In December of 2009, Thunder Mountain High School coach John Blasco had the opportunity of a lifetime: Starting a basketball program from the polished floor up.
The 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate was a defensive-minded player for the Crimson Bears, and that mind set progressed over the Falcons first four years to produce a Region V Championship last season and a trip to the “show,” the state championships in Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena.
“Not many coaches get that opportunity, statewide or nationwide,” Thunder Mountain coach John Blasco said. “I am very fortunate and have enjoyed every moment of it. It has been fun building a program.”
The Falcons have earned a reputation for their will to compete and their character.
“Whether we or down or up, we compete until the very end,” Blasco said. “Our style of play has varied every year but we continue a respectful character.”
For the 2013-14 season, the TMHS Falcons are the team to beat in Southeast.
Yes, the first class of freshmen graduated last year and the talented roster featuring Sam Jahn, Vili Tupou, Josh Tupou, Ty Grussendorf, Avery Stewart, Travis Johnson, Joe Ia and Rohan Kishore moved on.
The Falcons averaged 55.6 points per game and opponents averaged 50.9. TMHS averaged 11.7 assists per game and 12.7 turnovers, but limited opponents to less. This was a product of their aggressive athleticism.
“We definitely had a good season last year,” Blasco said. “It was an enjoyable ride. It was a special group and everything came together for us and we were able to win some games. Is this year’s team better? That is the question only time can tell.”
Of the five returning players on the defending Region V champs, three are proven state performers who were, arguably, among the top four players on the team.
Senior all-state tourney selection Ben Jahn is the team’s top returning rebounder (7.2 per game, 8.9 points), a powerful force on defense inside and should be a hard matchup in the key for opposing teams.
“Ben brings the same thing he has brought to every sport he has played,” Blasco said. “He is a natural athlete with talent, but he is a leader and the team follows him.”
Senior Matt Seymour (12.4 points per game, 4 rebounds) has a shooting range limited only by what Blasco deems “appropriate” and can handle the ball as well as strip it from those who choose to challenge him one-on-one.
“Matt is recognized as our offensive threat,” Blasco said. “Teams will play him for his perimeter shooting. He has been seen statewide hitting anywhere from four to seven (three pointers) per game.”
Junior Jacob Calloway has the most potential of any Falcons’ player to date. Height is hard to teach and Calloway brings the ability to handle the ball, create his own shots, defend on the perimeter and on the blocks, and do all of this while at a lengthy 6-foot-6.
“He has that scorer’s mentality,” Blasco said. “Something I never had. I am glad he has it because I can’t necessarily coach that. Getting him, Matt, Ben and the other guys playing together is going to be crucial.”
Senior Mike Uddipa and junior Trent Uddipa return to the backcourt. The two will be relied on to guard the fastest players in the state.
Newcomers to the Falcons’ varsity include seniors Josh Palmer, Luke Nye, Alan Fisher and Ryan Lee; juniors Collin Ludeman at guard, forward Brendan Pietz; and sophomore guard Guy Bean.
Palmer moved out of Juneau after his eighth-grade year and returns to play wing, Nye is a post threat, Fisher is a shooting guard from Mt. Edgecumbe, and Lee is a post player with solid, untapped potential.
“This is a team with several new faces,” Blasco said. “Not just on the varsity level but through the school. I think we have some good individual talent but I don’t know if the team is better yet. My job as the coach is to teach the X’s and O’s and to develop the team/game strategy that is best for everybody, and to make sure that everybody’s goal is for the team to win. As long as everyone is doing their part and I am providing the plans and the tools to do that, it works.”
The Falcons begin play tonight in Sitka. A round robin format features Barrow, Grace Christian and the defending southeast champion Wolves.
“Sitka makes me nervous,” Blasco said. “We battled hard with them last year in our two games and they only lost one senior, so they are returning a strong class. Coach Lee has them working hard.”
Grace Christian is ranked third in the state for 3A and Barrow is a traditional power.
The Falcons are ranked third in the state by one prep sports outlet, behind West and Colony, and fourth in another.
The Falcons will play in tourney action at Monroe Jan. 2-4 (Monroe, Palmer, Service) and in the Dimond tourney Jan. 9-11 (opening with preseason number one ranked West, with Colony or Monroe next).
“I think this year is the toughest game schedule we have had in our five years,” Blasco said. “I am definitely looking forward to it.”
