One of the surprises of the first part of the high school basketball season has been the success of the Groton Indians boys team. Last year, the Indians went 3-13, missing the Section IV playoffs. This season, they’ve already surpassed that win total with an even 4-4 record through eight games.
That record might not look like much on paper, but the team was 4-2 heading into the holiday break with notable wins over defending IAC champions Moravia and last year’s Section IV runner-up, Lansing. They elected to start the 2020 portion of the schedule at a difficult tournament, falling to Greene in a 64-60 battle and then losing to Section V powerhouse Wellsville the next day.
Groton’s players were certainly not discouraged by the outcome of the two games, seeing them more as a confidence-booster. Senior Drew Jackson explained how he felt about the Greene game in particular.
“Going against Greene, who average 6’2” and above, it definitely shows that we can play with those teams and not to underestimate our own abilities,” Jackson said. “We can play with a big school team like Greene as long as we all come out and play and all contribute.”
First-year head coach Ken Updike knew exactly what he was doing when putting that tournament on the schedule.
“We looked for a tournament where we knew we were going to be challenged,” Updike said. “Greene, traditionally, has been really good. We wanted to compete against talent. Those are teams who have aspirations for sectional titles and state championships. You have to play against good competition. It doesn’t do us any good to play someone we know we’re going to beat.”
Updike’s coaching philosophies have sparked a team that is very similar to last year’s 3-13 squad personnel-wise, only losing one senior to graduation. The team’s leading scorer, junior Kalib Manning, credited Updike with getting the most out of the roster.
“Our coach really pushes us to work as hard as we can,” Manning said. “I know every day in practice, even before games, we’re always running a lot. He’s always pushing us to do our best and he’s a major reason that we’re successful this season.”
In addition to the coaching change, senior leader Garret Vanbenschoten felt the improvements of the team coming in the summer.
“We didn’t have much of a change in our roster from last year to this year,” Vanbenschoten said. “Over the summer, we really bonded as a team. We came together and ended up winning 11 out of 12 games in the summer league, so that gave us a lot of confidence coming into the season.”
With many returning players comes the growth of team chemistry, as Vanbenschoten alluded to. Jackson discussed how that impacts the team on the court.
“We’re just more familiar with our play type,” Jackson said. “We all know what to expect from each other, how one person can make a play and who’s best for what part, so we’re all more familiar with what our position is on the team.”
Updike has been coaching in South Carolina for the past 18 years, but his family is originally from Groton, with his father, uncle and grandmother all being Groton graduates. Updike himself was a Cortland High School graduate and jumped at the opportunity to return to a familiar place.
The team’s past struggles are not a concern of Updike. Since arriving in June, Updike has a “win now” attitude, never asking his team about the past. Beyond already building a competitive team this season, Updike wants Groton to be a force for years to come.
“You try to come up with a plan for the year, but you also have to look at what happens next,” Updike said. “Our JV team has talent on it as well. We have younger guys already playing on our varsity roster. The four-year plan is already in place and this is year one of an offensive and defensive system.”
Updike stated that his ultimate goal, beyond winning basketball games, is to help his players become better people. That mindset has helped a team with only three seniors build their leadership skills as a whole.
“We’ve all had leadership roles and we’ve all been playing with each other for so long that we all step up,” Jackson said. “We know our own leadership roles. Last year, our leaders were the same. Garrett and Kalib were two of those leaders. More people are stepping up, too.”
Moving forward, Updike wants to see situational improvements from his team to reach the heights of being able to not only compete with but also beat the great teams in Section IV.
“[I want to be] able to not take a timeout to talk about a situation,” Updike said. “I want them to realize how much time is on the shot clock, or maybe Kalib just hit a couple of shots so we want to get it to him, or there’s a mismatch somewhere and it’s a really big basket. We talk about possessions a lot. Whether we’re up or down, it doesn’t do much to score and not get a stop.”
After taking on the 16th-ranked team in the state, the Newfield Trojans, on Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Indians will battle a struggling Odessa-Montour team on Friday, Jan. 10. Groton is hoping the early success and the lessons the team has learned from its losses can push the Indians to the postseason after missing out last year.
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