Limited experience top challenge for Chillicothe High basketball boys

Will tip off new season against Platte County at Savannah Tuesday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2021-22 Chillicothe High School basketball Hornets' varsity team will tip off its season Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. against Platte County in the first round of the Savannah Invitational Tournament. Team members include,  from left: Front – Carson Samm, Ricky Wilson, Milo Costner, Jackson Trout, Chace Corbin; Back – Griff Bonderer, Isaiah Sprong, James Mathew, Landon Winder, Wyatt Brandsgaard, and Alijah Hibner.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Extending the Chillicothe High School boys’ basketball string of eight winning seasons in a row could face its most-rugged test in that time this winter in the face of a tough schedule, departed veteran leadership, and relatively-limited experience.

Head coach Tim Cool commences his second decade at the helm with a squad with three returnees standing 6’3” or taller and with starting experience from a 15-10 season a year ago, but almost no varsity-level experience to flesh out his top five, not to mention his reserves.

“We’ve all got to get on the same page,” states the long-time CHS head coach who passed 500 career victories last season and owns 160 wins (in 265 games) as Hornets leader, making him both the third-leading CHS boys’ head coach in total number of wins (behind the late Richard Fairchild’s 209 and Chad Snyder’s 182) and average wins per season (behind Jeff Schnakenberg and Snyder).

“We’re going to have to play hard every day. We’re going to have to have great practice habits,” he asserts.

“We have a long way to go.”

Talent-wise, 6’3” junior returning starters Griff Bonderer and Wyatt Brandsgaard – both visibly more physically mature this season – and 6’5” sophomore James Mathew, a part-time starter as a freshman, bring very good size and good basketball skills to the task at hand in 2021-22. However, none are proven team “carriers” – able to dominate a game in multiple aspects and euphemistically win a game “by himself.”

The challenge is finding the right fits around them, both in terms of skills and leadership to replace those lost by the graduation of two steady, scrappy starters – Mason Baxter and Hayden Simmer – and capable reserve guard Eli Cross.

“We’ve got some kids coming back that played pretty significant roles last year,” Cool, interviewed by the C-T this past Tuesday – exactly one week before the opening game of this season against Platte County in the Savannah Invitational Tournament – acknowledges. “Now, their roles are going to have to develop even more.”

Only three other players in the Hornets colors this season – junior Landon Winder and sophomores Jackson Trout and Alijah Hibner – have played even a minute of varsity basketball previously, with Hibner having literally not much more than a minute’s experience and Trout only a handful of appearances of varying lengths.

Winder, another 6’3” 11th grader, played extensively off the bench a year ago and will fill one of the starting vacancies and Trout likely the other, serving as point guard.

Complicating the situation, in terms of experience, is the absence of a potential returning junior with some starting experience and lots of court time as a sophomore and freshman. Cayden Potter chose to bypass the sport this time around.

Partially balancing that is the return to the game of senior guard Chace Corbin, a state-tournament qualifier in tennis singles last spring and record-breaking member of this fall’s state-quarterfinalist soccer Hornets. After playing in the basketball program as a freshman, he focused on developing his soccer and tennis games as a sophomore and junior, but now is back in a basketball jersey.

His athleticism, long wingspan, and instincts will make him helpful from the outset and potentially a player of growing impact as the season progresses and his “feel” for the game sharpens.

“We’re really excited to have him back in our program,” Cool says of Corbin.

Rounding out the roster, but with lots of ground to cover to get up to speed at the varsity level against a CHS schedule Cool terms “brutal,” will be junior forward Isaiah Sprong, and sophomores Milo Costner, Carson Samm, and Ricky Wilson, a transfer to CHS from Columbia’s Rock Bridge High this school.

Also at about 6’3”, junior Sprong “gives us a big body inside and an athletic kid that is a very competitive player,” the Hornets’ coach comments.

Due to the general lack of playing experience of everyone outside of Brandsgaard, Bonderer, Mathew and Winder, there will be a lot of jockeying for playing time and juggling of players early in the season, Cool admits.

“There are so many things… that go into who’s on the floor,” he points out.

“We’re looking for guys who can really know their role, know what is expected of them, and go out there and do the things we need them to do to help us win games.”

He expands on the topic of who could be top reserves, “I’ve always just been a kind of ‘feel’ coach. It just depends on the situation.

“I would like to give some of these guys a real opportunity to see what they can do on the floor, to see how they mesh with everybody else on the floor. … Hopefully, I can use some different lineups, some different combinations, and really start to figure out what works best.”

That comes with a caveat, though.

“At the end of the day, on game day, we want to win the game,” Cool emphasizes. “It’s varsity basketball. We’re going to try to win the game and if (new) guys can help us do that, whatever combination it is – it might be brand-new guys who we figure out are really ready … and whoever’s ready to go help us win, that’s who we’re going to play.

