Led by senior veterans Pfaff, Brandsgaard, top five well-seasoned, but team has no experienced reserves
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — As the Jim Carrey-portrayed Riddler proclaimed, “I’m counting on it,” to Nicole Kidman’s character in one of the turn-of-the-century Batman movies about Batman coming to try to rescue her, Chillicothe High School boys’ basketball head coach Tim Cool expects for his 2019-20 Hornets to be a much-better team by late February than it will be when it begins its season play Monday (Dec. 2) in the Savannah Invitational Tournament.
Cool’s expectation isn’t premised on significant improvement from his best players or the team’s likely “starting five” – returning senior all-district/all-conference standouts C.J. Pfaff and Westley Brandsgaard, returning senior starter Bradley Riley, and junior guards Mason Baxter and Hayden Simmer, or even on his and his coaching’s staff instructional skills, but rather on one simple fact: Of the Hornets’ non-starters, only one has played even a few seconds of varsity-level hoops as a Hornet, a situation which will be radically-altered over the next 2-plus months.
“We’ve got a lot of (inexperienced reserves) competing for spots right now,” the CHS coach commented this past Monday, a week before game play in his ninth season leading the Hornets commences. “That depth is going to be so important.
“As we play, it’s so important that they keep getting better, because we’re going to have to have depth. We can’t rely on five guys or even six guys. We’re going to have to have some depth to get through a tough MEC schedule and a long season.”
Because of the total lack of varsity experience – four of the seven backups will be freshmen – behind the presumed starters, Cool confirms his strategic flexibility will be constricted some the first month to six weeks of the season.
“We’ve got to go a little slower, because we do have some guys we think are going to help us at the varsity level right away and we can’t go too fast and put in too much or they’re going to be overwhelmed,” the coach related.
Based on available evidence – prior production by the returnees and the lack of experience among reserves, the anticipation is that, even more than normal, the CHS boys will not put a lot of points on the scoreboard (last year’s team averaged only 52). That means being in position to win will require limiting opponents’ offenses, something Cool’s clubs regularly do through great effort and game-planning.
“Defense is really where we have to ‘hang our hat,’” confirms Cool. “We’ve got to play great defense. That’s something we’re working hard at every day.”
Having We. Brandsgaard and Pfaff as the nucleus and the experience of Riley, Baxter, and Simmer around them offers hope of a competitive start to the season even as new players get the bearings.
“I really like where we are right now,” Cool asserted at the beginning of the week. “… We’ve got some experienced guys back from last year who are a year bigger and stronger.”
While the backups – in addition to the frosh, the others are 6’7” transfer (from Cameron) Joe Tullos, junior Dalton Ripley, and sophomore Damarcus Kelow – are the greenest of green Hornets, all except one of the starters have at least most of one season or more of starting experience. Only Simmer has not started previously.
Heading that well-seasoned core are bruising third-year starter We. Brandsgaard, who moved past 1,000 career points late last season, and gangly, second-year starting point guard C.J. Pfaff, who – barring health issue – likely will reach four figures in career scoring late this season.
A season ago, that tandem led the 14-11 Hornets in every statistical category except overall and 2-points shooting percentage, where Baxter showed the way.
Either We. Brandsgaard, whose younger brother Wyatt is among the ninth graders who’ll be varsity reserves, or Pfaff led last year’s club in scoring in every game, pinnacled by the unexpected 39-32 victory at St. Joseph: Benton when they combined to net every point the team produced.
To produce their scoring averages of 18.2 (We. Brandsgaard) and 16.4 (Pfaff) points, the duo had identical, team-best 3-points shooting percentages (32 percent) and netted almost the same total of shots from behind the arc. Both hit the offensive backboard well also, producing putback points.
The former muscled his way to and around the basket with power drives and double-clutch shots that led to his attempting 125 free throws – almost twice as many as any teammate – and converting there 73 percent of the time to produce about 30 percent of his overall points.
The latter repeatedly utilized his court sense and long arms and legs to average three steals a game – many of which were converted to breakaway layup points, as well as making slashing drives from the top of the key.
Pfaff, whose height has increased to nearly 6’5”, brings to the court an unusual combination of physical attributes and game skills.
A good ballhandler for his height, he led last year’s team in assists (82) and steals (76) – typical of many standout guards, yet also paced the Hornets in rebounds (7.8 per game) and shot blocks (2.3 per contest).
