Quickness, strong shooting are Tanagers’ weapons

Quickness, strong shooting are Tanagers' weapons
Members of the Vermillion Tanager boys' basketball team work hard at every practice session in the VHS gymnasium.

They hone their shooting skills. They scrimmage time and time again, up and down the court.

And just when you think coach Jason Huska is going to call on them to take a break, he puts them through their paces – literally.

The Tanagers run, in sprinting exercises that get them used to suddenly stopping, starting and turning on the gym floor.

It's a necessity, Huska said, because his team usually faces the same rigors during a basketball game.

"It's such a stop and go game that if you go out and run three miles every day, you're in decent cardio-vascular shape," he said, "but you're not in basketball shape. Basketball shape is stopping and going, stopping and going. Really about the only thing that gets you in basketball shape is basketball. It's probably one of the toughest things to get in shape for."

During the Tanagers' Dec. 20 practice session, the team members had a chance to review strengths and weaknesses that were revealed in their first three games of the season.

"We have a chance to point out the things that we are doing well, and the things that we have to work on," Huska said. "For the most part, I've been very pleased with where we're at right now.

"This particular group of kids really works hard," he said. "They play games very, very hard, they don't quit, and that's really a positive."

There's no better example of that "don't quit" attitude than the Tanager varsity's performance against a much larger Lennox team Dec. 11. The Tanagers fell behind 25-12 after the first quarter in that game, but battled back and trailed 40-32 at halftime. Even though the Orioles' size and talent at times overwhelmed the Vermillion team, they kept fighting and came oh-so-close to a victory. Lennox won the thriller by a score of 73-69.

"During the first quarter of that game, we forced some shots offensively," Huska said. "We didn't really make Lennox work defensively to guard us, and we kind of let them off the hook by taking some shots that we probably shouldn't have. After we got organized from the second quarter on, we really made Lennox play defense on us, and then we started exposing some of their weaknesses as far as match-ups against us."

The Lennox team, no doubt, had a height advantage. But their bigger players soon could only lumber up and down the court.

"I told the kids at halftime how they were bigger but they were slower, and we're quick," the coach said. "They liked to really play defense right up in your chest, and I told the kids if we could get the ball moving and make those guys play defense like that, we were going to get penetration lanes to the basket."

In the second half, the Tanagers kept fighting back in a seesaw scoring battle. "These kids don't quit, we exposed some of the things that we're pretty good at, but they also exposed some of our weaknesses.

"Offensively, we've been doing some really nice things in the first three games," Huska said. "We're doing a good job of moving the ball around and getting good looks at the basket, and that's going to be very important to us, because we're not blessed with a lot of height."

That lack of height adds an extra challenge to the Tanagers' defensive effort. "We need to really work on our defense as a team. We're not very big and we play a lot of teams that are, so we need to do a better job at the post level defense," Huska said. "We need to work together at that. We need to help out each other, we need to double-down at that low post, and we need to do a better job at the low post as far as defense goes."

The Vermillion team didn't receive much of a respite from basketball, despite the Christmas holiday. They reported to the gym Dec. 26 for practice to prepare for competition in the Crofton, NE Holiday Tournament, held Dec. 28-29.

"And from there on, it's a big stretch of basketball in January and February, and so we need to get back in the gym and work on a few things and make sure we polish up everything," the coach said. "These kids have worked so hard, we think we've got them in shape, and all it takes is a couple days off and we can lose that real quick."

Meeting tough opponents on the basketball court, especially early in the season, does have its bright side, Huska said. Every game, he said, is a learning experience.

"A common theme for us is we're going to go into games mismatched. West Central has a big lineup, Madison has a very big lineup, and Crofton has a kid who is 6-7, so what we learn from that is not only that we have to learn how to guard big guys, they (our opponents) have to learn how to guard smaller, quicker guys. "It's not just a mismatch for us, it's also a mismatch for them," Huska said.

While playing Lennox, the Tanagers learned that they have the capability of being giant slayers, if they use their quickness and refine their shooting skills.

A key element of Vermillion's offensive arsenal is Jordan Boots, who is demonstrating he can do great things with a little help from his teammates.

The 6-2 senior guard from Vermillion was perfect in seven attempts from three-point range while scoring a career-high 38 points in Dec. 13's 69-49 win over South Sioux City. He didn't know how to explain his performance other than he was getting good looks thanks in part to the screens set by his teammates.

"Jordan has worked really hard this off-season. He's really become that special player," Huska said. "It's no secret that he can really shoot, but he's improved his game, not only in purely shooting, but in taking the ball to the basket, too.

"If you get too set on him in the perimeter, he can beat you on the dribble, too. He's really stepped up his game and made himself very difficult to guard."

Opponents who focus their defensive efforts on Boots will hopefully have their hands full trying to control the remaining Tanager team's offensive attack.

"We've got four or five other guys in our lineup that can make you pay if you try to focus on just one player," the coach said. "Broc Gauer has had a couple games now where he's scored 14 points and 16 points, Alex Schaack makes things happen when he's handling the basketball, Ryan Angelo is certainly capable of hitting three-point shots, and we're taking advantage of Mikel Ustad's quickness to the basket, so we've got some other weapons.

"It's our job to not only make sure that Jordan is always involved offensively, but to also step up and use those others weapons, too," he said.

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