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Norton boys basketball team aiming for third straight league title

2/6/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Sean Patrick

NORTON — The Norton High School boys basketball program is aiming for a third straight league title, but head coach Rod Swartz said this year’s squad is relying on a different style of play than the previous two editions of the team.

“Going into the season, we had a different look from what he had the previous couple of years,” the coach said. “We lost a lot of our size, and we have been a very height-oriented team. This year, we are more guard oriented, and I knew we would be pushing the ball up and down the floor and taking more perimeter type shots. But going into this year, with the kids we had returning, I thought we had a good opportunity to repeat.”

Through Jan. 2, Norton was 13-4 overall and 7-1 in the Portage Trail Conference’s Metro Division.

“I’m really proud of the kids,” the coach said. “I saw a lot of potential early on, and the biggest thing we’ve overcome is learning that we have to play together. It’s a team sport, and that’s something I’ve seen great strides in, and it’s hopefully something we’ll continue to get better at. When we do that, we play pretty well. We have a lot of weapons — inside weapons and outside weapons and players who can do some of both — so we can be a tough matchup for teams.”

This year’s team is led by six seniors, Swartz said, and five of those players have “significant varsity experience.” Those seniors (with comments on each by the coach) are as follows:

  • Dakota Pratt: “He’s our big kid in the middle. He’s been a three-year varsity player for us. He really works hard. He’s a great kid and a great kid to coach. Dakota’s been our stopper inside, both defensively and offensively. We call him Cactus.”
  • Jay Ventura: “Jay is about 6-foot-3, and he’s an inside-out guy. He jumps really well and is a very athletic kid. Jay is a guy who can run the floor and really attack the basket. He can also stretch it out to the perimeter, so he’s very versatile for his size.”
  • Jeff Schulte: “Jeff’s a four-year letter-winner. He’s a tremendous three-point shooter, and he’s been very efficient in his shot selection. He has also learned to expand his game by attacking the glass, and that’s really helped him.”
  • Justin Blanks: “He is our leading scorer at 19 points per game. Justin came to Norton last year and is a two-year varsity player for us. He has really helped us out by being a matchup problem for other teams. He attacks the rim really well, and he’s a tough matchup one-on-one, because he can break somebody off the dribble.”
  • Nick Calhoun: “Nick’s been playing two years of varsity basketball. He’s our point guard, and he’s somebody who has sacrificed the scoring aspect of his game to facilitate the ball for the other four guys. He’s a very smart player. He’s kind of our floor general, and he does a great job on defense.”
  • Mason French: “He is about 6-foot-4 and had never played organized basketball before this year. He’s getting to understand his rotation, and he’s giving us solid minutes off the bench for our inside play. We’re very glad to have him.”

Having five seniors in the starting lineup has been invaluable for the team’s success, Swartz said.

“Anytime you have a senior-oriented team — especially seniors who have significant varsity experience — I think that really shows,” he said. “We have won some close games, and I think that’s because the seniors know how to step up and win those games in the closing stretch.”

The other key players off the bench, Swartz said, are sophomores Caleb Pratt and Jake Destefano.

“They are my sixth and seventh men, and they have given us tremendous minutes,” he said. “They are defensive sparks, and because of their defense, they have contributed on offense as well.”

According to Swartz, winning a third-straight league title is the team’s No. 1 goal this season.

“These seniors have an opportunity to win three titles in their four years, and I think that’s a pretty good experience,” he said. “Not a whole lot of people who play high school sports can say they have been a part of that, but that opportunity is there for them this year.”

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