With no returning players with interior-position experience, the elder Brandsgaard – a sturdy 6’3” or 6’4” – will shift to a post position, as will a lanky 6’4” holdover, Riley. We. Brandsgaard’s position change could be providential by having him in the low post more, where he’ll be in position to hit the offensive glass even harder. Riley, presumably operating more at the high post, could provide a more-potent shooting presence from the key and perimeter.
“They play really well off of each other,” Cool says of the new post tandem.
In addition to Pfaff, We. Brandsgaard, and Riley providing good height and wingspan, Simmer has grown to about 6’1” and has filled out a bit, giving him a better chance to match up to the physical brand of ball the Hornets face in the Midland Empire Conference.
“Somebody I’ve been very pleased with, as far as development defensively, is Hayden,” Cool reports. “He’s gotten way better. He’s just getting bigger and stronger and (has) better understanding.”
Playing the “3” guard, he’ll also bring mid-range and perimeter shooting potential to the mix.
Baxter, while only 5’9”, plays bigger than that with his fine jumping ability. He also is the quickest of the starters, which – with his jumping ability – he utilizes well on defense.
“We’ve got one of the best on-ball defenders (in the area) in Mason. I feel like he is really good,” Cool asserted.
Baxter, who was bothered by injury problems a couple of different times in 2018-19, will want to upgrade his scoring contributions, some of which he’ll hope to be able to do with layups off steals. A year ago, he shot easily a team-best 64 percent on 2-points tries, but only got 39 such shots up. Beyond th 3-points line, his success rate was barely a third of that.
Between the three taller starters, Simmer’s growth, and Baxter’s quick-jumping ability, the Hornets should have a chance to rebound decently when that group is on the floor, Cool hopes.
“That’s something we have to concentrate on and our guys have to focus on,” he proclaimed Monday. “We’ve got to be that team that defends everything really, really tough and then ends those possessions with a good, strong, 2-hands rebound.”
Among the new varsity Hornets, Tullos – cousin of early/mid-1990s Lady Hornets standout Valerie Tullos – brings some varsity-level experience, as well as desirable height, over from Trenton. While not a consistently-notable presence for the Dragons as a junior, he did put up six points on 3-of-5 shooting and grab three rebounds off the bench in Cameron’s 19-points loss to Chillicothe late last season.
As he becomes more and more familiar with the tenets of Cool’s system, his playing time figures to grow.
Although listed at only 6’, Ripley – valued by the coaching staff for his effort and attention and dedication to detail – will get in some time as a backup post player, but will need to develop his offensive game, perhaps getting in a quarter or two of junior-varsity play still. Like several teammates – including Baxter, Tullos, Kelow, and Wy. Brandsgaard, he is a bit behind in basketball-skill sharpness after being on a CHS fall sports team that advanced well into postseason play that ended only a couple of weeks ago.
Like Ripley, the stocky Kelow figures to be a “banger” in the lane area, more of a defensive and rebounding presence than scorer. He likewise figures to get a chance to work on offensive improvement in some JV action.
The four freshmen – not the late 1950s/early 1960s singing quartet – bring promising hoops skills and “feel,” as well as overall athleticism to this year’s team. Each – Wy. Brandsgaard, Cayden Potter, Landon Winder, and Griff Bonderer – is listed as either 6’ or 6’1”, so they offer potential for growth into the 6’2”-6’4” range by the time they are juniors or seniors.
“They’re young,” acknowledged Cool, “… but they’ve got a lot of basketball under their belts. … Their (basketball) IQ is high.”
However, he cautions, “Their understanding of how to compete is getting there. … It’s a huge jump from eighth grade basketball to varsity basketball, so we’ve got to be patient.”
The returning varsity players have done a good job of, by example, acclimating the frosh to the hard-work and team-play expectations of the program and the rigors of varsity-level high school play during the time when the fall-sports varsity participants weren’t available, the coach reports.
“That rubs off on everybody,” Cool commented. “Our younger guys are seeing it every day and that’s what they’re going to do. It’s just going to become a habit, that they play hard every possession.”
Of the freshman foursome, indications are guard Bonderer is the most game-ready as the season starts, but the other three figure to get into most December games, it would seem, along with seeing plenty of JV minutes.
As with nearly any coach on the cusp of a new season, Cool feels a mix of anticipation and anxiousness to get in some game action, while also wishing for more time to polish the product further.
“I’m excited about the group we have. They’re really gelling well together,” he reported.