The sound of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers reverberated off the walls of high school gyms throughout New York State last week. With the start of tryouts and preseason practices, boys basketball teams took the first careful steps in an adventure whose ending they do not know.
Perhaps it’s too much to say that championships are won in November, but then again, this is a critical period when coaches select the players for their teams, devise playing styles and strategies, and players undergo conditioning drills to prepare for the rigors of the coming season.
“It’s one of the most important three days of the season,” Riverhead Blue Waves senior guard Ben Edmund said of his team’s three-day tryout period, which ended on Friday. “You choose your destiny in these three days.”
Sal Manno, a senior guard for the Southold First Settlers, said: “It’s very important because it shows who’s committed, who wants to work hard and who wants to get better. You definitely want to show the coaches that you’re here seriously and you want to compete and everything. If you want to start or get a lot of playing time, it’s all up to you.”
To one degree or another, there is uncertainty. Who will make the team? Who will earn starting positions? What type of style will the team play? What players will best fit that style? Who would make a good practice player, willing to do the grunt work? How strong will the team be?
“There’s that excitement in the air,” Riverhead Coach John Rossetti said last Thursday night before his team’s second day of tryouts. “It’s kind of like Santa Claus is coming, in a way, and you want to see what gifts are under the tree.”
Basketball is back, and it’s a happy time for players like Riverhead senior guard Elwood Lamb III. “I’ve been looking forward to this ever since we lost that last playoff game,” he said.
The tryout phase can be physically and mentally grueling for players, and intense for coaches faced with big decisions. It seems that there is more than enough pressure to go around, particularly for those players on the proverbial bubble, trying to catch the coach’s eye and win a roster spot.
“Personally, I want to look like I’m the one who’s trying the hardest, playing the hardest, hustling, getting all the loose balls,” said Connor Davis, a senior point guard for the Mattituck Tuckers.
Tryout situations differ from school to school. At Class AA Riverhead, the number of aspiring players is usually high. This year, 27 players came out for about a dozen varsity spots.
“I definitely think that there’s a high level of pressure due to the fact that everybody wants to be on the team,” Edmund said. “I think all you can do is play 100 percent no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s drills or conditioning. … To do your best is all you can do.”
And what are the coaches looking for? Some look for different things.
“I tend to look at off-the-ball activity,” Rossetti said. “A lot of people focus on what someone is doing with the basketball. To me, the better player does more off the basketball than with the basketball because they know how to play the other parts of the game.”
Modern technology helps. The Blue Waves recorded their tryout sessions for the coaches to review.
Rossetti also uses detailed evaluation criteria to grade the players in areas such as rebounding, defending and shooting.
And, in what may come as a surprise to some, selecting the team is not always simply about picking the 12 best players. Sometimes a lot more goes into it than that, such as addressing team needs and finding players with the right personality to suit their role on the team, say as a practice player who will see little or no playing time in games.
“You want to pick the 12 best pieces to fit the puzzle,” Rossetti said. “And you have to select kids who you think are going to be good chemistry kids because if you put a kid on there who thinks that he should be a starter and is not seeing starter-type minutes, it becomes a cancer and then your team implodes.”
Rossetti said the top six or seven players he selects are usually clear-cut choices. However, he said, “those bottom six kids are really what make the team because without them you don’t have kids in practice working hard.”
Although practice players do not get the headlines, they are invaluable for a team striving to improve.
And then there is that delicate matter of making cuts, something no coach enjoys doing. For many, it is their least favorite part of the job, but a necessary one, nonetheless.
“They’re exposing themselves and they’re letting you evaluate their talent,” Rossetti said, “and you don’t want to hurt kids’ dreams, and that’s what you do by cutting a kid, you’re cutting into their dreams.”
Some coaches use letters or lists to let players know whether they had made the team; others talk to them face to face. When explaining to a player why he did not make the team, some coaches say being honest and straightforward is the best policy.
“Tomorrow is like black Friday. I hate it,” Mattituck Coach Paul Ellwood said after last Thursday night’s practice. “You feel terrible about cutting. It’s the worst part of the job. You can only manage so many players on the team. It’s terrible. You hate to say no to somebody, you hate to reject somebody, but it’s the reality.”
At some smaller schools, such as Greenport, Mattituck and Southold, making cuts can be less of an issue because the number of players involved are inevitably smaller than at larger schools. Greenport Porters Coach Al Edwards, for example, joked that his team was “collecting” players rather than cutting them, with barely enough for a varsity and junior varsity team.
Mattituck had 15 players come out for tryouts. Ellwood said he may give a couple of players the option to be put on the team with the understanding that they will not get playing time, something he has done before.
While making the team may not be a question for players at some small schools, the competition for starting positions and playing time remains an incentive.
“We’re not really worried about [winning] a spot on the team,” Southold senior forward Alex Conway said. “We’re more worried about having playing time.”
Coaches face a different sort of pressure, the pressure of the calendar and the clock. They worry about the short time they have to install offensive sets and defensive packages and prepare players for the first scrimmage, the first non-league game, the first league game. Woe to the team that is not ready.
“It’s like a blink of an eye your first scrimmage, and two seconds later you’re into your first non-league game,” Southold Coach Jeff Ellis said, “and in basketball, if you don’t have all your stuff in, you’re going to take a loss in your first game.”
Conditioning is critical, too. Mattituck senior guard Steve Ascher said: “Conditioning is the hardest part. You need to be in shape and if you’re not going to be in shape right away, you’re going to start losing right away.”
Coaches remind players not to rest on their laurels. Just because a player makes the team one year doesn’t mean he has a guaranteed spot the next year.
“I told them on Day One … there are no spots guaranteed for anybody, so if you’re a freshman [and] you’re one of the top 12 kids, I have no problem bringing you up to the varsity if you’re going to help our team and play,” Ellis said. “They know that they’re not just going to step into the gym and be like, ‘O.K., this spot is mine so I can dog it.’ ”
For all the difficulty of making cuts, there is always the other side of the coin when a coach gets the opportunity to tell a player that his dream has been realized, and he has made the team.
Ellwood said: “He’s diving on the floor, [and] you say: ‘This kid’s going to be a great practice player. I know he’s going to be on the team.’ In his mind, he’s sweating it out. He’s not sleeping at night. You want to tell him the first day so he can get some sleep at night, but you just can’t. … Then you tell him that third night and he tries not to show that he’s so excited, but you know he’s screaming, jumping up and down inside. It’s a good feeling.”