There are plenty of changes coming for the Portage boys basketball team this winter, with a new coach, a number of new faces and new roles to adjust to.
Even with all the alterations, first-year coach Darrin Berger is confident the Warriors can improve on last year’s 5-18 overall record.
“The way I would describe the group, we have a lot of older guys, but not really a ton of experience,” said Berger, who takes over for Ron Olson following his resignation at the end of last season.
“Really for a lot of the guys who did play last year, it will be a process of expanding their role a bit, having more minutes and more expected of them.”
The Warriors, who open the season Saturday night with a non-conference game in Randolph, will have to replace some significant scoring this season, with unanimous first-team All Badger North Conference selection Eli Considine now playing at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The 6-foot-4 forward averaged 25 points per game last year, and became just the sixth player to reach the 1,000-career point mark in program history.
The Warriors will also have to account for the loss of Connor Levander, who added 9.6 points per game a year ago.
Berger said that for this year’s team to replace the production from Considine and Levander, it has to be a collective effort.
“We have to have lots of guys in that 5 to 10-12 points per game range,” he said. “We’re probably not going to have anyone that goes out and gets 20 each night, but I think we do have some guys that are capable of putting the ball in the basket.”
Helping to lead that charge is a trio of returning starters, led by senior Matthew Miles. The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 6 points per game last year and after two years of varsity experience, is poised for an even bigger senior campaign. Berger lauded Miles as a “really good, all-around player,” and said he will be an inside-out threat.
Along with Miles, senior Kendal Thomson and sophomore Isaac Paul return after starting last season. Thomson (6-0 guard) averaged 3.5 points per game last season, while Paul (6-0 guard) added 3.8 points per contest in his first varsity season. Berger said he’s seen a lot of improvement from Paul, and Thomson has become a leader for the Warriors.
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“We’re talking to him about being more aggressive on offense because we’re going to need that from him,” Berger said of Paul. “Kendall, a great defender, a great ball handler and a great teammate. He’s played a ton of minutes and is going to be a steadying force for us.”
Along with the trio of returning starters, the Warriors will lean on a pair of players that were saddled with injuries last season in seniors Brett Walker and Delnato Sheppard Jr. Walker (6-0 guard) was out all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, while Sheppard Jr. (5-10 guard) also missed time last year.
Berger said both players are “going to have a big role for us,” and has been impressed with the strides Walker has taken from such a difficult injury.
“He’s hungry to do well, and honestly, he’s been more impressive than I would have even hoped for,” Berger said.
The Warriors also return a trio of bench players from last year’s team who are looking to take the next step in seniors Colton Brandsma (6-0, guard) and Logan Breunig (6-3, forward), and junior Bennett Bass (6-2, forward). Berger praised the group for their effort and hustle and, said they will help “spread the floor, rebound, play defense and can score it.”
Joining the returnees are a hungry group of junior varsity players from last year. Seniors Ryan Bulgrin and Andy Mittlesteadt are a pair of lengthy forwards at 6-8 and 6-3, while junior forwards Hayes Hensler (6-4) and Reis Breunig (6-2) also provide size. Junior Alex Schuette (5-8, guard) provides good ball handling skills and sophomore Kaden Hooker (6-2, guard) brings a lot of athleticism.
Berger will have some work to do on both sides of the ball after Portage allowed 65.6 points per game last season. Man-to-man defense has been a focus for the Warriors and Berger knows that the group will have to keep opponents “down in the 50s, sometimes the 40s, if we’re playing the way I think we need to.”
Offensively, the Warriors will lean on a motion-oriented scheme, without a true, traditional big man. Berger said that action has to free up players, “whether it’s screening, drive and kick or being unselfish.”
“We sort of have to rely on a lot of guys to create, not necessarily have one really outstanding creator. It’s going to be a group effort to create shots,” he said.
Whether or not that leads to more wins, especially in the rough-and-tumble Badger North Conference, only time will tell. The Warriors finished 3-11 in league play last year and Berger, who spent the last four seasons as the head coach at Baraboo, knows how difficult the slate is.
While wins and losses are important, Berger said his main priority is to “really play competitive basketball, and put a product on the court that we can be proud of.”
“That means defensively we’re giving it everything we have and playing smart, and on offense it’s taking good shots and sharing the ball,” he said. “If we do that, I think we have the opportunity to compete, and if we’re playing the right way, the other stuff will fall as it does.”
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.