The Capital Region’s most entertaining show this winter is not on TV, in residence at a theater, or happening in an arena. So, no, this is not another Bruce Springsteen story.
It’s been a traveling act with appearances mainly on Tuesdays and Fridays, set in whichever locale’s high school gymnasium the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team’s schedule calls it to visit next.
The Plainsmen, undefeated through their first 18 games, are following up last year’s title-winning campaign with an even more captivating encore.
‘It’s something [the players] are going to remember forever.’
— Shen head coach Tony Dzikas
Non-stop 3-pointers. Highlight-reel dunks. Stifling defense. Kevin Huerter doing Kevin Huerter things. Star-level talent sacrificing stats.
“There’s not many teams like this,” Schenectady head coach Eric Loudis said after seeing the Plainsmen up close earlier this season.
They’re showmen, too. These Plainsmen are rolling through Section II and doing it in front of large crowds at home and on the road. Attention thrown the team’s way, its players said, is not a distraction. If anything, the energy from their large, captive crowds has helped embolden the Plainsmen to unleash their fan-friendly style of play.
“We feed off it,” said senior guard Mike Collins, whose squad is ranked No. 1 in the state’s Class AA poll for the second week in a row.
Six of the team’s nine home games this season were played in front of capacity crowds in excess of 1,500 spectators. One of those games, a Dec. 22 contest against CBA, sold out more than 24 hours in advance of tipoff, leaving any fans — and there were plenty — who showed up on game day to be turned away.
“It’s something [the players] are going to remember forever,” Shenendehowa head coach Tony Dzikas said. “When I was in high school [Waterford-Halfmoon class of 1989] that’s just the way it was — you always got big crowds. It didn’t matter if you were [good]. That’s just what people did back then, but it’s gone away from that.”
In 2014-15, crowds swelled for Shenendehowa as its campaign unfolded. While some of this season’s enthusiasm for the Plainsmen is a carryover from last year, this team’s style lends itself more to crowd-pleasing play.
More grit than grin last year, those Plainsmen won games with defense, allowing an average of 42.2 points per game. Offensively, that team averaged 67.3 points and scored more than 80 only three times.
This year’s Shenendehowa squad has the Suburban Council’s best defense and offense. Opponents are at a league-low 49.2 points per game against Shenendehowa, which is averaging a league-high 78.5 points on the strength of a Section II-best 11.6 made 3-pointers per game. Offensively, the squad has scored at least 86 points in a third of their games.
And that’s despite the Plainsmen often sitting many of their starters in the fourth quarters of blowouts.
“It’s no secret we don’t have the big bodies like we had last year. We graduated some big dudes,” said Huerter, a senior guard whose squad has scored at least 25 points in 14 separate eight-minute quarters. “Going into this year, we knew we’d have to change it up and go smaller with [6-foot-7 junior center Mike Pizziketti] usually being our only big guy on the court. That allows us to have four 3-point shooters out on the court at a time.”
Knowing what his 2015-16 roster was going to look like, Dzikas expected to play a more freewheeling style. What he did not see coming was that so many varsity rookies were going to make an immediate impact.
“If I’m shocked by one thing this season, it’s the production from so many kids off the bench,” said the coach, whose reserves have made 77 of the Plainsmen’s 208 3-pointers (37 percent). “That’s been the welcome surprise.”
Shenendehowa’s most electric performance came in early January at Schenectady. That night, the Plainsmen dropped 99 points on the home team despite sitting their stars in the fourth quarter and not attempting a shot in the final minute.
That last part irked some in the crowd. An enthusiastic Schenectady student section supported its team all night, but voiced its displeasure when the Plainsmen opted to take a shot-clock violation on their final possession rather than pursue surpassing 100 points.
“Go for it,” one of the students had shouted.
“That was definitely a little weird,” Shenendehowa junior guard Jaia Benson said. “I’ve never seen that before. You’re used to being rooted against [on the road], so having them kind of root for us was different.”
But it is easy to like this year’s Shenendehowa team. While the Plainsmen are winning with huge margins — eight times this season, their offensive output through halftime has turned out to be greater than or equal to their opponent’s final score — they are not doing so by having the University of Maryland-bound Huerter take every shot. The team regularly gets at least 10 players into the action before halftime, and three of the squad’s less-heralded starters — senior guard Petar Bebic, junior guard Luke Hicks and Pizziketti — are players that Averill Park head coach Dave Pugliese said would likely be acknowledged as Top-10 players in the Suburban Council if not for the shadow cast from Huerter, who is averaging a team-high 21.6 points per game.
Pugliese’s squad played Shenendehowa back in December. His team lost 74-34, and he describes his team’s performance from that night like this: “That was the best we’ve played all year. That was our best game. We executed on both ends of the floor tremendously well, and they were just that much better than us. We walked away, and it was just, ‘Well done, Shen.’ ”
As the season has progressed, teams have better figured out ways to rein in the Plainsmen. Colonie head coach Ken Dagostino, whose team lost 63-51 to Shenendehowa, said the rest of Section II needs to check their egos when they play Shenendehowa and do everything they can to limit possessions. Playing the Plainsmen at their frenetic pace, he said, is a sure-fire way to walk away with a 30-point loss.
“Playing Shen is a game of mathematics,” Dagostino said. “The more possessions you give them, the more they’re going to score. You have to respect that about them.”
Last week, Troy packed its home gymnasium and forced Shenendehowa to sweat out a 72-64 win. That night, Flying Horses head coach Rich Hurley’s team shortened the game with time-consuming possessions and extended its zone defense to combat the Plainsmen’s 3-point shooters.
The defensive tactic gave Shenendehowa all types of space to drive to the basket and find open mid-range looks. Those were concessions Hurley said his team had to make against the Plainsmen.
“Let’s give them 2s,” Hurley said was his pre-game message. “You’ve got to try something.”
Only two games remain in the regular season for Shenendehowa, and both contests — this Friday at Niskayuna, then Tuesday at Saratoga Springs — promise to send the Plainsmen into hostile territory. In the postseason games that will soon follow, crowds at neutral facilities will likely show more affection for the underdogs than Section II’s juggernaut.
The Plainsmen get that. They’re OK with it, too.
“Sometimes,” Collins said, “we know we’re not going to have the big crowd behind us. We won’t let that affect us.”
In other words: The show will go on.
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Categories: High School Sports, Sports