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.)
HARRISBURG — While the names that fill up the scorebook change as every basketball season comes and eventually goes, the goals and objectives that drive the Harrisburg Cougars never do.
There’s not even a slight adjustment from time to time. Quite simply, it’s just a constant way of life for those who lace up their sneakers, step into spacious Kimber Gymnasium and get ready to sweat.
“For us, there’s the same expectation year-in, year-out,” said Tony James, the Cougars’ 6-1 senior forward who packs an old-school, mid-range game. “First, win the Commonwealth [Division], then go on to Mid-Penns and win Mid-Penns. Win districts and win a state title. It never changes.”
“It’s what we try to do,” added veteran head coach Kirk Smallwood, the 1973 Harrisburg grad who has won 558 games, eight District 3 championships and a pair of state titles during his lengthy tenure at his alma mater.
Yet as the Cougars anxiously await the start of preseason practice following a 20-7 run last season that landed them a District 3 Class 6A championship and propelled them into the second round of the PIAA’s Class 6A tournament, Smallwood’s bunch is dealing with plenty of ifs.
Oh, Smallwood appreciates the effort his Cougars are providing in open gyms and during showcase events such as the one they hosted this past weekend. At the same time, he knows his current group likely will need some help from the cluster of athletes about to begin football’s postseason grind.
Football, you see, also is mighty important in Pennsylvania’s Capital City.
And at Harrisburg, which reached the PIAA’s Class 5A football championship game a season ago, at least 10 of Smallwood’s anticipated 14-man rotation are part of a 10-0 Cougars squad.
“These guys have trained to be multi-sport athletes,” Smallwood said. “They know they have to play football at a certain level and they have to play basketball at a certain level. It’s already ingrained in them all the way up.”
So, assuming all 10 of those football-playing youngsters wheel into basketball season, these Cougars have a chance to chase down a Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division championship, claim a District 3-6A title and make a run at hoisting state gold just down the road at Hershey’s Giant Center.
In the meantime, Smallwood’s bunch just continues to put in whatever work they can as they await tryouts and a Dec. 12 opener against Commonwealth Division playmate Cumberland Valley.
“Everybody just comes hard and works in [open gyms], just fill their roles,” James admitted. “We never rely on one person, it’s next man up, next man up.
“Right now, we’re playing with younger guys because the football team is having success on the field. Right now, we’re just playing with what we got, doing our best.”
Same thing happened last season.
Once the Cougars reached the Christmas Holidays, everything seemed to click as their roster was fleshed out and the rotation was taking shape. Impressive victories in suburban Allentown over Lower Merion and Bethlehem Liberty just seemed to get momentum building.
Yet while some influential seniors such as all-state wing Chris Whitaker, Tito Flemister, Elijah Barrett, Damion Barber and Zion Patterson have moved on, James (7.2 ppg last season) is among those Cougars still on board.
“Tony’s steadiness is going to be key to our success,” Smallwood admitted. “He’s gotta be good every game, particularly on defense. Offense kind of comes easy to him, but he’s gotta be good on defense every game.”
James also is a needed piece of Harrisburg’s leadership puzzle — especially early.
“I make sure the younger guys come to the weight room, everybody comes and gets shots up and we all work hard,” James said. “I’ve got to be the vocal leader on and off the court. Team bonding, making sure we all have that so when the season comes we’re going to be ready and well established.”
While the younger Cougars may not possess the size and strength Harrisburg really needs to make its typical statement on the backboards, Smallwood is extremely hopeful burly forward Micah Parsons, one of the nation’s top grid recruits, will be part of the Harrisburg lineup yet again — even though the powerfully built 6-4, 240-pound youngster has strongly hinted at an early graduation.
“He averaged about 12 rebounds a game, and that was his focus,” Smallwood said of Parsons, who averaged a shade under 11 points per game. “Getting us second possessions.”
Other Cougars eventually expected to shuck their helmets and shoulder pads — the state’s Class 5A championship game is Dec. 8, four days before the ball goes up at Cumberland Valley’s Dome — include 6-3 Penn State recruit Shaquon Anderson-Butts and 6-0 Yahmir Wilkerson.
Both have played for Smallwood in the past.
Susquehanna Twp. transfer Andre White, a 6-3 junior, is another possibility. Same for the likes of 6-4 senior Nyzier Brannon, 5-10 junior Rynell Gantt, 6-4 senior Ty’Heir Butler, 6-3 senior Na’reece Glenn, 6-2 sophomore Nicari Williams and 5-11 junior Ali Anthony.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces, man. We have a lot of pieces on the athletic scale that are 10s,” Smallwood said of his potential roster. “It’s just how does that translate into being a good high school basketball player, and that’s where we come in as coaches.”
Yet with State College, Chambersburg, neighboring Central Dauphin East and Carlisle tucked into the Commonwealth — Carlisle edged the ‘Burg in OT on Sunday — there’s a bunch of hammers plugged into the Cougars’ 14-date league schedule. Add games against Downingtown West, Abington Heights, Lancaster McCaskey, York, Chester, Williamsport and Parkland, and these guys figure to be ready for postseason play.
Eventually, but maybe not right away.
“It’ll be a real challenge for our staff, but we have enough pieces to be competitive in our league and statewide,” Smallwood said, referring to long-time assistants Wes Bair and Joe Proctor. “We just have to get it done. We’ve got to get it done from some of the guys that are going to be second-tier guys when it’s all said and done,” Smallwood continued. “They’re going to have to be frontrunners at the beginning of the year.”
That means youngsters such as 5-11 Jacai Daniels, 6-4 Dylan Crosson and 6-5 Amir Stoudt — all juniors and all up from the JV squad — will get opportunities early.
“Commonwealth is a battle day-in and day-out,” said James, part of a Harrisburg group that last season finished second behind only champion State College. “Every day you have to come and play. There’s teams that might not seem good on paper, but against us everybody plays their hardest.
“So we’ve got to come out [ready]. We can’t have no days off or no slack. We gotta give it our all.”
And everyone will be giving it their all — playing the Cougar way.
Adjustments to Harrisburg’s style of play come as frequently as the expectations change.
“Hell no,” Smallwood stated. “Not with the kind of kids we’ve got. We want to get after you, bug the hell out of you and make you play, rebound the ball, push it up, in your face defense. That kind of stuff.”
The kind of stuff — especially at the defensive end of the floor — that keeps Smallwood’s Cougars extremely relevant and gives them opportunities to win championships at a variety of levels.
“Defense is a big part,” James admitted. “We spend hours and hours, countless hours, working on defense. Flying. Running a lot. Getting in conditioning shape.”
And defense was a mighty big reason why Smallwood’s Cougars stifled Hempfield 67-40 in last season’s District 3-6A final, just a few days after the ‘Burg shot the ball extremely well in a three-point victory (61-58) over eventual state champion Reading.
These kids compete — at basketball and at football — and they want to prevail.
“Well, we have kids that are used to success,” Smallwood suggested. “They don’t like losing at all to anybody, and they’re willing to put in the work to be successful. I think we’ll probably hit stride in the second half of the season and we’ll be a lot different than when the ball [goes] up in December.
“The thing I like about this group is we’re going to get progressively better,” Smallwood added. “And when we get our pieces, we’re going to be a real problem.”
They usually are — regardless of the names in the scorebook.