BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — The Capital Region’s most entertaining show this winter is not on TV, in residence at a theater, or happening in an arena.
It’s a traveling act with appearances on Tuesdays and Fridays, set in whichever locale’s high school gymnasium the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team’s schedule asks it to visit next.
The Plainsmen, undefeated through their first 14 games, are following up last year’s award-winning campaign with an even more captivating one. This year’s team has it all.
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 month.
They’re showmen, too. A year after winning a state title, the Plainsmen are rolling through Section II and doing it in front of large crowds at home and on the road.
“It’s been really awesome to be in front of all these people,” junior guard Jaia Benson said. “It’s definitely fun to see them with an excited look on their faces when we’re hitting our shots or Kevin’s doing his dunks.”
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,” senior guard Mike Collins said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Through its 14-0 start, a look at the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team’s 2015-16 season:
174: 3-pointers, the most in Section II
99: Single-game scoring high
79.7: Points scored per game
47.2: Points allowed per game
36: Single-quarter scoring high
20.8: Kevin Huerter’s team-high points per game
13: Quarters with 25 points or more
7: Wins by at least 40 points
6: Players averaging at least 5.8 points per game
3: State ranking
At home, the Plainsmen have often played in front of crowds of roughly 1,500 people this season. 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. Several contests have crept into standing-room-only territory.
“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 certainly a carryover from last year, it is undeniable that the way this year’s team plays is a bigger factor.
Last year’s Plainsmen were more grit than grin. They won games with defense, allowing an average of 42.2 points per game. Offensively, those Plainsmen averaged 67.3 points and scored more than 80 only three times.
This year’s Shenendehowa squad still plays great defense — opponents are scoring 47.2 points per game — but its offensive numbers are staggering. The Plainsmen are averaging 79.7 points on the strength of 12.4 3-pointers per game, and already have finished games eight times in the 80s or higher.
“We have more shooters this year,” said Collins, whose squad has scored 25 or more points in 13 separate eight-minute quarters. “Last year, there weren’t as many guys hopping onto the shooting machine at practice.”
Big and beefy was the way for Shenendehowa last year, while this crew mainly deploys four-guard lineups. Knowing what his roster was going to look like, Dzikas expected to play a more freewheeling style this season, but what he did not see coming was that so many varsity rookies — like Benson, junior guard Danny Beyer, and sophomore guard Jake Dzikas (his son) — 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 70 of the Plainsmen’s area-best 174 3-pointers. “That’s been the welcome surprise.”
Shenendehowa’s most electric performance came 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,” 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 allowing senior superstar Huerter to run roughshod. 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 junior center Mike Pizziketti — are players that Averill Park head coach Dave Pugliese said “would start for any team in our league” and likely would be acknowledged as top-10 players in the Suburban Council if not for the shadow cast from Huerter, who is averaging a team-high 20.8 points per game and bound for the University of Maryland next season.
“Those kids don’t get assessed fairly,” Pugliese said. “Like, Luke Hicks, he’s a top-five player in this league. He won’t show that until next year because he’s a great teammate and he defers to [Huerter] — and why wouldn’t you? — but he’s tremendous.”
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 stakes grow higher this season, outside appreciation for Shenendehowa’s dominance will likely wane in favor of an urge to watch a juggernaut fall.
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.