Retooled boys' basketball squad strives to improve

Losing three of its four leading scorers from last season in Derick Newton ‘14 (19.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG), Bryan Polan ‘14 (11.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG), and Mike Sheng ‘14 (11.1 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.6 RPG), and facing the transfers of three underclassmen varsity players in Daniel Schreier ’17 (to Santa Monica High School), Nick Medavoy ’16 (Brentwood), and Chance Goring ’17 (Sherman Oaks Notre Dame), the varsity boys’ basketball team still plans to return to prominence in Greg Hilliard’s 30th, and final, year as the Wolverines’ head coach.

Harvard-Westlake finished 13-16 overall and 4-8 in Mission League play last season, reaching the CIF Southern Section Division 4AA quarterfinals for the third consecutive year before losing a tight 61-59 game to top-seeded, then-undefeated Buckley. It was the first time in more than a decade that the Wolverines finished below .500 in league play, and the new-look Wolverine roster is motivated to put last season’s results behind them.

The team was impressive in its fall league games, finishing with a record of 7-1 overall while losing only to Beverly Hills. This was “much better than expected” said Hilliard, who added that the team “realized that we lost a lot to graduation and transfers, so we had to get to know each other and bring in a lot of young people. We did very well, and seemed to have a nice chemistry.”

One holdover from the 2014 team is Yale-bound point guard Alex Copeland ’15, who averaged 16.9 PPG, 4.5 APG and 3.0 RPG last season and is one of three 2014 First-Team Mission League selections returning to the league, joining Loyola’s UC Irvine commit Max Hazzard ’15 and Chaminade’s Montana commit Michael Oguine ’15. As the lone returning starter from last year’s team, Copeland has been thrust into a leadership role, and is optimistic about this season’s prospects.

“We had a really good summer, and I feel like we shocked a lot of teams. We’re pretty small but at the same time we’re scrappy … we know that teams [like Chaminade and Alemany] are supposed to be some of the better teams in the area, and we definitely think that we can take them down,” he said.

While the three departing transfers hurt Harvard-Westlake, the team also welcomed guard Wolfgang Novogratz ’16 from Poly Prep in New York City. Novogratz is the 34th ranked 2016 point guard nationwide by 247sports.com, and was the subject of an October 2014 Los Angeles Times feature by journalist Eric Sondheimer, in which he was referred to as “a very accomplished guard.” Novogratz is currently recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, but is expected to be ready for the regular season.

The team has a notable lack of size on the roster, with no players listed as over 6’5’’ or 200 pounds. The team understands the challenges of having smaller players than their competition, and is trusting forward Noah Gains ’15 to slide into a key defensive role in the post.

“With Beverly Hills’ 6’10’’ kid (Arizona commit Chance Comanche ’15), he’s very good, and Noah did a tremendous job on him, gave a way a lot of size but did a good job … for anyone who wants to go inside and post up, it’s gonna be up to   Noah,” Hilliard said.

“I’ve learned that since I’m smaller than most of the guys I’ll play, you have to be scrappy, you have to be a pest on the court, you have to be annoying and take on that role and embrace that role. You’re not bigger or stronger than them but you’re smarter, you have to work harder than them,” Gains said about his new role.

Gains won’t be alone in his efforts, as the whole team has been emphasizing rebounding and conditioning in the offseason, hoping to counter opposing bigs with technique and speed.

“Coach has been doing a lot of rebounding drills with us, even telling the guards to rebound on every play. Rebounding has been a big focus since we’re a smaller team, and boxing out has been too,” guard Spencer Perryman ’15 said.

Because of the eventual contributions of two-sport athletes Carter Begel ’17 and Ray Mueller ’17, there is still uncertainty regarding the team’s final starting lineup. Hilliard said, “the only two sure spots are Alex and Wolfgang, and there’s little doubt that Noah will be out there,” but also added that “people are going to be shocked at the outside shooting of Aaron Glazer ’17, who has become a go-to guy for us on the perimeter.”

“It’s always going to be a mismatch on the court, because we’re all guards and most teams have big guys. We’re always going to be faster than what the other team has on the court, so it’ll be an advantage,” Gains added.

Regardless of who ends up on the floor, versatility will be key, as the Wolverines plan to attack opponents with unmatched speed, passing, ball-handling, and jump shooting.

“I think we all give different things to the table; Spencer’s a good shooter and passes well, Wolfgang shoots well, I can score get to the basket, and so can Carter. I think any combination of us on the court is going to be deadly, and we’re looking forward to it,” Copeland said.

While the Mission League is expected to be collectively weaker, as an August 2014 Sondheimer article referred to the recent transfers and graduates from around the league as a “talent exodus,” getting through league play still won’t be easy. Cal-Hi-Sports’ preseason poll ranked Loyola 22nd in the state and Chaminade at 28th, and Alemany was ahead of both teams by placing 8th in the Los Angeles Times’ poll. Furthermore, a June 2014 article by the Los Angeles Daily News’ Jack Pollon listed 30 top players to watch in the Mission League for the upcoming season, and only considered Copeland from the Wolverines.

“We’ve been in the position before where teams have doubted us and we’ve surprised a lot of people,” Copeland said. “We don’t care about rankings or preseason hype very much.”

“The Mission League is always going to be competitive … no matter what, anything can happen, and I think this year we’re going to shock a lot of people,” added Gains.

The CIF Southern Section Division 4AA has also seen some overhaul, notably losing Gardena Serra, Pacific Hills, Buckley and Maranatha while welcoming Chaminade and Orange Lutheran. With the presence of the “Open Division,” which takes the top 16 teams in the Southern Section away from their initial divisions, the Wolverines believe they have the potential to go all the way.

“If we get a couple of breaks here and there with what constitutes the Open Division, that’ll open up Division 4AA so that we’ll be able to do something …  if we can be in the top 8 in our division, no matter what we do in the Mission League, we’ll feel like we have a very good shot,” Hilliard said.

Copeland talked about his motivation: “I’ve been on the team since I was a freshman, and I haven’t made it past the quarters. Now, as a senior, in my last year and Coach Hilliard’s last year, I want to break that trend … nobody on the team has a ring, and our goal is to get a ring.”

Hilliard concluded: “It’ll be exciting and up-tempo basketball; hopefully the fans will get behind us and see if we can pull off some big wins.”

The Wolverines open their season on Dec. 1 against Culver City High School, at the Mira Costa Pacific Shores Tournament.

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