HARRISONBURG – Creating turnovers and cashing in on fastbreak points throughout his career, Kol Shuler embodies Page County High School’s defensive mindset that has elevated the Panthers to their sixth Shenandoah District boys’ basketball regular-season title in eight years.
But it may come as a surprise that the senior small forward also plays a mean game of knockout.
“He calls himself ‘the knockout king’ because he wins quite a few,” PCHS junior shooting guard Tim Brown said of the shooting game the Panthers have started playing regularly before or after practices this season.
The game is simple. If you miss a shot and someone makes the same shot, you are eliminated – or “knocked out.”
With a relentless defense and strong transition offense, Page County (17-4 overall, 12-1 in the Shenandoah District) will likely be a tough out this postseason, starting Friday when the top-seeded Panthers host last-place Buffalo Gap in the first round of the eight-team district tournament.
Page’s defense (and thus, offense) starts with Mr. Intensity: Shuler, who has been the voice pumping up teammates in huddles his entire career.
“He anchors our defense,” PCHS coach Mike Purdham said. “He’s typically out front. So, he’s definitely the catalyst of our defense.”
With an experienced lineup that includes senior power forward Tanner Dofflemyer – who averages a team-high 17.9 points per game – the Panthers are able to comfortably switch in and out of defenses based on matchups game-by-game or possession-by-possession, Purdham said. Dofflemyer and Shuler were both on the Division 1 state runner-up team two seasons ago, which was Page’s best finish in program history.
Dofflemyer believes Shuler was probably the best defender on the team when he first started.
“Now, he’s definitely in the top three of defensive players in the league,” said Dofflemyer, who averages a team-high 17.9 points per game (all stats are through 21 games, not including Monday’s regular-season finale at Luray).
Using man-to-man and zone-matchup schemes, the Panthers are allowing 58 points per game. That’s the fewest points allowed since their state run.
“Usually, we start off in the press,” Brown said, “and if we can control the team with good steals, we keep it.”
Page had its best defensive outing of the season in holding East Rock – a team the Panthers beat 56-52 on Jan. 8 – to just 38 points in a 31-point win Saturday.
The Panthers are also scoring 68.1 points per game, the most since that 2010-11 season, which ended with a 49-47 loss to Galax in the state championship game. Shuler’s development as an outside shooting threat has had a lot to do with that. He’s averaging 12.5 points per game, just behind Dofflemyer and Brown (16.3 ppg).
“I’ve been more of an assist guy, getting steals and playing defense,” Shuler said of his sophomore and junior campaigns. “But this year, I’ve practiced more on shooting.”
Defensive emphasis is nothing new to Purdham-coached teams. The Panthers allowed 56.4 points per game in their state-final season, capitalizing on 14 steals, 21 forced turnovers and 18 points off those takeaways in a 72-62 win over Hurley in the Division 1 semifinals.
In the state title game that followed, Page forced another 19 turnovers (including nine steals), but didn’t quite generate enough offense.
This season, Shuler believes Page has the potential to return to the state tournament.
“Two years ago, we didn’t want to lose,” Shuler said. “This year, we know we shouldn’t lose.”
Page’s experience oozes that type of confidence. In single-digit district wins against Stuarts Draft, Wilson, East Rockingham and Riverheads, experience down the stretch – not unlike Valley District champion Spotswood – has been the common thread.
Late free throws in close games? No problem. Turnovers in the fourth quarter with games on the line? Never an issue. Need a stop on defense? Shuler and Co. always seem up to the task.
“This group has always had that mindset,” Purdham said. “I think you either have that within or you don’t. And if you can get a couple that have that within, it spreads and the other guys buy into that.”
With Shuler, the intensity on the hardwood never seems to diminish – even in a casual game of knockout.
“He’s very competitive in practice – in basically anything, playing knockout or anything,” Brown said of Shuler. “He brings it.”