It’s no secret that high school athletics are cyclical in nature.
Kids come through a program, they do their thing and hopefully move on to college, leaving their coach with the questions of figuring out how to replace them with younger players ascending through the ranks. Sometimes, if a coach is lucky, the mass graduation exodus doesn’t happen all at once. For Northeast head boys basketball coach Ira Stern, now is most certainly not ‘sometimes.’
Stern was on the flip side of that coin in 2012-13. In his first year as the Vikings’ head coach, he inherited a roster rife with program veterans. Not only that, but he had a senior point guard in DeAndre Williams, who became a Public League scoring sensation in his first varsity season. Williams and fellow seniors Daquan Bohannan, Greg Mickens, Tony Nayan and Kyree Simpson comprised Northeast’s starting lineup, and these were Stern’s five leading scorers in Public League Division C play, in which Northeast won nine of its 12 games en route to a playoff berth.
Now, it’s essentially time to start from scratch.
Last Thursday, Northeast found out just how difficult it will be to replace Williams and company, surrendering the first 16 points of the game to division foe Olney, a game the Vikings were never in and ultimately dropped 62-40. Earlier in the week, Stern had told the Northeast Times that the Olney game was a monumental contest, an early measuring stick for a young squad against arguably the most talented team in the division. That stick indicated that while the talent is there for the Vikings, it is completely raw and virtually untested.
“We’re going to chalk it up to an early-season debacle,” the always-enthusiastic Stern said when trying to search for answers. “Last year, we had five senior starters, now we’re led by three juniors and we aren’t very deep. We have our starting five, a sixth guy off the bench, then there’s a tremendous drop-off, which is one of the harder things to deal with.”
Northeast’s new starting unit includes junior guard Elmange Watson, a reserve last year who transferred briefly to Phila. Electrical and Technology Charter of Division A before reversing his decision when he realized he’d get more playing time under Stern, who tends to coax the best from talented guards, as he did with Williams a season ago. Watson paced the Vikings with 14 points, seven boards and three steals, but he sometimes looked frustrated and tried to do too much as Olney’s lead swelled, a mark of inexperience that can easily be outgrown.
Joining him most of the time on the floor will be senior forward Will Okrafo-Smart, also a reserve last year but more known at Northeast for his football prowess; and then there’s fresh-faced newcomers in juniors Deshan Brown, Tyriq Wilson and Dalvin Johnson, with reserve senior Josh Arnold also seeing some time. Okrafo-Smart hustled his way to seven points and seven rebounds against a taller team, and once he becomes a little more seasoned down low, his big body should make him a magnet for rebounds. (Okrafo-Smart pulled down 16 boards in Northeast’s 77-73 overtime win over Division D foe Palumbo, and Wilson added a career-high 22 points to move the Vikings to 2-1 overall on the season; Northeast played division rival Audenried on Tuesday and fell, 92-71.)
“I was disappointed with our press break, because we practiced it exactly how they ran it, but some guys just weren’t in the right spots,” Stern said. “We also couldn’t hit the side of a barn, which didn’t help either. We need a lot of work, there’s no naivete on my part. We’re not down on the kids, these are just things that a young team has to go through. I still believe that team (Olney) is probably the top in our division, and could compete with most Division B teams.”
Olney is certainly more filled-out than the Vikings currently are. Point guard Shakeem Stevens looked graceful out there en route to 14 points, nine assists and four steals, while lanky forward Tyheem Monroe (26 points, 10 rebounds) played more like Kevin Durant in a dominant effort. Stern marveled at Olney’s height before the game, and anticipated it could be a problem; he was right, as Olney also dominated the boards and made the Vikings pay on several second- and third-chance opportunities.
“I look at it this way,” Stern began. “We use this as a learning tool. We are not down on these ballplayers, and we know we have a drop-off after our top-six. I’m not disillusioned … it is what it is. When we played Olney last year, there wasn’t as much separation; this year, we lost some guys and they got bigger, stronger and more talented.”
At one point during the conversation, one of Stern’s staff members came over to reassure the head coach that it was still early, saying that, “We’ll be fine.” Stern knows this, but his burning desire to win is evident in his eyes.
After such a remarkable first season that included pushing Division A foe Frankford to the brink of defeat in the playoffs, it’s sometimes a little harder to step back and start over; however, at the same time, the unknown can also be exciting. This time last season, Stern had no idea that a star would be born so emphatically in the form of Williams. He thinks he may have another Williams-type in Watson … it’s just a matter of getting him there while asking the inexperienced to lead such a youthful bunch.
“After a loss like this, the only thing you can do is look at the tape and say, ‘Wow, OK, this is what we have to work on,’ ” Stern said. “We’re not angry, we just want to make sure after we watch the tape that we correct it and not let it happen again.
“I don’t think we were bad throughout. There was some sunshine there in the second half, especially defensively in the third quarter. We had shots, so it’s not like we were running around like chickens without our heads. We got the looks we wanted, they just didn’t fall for us. Most of these guys are starters now in a real tough division, so we’ll just take it game-by-game and we’re hoping that everything works out.” ••