By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Without a starter back, the Hillsborough High School boys basketball team expected some growing pains.
The Raiders dropped their first two games — both on the road — before making their home debut at their Hillsborough Holiday Classic scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I think the encouragement was the growth after one game,” said first-year head coach John Parham after falling to Montgomery, 46-32, and then Somerville, 70-53.
“We played much better even in the second half of the Montgomery game after getting the first-game jitters out of the way,” the coach said. “The second game, we played a pretty good game, but just didn’t commit ourselves to playing 32 minutes. If we can put together four good quarters, we’re headed in the right direction.”
Hillsborough was scheduled to host Hightstown in their holiday tournament opener. North Brunswick and Hunterdon Central are also in the tournament. Parham expected to see a new wrinkle for his team with Hightstown playing a full-court pressing style.
“They like to run up and down — and pressure,” Parham said. “It’s a little different from our first couple games. Being pressured full court, they’ll try to speed us up. It’ll be first time we have to run our press offense.”
There are plenty of firsts for a team that is figuring out its roles. The players are learning a new offensive system under Parham.
“We knew we had a lot of green guys,” he said. “We knew we had a lot of inexperience. We knew there’d be some growing pains. You have to go through some games to see what guys are capable of, what they can do. The players also need a few games to see how a new system will fit with their game. And they have new coaches they have to get used to.”
The Raiders are hoping that their defense can give them a lift while they sort out their offensive strengths. That, too, is a work in progress.
“Defensively, we’re mixing it up and seeing what’s good for our team,” Parham said. “It’s a little trial by error, trying to figure out what they’re good at. We’re trying to do a little man, a little zone and some press. At times, they’ve looked good and other times not. We’re trying to see if they can put it all together.”
The Raiders roster has a solid class of seniors with Luke Finer, Kyle Jeney, Jimmy Suseck and Sam Wakai. They are moving into bigger roles in their final year with the Raiders.
“One senior, Jimmy Suseck, saw some good minutes (last year),” Parham said. “Sam Wakai played limited time coming off the bench and Kyle Jeney played limited minutes. Out of our seniors, really only one played a significant role. Even though they’re seniors, a lot of them haven’t had a lot of game experience.”
Parham has juggled his starting lineup in the early going a little, and he regularly has young players contributing in their first significant varsity action.
“Steven Rudd played mostly JV, and Jackson (Parham) played some minutes as a freshman,” said John Parham, Jackson’s father. “We have seven sophomores to go along with those guys. It’s a growing experience. I’m excited about our effort and energy. They’re playing hard. They’re playing together. We’re encouraging that and encouraging them to work together.”
Sean Plasken is another senior for Hillsborough and other sophomores include Tim Yost, Justin Brown and Ryan McCaffrey. They have been working together over the last month since practices began.
“The preseason was good,” Parham said. “It gave opportunities to introduce our system to the guys. Scrimmages are a little different. You can still coach them and can walk out on the court and stop things. It’s an opportunity to see who can play and what’s working as a system. When the lights come on, it’s a bit different, and you’re wearing a maroon uniform and traveling. It’s a whole different feel.”
It didn’t help that the first week of the season was spent playing on the road. Players were adjusting to their new roles all the while adjusting to new courts. They were looking forward to the holiday tournament as much for the chance to play at home as another chance to improve on some of the problems they have had in the early going.
“We have to eliminate some unforced turnovers,” Parham said. “We’ve had a number of those. We have to eliminate being a little unorganized, which comes from pressure. This will be our first home game. We’re excited to be home and wearing our whites.”
The Raiders remain home after the tournament to host Bridgewater-Raritan on Tuesday, Jan. 5, and Franklin on Jan. 7. Every chance to play is important for Hillsborough as it looks to build an identity and find how successful it can be with a team that began the year inexperienced but hungry.
“The only way to overcome it is to go out and do it,” Parham said. “They have two games under their belt. This is their first home game. A lot of them, it’s their first high-level varsity game. There’s really no other way to get the experience until you’re playing a game. It’s baptism by fire.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group