After losing their first two games by a combined total of four points, the eight members of the Twin Valley High School summer league team crisscrossed Western Massachusetts winning nine straight games by double-digits against schools like Mohawk Regional, Greenfield, Easthampton, and Turners Falls. While they dived into the summer action feeling like underdogs, they soon realized their chemistry was spot on and sailed to victories with margins of up to 30 points.
Playing in a number of those games, next year’s presumed floor leader and only senior with varsity experience, Sam Molner, said that with a young team destined to fill big roles, the year-round experience is crucial to their future success. “I was the only young buck on the team for two years playing varsity,” said Molner. “Every minute of basketball I played in the offseason, whether it was open gym, or at 6 am, it helps slow the game down so you see it develop, and it becomes a big advantage.”
With a small school population, the experience level of a roster can fluctuate dramatically year by year, and young players have to step up big early. Molner began playing varsity ball when he was a sophomore, and his fellow starters were all juniors, a scenario that may very well play out this season as well. This upcoming school year, Justin Hicks, DJ Lazelle, Kyle Murdock, Baylee Crawford, and Jack Lyddy will all enter junior year, while Brett Swanson and last-season varsity player Skyler Boyd enter sophomore year.
For Molner, getting a rapport down with a crew that is relatively new to his play on the floor didn’t need to be a crash course when the season begins, so he spent the summer getting into a rhythm with his team. “I think it was productive,” said Molner. “It was helpful in getting more team chemistry in for me, because during the season I didn’t play much with Justin or Skyler or Brett and only played with DJ in practice for the most part. Actually getting on the court in a game situation with them definitely helped me realize how they play, and also against a more difficult level than Division IV Vermont teams.”
All of the aforementioned players will be vying for spots on the Twin Valley varsity roster, along with three seniors who played junior varsity as juniors last year. The summer league Wildcats were unable to continue their season into the playoffs due to a number of summer vacations, but in 11 games, the Wildcats feel they achieved success in team chemistry, defeating bigger, more physical teams by simply knowing how to play off each other.
“Everyone knew where each other was going to be on the court and our chemistry got much better and it gave us better confidence,” said Boyd. “We were winning just one game by 10 or 20 but then you go into the next game confident and you continue to build.”
“It’s just making that extra pass sometimes,” said Swanson. “We make the extra pass now and we don’t care who scores as long as we win.”
Some of the summer Wildcats spent as many spare moments as they could playing ball. Hicks who will be vying to replace the school’s all-time assist leader Colin Lozito at point, attended a basketball camp, and Lazelle and Lyddy played AAU basketball in Massachusetts. Lazelle, the team’s integral sixth man during last year’s run, said the drive to succeed is fueled by losing the big game. “After having the bad taste in your mouth of making it to the championship game and losing it, it was like soccer season two years ago,” said Lazelle. “It gives you motivation to get back up and play.”
“No one likes to lose,” said Molner, who started at center during last year’s championship. “My drive is not to lose this year. Coming off a season like last year, actually having a winning season for the first time in my career, I can’t have another losing season. We’ll be underdogs going into the season because they’ll look at the roster and see we’ve lost two 1,000-point scorers and four starters, but between the seniors and the young bloods we’ve got coming up, we’ll be ready.”
The Wildcats summer crew all agree that playing year-round is due to the simple fact that “ball is life.” While their play will continue in a pick-up capacity from now until December 1, the attention swings to a different ball to focus life on, the soccer ball.