Jim Hunt had a feeling that this years Sandy Creek boys basketball team would challenge for a Frontier League title.
One reason for that is the Comets were more than competitive with some of the top teams last season when they went 7-11, but were unable to finish out close games.
And secondly, most of the starting cast returned, while the maturity level increased two-fold with the added experience.
With the season heading into the final three weeks of play, Hunts initial thoughts have been confirmed. Sandy Creek has been one of the most consistent teams in the league and is on track to win a C Division title with a 9-1 overall and 8-1 league record.
We played very well in offseason games and tournaments, said Hunt, who was 18-36 in his first three years at Sandy Creek. Winning has obviously helped improve our confidence. Experience and maturity has started to show in team members when there is some adversity.
With a team made up of predominantly juniors and one returning senior in Tyler Swarthout, the Comets figure to just keep getting better and better.
Hunt said this group has been on his radar for some time. We have known since youth basketball that this was going to be a good group of basketball players, he said. Theyve gone through some growing pains against older and more experienced opponents over the past three years, But they now are standouts that are difficult matchups for other teams.
Swarthout has turned into a team leader and has grown into a big game player, averaging 15.6 points per game.
Juniors Zachary Halsey, first in scoring at 16.3 ppg., and Reis Harding, averaging 9 points, were starters as freshmen and have really picked up their games this season.
Hunt also has one of the best athletes in the entire league in junior Cameron Hall, who averages 8.4 points. And junior transfer Matt Reese has been a real find, averaging 9 points in his first season of high school basketball and giving the Comets outstanding work on the boards.
Then there is 6-foot-1, 320-pound junior Matt Ennist, an all-state football standout for the Comets, who has been a force inside for the Comets.
We arent that big, but our athleticism makes up for it, Hunt said. We have also been doing a much better job of making adjustments throughout the games.
The Comets have already beaten their top two C Division rivals, South Lewis (85-70) and Thousand Islands (73-47). They also own a nice nonleague win over Class B Mexico and have beaten Class B South Jefferson in crossover play.
Sandy Creeks only loss came on the road at D Division leader Sackets Harbor, 52-45, early in the season.
Hunt also credits the consistent play of captains Halsey and Swarthout as major reasons for his clubs early success.
While Sandy Creek has been one of the surprise clubs of the season, its been a complete rebuilding process at two of last years most successful programs.
South Jefferson went 18-2 a year ago and made it to the Section 3 Class B semifinals. Beaver River was even better, going 21-2, capturing a Class C sectional crown and first state playoff berth in nearly 30 seasons.
Both clubs suffered devastating graduation losses with basically their entire starting lineups gone. Thus, South Jefferson is off to a 5-5 start, while Beaver River is just 1-9.
South Jefferson coach Fred Piche said the biggest adjustment from last year is we just struggle to score points consistently.
Piche could always rely on Tom Bassett and Jacob Worden for consistent scoring the past couple of years. This time around, only senior Bobby Lees has shown any consistency.
South Jefferson is averaging just 43 points, and has scored 60 points just once. The Spartans scored just 18 points in an early game against Indian River, then beat Watertown only 32-30 on Tuesday.
Piche said the inability to play an entire game is really hurting his team.
Each game we end the first quarter with the lead or behind by a few. At halftime the same. We have not found a way to extend that for a whole game. Other than Lees, Piche said, the rest of our points come by committee.
The Spartans defense has been fine, allowing only 47.6 points a game. Its been fantastic at times, Piche said. But once we fall behind, its really tough to catch up.
The good news is that it is a very young team that starts just one senior and has only two on the roster. We may take our lumps this year, but the talent is there to make some noise the next two years, he said.
Still, South Jefferson will likely win another B Division title because it has already beaten the other two teams, General Brown and Lowville.
That was our goal starting the season, to win our division, Piche said. After the first round, we have put ourselves in a good spot to do that. But as a whole, we are a little disappointed in our record.
Beaver River coach Lynn Petzoldt also knew the rebuilding process would force his club to take its lumps this season. So far, he was right.
The Beavers only win is against a 2-8 LaFargeville team. But, they have been competitive in most of their losses and are showing small signs of improvement.
Only senior Dustin Neddo saw any meaningful minutes on last years club that graduated its top five scorers, including All-North performers Alex Hall and Samuel Widrick.
Petzoldt starts two juniors in Christian Widrick and Andrew Purcell, and a couple of promising sophomores in Troy Purcell and Brett Neddo. So, like South Jefferson, the future will probably be much brighter.
I think the toughest part of this season is finding a new identity, Petzoldt said. We are smaller sized team this year. We have played well at different times in all phases of the game, but havent found the one thing that we can consistently rely on as a strength.
We have great kids on the team and are close to finding out who were are, he added. Hopefully, we have a late season surge. We will just keep working hard.
ZEBRA CLASSIC CHANGES
The Zebra Classic, an all-star tournament that has been a staple after the conclusion of the high school basketball season for nearly 30 years, is changing its format and moving to an in-season event.
Matching boys and girls all-stars teams from the Frontier League as well as the Syracuse and Utica-area leagues, the new Zebra Classic will be called the Pathfinder Bank Zebra Classic Basketball Tournament and will be played this Sunday at Onondaga Community Colleges Allyn Hall.
The bad news for area fans is that no Frontier League teams are included in this years schedule.
It will be staged each year on Martin Luther King Weekend.
Sportswriter John Day covers Frontier League boys basketball for the Times. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org