Growing pains: it’s been a steep learning curve for young Panthers squad
Another loss. Another lopsided score.
Last Wednesday’s 52-13 defeat at the hands of the visiting Valleyview Vikings seems to epitomize what has been a tough basketball campaign for this year’s Merritt Secondary School senior girls basketball team.
Not only is head coach Dwayne Suzuki’s Panther squad very young and inexperienced (with only two Grade 12s and eight Grade 10s), but they’re operating in somewhat of a vacuum. There was no senior girls team last year, and the loss of almost 18 months of development is painfully evident on the playing court. Many of the skills are still in the early stages of evolution, and the familiarity with systems and with teammates just isn’t there yet.
Add to the mix the fact that all of MSS’s basketball teams have had to operate outside of their own gymnasium until last week’s senior games against Valleyview. The high school’s gym has been undergoing a major renovation since late summer, and all team practices and games have had to take place across town at the former Coquihalla Middle School. It doesn’t quite make for the same “home court advantage.”
“It’s been tough,” Suzuki said of all the obstacles facing his youthful hoops team. “We talked at the beginning of the season. The girls know that this year is very much a work in progress. We’re already looking forward to next year and the year after.”
Against the Vikings on Wednesday, there were plenty of hopeful signs for the future. The Panthers actually scored the first basket, and held a 4-0 lead in the opening minutes.
“I thought that we moved the ball quite well offensively,” Suzuki said, “and we were getting good looks. The shots just didn’t seem to want to go in.”
This year’s senior girls’ side isn’t blessed with a lot of size, so Suzuki has the team running somewhat of a motion offence.
“We’re posting up just one player and setting the other four all above the free-throw line. We’re trying to run lots of cuts. There’s plenty of options with this kind of offence. The hard thing right now is getting the girls to recognize the options. They’re getting better.
“We’re also working on a fast break,” Suzuki added, “and seeing if we can score some points that way.”
The Panthers head coach liked what he saw from his players on the defensive side of the ball against Valleyview.
“We’re doing a man-to-man defence this year instead of a zone,” he said. “It’s hard work, but the girls are buying into it. I’m trying to get the team to adopt the mentality that a stop on defence is like a score for us. I want them to treat it that way.”
This week, the Panthers travel to Kam-loops for their second matchup against the provincially ranked Sahali Sabres. It was a bit of a blowout when the two teams met back in December.
“After the first game against them, the Sahali coach had some really nice things to say about our girls,” Suzuki said. “I think that the future for our team looks promising.”
Unlike Merritt’s senior girls squad, the Panthers senior boys team, coached by Dave Anderson and JP Lancaster, is more of a veteran group with eight Grade 12s on the roster. While they’ve lost more games than they’ve won, the boys have definitely been in the mix in every outing.
Against Valleyview, the Panthers kept the score close through three quarters before falling to the Vikes 81-54. Forward Bryce Dixon had a game-high 22 points, while point guard Harman Bhuttar chipped in with 15 points, including a trio of three-pointers from beyond the arc.
“Bryce picked up a lot of his points from rebounds on the offensive boards,” Anderson said. “He’s very good at finishing under the hoop. He also got a few baskets off the dribble which was nice to see. It’s a new part of his game that is starting to emerge.”
Anderson’s players also face the Sabres on Wednesday. They gave the Kamloops team a bit of a scare a month ago by keeping them within two points at halftime.
“I think we surprised them the first time around,” Anderson said. “We’ll both know what to expect on Wednesday.”