It’s no secret Kody Bender and Isaiah Walton are the center of the Elyria Pioneers basketball world. The duo are 1-2 in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Obviously, that means teams are going to come strong at the pair when tournament time rolls around this week in the hopes of shutting down the Pioneers and stopping them from advancing to a second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
But if that’s the game plan, the Pioneers, who enter tournament play with a 17-5 record, say they’re ready.
“We’re not just a two-man team,” said Bender, who had a team-leading 18.5 points average. “Isaiah and I might be the first two options, but this team is deep, real deep. There are other guys on this team who can step to the forefront and carry us.
“If the plan is to stop Isaiah and me, then so be it. Our bench has carried us at times this season and they’re ready to do it again. I believe in the players on this team and I trust them to get the job done when we need them to.”
It’s that depth that has coach Brett Larrick and his players excited about the postseason and the possibility of another run deep.
“A lot of teams go seven or eight deep,” said Larrick, who is 54-55 in five years at Elyria. “We can go 11 if we have to. We’ve faced different situations all year where teams try to deny Kody and Isaiah. Whether they try a triangle-and-two or a box-and-one, we’ve had someone step forward and make a difference.”
“At the holiday tournament against Avon, Hunter Parsh went 5-for-5 from beyond the arc. Ronnie Smith has had different games where he has scored double figures. Jerrod Schultz has stepped up in certain situations. Anthony Duckett has played well the past couple of weeks. We need different guys each night depending on the situation and they’ve responded.”
Duckett, a sophomore and first-year starter, got the Pioneers offense going against Normandy last Friday night with an opening 3-pointer. Although he only scored a free throw the rest of the way, Duckett understands the importance of the team concept and his role on the Pioneers.
“I’m the youngest guy out there,” said Duckett, who is averaging 2.2 points. “My main concern is doing what my coaches and teammates ask me to do. I don’t have to be the leading scorer or star player. What I do have to do is be ready for when my team needs me. That’s what matters to me and my teammates.”
Of the 14 players listed on the Pioneers stat sheet, 11 have played in 16 or more games. They not only have the experience but they understand their roles whether that means the starters, the bench or a combination of both.
“I don’t score a lot of points (4.1) but my teammates still encourage me to shoot,” said junior starter A.J. Johnson. “If that’s what is needed of me then I will do it. Mostly I provide some energy and motivation when I’m out there. I hustle after the ball, grab rebounds, loose balls and do whatever I can to help the team.”
Senior Du’Juan Glover and junior Ronnie Smith relish the role of providing a boost to their teammates when called upon.
“I love coming off the bench,” said Glover, who averages 2.2 points. “My legs are fresh while the guy guarding me is usually a step or two behind me at that point. I get in there and just get up and down the floor trying to take advantage of my speed. If the team needs me to score then I can do that. Against Medina earlier in the season we were in a funk and I came in to hit two threes to spark the team.”
“Coach says to bring the energy,” Smith said. “It’s not just about who can score. It’s about supporting your teammates while they’re playing, high-fiving them when they come off the floor or cheering them on. It all adds into being a team and playing as one.”
Senior Donte Dukes says the biggest advantage to the Pioneers’ depth is that everyone’s legs are fresh for the postseason.
“I think we’re feeling pretty good right now,” said Dukes, who is averaging 4.7 points. “I think a strong bench allows us to weather a lot of things such as back-to-back games, physical games, foul trouble and illness. Going into the tournament I think we still haven’t peaked yet and have a lot left in our tank.”
The Pioneers closed the regular season with a 59-39 win over Normandy. The most telling stat was that Jerrod Shultz led the team in scoring with 16 points, the first time all year Bender or Walton wasn’t the high scorer.
“This team is full of players,” said Walton, a junior averaging 17.6 points. “At the end of the day all that matters is that we get the ‘W’. If Kody or me aren’t open then somebody else probably is and they’ll step up. We believe in each other and we believe in our goal.
“We don’t want to just get back to the regionals. We want to go further than that. We’ve got the team that can do that. I really believe it.”
If the Pioneers get back to the regionals, don’t blame them if it still feels a bit fresh to them. At the first practice this year, Larrick played a highlight reel of last season. After that it was put away and they have largely avoided talking much about last year … until now.
“I told them that they have a chance to be special,” Larrick said. “They have an opportunity to get to the regionals two years in a row and who knows what happens if we get there. This is a good team and they have a chance to be a great team.
“For it to happen, they have to do it together just like they have all year. We play as a team. We lose as a team. We win as a team. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
Contact Hans Schneider at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.