By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Starting four sophomores has Mainland boys basketball coach Dan Williams graying at the temples ever so slightly, but even with a hefty number of turnovers and sloppy play at times, Williams and his staff are having a lot of fun coaching up a bunch of athletic kids who are willing to go full throttle every night.
The Mustangs got their doors blown off a little bit early on by the likes of Cape-Atlantic League stalwarts Egg Harbor Township and St. Joseph, and a tough non-league opponent in Southern Regional, but things have begun to turn around.
Mainland has won five of its last six games, the latest coming Thursday evening in blowout fashion over Absegami. The Stangs took a 12-point lead into halftime but then broke things open in the third with 22 points. Mainland got a couple big buckets from Tim Travagline, and Keaton Loewenstern closed out the third quarter with a big 3-pointer that pushed the Stangs’ lead out to 56-39 in an eventual 77-48 victory.
“We moved the ball well (in the second half) and we moved off the ball well. We had some nice screens and that opened things up, and we executed some of the things we’ve been working on to try to free guys up, particularly for guys like Timmy coming open for threes. It kind of clicked there in the third quarter,” Williams said. “We talked before the game about urgency and energy. We didn’t feel like we had much of either of those things in the last game, against Hammonton — now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of that had to do with what Hammonton was able to do to us — but this team, being as young as we are, I don’t know that we’re going to out-execute a ton of teams. But what youth brings, especially with these guys, is really getting rolling with confidence and energy. If we don’t have energy, that’s a big component of ours. That’s what we talked about a lot and it starts on the defensive end. They prefer to play a half-court, trapping defense as opposed to man all game, and we felt like this was a matchup where we could do a little more of that. It was nice to see them have energy and play connected with each other, and to get a bunch of guys out there on the court.”
Mainland (7-5, 2-3 Cape-Atlantic League United) certainly got after it defensively early on, limiting Absegami (5-8, 2-4 CAL American) to just nine points in the first quarter. Cohen Cook and Jamie Tyson — two of the four sophomores in the starting lineup — combined for 17 first-half points as the Stangs began to get some separation early in the second quarter. They started the frame on 13-6 run that stretched a 15-9 lead to 28-15, and the Braves were never able to recover.
“We’re a young team and coming into the season a lot of people doubted us, but we’re putting together a real good stretch of games right now. Although we’re very small, we play tough, we rebound the ball and against bigger teams we’ve been able to hang in there,” said point guard Christian Rodgers, Mainland’s lone senior in the starting lineup. “We were just trying to limit our turnovers. In the first half we played really sloppy and had a lot of turnovers, so we had to go back to the drawing board, run some plays, keep the ball and get good shots.”
Cook, who spent much of his sophomore football season on injured reserve with a foot problem, is back healthy and has been getting it done for the Mustangs, averaging better than 13 points per game. Against Absegami he finished with a game-high 19 points, most of which came in the first three quarters. Travagline finished with 17 points and Rodgers added 13, including three of Mainland’s six 3-pointers.
“We can go to him whenever we need a bucket,” Rodgers said of Cook. “He’s our man, it’s amazing to have him — just like his older brother (Jake) a couple years ago.”
Williams said his philosophy this year is to not get bogged down in the technical intricacies of basketball with such a young squad. He wants them to continue to hustle and not be afraid to take chances and make plays. Mainland has a brutal stretch coming up featuring two games against Holy Spirit as well as matchups against EHT, St. Joseph and Millville, but Williams said he doesn’t want his guys to start playing a timid brand of basketball.
“When you get a few kids like Cohen and Jamie, they are both varsity football players so they understand what a physical sport at the varsity level is like. Stephen Ordille is also one of the better football players, and for a guy who is only about 5-foot-8, that’s saying something. We know how tough and athletic he is. It’s been fun. This is not like a lot of the other teams we’ve had here at Mainland. We’re a short bunch of athletic, quick kids who can wreck havoc,” Williams said. “We want to let them go defend and create a little havoc, or at least speed a team up. We want to try to minimize turnovers, but I don’t want them overthinking, overanalyzing and paralyzing themselves while they are playing. We went from having was last year was, which was basically nothing, and most of these guys (before that) were in eighth grade, so they are really just learning the game right now. If you get all over them too much they end up thinking too much and becoming too analytical.”
“Next week is going to be a tough week. We have practice tomorrow and Sunday and we just have to keep everybody together, keep playing as a unit. If we play as a unit, I think we can stick with any team in this conference,” Rodgers added. “Last year, we barely had a season with seven games. We’re young this year, so I just have to be a leader because I’m the only senior in the starting lineup. We have to start winning a few big games coming up.”
What’s next: Mainland travels to Egg Harbor Township on Monday at 5:30 p.m. Absegami hosts Atlantic City on Monday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays