BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Despite all the talent that has left the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball program following each of its last two seasons, head coach Tony Dzikas still has a powerful group of Plainsmen at his disposal for the 2016-17 campaign.
“They play well together, they move the ball and they can shoot it,” Dzikas said at a recent practice. “There are times we have to work on handling the ball, but overall I’ve liked what I’ve seen.”
While Kevin Huerter — the state’s reigning Mr. Basketball, now starting for the University of Maryland — and two other starters in guards Mike Collins and Petar Bebic graduated from last year’s state semifinalist a year after the Plainsmen graduated a host of impact players from its state championship-winning team in 2015, this season’s crew still packs plenty of punch. Senior center Mike Pizziketti and senior guard Luke Hicks both return as starters, while the latter is likely to be one of the area’s best overall talents.
“Luke’s just got to have fun this season,” Dzikas said of his 6-foot-4 star. “He can do everything that I believe a scholarship player can do. What he needs to do is go out, have fun and play his game.”
Around those two stars, Shenendehowa has quality shooters and strong athletes. Figuring out how to best rotate that cast around Hicks and Pizziketti has been the team’s early-season focus.
“Through every scrimmage, through every quarter, I think we had a different lineup,” Pizziketti said. “We’re seeing what works the best.”
In all, Shenendehowa returns eight players from a team last season that finished 24-1. The Plainsmen, which have not lost a league game since the 2013-14 season and have won the last two Section II Class AA titles, have a roster capable of once again competing for an area championship.
“We have a lot of tough guys, a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things,” Hicks said.
Dzikas said his team has the “luxury” this season of having enough diverse parts that its starting lineup could change depending on matchups, though he said he’d like to eventually settle on one starting group. In senior guard Danny Beyer and junior guard Jake Dzikas, there’s plenty of proven 3-point shooting; Hicks called junior forward Greg Monroe a “rebounding machine” during the preseason; and, players such as senior guards Jaia Benson and Evan Warner gained valuable experience last season.
Junior Chris Hulbert returns at a guard position, while junior Jason Canterbury joins the Plainsmen’s varsity as a junior forward. Meanwhile, three sophomores — guards Abbas Merchant and T.J. Sangare, plus forward Reece Brown — are players Tony Dzikas said are candidates for playing time.
Dzikas singled out the 6-foot-4 Brown as a player who came along tremendously during the offseason.
“The difference between Reece this year and last year is night and day,” Dzikas said.
Hicks said the Plainsmen are going to be patient with their progress in the 2016-17 season. Especially early in the season, he said, Shenendehowa needs to judge itself by its improvement on a day-by-day basis.
“If we stick to what we can do,” Hicks said, “we’ll be just fine.”