Revamped basketball squad succeeds early on, enters league play with momentum

 

Behind the dominance of lone returning starter Alex Copeland ‘15, the emergence of transfer Wolfgang Novogratz ‘16, and the improvements of several former reserves, the varsity boys’ basketball team has stayed afloat despite heavy graduation and transfer losses, with a 9-6 overall record so far and an 1-2 start in Mission League play.

Copeland, who committed during the off-season to continue his career at Yale University, has taken his game to a new level so far in 2014-15. As of press time, he is leading both the Mission League and CIF Southern Section Division 4AA with a staggering 26.1 points per game, including a career-high 40 points in the team’s lone 86-75 league loss to Alemany on Jan. 9.

In early December, Copeland had a record-setting streak of seven straight games scoring greater than 20 points, the longest for any Wolverine varsity player since Bryce Taylor ‘04.

Copeland was named first-team all tournament at the Mira Costa Pacific Shores Tournament, the University High School Jim Nakabara Classic, and the Gatorade Division of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic.  The team finished third place in the Mira Costa Tournament, third place at University, and second place at the MaxPreps tournament in Palm Springs.

“It’s been a fun year, we’ve gone out and put points on the board,” Copeland said. “We’re aggressive and an exciting team to watch.”

While Copeland’s dominance in his senior season was relatively expected from the 2013-14 first-team Mission League selection, the improvements of a pair of returning reserve guards have also been crucial to the team’s success.

Ali Iken ‘17, who only averaged 8.6 minutes per game on varsity his freshman season, has benefitted from an increased role, as he is currently third on the team in scoring with 14.4 points per game on 38 three-pointers, the second most in the league.

Spencer Perryman ‘15 (2.3 MPG a season ago) has also moved into the starting lineup and shown prowess as a sharpshooter, with 5.1 PPG on an impressive 40 percent from three-point-range as of press time.

“It’s all about trusting our teammates. For the period of time we weren’t playing well, [our offense] was mostly Wolf and Alex going to the basket, but when everyone gets involved, it’s when we are best, because our shooters can hit shots and open more room for Wolf and Alex,” Perryman said.

“Sometimes we live and die with that three,” added Head Coach Greg Hilliard.

Defensively, the team has faced a significant size deficit with no players even listed at 200 pounds, but they have overcome this apparent disadvantage with quick hands by its guards and a smooth adjustment to the center position by Noah Gains `15.

On the perimeter, the team is averaging 11.4 steals per game so far, led by an impressive 3.1 from Copeland. Meanwhile, in the paint, Gains has contributed offensively with 5.1 PPG on 47% shooting, but his main impact has come on the defensive side of the floor, where he is on pace to become the first Harvard-Westlake player to average double-digit rebounds per game (currently at 10.6) since Zena Edosomwan `12, in his senior season.

“We all do our roles extremely well; when we all embrace our role and focus on our role, I think we can beat anyone in the league,” Gains said.

Unfortunately for the team, the already-thin 13-man roster has been further depleted due to a few key players getting injured early on. Novogratz, who transferred from New York’s Poly Prep, has lived up to his 247Sports.com ranking as the fifth best Class of 2016 point guard in California, averaging 18.1 points per game on 60 percent shooting with 7.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, and 2.9 SPG in nine games.

However, the junior guard re-aggravated a stress fracture to his left foot in the team’s league opener on Jan. 7, and will likely miss the remainder of the season. In addition, forward Parsa Shoa ‘16, who averaged 3.7 PPG in his sophomore season, only played parts of two games this year before suffering a herniated disc in his back, and is expected to sit out the rest of the season.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Carter Begel ‘17, who missed the team’s first eight games while recovering from a concussion suffered during the football season, has been gradually returning to the rotation. With the recent injuries to others, Begel could find himself with an increased role. Hilliard said that Begel “is so strong and tough and confident, he can become another driver and penetrator for us,” but also added that he expects Aaron Glazer ’17 to step into the starting lineup in Novogratz’s absence with Begel being the first man off the bench.

The team finished in third place in its first two tournaments, being eliminated by Mira Costa and Dorsey. Later in December, the Wolverines came up with an impressive 23-point win over CIF-SS Division 1AA’s Diamond Bar to get into the championship game of the MaxPreps tournament, where the team suffered a frustrating 77-76 loss by blowing a double-digit second half lead to Foothill High School, the fifth best team in Nevada according to MaxPreps as of press time.

Despite coming frustratingly close to capturing the Gatorade Division title at the MaxPreps tournament, players found the experience to be a blessing in disguise.

“Foothill was a really good learning experience for us. I think that suffering a defeat like that, we became closer as a team. It built our chemistry, because all we have is each other at the end of the day,” said Gains.

Motivated by that crushing result, the Wolverines have gotten off to a solid start in league play. In the home opener against Notre Dame, the favored Wolverines were down by five at the half, but responded with a staggering 54 points in the second half to handily beat the Knights by 20 points on “Alumni Night.”

“In the second period, when we [drove to the basket] exclusively, it drew five defenders in there, so we started missing and the Knights got rebounds easily … in the second half we came back and started shooting those threes, Ali and Spencer got hot, which opened it up for the guys to finish it off in the fourth quarter,” Hilliard said about the win.

“Going into Notre Dame, we just knew that we could not lose … none of the tournament games meant as much to us as that one,” added Perryman.

Against Alemany, the 50th best team in the state on MaxPreps, the Wolverines hung tough, but a 16-0 run by the Warriors in the first half put Harvard-Westlake into a deficit that it never recovered from. Copeland scored 17 of the team’s 25 fourth-quarter points as he tried to bring the Wolverines back into the game, and was proud of his teammates despite the ultimate result.

“The big thing was that I wouldn’t have had any lanes if my shooters didn’t command so much attention,” Copeland said to the Los Angeles Daily News after the game. “Things were really open for me.”

Overall, Hilliard has been pleased with the progress made by the revamped team. Losing three of its four top scorers from 2013-14, there was uncertainty entering Hilliard’s final season regarding the team’s personnel, but Hilliard said that, “Our performance early on has definitely exceeded my expectations … everything’s come a long a lot faster than expected, and we have some pretty good momentum going into the very tough Mission League.”

“For some people we’ve exceeded expectations, but I had pretty high expectations for this team … 9-6 is solid and gives us some confidence heading into league, but I think we all feel that our team could be undefeated right now,” Copeland said.

As of now, the team is ranked 105th in the state and sixth in CIF-SS Division 4AA according to MaxPreps, and predicted to finish fifth in the league by the L.A. Daily News, but players have even bigger plans.

“Top Three in the league — we can give them all a run for their money,” said Perryman on the goals for the remainder of the year.

“The Mission League is extremely unpredictable and anything can happen on any given day, that’s what’s great about it,” added Gains. “We definitely want to shock some people, and the Fanatics can make a huge difference.”

The team next plays today on the road at St. Francis, who is 9-7 overall, 0-2 in league, and ranked 196th in the state as of press time.

 

 

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