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Inexperienced squad sets goal to surprise league | FALCONS WINTER SPORTS PREVIEW

Sam Lee passes to Taylor Simmons as Zach Comfort defends the paint during practice.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Sam Lee passes to Taylor Simmons as Zach Comfort defends the paint during practice.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Henry Pope landed his dream job last year coaching the Falcon boys basketball team.

He had seven seniors he coached in middle school. He had the conference’s reigning MVP.

This year, that’s all gone, and Pope is waking up to a new reality. Just two players on the 2011-2012 team played on varsity last season — point guard Sam Lee and forward Zach Comfort, both seniors.

“We’ve got a brand-new varsity squad,” Pope said.

With an inexperienced group of players, he anticipated a rough start to the season. He didn’t envision the 80-46 loss to Mount Baker for the season opener, however.

“I expected this kind of start,” Pope said. “I didn’t expect a 35-, 37-point blowout. But I expected a slow start.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The good news for Pope is he has a team full of evenly matched juniors — eight of them. Four juniors are so close in skill that the varsity coaches said the starting lineup would likely be different most weeks.

“We might have a new starting lineup every game,” Pope said.

In their first game earlier this week, every player saw minutes.

The reason for the increased playing time wasn’t great. Sophomore Nick French was unable to play with an injury and junior Taylor Simmons injured his ankle in the opening minutes and had his foot wrapped and put in a boot by trainer Jim Christensen.

Extra time on the court should only help his players, Pope said.

“With a young team and a bunch of new people on the squad, the only way you’re going to get better is having them play,” Pope said.

“At first you might suffer with wins and losses, but remember, we have a 20-game season. As a coach, you have to look not just short-term, but you have to look mid-term and long-term.

“It’s just going to be one of those things where I have to play everyone so we all can get better.”

Playing time is a point of emphasis for the coaches when it comes to their two starting seniors. Lee spent most of his time on the bench as a sophomore on varsity under the previous coach, and saw backup minutes as the ball handler last season.

Lee is a better scoring point guard than a distributor, if the first game is any indication. Passing and running the offense are skills he hopes to quickly improve.

“I haven’t played with that class a lot,” Lee said. “This is kind of our first time being together because I’ve had a class of five seniors I’ve been playing with.”

“I’m more of a drive, pull-up player. I’m not a great outside shooter,” Lee added. “My mid-range pull-up has really done a lot for me in the past and then going to the hoop.”

Lee led the Falcons against the Mountaineers with 11 points and a handful of turnovers. His coach knew Lee’s history with the program and urged patience with the offense.

“Sam Lee was a sub last year. He didn’t get a lot of playing time,” Pope said. “He went from three years of that to being our starting point guard.”

Defense will be key for a team that is replacing Riley Newman, the conference’s best scorer last year. Despite youth and inexperience, defensive strategies and plays should work.

“Being nervous has nothing to do with defense,” Pope said. “Defense is attitude, position, desire.”

Pope and the Falcons will try to return to the Northwest District 1 basketball tournament.

Last year, South Whidbey made the cut as the third seed from the Cascade Conference and lost by double digits in both games. The Falcons finished the season 10-4 in conference games and 14-8 overall — a marked improvement from a 7-7 conference team two years ago.

Those tournament losses taught Pope two important lessons. The first was to spread the scoring more evenly.

“Riley Newman, with the way he scored, hid a lot of flaws,” Pope said. “With this year’s team, we have to all contribute on the offensive side scoring and you have to have a sure defense.

“What we have to do now is have each one of those guys average 9, 10 points a game.”

South Whidbey is well on its way to balancing its players’ scoring. Against Mount Baker, seven Falcons scored. Behind Lee, first-year varsity junior guard Josh Bishop scored nine points on a trio of three-pointers.

“Josh is very determined; he’s very focused,” said assistant varsity coach Ed Baran.

“He works his behind off defensively,” Baran said. “He’s a good shooter, he’s a smart player. With all of those things, he doesn’t blame other people. He’s a great kid.”

The second lesson Pope and Baran learned was to defend five perimeter shooters at the same time. Against Burlington-Edison and Anacortes, South Whidbey was outgunned past the three-point line.

“We have got to learn how to play defense,” Pope said. “We cannot sit back there in the zone in the Cascade Conference. These guys can shoot.”

Though the Falcons’ defense lacked in the first game, the size and speed of the players gives them a lot of potential.

Comfort is one of the conference’s tallest players at 6-foot-8. Against Mount Baker, he scored the first points on a layup through two defenders, grabbed an early steal and blocked a shot.

“We definitely have a gold mine in Mr. Zach,” Pope said. “What we have to do as a team is to get more effective feeding him the ball.”

“We have to get more intelligent with our post feeds, more intelligent with helping the post player recognize when the double is coming.”

Comfort will be supported by a group of forwards at least 6-feet tall, including Mo Hamsa, Andrew Holt, Mitchell Hughes and Nick French.

“Defensively, we’ve got a lot of quickness. We’re going to have a lot of desire,” Baran said. “We want to deny the ball to the wings and we want to make every pass really difficult.

“If somebody penetrates, then we want our big guy in there to block shots and alter shots.”

In a season that has all the trappings of a rebuilding year — new, young players — Pope expects to see the Falcons finish the final months with noticeable improvements and more wins. He’s coaching for the future, and he has the players to do that.

“My expectation is that we’re going to have a slow start, but we’re going to finish a lot better because of the work ethic these guys have,” Pope said. “The best thing about this team is how the boys work together and how they work hard.

“If we can cut down on those sloppy turnovers that lead to fast breaks for the other team, we’re going to be fine.”

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