The Falcons boys' basketball team is out to prove that not all first-year programs should be taken lightly, and they'll have their first chance tonight at Thunder Mountain High School against Petersburg in a girls'-boys' prep hoops doubleheader to kick off the season.
Tonight's first game tips off at 6 p.m. in what the students have affectionately dubbed the "Thunderdome."
But with only 10 days of practice under their belts, there's a lot of room left for the Falcons to grow, and they'd better grow up fast. After this weekend's pair of games, TMHS is on the road for its next six contests in tournaments at Soldotna and Monroe before returning home to open Region V play against Ketchikan on Jan. 8.
"Being on the road for two tournaments is going to be a real test for our players," coach John Blasco said. "We have a group of guys that have never done this before together. A few guys did it last year, but this group of 13 hasn't made any trips together and playing three nights in a row on the road is hard."
The Falcons bench goes 13 deep, but Blasco said he expects the rotation to include seven to nine players, depending on time and score. The starting rotation will be a game-time decision for tonight's opener.
"Our bench is filled with role players that are going to come in and fill pieces," he said. "They all kind of have their own specialty. I'm comfortable at seven (players), and I'll probably be able to go nine."
Two key Falcons will be 6-foot-3 senior wing Cody Grussendorf, and 6-foot-3 junior forward De'Andre "Jazz" King, two transfers from Juneau-Douglas.
Grussendorf, starting his fourth year on varsity, was an All-Conference first-team selection last year for the Crimson Bears, finishing second on the team in scoring (11.4 points per game) while shooting 35 percent from 3-point land and 44 percent from the field, first in assists (3 per game), first in steals (just more than 2 per game), and fourth in rebounding (3.36 per game).
Grussendorf said the team is "ecstatic" to get its season under way.
"We can't wait to start this new program off, and it's been going really well over the last 10 practices," he said. "We just can't wait to get a game under our belt and see where we are. I'm really excited to play with all my friends. We're a close-knit group of people and it's going to be a lot of fun."
Grussendorf said getting the entire varsity roster up to speed and building depth will be the biggest obstacle, but he expects good things.
"I think we're athletic and we'll be able to run a lot," he said. "We can get out in the open on the break."
At 245 pounds, King is the biggest Falcon and the key cog in the middle, so it's imperative he stay out of foul trouble or TMHS will have to go small with its guard-oriented roster.
"It's very important that I don't get into foul trouble. I know I have to move my feet and keep my hands straight up," he said. "But we should be looking sharp. We have some key players and two good posts."
Blasco said he's a "motion guy" when it comes to offensive philosophy, but having had just 10 days of practice so far, the team hasn't yet incorporated its more complex sets and plays.
"And with our athleticism, I'm hoping to get out and run," he added. "Pushing the ball is its own offense."
Defensively, expect to see a lot of man-to-man, Blasco said.
"I pride myself on playing man defense, and I've stressed that to these guys," he said. "We haven't had time to work on anything fancy, or a zone. Whether or not we can throw a possession or two of zone, probably, but it will be predominantly man. We'll just have to communicate and work hard. I'm hoping to (get out full court).
The biggest hurdle, said Blasco, is the lack of time to prepare.
"Not having a lot of time to scout teams and game plan for them is going to be a challenge," he said. "That's where I worry because we'll have two games this week, two days of practice, and then play three more games (at Soldotna). That's only two days of practice to make adjustments, and then get ready for three new teams. Preparation is a weakness as far as not having the time to do it."
Blasco said he'll know more of what to expect when the team returns for conference play, and that Region V will be tough - as usual.
"Juneau is probably deeper than we are, and they're bigger. They have played together for a long time," he said. "Ketchikan, those guys beat the JV and C teams (at JDHS) pretty good last year, and those guys are moving up so I expect them to be tough. They'll throw some different stuff at us. I don't know where we'll be at just yet, but I expect the conference to be really tight. There should be tough games all over."
First things first: Petersburg.
King had one simple, final statement about tonight's matchup: "We're bringing it all."
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