East Rockingham senior John Wright shoots over several Gobblers during a basketball scrimmage at Broadway High School on Friday. The Eagles were 9-14 last season. (Photo by Stephen Mitchell)
BROADWAY – During boys’ basketball games the last couple years, East Rockingham High School coach Mark Palmer occasionally called timeout not necessarily because he had a play to design or wanted to stop his opponent’s momentum.
His starters simply needed rest, and Palmer didn’t feel comfortable enough with his reserves to insert them for very long. That can happen at small-enrollment Group A schools – and particularly at East Rock, a school that just opened in 2010.
Reversing that trend in the program’s third year is the main reason Palmer believes he’s got a top-three team in the Shenandoah District.
“For the first time in our three-year period, we have a really good bench,” Palmer said Friday after a scrimmage against Broadway, the Eagles’ only exhibition before their season-opener at home against Fort Defiance on Tuesday. “Our [bench] kids, there’s not that much discrepancy [compared to the starters] – it’s pretty even.
“…I told ’em today, we have 11 starters. We don’t just have five; we have 11.”
The Eagles graduated just two of those thoroughly tested starters, who Palmer admitted probably wore down at the end of the season because they played so many minutes. East Rock dropped its final four games last year – including its first-round Shenandoah tournament game – to just miss the regional playoffs.
“One of my goals as a head coach this year more than any year I’ve ever had coaching-wise: I’m really going to put a point of emphasis on my team peaking the last three weeks of the season,” Palmer said.
The way he’s going to do that, he said, is by subbing more often, so “we’ll be fresh and ready to roll.”
That includes giving more breaks to slick-shooting senior Tyler Hensley, the Eagles’ point guard and top scorer the last two years. The 5-foot-7, 140-pounder figures to be their best scorer again, but in a slightly altered role.
One of the Eagles’ depth-augmenting players is junior guard John Dofflemyer, whom Palmer expects to provide point-guard relief to Hensley even though Dofflemyer is easily ERHS’s shortest and lightest player.
That will allow Hensley to sometimes move to shooting guard, where he can focus more on scoring and spend less energy bringing the ball up. Dofflemyer also will give Hensley a chance to rest after he sometimes played every minute of the Eagles’ games last season.
“Sometimes never, and if I did, maybe once for like two minutes,” Hensley said of how often he sat on the bench during games last season. “Usually, I guess, I still had adrenaline [in the fourth quarter], but my shot was sometimes a little short sometimes towards the end of the game [because of being tired].”
The Eagles also return junior Joseph Gooden, a glass-cleaning, 6-foot-5, 190-pound forward, and perhaps their two best athletes in senior guard Sharif Price and senior forward John Wright, two stars of East Rock’s football team who are still trying to regain their basketball shape.
That’s especially true of the 6-foot-2 Wright, who’s recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the football team’s playoff loss to Essex last Friday. Palmer said he expects Wright to start later in the season once he heals.
Former junior varsity players who have impressed both Palmer and teammates include junior guard Hunter Harman (the football team’s starting quarterback), junior forward Chase Comer, sophomore forward Logan Lam and sophomore forward Jeff Bailey. Those players add better shooters, Palmer said, to a team that has generally struggled to score its first two seasons.
“What’s been our Achilles’ heal the last two years is our offense,” Palmer said. “We can’t score consistently, and that’s what we’ve got to get better at – from the free-throw line, to making lay-ups, to making high-percentage shots.”
Palmer hopes East Rock will get more of those easy shots by fast-breaking more often – again, because he can bring in reserves with fresh legs. The depth will also help Palmer mix in plenty of full-court man-to-man and zone-trapping defensive schemes after the Eagles were a strictly half-court defensive squad last year.
That, Palmer hopes, will make the Eagles a superior team to the one that finished an even 7-7 in the district and went 9-14 overall last season.
“We should be one of the top three teams in the district in my opinion,” Palmer said, noting that Page, Stuarts Draft and Luray should be the top challengers.
He just doesn’t yet know who will make up his starting lineup – he said he’ll figure that out on Monday.
But for East Rock, that’s a good thing.
“I’ve got a lot of combinations I can play,” Palmer said. “…I can play different people at different positions, and it’ll be really fun.”