Junior point guard Wesley Butler (above) leads a new-look Reading as the Knights prepare for their 6A title defense. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
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 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
Some four-plus months later, even as smoky embers from a long-awaited celebration continue to smolder in basketball-crazed Reading, another group of Red Knights is dedicating all sorts of energy and spilling gallons of perspiration to prepare for what they hope is another sensational run.
Sure, a number of high-octane performers who played big minutes in Reading’s 64-60 triumph over Pine-Richland in the PIAA’s Class 6A title game at Hershey’s raucous Giant Center have moved on to another facet of life’s journey, but the young men still in the Red Knights’ gym remain determined.
Determined to keep the Red Knights in the running and relevant when the memorable hardware starts getting passed out at the Berks County, District 3 and state-wide levels.
Determined to leave indelible marks on a remarkably successful program that in March, in its 118th season of basketball, finished 30-3 and finally collared its first Pennsylvania championship.
“People are ready for the like the next era,” said guard Xavier Starks, a 6-2 senior who last season averaged 3.0 points per game and buried 12 treys while hopping off Rick Perez’s bench. “The city right now, it’s great. It’s the sort of atmosphere everybody’s [excited about].
“They’re still not done talking about the championship team, but our mindset in our practice room and at Reading High right now is this is the next level,” Starks added, during a break in the action at Day 1 of West Chester University’s Big 64 showcase at suburban Lancaster’s Spooky Nook Sports. “This is our time for the individuals and the other guys to show that they can play basketball just as good.”
Although 6-0 junior point guard Wesley Butler (7.7 ppg/14 treys) is the Red Knights’ lone returning starter, Sparks and 6-1 senior guard Hector “R.J.” Dixon (5.0 ppg/6 treys) will play much-larger roles in 2017-18 after spending last season hopping off the Reading bench.
They’ll be the most-experienced components of an eight-man rotation — and that certainly could change by the time the reigning 6A state champs open the season at York’s four-team Invitational — that no longer includes the likes of All-American and Pennsylvania’s Class 6A player of the year Lonnie Walker, Tyrone Nesby, Isiah Cook, Tymir Comfort and Jose Genao.
Walker, who scored 22 points in the state championship game, will have an opportunity to thrill his appreciative hometown yet again when Jim Larranaga’s Miami Hurricanes spend a November night playing La Salle at Reading’s Santander Center — even though his Red Knights career is over.
While the lengthy list of hammers that dots Reading’s difficult schedule may anticipate Perez’s Red Knights being a much-easier mark with Walker & Co. gone, Starks is quick to acknowledge that there are still plenty of guys in the locker room with the talent and want-to to remain successful.
“Any five that we have on the floor are ready to play,” Starks said confidently. “[Walker, Nesby and Cook] passed the torch down and they set the bar really high for us, so we know that every time we’re in the weight room it’s always going to be constant progress and hard work.
“That’s just Reading High and [working hard is] what we do, probably harder than anyone.”
Lonnie Walker (above) will be a freshman at Miami (Fl.) this year, and could be in the NBA by next season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
While Reading won’t have the length in its backcourt that the Red Knights enjoyed with the 6-5 Walker, 6-5 Nesby and 6-6 Genao, this group is extremely mobile and they’ll get into passing lanes and they’ll relentlessly attack and hound ballhandlers into submission if they can.
They’ll also get on the deck in an effort to win 50-50 balls that could lead to an extra possession, an extra look that could prove productive and swing a result their way.
Yet those preseason workouts meant to maximize fitness levels don’t just involve gassers and pumping iron at Reading, where the Red Knights are plugged in and serious when it’s time for one of their hot yoga sessions. Pass up one of those and you can’t get in the weight room or on the court.
“They had us working in there,” Starks admitted, a grin on his face.
Work rate is a must at Reading — and minutes hang in the balance for those not bought in. And work rate likely will be a key to the Red Knights sustaining their lofty levels of success and challenging for titles, especially with the electrifying Walker unavailable to light up a crowd with a resounding flush.
