BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — At lunch the day after his Shenendehowa boys basketball team topped Brentwood for the state championship, the telephone number showing up on his caller ID left head coach Tony Dzikas curious.
“Who’s calling me from Michigan?” he wondered.
The answer: John Beilein, the head coach for the men’s basketball team at the University of Michigan — who was calling to find out a little more about Shenendehowa guard Kevin Huerter after he was named MVP of the state tournament.
The call’s timing was no fluke. Huerter’s exploits toward the end of the 2014-15 season were bound to draw attention from major college programs. The mid-major programs had long been courting him. As a junior, Huerter — along with his older brother Thomas and the rest of the Plainsmen — brought Shenendehowa its first state title in boys hoops since 1987, and Huerter picked up one MVP award after another along the way, earning top player honors for both the Suburban Council and the Section II Class AA tournament before taking the state tournament award.
“He’s OK. He’s alright,” deadpanned Dzikas after Huerter compiled 50 points, 18 rebounds, and 15 assists between the state semifinal and championship games. “We’ll keep him.”
“He’s a fantastic player and he’s always been that growing up for us,” said senior forward Matt Alverson. “He’s always been the top player on our team, and our team always had all the confidence in the world in him.”
Huerter’s and Shenendehowa’s memorable season ended five days after the state title, as the Plainsmen fell in the March 27 semifinals of the Federation Tournament of Champions with a 44-35 loss to Wings Academy.
Huerter struggled in that contest to find scoring opportunities, netting all nine of his points in a flurry in the fourth quarter. Against a Wings Academy defense focused on slowing him down and keeping the ball out of his hands, Huerter attempted only 11 field goals and one free throw after attempting an average of 14.5 field goals and 8.5 free throws during Shenendehowa’s state semifinal and championship games. The single-digit scoring performance for Huerter was his first since Dec. 27, when he scored five points in a 74-35 win against Baldwinsville — and left his coach to make a simple assessment after playing Wings Academy about how much his team had come to expect from Huerter in the three months between those single-digit outputs.
“We got spoiled,” Dzikas said of Huerter, who averaged 17.5 points per game as a junior with a high game of 35.
“He’s one of the best players in [Section II] and upstate New York,” said Shenendehowa sophomore guard Luke Hicks, Huerter’s practice opponent. “Going against him at practice every day, it made me better, and I tried to push him to get both of us better.”
“He’s a special player. He’s talented,” Dzikas said of Huerter. “You know what talented is, right? Talented means you can do stuff and not even work at it. He’s a talented player and he works at it. He could leave the gym for four weeks, five weeks . . . and still come back and be the best player in the gym, still take the shots you see him taking and still think he’s going to make all of them. He’s a talented player and when it is all said and done, he’s going to be extremely good.”
Dzikas knew Huerter — the son of Tom Huerter, the former Siena College player — had the chance to be special before he ever entered the Shenendehowa program, and Dzikas wasted no time challenging the youngster; Dzikas had Huerter playing freshman basketball as a seventh-grader, junior varsity hoops as an eighth-grader, and up with the varsity as a ninth-grader. At times, Dzikas said he took criticism for moving Huerter through the Plainsmen program at an accelerated pace, but the coach always had an answer ready when someone asked him why he was doing it.
“Well, because he’s probably going to be the best player I ever coach,” Dzikas said.
As a varsity player, Huerter has improved each season. Niskayuna head coach Bryan Mattice — who faces Shenendehowa twice a season — said the thing that impressed him this season was how Huerter improved attacking the basket.
“Kevin’s now finding alternative ways to score other than by shooting the 3, which he was already deadly at,” Mattice said of Huerter, who made 75 3-pointers during the 2014-15 season.
Before next season, Huerter will likely look to change his body more than his skill set. A rail-thin 6-foot-5 frame — “Kevin’s 120 pounds after dinner,” joked Dzikas, which is about 40 pounds off in reality — was a hindrance for Huerter against Wings Academy, which was able to use its physicality to slow him in the Plainsmen’s only defeat of their 25-1 season.
“I realize I still have a lot of work left to do and that I need to get a lot stronger,” Huerter said after his team’s loss at UAlbany’s SEFCU Arena.
Then, the slightest of pauses.
“I have to get better,” he finished.