“I’ve always said that. I don’t care how old you are. I don’t care about anything except how you practice – your attitude and effort – and can you help us win. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Top scorer and rebounder for last year's squad as a sophomore, 6'3" Griff Bonderer, seen hitting a reverse layup after a left baseline drive during the Nov. 16 "jamboree" scrimmage against Trenton, will be counted on to increase his production in both categories, as well as join fellow returning veteran Wyatt Brandsgaard, another junior, in providing overall leadership for the 2021-22 Chillicothe High School basketball Hornets.

As for the returning starters, Bonderer is the most-accomplished, having led last year’s team in scoring average and rebounding average.

A first team all-Midland Empire Conference and Missouri Basketball Coaches Association all-district selection as a sophomore, Bonderer “is going to have to lead us in a lot of different ways,” including in practice habits and example, Cool asserts.

While Bonderer and Mathew, last season’s No. 2 CHS rebounder, are on hand again, the CHS coach warns the caliber and size of competition the Hornets will lineup against most nights will require full lineup involvement any time an opponent’s shot goes airborne.

“We’re going to have to ‘team rebound,’” Cool assesses. “It’s going to have to be a ‘gang rebound’ thing where all five go rebound.

“I’d like to run. I’d like to get the ball out after a defensive rebound or a steal and try to get (points) in transition, but that is second on my list, when it comes to defensive rebounds. We have to rebound the ball.”

He reiterates, “We’re going to have to rebound the ball as a unit. Everybody’s going to have to get great ‘boxouts,’ be physical, rebound out of your area, everything.”

He notes that rebounding – particularly on the defensive end of the court – is, to a large degree, a matter of attitude.

“We’re going to have a lot of toughness. Defensive rebounding is just a lot about toughness and grit and determination,” Cool states. “We’re going to have to have a lot of that.”

As with any Cool-guided club, being a willing and able defender is the surest route to playing time.

“We have to guard with a ton of energy,” he challenges. “We have to play so hard. That’s not something that’s easy to coach.”

The need for defensive intensity and integrity will be there from game one, the coach professes, but will elevate in Midland Empire Conference games, mostly occurring in February.

“The teams that we’re going to play are going to play extremely hard and they’re going to be physical. It’s going to be fight and scratch for everything,” Cool reminds.

In terms of offensive approach, the Hornets – always leaning toward the deliberate side, in terms of tempo and willingness to shoot – could be even more so this season as a means of trying to limit opponents’ offensive output.

“Inside-out is the way we want to play,” the coach details. “If we’re shooting inside-out 3s, if we’re creating long close-outs on inside-out passes, that’s so good for us.”

“Our post play has to be strong,” he asserts. “We need to have post players that are going to, at least, demand a (opponent) look at a double-team. We’ve got to be able to have something happen when we throw it to the (low) post. Sometimes the best thing is throw it right back out.”

Also, look for the Hornets to try to drive the ball more, either with the driving player trying to score or draw a foul or drawing a “help” defender that could leave another Hornet free close to the basket.

“We do have some guys that are pretty good about getting in the lane,” Cool says. “Griff is a great creator. He’s going to get in there and make things happen for his teammates or himself.”

When working the ball around the perimeter, looking to create an open outside shot, the coach explains, “We’ve got to be great screeners. We’ve got to move the ball. We’ve got to be very active.”

With the departure of Simmer, the Hornets lost one of their two best 3-points shooters (along with Bonderer). Unless some emerges in that category, it could mean even more focus on longer possessions meant to find closer shots, as well as “shorten” games by limiting the total number of times opponents have the ball.

Schedule-wise, the 2021-22 slate is essentially the same as last year’s, with tournaments at Savannah, Lawson and Cameron again, as well as the now-traditional Saturday trip to Camdenton in mid-to-late January and one appearance (Dec. 21 against the strong Gallatin team) in the North Central Missouri College Foundation’s “High School Holiday Hoops” event.

As was reported recently in the C-T, the basketball Hornets will have only two home games before February.

Due to the length of Hamilton’s football season, this week’s would-have-been season opener against Penney High’s Hornets has been pushed back to Jan. 18. As a result, the CHS boys’ home opener won’t be until Jan. 4 when Lawson visits. The team will spend most of February playing at home.

It also was released by the Missouri State High School Activities Association last week that Chillicothe again will compete in Class 4 in the state playoffs at the end of the season, a situation likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future as CHS’ student population has it in the middle portion of the Class 4 enrollment range.

The Hornets and Lady Hornets are grouped in a district with the other five public schools from the MEC (St. Joseph: Lafayette downshifts to Class 4 again after being Class 5 last year). That makes it likely the district tourney will be hosted by either St. Joseph: Lafayette or Benton. The site won’t be finalized for a while yet.