A work in progress

  • The Vikings are 2-2 on the season, having dropped both division games to Olney and Audenried.

  • Teaching points: Northeast’s Ira Stern is at the helm of an inexperienced program rife with young, raw talent, such as junior guard Elmange Watson (center). Despite a 62-40 division loss to Olney last week, the Vikings were 2-1 on the season when the Times went to press following an OT win over Palumbo.

  • Young guns: Junior guard Deshan Brown is one of several fresh faces for the Northeast High School basketball program in 2013-14. The Vikings lost all five starters from last year’s team that went 13-4 and qualified for the Public League playoffs. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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