, seven games to hit some sort of stride, as there’s never any guarantee that a holiday run known for excess and late nights will return the athletes in fighting shape. Even a group as determined as this crew from Saugerties may not be able to collectively resist the temptation of one more slice of pie or the allure of seeing the ball drop on Times Square in person surrounded by thousands of fellow revelers. But even as they practice and scrimmage and push away from the dinner table when everyone else is working their way through delicious leftovers, the Sawyers know they’ve got reinforcements waiting for them when it all picks up again.
Gibbs will primarily provide vocal support during the month of December; the center and power forward is recovering from a broken wrist and won’t return to the court until sometime in January. When he does come back, he anticipates doing so on a team firing on all cylinders.
“I think we are going to be very good this year,” Gibbs said. “Everybody is excited for the season to start and we are ready to be playing other teams.”
Whitaker, who plays both point and shooting guard, said that while the team’s goal is to first win the division and then the league, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
“The biggest challenge I see for this year’s team is our division,” Whitaker said. “There is good competition.”
Even so, the senior co-captain said he thought the Saywers had the talent to sweep the division, but will first have to improve on their weaknesses.
“I feel that we need to work on being less selfish at times,” Whitaker said. “Sometimes we all get a little selfish and try to put the situation into our own hands instead of as a team; we’re getting better with it every practice.”
Gibbs said he felt like the team’s defense was both a strong area and one in need of improvement.
“Our defense is very good and it helps us score a lot of points on fast breaks and in transition,” he said. “Our half-court defense isn’t bad but it could use improvement.”
Francis, a point guard, said he believed the team will be as good as they allow themselves to be.
“The biggest challenge this year is testing ourselves to come out with intensity and momentum to get a win,” he said.
Of the many teams the Sawyers will face off against this season, it seems as though they generally regard Red Hook as one of their greatest rivals. After the Jan. 6 road game, the Sawyers next play Red Hook at home on Friday, Feb. 3. Just two more regular season games remain on the schedule after that game, but Saugerties is hoping to keep on playing long after that.
“Everybody is looking forward to our games with Red Hook,” said Gibbs. “One of our goals is to face Red Hook three times: twice during the regular season and once during sectionals. Those are definitely going to be some good games.”
As with any team, the Sawyers best chances of success are to make the most of what they do best and minimize what they consider their weaknesses. Whitaker said he believed the team’s familiarity with one another will prove to be one of its greatest strengths.
“We have played together since junior high, and we know how each of us plays on the court,” he said. “We have good chemistry when we’re out there. I think the team we have this year has the potential to go all the way.”
“The team’s goal this year is to work harder and harder every day in practice to continue our season strong to succeed with plenty of wins,” he said. “I think the Saugerties varsity team will go far because we are a great team with a lot of intensity.”
Gibbs said he thought there was something special about this year’s Sawyers, something that could have them playing long after the regular season’s slate is completed.
“I believe that this team has the potential to go very far, farther than any team this school has had in a while,” he said, adding that it’s important to play every minute as though it matters the most. “We don’t want to look back at this season and think ‘wow, we could have done this,’ and we don’t want any ‘what if’s’. We are just going to play our best and see how far it takes us.”
Saugerties begins its season in its own Geisler Tournament with a game against Coleman on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 6:45 p.m. The tournament’s consolation game is scheduled for two days later at 1:45 p.m., with the title contest slated for 5:15 p.m. on the same day.