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL
Juneau-Douglas graduated a roster of talented athletes who are pursuing college sports; Phillip Fenumiai (football), Aquino Brinson (basketball), Jeffrey Pusich (baseball), Keith Ainsworth (basketball), Jackson Lehnhart (soccer), as well as Ben Williams and Gary Speck.
That is a lot of muscle to replace and the Crimson Bears will take some lumps until they take root on the hardwood.
“We have certainly spent some time in the weight room,” Juneau-Douglas coach Robert Casperson said. “But I don’t think we are going to win any games when we step off the bus through intimidation. Our guys have worked at it but we don’t have the overall bulk and size of the last couple years. We are more spry this year.”
Top returners are Adam Empson (6 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds) and Bruce Jones (4 points, 3 rebounds). The duo started the first half of the season and provided potent substitution strength during the second half.
“We are not returning much in the way of stats,” Casperson said. “My challenge to the guys is that there are opportunities to get on the court and play.”
JDHS averaged roughly 50 points per game, while opponents tallied 57. The Crimson Bears lost leads in the fourth quarter of seven losses. The team’s strength will be athleticism and speed. Weaknesses are lack of experience and a traditional center width in the paint.
“Our record does not indicate the number of games we were in last year,” Casperson said. “We were in them, we just didn’t finish. This year’s group is much different. With what they bring in individual abilities we can’t approach the season the same way.”
Also returning are seniors Kevin Guimmayen, Dartanan Hodge-Campos, and juniors Nathan Klein, Manasa Maake, and Gunnar Schultz. Each has the opportunity to vie for a starting position. Klein (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) is a competitive force inside, Guimmayen and Schultz spent offseason hours on their game and Hodge-Campos is a leader with work ethic.
“With guys so similar, this means our depth will be an attribute,” Casperson said.
First time varsity players are senior Rahul Chhabria, juniors Dorian Isaak and Jacob Thibodeau, and sophomores Kaleb Tompkins and Treyson Ramos.
Tompkins will provide a lift off the bench to knock down shots, Ramos is fearless on the court, Thibodeau will play multiple positions and Isaak is athletic with leadership ability. Chhabria drew praise for his off season commitment.
“He would wake up, hit the weights, go to open gym, stay extra for ball handling and really committed for his senior season,” Casperson said. “Just to make the team his final season and possibly contribute is a success.”
Two freshmen will potentially see minutes at the varsity level, Stewart Conn (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) and Bryce Swofford (6-foot-5, 170).
Conn can create opportunities and attack the basket and is not bashful with taking a shot. Swofford is extremely active and competitive and does not back down from physical play.
“We are going to have moments where it will not look pretty this year,” Casperson said. “I think we are also going to provide a lot of excitement too. This group is committed to playing a style of basketball that is new for us.”
That style begins tonight at the Soldotna Stars in a tourney that features Southeast foe Ketchikan. JDHS’ bracket includes Bethel against Mt. Edgecumbe. The other side has Colony against Nikiski and Ketchikan plays Kenai. Colony’s Damien Fulp signed to play with UAA next season.
JDHS also hosts the Princess Cruises Capital City Classic (Dec. 27-30), featuring Dimond, North Pole and Cordova. They also travel to a tourney at Lathrop (Jan. 16-18) to play the Malemutes, Monroe and Kodiak.
KETCHIKAN HIGH SCHOOL
Kayhi has followed the path of fast-paced offensive schemes this season.
The Kings will rely on their athleticism to disrupt opponents.
“Every year is a new puzzle,” Kayhi coach Eric Stockhausen told the Ketchikan Daily News. “My job is to put the kids in a position to do the things they do well. This year we are built for speed.”
The Kings main returners are junior scoring threat Alex Pihl, sophomore inside presence Mo Bullock, and seniors Colton Paulsen, Malik Almenzor, Omar Mendoza and Isaiah Navales. The majority of the team stands 6-foot or taller. The size is not formidable across the state, but can compete through southeast. The speed, on the other hand, can translate across regions.
Kayhi split with a talented 3A Petersburg Vikings team to open the season last week in Ketchikan, losing 58-46 and winning 55-46.
The Kings last competed at the state tournament in 2005 when Jesse LeBeau took his sweet handle against Bartlett’s Mario Chalmers. Chalmers, who earned a state title as a freshman against Juneau, went on to a college championship at Kansas and two NBA title with the Miami Heat. LeBeau has earned a living with hoops skills in videos.
This Kings team can make a statement if they overlook the TMHS preseason hype and the JDHS tradition, and play like the Kayhi teams of old.