Weekly Feature

2017-11-29 / Sports

Experience, scoring prowess among boys hoops team’s key returning parts

Sports Reporter

Clarence’s boys basketball team surged to five wins in its six final games during the 2016-17 season, and with a good number of key players back from that squad, coach Doug Ratka is optimistic about the Red Devils’ chances at improving on last year’s 11-11 overall record.

To do so, though, Clarence will need to change up its approach a little bit as the team lost all of its height from last year. Fortunately for the Red Devils, Ratka is confident they’ll be up for the challenge.

“Graduating all of our height from last year is probably the biggest area of concern for me this year, but that means we’re just going to need to be better defensively so that we can not have to rebound as much,” Ratka said. “At the same time, the guys just need to realize that if they work together, box out and do the other little things they need to do, they don’t have to be 6-foot-5 in order to rebound the ball.”

Having returning juniors River Reinhardt and Jack Putney stepping up to take charge this year should help Clarence in virtually every way possible. The co-captains started every game last season, with Putney, who earned ECIC I Honorable Mention all-star status last year, second on the team in points (227), rebounds (123), steals (44) and blocks (7) last winter. Reinhardt, who earned ECIC I Second Team all-star honors, led the team in assists (70) and steals (52) to go along with the third-most points (189).

The team’s other co-captain, senior Joe Olivieri, led the Red Devils in scoring (233) last season, was second in assists (59), and was third in rebounds (99) and steals (36).

“We bring back about 60 percent of our scoring from last year, with the bulk of that coming from River, Jack and Joe,” Ratka said. “River really improved his scoring toward the end of last year and during the offseason; he was a pure distributor last year but now is more a scorer. He’s truly just a basketball junkie. And Jack is someone who plays bigger than he is, and he’s good defensively too. He can shoot the ball pretty well and he’s coming into the year with the confidence that he gained toward the end of last season, which is great. Joe also rebounds fairly well for his size and he’s gotten better defensively as well.”

Senior point guard Joe Olivieri, right, will look to pick up this winter where he left off as a junior, when the team co-captain led the Red Devils in scoring and was second in assists. 
Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerdePurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Senior point guard Joe Olivieri, right, will look to pick up this winter where he left off as a junior, when the team co-captain led the Red Devils in scoring and was second in assists. Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerdePurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Returning seniors Steve Kabayiza, Jake Reger, Mike O’Brien, Matt Zuffranieri and Mike Scherrer have the potential to see their roles expanded this year after gaining a year’s worth of varsity experience last winter. Kabayiza, who at 6-2 is one of the taller players on the squad, showed tremendous improvement during the offseason to where Ratka calls him Clarence’s potential “X” factor.

“Steve didn’t get many minutes last year, but he had a good summer for us,” Ratka said. “Coaches would come up to me and comment about him after our summer league games. He might just be our best pure shooter. Matt can shoot the ball pretty well too, so I’m hoping he can have a nice impact for us as well.”

Rounding out this year’s team are 6-3 senior Phil Simkin, juniors Brandon Ferris, Jon Stevens, Jackson Wurtz and Akilesh Ramakrishna, and sophomore Peyton Metzger. Simkin did not play last season due to an injury, while the others are the varsity level this winter. 

“We’ve got some good seasoned guards this year who I think shoot the ball, but I just don’t want us to live and die by the outside shot — I want us to do well in all aspects,” West said. “I think we’ll be able to pressure more defensively, which should allow us to get out and run a little more too. If we can use our  basketball smarts and familiarity from playing together for awhile to help us we should do OK. The guys are just going to have to commit to playing well at the defensive end, and to rebounding and  competing for boards. I don’t want our lack of height this year to sink us.”

Ratka and the Red Devils were able to get a look at how this year’s lack of height could affect them in game action a few times this preseason in scrimmage action against Dunkirk, Alden, Sweet Home, East Aurora and Fredonia. Clarence will also scrimmage Lockport and Maryvale this week prior to opening the regular season Tuesday at Williamsville East. Those outings have also served, and will continue to serve, as opportunities for Ratka to install new options into his systems.

The Red Devils will open league play against West Seneca West on Friday, Dec. 8. By then, Ratka is hoping that the team’s veteran players will have already begun to recapture the momentum Clarence used to win down the stretch last season and put a scare into Class AA’s top seed in a road playoff game.

“The guys see that playing at Buffalo State is something that’s within reach if they go out and perform, and with this group it’s really going to take a very balanced effort with everyone contributing,” Ratka said. “I like our options, though, with us having a good mix of guys who can score; it could be a significant challenge for teams to figure out how to guard us. We’ve just got to have that tough mentality and determination on the boards, and then go out and play together. There are a lot of good teams and good coaches out there, so we’re looking forward to seeing how we stack up. This might just be the first year in a few years where we might have expectations that are a little higher than normal.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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