Hittin’ the hardwood

Spike Hopper takes over at KSS after eight years as an assistant. - Wesley Remmer/staff photo
Spike Hopper takes over at KSS after eight years as an assistant.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/staff photo

Toss away the pigskin and grab the mahogany: It’s basketball season. Each area boys team has kicked off the 2008-09 campaign and played at least three games to work out the kinks and is ready for what should be an exciting season. Two schools — Klahowya and Central Kitsap — welcome new coaches, while Devin Huff returns for his second year at Olympic. Coach Scott McMinds has CK playing well — the team was undefeated entering last night’s game against Mount Tahoma — and both Huff and KSS coach Spike Hopper are, for the most part, happy with their teams’ early season performances. Here’s a breakdown of how each team looks, and what may await as the season progresses.

Klahowya: New coach, familiar stars

For first-year coach Spike Hopper, so far, so good.

Hopper, who has been in and around the Klahowya basketball program for the past eight years as a volunteer and assistant, replaces now-Central Kitsap coach Scott McMinds.

The head gig, Hopper said, is both challenging and rewarding.

“You don’t realize what (the coach) is doing until you’re the one on the spot,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of familiarity with the program, but I’ve got my own ideas and my own philosophies.”

Klahowya is off to a 3-1 start under Hopper despite losing the season opener against Washington, 77-71.

And victories against Quilcene (75-69), Sequim (58-41) and Kingston (75-56) had the Eagles near the top of the Olympic League standings entering last night’s game against North Mason. Results were unavailable at press time.

While certainly pleased with his team’s performance, Hopper understands the season is young and other teams are still settling in, many with key players recovering from football-related injuries.

“They are feeling pretty good about that,” Hopper said of the three wins. “(But) the teams we’ve played have not been at full strength.”

Senior Andre Moore Jr., one of four team captains, returns to lead an experienced backcourt that Hopper said is the strength of the team.

“He’s a silent leader, he leads by example,” Hopper said of Moore, who joins point guard Darell Newman to comprise KSS’ starting backcourt.

Newman, also a captain, rejoined the team Tuesday after battling a lingering injury sustained during the football season.

Forwards Andrew Holm and Evan Corelli, both of whom are 6 feet 5 inches, figure to see the bulk of playing time down low along with 6-foot-4-inch Jeff Wasson, who also is a captain.

“We have a core coming back,” Hopper said.

A “logjam” at varsity last season, Hopper said, resulted in about half of this year’s team playing junior varsity despite being qualified to play varsity, meaning the 2008-09 team has new faces, but also the experience of players such as Moore and Newman.

“The good thing about this team is that the players we have coming back are receptive to them,” Hopper said of the newcomers. “It’s nice to have leadership like that.”

Brandon Neet, who scored 16 points against Kingston Tuesday, is the third in a trio of guards who Hopper likes to see on the floor as much as possible.

“They all get a piece of the pie eventually,” Hopper said.

While Hopper hopes to see the team win its share of games, but he said it’s more important to offer his players a quality basketball experience.

“Winning is not the primary thing. You know how big that is and how good that makes everybody feel, but that’s not the main goal, there’s so much more to it,” Hopper said. “I want everybody to finish (the season). I want everybody to be happy, to learn the game. I don’t want anyone to quit because they’re unhappy, or for grades or athletic violations.”

The Eagles host Bremerton (1-3) at 7 p.m. Tuesday before a two-week break in games for the holidays.

Central Kitsap: Playoffs, or else ... (bold)

With Cougar grad Scott McMinds at the helm and a core group of talented senior guards returning, expectations are high at Central Kitsap.

“It’s been fun coming back to the alma mater, it’s an excellent opportunity to step into a 4A coaching job with the amount of talent that is here,” Mcminds said. “I feel fortunate to step into a position like this.”

The Cougars (4-0) survived the first part of the season without football players Brandon Durham, Christian Wesley and Vern Hemphill, going with a five-guard lineup, and are now developing chemistry at full strength.

“It was difficult not having the full squad because of the success of the football team,” McMinds said. “The chemistry was working without them and now it’s integrating them and continuing that same progress and same chemistry. I think, for the most part, we’re gelling quite nicely.”

But the early season short-handedness, McMinds added, actually served to benefit the team in more ways than one.

