BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Five key players from last year’s championship team have graduated and are gone, but the high expectations for Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team did not depart with them.
“This year, it’s really no different,” senior guard Kevin Huerter said. “We’re trying to win games, as many as possible.”
Of course, the Plainsmen’s business-as-usual outlook is different from other schools in Section II, as the defending Class AA state champions have enough firepower to make a repeat bid a realistic possibility. Coming off a 25-1 season that included a 76-63 state title victory against Brentwood, Shenendehowa will enter the season as a clear favorite.
However, the makeup of this year’s team is quite different from last year’s squad. While last year’s Plainsmen bullied teams down low and played stifling defense, this Shenendehowa crew should be more adept at putting the ball in the basket.
“We’re lacking in overall size compared to last year, but we shoot the ball a lot better from the outside,” head coach Tony Dzikas said.
A year ago, Shenendehowa used a rotation of five burly bigs to wear down opposing teams. This season, the post rotation is down to three players — 6-foot-3 seniors Michael Gillooley and Evan Paddock and 6-foot-7 junior Mike Pizziketti — but the Plainsmen have more shooters and open-court playmakers around Huerter, the team’s University of Maryland-commit.
“We’re more 3-point-oriented this year, but I think we still have the ability to play rough with our big guys,” said junior guard Luke Hicks, whose squad starts play Dec. 1 at home against Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake.
“Our offense is definitely oriented around guard play, and we have a lot of guards that can fit in and keep things going,” Huerter said.
Besides Hicks and Huerter, senior guard Petar Bebic is the lone Shenendehowa returning player with significant varsity playing experience on the perimeter. But a host of guards — such as senior Mike Collins and junior Evan Warner — are expected to offer quality minutes for a Plainsmen team that will likely lean on guard-heavy lineups.
“It’s next man up,” Bebic said of the team’s mentality when it comes to playing time. “Whoever is more determined is going to play more.”
Nobody, though, is going to supplant Huerter, last year’s Suburban Council Player of the Year and the most valuable player of the state tournament. The 6-foot-6 guard is fresh from an offseason in which he played AAU basketball all across the country and competed at a camp where he took on NBA stars, and the star is expected to show a more well-rounded game in his fourth varsity season.
“He’s gotten a lot better defensively,” Dzikas said. “He’s so long and he’s more aggressive now. He’s fighting through screens and doing a really good job on that end.”
Shenendehowa will be the circled date on all of its opponents’ schedules this season. Huerter said the Plainsmen will be ready to take each team’s best shot.
“Everyone here is battle-tested,” he said. “Right now, we’re all just working at getting better.”