Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
“Gentlemen, let’s get back to work.”
Whether that’s been open gyms, a series of camps, summer leagues, testing themselves in a series of shootouts in college buildings or even with the onset of preseason practice, first-year Cedar Cliff basketball coach Tigh Savercool jumped into the position at a full gallop some six months ago and hasn’t stopped working nor sweating since.
If his Colts players want to get into the gym and hoist up some shots, Savercool is likely to be there shagging rebounds. If they want to work on improving defensive technique or add certainty to their handles or fine-tune another part of developing skill sets, he’s not going to pass on a chance to help one of his youngsters find a way to get better.
So, maybe it’s fitting that a youthful coach with a desire to outwork everyone else finds himself fronting a basketball program that’s sported a similar M.O. for quite some time while celebrating a significant number of positive results and accomplishments.
Now holding the reins of a Cedar Cliff program so ably piloted by former Colts great Jim Rowe — in his nine seasons, Rowe (146-80) collared two Mid-Penn Keystone Division crowns, twice captured Mid-Penn Conference postseason titles, steered the Colts to six District 3 Class AAAA playoff appearances and led his alma mater to three PIAA Class AAAA tournaments — Savercool hardly wants or needs to overhaul anything.
His desire is to keep Cedar Cliff operating at a lofty level of success that continues to have the Golden Corral student section operating at a full boil as players pile up floor burns chasing 50-50 balls or willingly give up their bodies taking charges.
“The program wasn’t in a position that the boat needed flipped,” said Savercool, a former assistant at Central Dauphin and Steel-High who returned to the Mid-Penn’s landscape after two seasons in charge at Tulpehocken (18-27). “It was in pretty good shape and Jim did a really, really great job for nine years.
“He built the program into a stable, successful program that just kind of turns out successful teams every year — and that’s kind of what we’re building on,” Savercool continued. “We’re not looking to change anything drastically and we’re trying to make the transition rather smooth and have a good season this year.”
While Rowe’s final club fashioned a 13-9 record — the Colts tied for second in the Keystone Division with a 9-5 mark — Cedar Cliff did not qualify for the District 3-AAAA playoffs and spent the postseason watching from the bleachers.
The Colts also said goodbye to standouts such as Derek Ford, Mark Shultz, Tyler LaFaver and Jesse Deaner. The 6-5 Ford, a first-team Keystone Division all-star who last season averaged 19.7 ppg (42 treys), is playing at Shippensburg University.
So, everyone who logged minutes in Cedar Cliff’s decisive 82-63 conquest of Harrisburg two seasons ago — Ford poured in 38 and eventual Susquehanna University lead guard Tyler Hoagland added 23 — in the Mid-Penn championship game is gone.
That hard-working 24-5 squad also fell to a terrific Pennsbury outfit featuring Cameron Jones, Derrick Woods and Mekhi Bryant in its state opener after battling York High and a Lonnie Walker-led Reading side in its final two District 3-AAAA outings.
Might seem daunting to some, but Savercool hasn’t lost any sleep.
Instead, he’s simply continued to push and prod and convince his players that they, too, can win just as the others who’ve already gone through the program did.
“Part of the past nine years with Coach Rowe was he built the expectations,” Savercool commended. “He built the expectation that you’re going to compete every year for the Keystone title and that’s the expectation he built and we will gladly continue that expectation. It’s something where you don’t really rebuild, you just recycle what you have and reload for the following year. That’s kind of our approach.
“We don’t have someone right now that can break a game plan, so to speak,” Savercool added. “We’ve got to get to that point, but we have a lot of kids that like being in the gym and working hard. So, the goal and the expectation are still the same and kind of fresh in the seniors’ minds. They were sophomores and they were around and they watched it and they witnessed it, so they want a taste of the same for their last year.”
In a Keystone Division that doesn’t appear to have a dominant outfit just waiting to gobble up a regular-season championship, no one has any idea what’s going to happen.
So that means anything can happen and Cedar Cliff is determined to be relevant as the 2016-17 campaign begins to play out and take some sort of shape.
Where these Colts will start is with wing Brandt Walter, a 6-3 senior (8.7 ppg) capable of connecting consistently from the perimeter as well as beating a defender off the bounce and finishing at the hole with a convincing flourish that can light available fuses.
Savercool also likes the sophomore tandem of 5-11 Justin Gause and 5-10 DeAndre Dorsey, both of whom can capably run the show from the lead guard spot by leading the transition game and operating the Colts’ half-court sets.
More importantly, both youngsters logged important playing time as freshmen.
“I think we can win our division and make playoffs, which we fell short of last year,” Gause said during a needed break at last month’s Dickinson Shootout in Carlisle. “Try to have a good season. We expect a lot and we just need to be the team we should be.”
Players such as 6-3 junior Pat Wiestling, 6-4 senior Adam Boussatta and brawny 6-1 senior Tyler McDonald will flesh out Cedar Cliff’s unheralded rotation. Even more help may come from athletic 6-2 senior Trysten McDonald.
Savercool and his staff — John Ruby and Malcolm Wertz — also have several other sophomores that could provide needed depth. One of those possibilities is 6-1 Chris Dare, a terrific shooter who may be able to stretch opposing defenses.
Work in progress? For sure.
Yet it’s been a work in progress since Savercool’s first day at his new gig as he’s overseen those open gyms, camps, summer league games and excursions to college venues to play other programs trying to gain footholds and locate benchmarks.
“We’ve gotten better from when we started to where we are now,” Gause admitted. “I think we got a lot better as a whole team.”
Well, we’re about to find out.
And while the Keystone figures to be one of those slug-it-out championship chases — Cedar Cliff checked in at No. 6 in the coaches’ preseason poll — Savercool’s Colts are the lone 6A school in a hyper-competitive eight-team loop filled with 5As and 4As.
As a result, the Colts stuffed their nonleague slate with 6A programs such as Harrisburg, Chambersburg, Wilson, Cedar Crest, Lebanon and Central Dauphin. Difficult tests against 5A programs such as Elizabethtown and Milton Hershey also await.
“At the end of the day, we’ll make the most out of whatever hand we’re dealt,” Savercool said. “That’s life and we’ll deal likewise with basketball also. We did our best to pick up a lot of 6As to balance that out, but not just 6As because they’re a 6A school. We’re going out and we’re trying to play teams that will make us better and challenge us and give us a realistic perspective of what kind of team we really are.”
Since Rowe left the blue-collar blueprint that Savercool promptly embraced, those parked on opposing benches know the Colts are flush with talented lunch-pail types that will bounce into the gym, rattle a nearby time clock and get after people … hard.
That’s been the easy part.
Convincing a group of unheralded youngsters who have waited patiently for their turns under a toasty spotlight that they can succeed has been a bit more difficult.
“We’re just trying to focus on us,” said Savercool, the Perry County native who played his high school basketball in a Greenwood program fronted by Kent Houser that espoused effort and hard work. “I was lucky to inherit a lot of kids that really enjoy being in the gym as much as I do, so it’s made the transition really smooth.
“We’re further along, right now, than I expected to be at this point,” Savercool added. “So we’re doing a pretty good job of progressing and getting better.”
Quite simply, these Colts are working at it.