FIELD TWP- High school basketball uniforms are sporting a new accessory this season – masks intended to decrease the possibility of transmitting COVID-19. Players have to wear masks at …
FIELD TWP- High school basketball uniforms are sporting a new accessory this season – masks intended to decrease the possibility of transmitting COVID-19. Players have to wear masks at practices, which started Jan. 4, and at all games in the pandemic-shortened season that gets underway this week.
For North Woods Grizzlies Head Coach Will Kleppe, that means adjustments in practices and game rotations as he looks to involve more players in contests.
While the Grizzlies are down in numbers from the bumper crops of varsity players they’ve had the past five or six years, Kleppe said he’s discovered a welcome trade-off. He has more players he can insert into the lineup without seeing a drop-off in overall performance.
“We’re deeper this year,” Kleppe said. “Last year we maybe got seven or eight guys in; this year, I’m pretty confident that varsity core of ten guys can all contribute. It is going to be different, and I think that it’ll take a little getting used to for a couple of guys that have been used to playing 30 minutes on the floor. My tendency as a coach is to run my horses into the ground, but the reality this year is that a guy that played 30 minutes a game last year might be playing 26 or 22 in order to get that rotation where we can get him off the floor a few times each half just to recover a little bit, catch their breath, get hydrated, and then be ready to go again. I’m hoping our depth will allow us to keep that pace up where we can push the ball and go and still rotate and have guys fresh at the end of the game.”
Kleppe has 16 players on the varsity roster and might have had more if not for COVID-19 and choices about learning.
“I think for some kids that chose to be distance learning, they’re in their own routine and basketball probably doesn’t fit that real well,” Kleppe said. “They’ve got their schedule and to have to drive into the school for a couple hours of basketball maybe just wasn’t appealing to them.”
Most of his players were out for football in the fall and experienced the disappointment of canceled games and a shortened season due to COVID-19 exposures and/or cases, and Kleppe said he’s seen that translate into the team taking individual and collective responsibility for wearing their masks and staying socially distant as activities allow.
“We explained it pretty clearly to our kids that this is what’s required to play, and the alternative is we don’t play,” he said. “We’ve got kids who want to play, so they’re certainly doing their best. The kids are super resilient and they’re kind of taking it in stride.”
Kleppe said he and assistants are being more attentive to players by asking how they are feeling and watching to see if they appear winded, things they’ll continue to do during games. It’s not only essential for their health, but for how Kleppe wants to play the games.
“The formula hasn’t changed -- we’re going to push the ball,” he said.
Kleppe has the backcourt players to accomplish that, starting with a trio of Chiabottis – T.J., Brenden, and Jared.
“T.J. has state tournament experience, he’s a leader, he’s a hard worker and a lead-by-example kind of guy,” Kleppe said. “His teammates recognize his skill and the time he’s put in and they really rally around him. He’s joined by his brother and his cousin who also have valuable experience. The big thing about those two guys is that they matured a lot from last year. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, and they’re a little more comfortable with the system.”
Alex Hartway didn’t get as much playing time last year, but his defensive prowess is going to earn him a lot of playing time.
“I’m comfortable putting him out there guarding anybody,” Kleppe said.
Those guards will be complemented by Darius Goggleye down in the post.
“I think that’s a pretty up and down the floor combination because Darius can certainly get down the floor,” Kleppe said. “His back-to-the-basket moves have improved tremendously in the off-season due to playing AAU ball, so I feel really good entering the ball to him and letting him just go to work.”
Kleppe’s son, Davis, returns to the team after recovering from a serious injury last year.
“He’s got some catching up to do,” Kleppe said.
Unfortunately, Kleppe has encountered another injury problem in practice with guard Bryce Chosa, but he hopes to have him back in the lineup toward the end of the season. In the interim, Kleppe can turn to freshman Jonah Burnett, a good defender and ball handler.
Sean Morrison, at 6’2”, is expected to be a strong backup to Goggleye down low, as is Jake Panichi.
“We’re three deep at the post,” Kleppe said.
In fact, Kleppe’s depth is so good that he momentarily overlooked a newcomer.
“Oh, geez, there’s Erik Aune, the new guy from Louisiana – now that we have him comfortable driving on the snow he’s good to go,” Kleppe said. “He’s a hard worker who takes coaching extremely well, showing some real good defense as well as the ability to shoot threes. He was an unexpected bonus.”
Kleppe said the group is coming together well as a team, driven in part by an awareness of the previous success of Grizzlies teams.
“They’ve answered a lot of question for us already, which makes our jobs easier,” Kleppe said.
Another big change this season is that attendance will be limited to only two fans per player, but Grizzlies fans who can’t go to home games will be able to watch them either live or delayed on a new streaming video system utilizing the free National Federation of High Schools website.
Both the boys and girls teams had season openers scheduled for Thursday, with the boys traveling to Carlton and the girls at home against Nashwauk-Keewatin. The boys have a quick turnaround with a 6 p.m. home game against Northland, then hit the road again on Tuesday, Jan. 19 for a game at Cherry. The girls will play at home again on Monday against International Falls.