Not only did the guards, who McMinds said are the focal point of the team, see more playing time, but players who typically wouldn’t play saw game action, giving the team added depth.

“It actually worked to our advantage,” McMinds said. “It made us a deeper team and made us a stronger team.”

Even with the big-men back, particularly 6-foot-7-inch Durham, McMinds wants the backcourt to dictate the flow of the game.

“Our success is going to be based on our guard play,” McMinds said. “Our guards have to handle pressure and execute the offense.”

Senior guards Cody Thurmond, Isaiah Thompson, Phillip Thomas and Matthew Wain lead that charge, giving the Cougars as much experience as any team in the Narrows League.

“The good news is I’ve got such good depth,” McMinds said, explaining eight or nine of his players could be starters. “Our practices are like games. If they don’t step up, then I’ve got guys who can replace them. What that does is it elevates the intensity in practice.”

And that finding that intensity, motivating the players to work hard, has been McMinds’ greatest challenge since arriving to CK from KSS.

“Kids here, I think, have a little more athletic talent (than Klahowya), but not the work ethic,” he said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to get a working mentality. Every time we come to a practice or a game, we show up to work.”

For McMinds, that work — and the Cougars’ success, or lack thereof — begins on the defensive end.

“I worked hard on defense (as a player) so I expect my guys to work hard on defense,” he said. “It’s getting the guys to know and understand my expectations, my system, stepping into a program that’s pretty well established.”

The talent at CK, McMinds added, is a product of his predecessors and coaches who worked with the players before he arrived — former coach Tim Fryer, and area coaches Jeremy Landis and Craig Murray, among others.

“I don’t pretend to be this super, super coach. There have been so many coaches who have put a lot of effort into developing these kids, they deserve a lot of the credit,” McMinds said. “The key is not getting the talent, the key is using the talent. That’s probably our biggest thing, is utilizing the talent.”

Bellarmine Prep, Foss, Mount Tahoma and Lincoln figure to join CK near the top of the Narrows League, but McMinds believes any team can win on any given night.

“They are all really solid ball clubs,” McMinds said. “Any given night if you don’t show up and you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’re in jeopardy of losing.”

The Cougars hosted Mount Tahoma last night, but results from that game were unavailable at press time. The team visits Bellarmine Tuesday and hosts North Kitsap Thursday.

“I try not to talk too much about postseason expectations ... but if our season doesn’t end in the Tacoma Dome, it’s not going to be a success, for me or the kids,” McMinds added.

Olympic: ‘Always looking to improve’ (bold)

With a little more experience and little more confidence, the Trojans look to improve upon last year’s 6-13 record.

Nothing is certain, but Olympic (2-1) looks like a better team early this season.

Save for a 30-point drubbing against former Class 4A North Kitsap, which this year dropped down to 3A and into the Olympic League, the Trojans have played well.

The Vikings used a 24-6 second-quarter run to put the game away before halftime and simply cruised late in the game. Larry Dixon continued his torrid start — he’s averaging 23 points per game — with 16 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“That was a tough league-opener for us,” second-year coach Devin Huff said Thursday.

But the Trojans regained their footing four nights later to beat Port Angeles, 52-46, in what Huff called a “must-win game.”

Dixon scored 20 and Dino Thomas, who has been surprisingly effective, added nine. The Trojans trailed by four at halftime before outscoring PA 36-26 in the second half.

“Dino has been fantastic on the glass,” Huff added of Thomas. “He’s been a spark plug.”

Huff said Olympic main goal is to play aggressive on both ends of the floor; a product of confidence and comfort in Huff’s system.

Juniors Andre Henderson and Kyle Featherstone and senior Garrett Brown figure to join Dixon and Thomas to anchor that charge.

“On both ends of the floor, we want to be on attack,” Huff said. “All around, we’re just more confident.”

The Trojans aren’t favored to win the Olympic League, but Huff said his team is capable of competing with North Mason and Port Townsend, which many coaches believe are the second- and third-best teams, respectively, behind North Kitsap.

“We should be in the mix,” Huff said.

Huff added that the first three were “pretty good” but there’s certainly room for improvement. The team faces Port Townsend Tuesday, a game that should indicate how close the Trojans are from the top of the league. A road game against Bremerton Friday wraps up play before the two-week winter break.

“We’re always looking to improve,” Huff added.

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