When attending a Sauk Valley men's basketball game this season, make sure to pick up a roster. You're going to need it.
After losing all five starters to graduation from last year's 23-9 squad, the Skyhawks will feature an almost entirely new cast of characters in 2012-13. Only four of coach Russ Damhoff's 18-man roster played minutes last season, and it's meant a slower learning curve than in the past.
"It's taken us a little more time on the court, and we're maybe just a little bit behind when it comes to timing and execution and making the right reads," said Damhoff, entering his 27th season at Sauk. "We have talent, skills, athleticism and ability on this team, and we're deeper at every position. Now it's just a matter of us jelling as a team."
The numbers are staggering: the Skyhawks lost 93 percent of their scoring and rebounding, 90 percent of their assists, 85 percent of their blocks and 83 percent of their steals from a year ago. Four of the top five scorers are gone, as are six of the top seven rebounders. The top six in assists, top four in steals and top three in blocks have all moved on.
Co-captains Matt Groharing and Daven Ottley, along with fellow sophomores Cody Behrens and Jalen Jones, are making sure the new guys – a mix of incoming freshmen and transfers – have a good example to follow heading into the season.
"We're really setting the tone for practices, and we have to set the tone for games, too," said Ottley, a 6-foot-8 forward/center from the British Virgin Islands. "We're definitely going to have to play as a team to fill in for those guys who are gone, but we've got a lot of guys who can come in and play well. Every game, we're going to see someone different step up for us."
Ottley's 7.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 14 blocks and 22 steals lead the four returning players, while Byron alum Groharing is the top assist guy (1.3 per game) coming back. Behrens is next after Ottley in points (5.4) and rebounds (2.6), while Jones (2.6 points, 2.3 assists, 7 blocks) is close behind.
While Sauk might lack experience, it makes up for that with size and skill. The Skyhawks feature a half-dozen players at 6-foot-5 or taller, and have plans to pound the post on the offensive end. A pair of true point guards will also help Sauk run smoothly, and tough defense and fast-break offense will make up for having fewer pure shooters than in seasons past.
"We've got a lot of young talent, and our depth will be a big key for us," Groharing said. "We know we've got a lot of work to do, but we're going to show up day in and day out and put in the effort on both ends of the floor."
But what a lot of people might view as a disadvantage, the Skyhawks don't necessarily see it that way. The options are wide open right now, and that means Sauk's opponents won't really know what to expect when they got onto the court.
"It's nice to be under the radar," Behrens said. "We don't know who our key players are going to be yet, but we have a lot of guys who can fill those roles. It's going to be harder for other teams to stop us, because there's not just one or two go-to guys."
Damhoff also remains optimistic. In just the first month of practice, the veteran coach has seen his young team grow by leaps and bounds, most notably regarding the comfort level and camaraderie amongst his players.
And in his eyes, that's the most important piece of the puzzle. He knows the talent will shine through, the execution will get better and the basketball IQ will grow as the players feel more at home in his system and with each other.
"We've been building those intangible things very well so far," Damhoff said, "and hopefully we continue to grow at the same rate. I think come Christmas time and the start of conference play, we're going to be a pretty good team."
2012-13 Sauk Valley Skyhawks