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Planning for the future

Crystal River's freshman team gives its ninth graders on-the-job training.

By KELLIE DIXON
Published February 4, 2007


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CRYSTAL RIVER - Call 'em rookies. They don't care.

Call 'em freshmen. It's what they are.

But maybe a better name for them is opportunists.

After all, these Crystal River ninth-graders chose to see playing for the rookie basketball team as a chance to improve. To them, it's not a slam on their raw skills. It's planning for the future.

Their coaches also think in the long-term. They saw putting together a team as an opportunity to build interest in the school's basketball program and to elevate the talent on the junior varsity and varsity levels.

The Crystal River freshman squad, the first for the school in a little under a decade and the only one in Citrus County, wrapped up its six-game season in mid-January.

The Pirates didn't win a game, but that's not obvious from the way they talk about their season. Ask them, and they'll say it was a success. Ask the coaches, they'll say the same.

But putting together the team took some work, and maybe a dash of stubbornness.

When varsity coach Justin Orosz was hired, he asked athletic director Tony Stukes about setting up the program. Stukes' response was yes, provided his first-year coach handled the logistics. Orosz needed a coach and a schedule, for starters. The bus arrangements could come later.

Building the schedule wasn't too difficult, because Orosz didn't mind venturing to Marion County - chock-full of freshman squads in everything from basketball to baseball.

And finding a coach wasn't too challenging, either. Frank Haar was interested, and Orosz joked that it only took a few Mexican dinners to fully convince his new comrade.

Snags simply were a part of the season. Court time was practically nonexistent, because two varsity and junior varsity teams had to practice, too, so the freshmen practiced outdoors.

They intensely scrimmaged against each other and occasionally slapped mosquitoes. The insects were pesky, but the players didn't mind, and their community grew.

Sometimes, they stuck around after practice just to keep playing basketball with their new friends.

Improvement wasn't immediate or dramatic, but the players developed. They started executing game plans they had helped Haar create. They were learning.

But it took time.

"The first game, we didn't even look like a team," Chris Pilon said.

Confusion on the game plan. Turnovers. Miscommunication. Bad shot selection.

Six games and several months of practice later, the freshmen have improved.

"We went from just so many bad passes, shooting the ball so hard, just so many stupid fouls and that got eliminated," Haar said. "That was just because they were so jittery. They were so anxious."

Haar's team harnessed its nerves, and a few leaders emerged from the previously unpolished group.

Point guard Kyle Unverdorben became a bit of a slasher who could break full-court presses. He led the Pirates with 13 points a game. Jon Andrews averaged 8.5 points, cashing in on putbacks he got at power forward.

Pilon got the tough defensive assignments and averaged 5.5 points as a shooting guard. Forward Aaron Dix (5.5 ppg) turned it on in the last three games and made key defensive stops.

Without the freshman team, they would have lost a year of playing time. Instead of running the basketball court, they would have been gripping video game controllers.

The freshman team is "pretty good for those who don't make" the other teams, Unverdorben said. "They still have a chance to play, so they're ready when they move up to JV."

If Haar is the coach next year, he'll get a brand-new team, and he'll watch his former players move on with a valuable year of experience.

"These guys," Haar said, "you watch them. They're going to be tough their junior and senior years. They're just going to keep getting bigger and faster and smarter."

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 19:53:39]


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