“We’ll still have our speed, because of the guards, but we’ll have to do a lot of adjusting depending on how the game’s going,” Butler admitted. “We’re going to get it together.”
While Reading’s backcourt group also will include 6-1 senior Bobby Heath (1.3 ppg), the remarkably animated Perez is genuinely excited about promising bigs such as 6-5 senior Ricki Lopez (2.6 ppg), 6-4 senior Kahari Whitfield (2.6 ppg), 6-4 junior Daniel Colter and 6-4 junior Juan Matos.
Whitfield, a terrific defensive back on Reading’s football team, started some games at the beginning of last season so he’s packing more experience than the rest of the Red Knights’ frontcourt.
Lopez suffered a serious knee injury as a sophomore that set him back and continued to hinder him last season, but he’s ready to go now. Perez also likes Colter’s athletic upside.
“We’re very excited about our bigs in the program,” Perez admitted. “”We haven’t had much size [up front], but last year our guards were pretty big in Lonnie, Jose Genao and Tyrone. Now we’ve kind of flip-flopped and we’ve got some 6-5s and 6-4s with very strong bodies.
“We want to emulate the [early 1990s Detroit] Pistons, because we feel we’re physically strong.”
Another plus for the Red Knights is the chemistry and continuity that’s been building since Starks, Dixon and Butler joined Reading’s KTB AAU program — KTB stands for Kids That Ball — when they were in the third grade. They’ll also be the first group to go all the way through.
“We have the alphas and the little puppies that fill in the gaps,” Starks said. “ We’re more than ready. We’re absolutely ready to show what we have. Most people know about us.
“We’ve been together for a pretty long time and now it’s our time.”
While Butler jumped into the starting lineup last season and learned plenty playing alongside older teammates such as Walker, Nesby, Cook, Genao and Comfort, he didn’t have to lead in the locker room even though handling the ball as much as he did made him a key player on the court.
Yet he’s ready now, as Reading’s lead guard, to use his voice as much as his handle.
“Playing on a state championship level, that’s the biggest stage in high school basketball,” Butler said. “That definitely got me ready and I feel like I can carry on what I learned from last year to this season.
“I can’t wait,” added Butler, who has improved his perimeter shooting since last season. “I love December, that’s when the season starts and we get to go out and have fun on the court. We’re just gonna keep working hard for these six, seven weeks.”
“Wesley understands, he gets it, he’s an amazing listener,” Perez gushes.
“He’s a better student than he is basketball player.”
Yet Butler is a terrific basketball player who — along with Starks and Dixon — is ready to pilot Perez’s blue collar Red Knights against a demanding nonleague slate featuring the likes of Williamsport, York, Coatesville, Chester, La Salle College, Downingtown West, Baltimore Dunbar, Carlisle, State College, Hazleton, Carlisle, Pennridge and Lancaster McCaskey.
Obviously, everything is predicated on getting the Red Knights prepared for the Berks League Tournament — Reading bested crosstown rival Berks Catholic 61-39 in the final — the District 3 playoffs — Perez’s Red Knights fell 61-58 in the semis to Harrisburg — and, of course, states.
And all of the hard work will continue to be done and the perspiration will continue to drip within Pennsylvania’s winningest program, even though the great Walker concluded his career as his school’s all-time leading scorer (1,828 points) on a memorable night in Hershey with a gold medal dangling from his talented shoulders as thousands of Reading partisans screamed in delight.
While everyone Walker & Co. left behind knows what took place in March — and all of them are still extremely pleased about mining gold — they’re looking to play their respective parts while upholding Reading’s sparkling hoops heritage. Quite simply, they want more of the same.
“The target is on our back, but we’re ready for it,” Starks admitted. “We’re absolutely ready for it. We’re ready to take over with the Class of 2018, and we’re going to be working till we get to that point.”
“We’ve just got to leave it all out on the court,” Butler added. “We’ll surprise people, but we don’t have to say we’re going to be good. We just have to prove it out on the court.”