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.)
HERSHEY — While most high school basketball teams typically don’t get the opportunity to keep practicing for nearly a full month — especially if they drop their first postseason outing — that wasn’t the case last season for Paul Blackburn’s resourceful Hershey Trojans.
Yet thanks to the PIAA’s sparkling new six-classification system and District 3’s ability to send 10 teams into the state tournament fray, Hershey (14-14) battled back through the consolation bracket and wound up claiming a 10th seed and a much-appreciated state invite.
Blackburn’s bunch even felled District 1 Class 5A champion Penncrest in their state opener — an on-bus viewing of Rocky IV took place during Hershey’s journey to Marple-Newtown High School — then pushed perennial state hammer Chester in the second round before tumbling.
Let’s just say the plusses of an extended postseason haven’t been lost on the Trojans.
“It’s always good to get extra reps,” said 6-3 senior guard Sean Coller. “Last year was a great experience for us to play some good competition and in some big games. When we played Penncrest, that was by far the most intense basketball game I’ve ever played in.
“Both the practices and the games were good experiences for us,” continued Coller, who has committed to Division III Wilkes. “We hope we’ll be able to use that when we’re playing later this year.”
“To experience that as a junior, it just kind of makes everyone prepared — that we can handle any type of game situation now,” added 6-2 senior guard Jake Wilson, a four-year starter. “It was a really good experience for everyone.”
Especially since Hershey was back in postseason play for the first time in two seasons — when Villanova sophomore Dylan Painter still sported Trojans orange and navy.
Blackburn’s group also played in four all-or-nothing contests before falling in the fourth.
“Last year we had a real tight-knit group and I don’t think any of us wanted the season to end, so like in those elimination games we kind of used that to our advantage,” Coller recalled.
“I feel like, especially with a lot of seniors, that we want to position ourselves to make a run — whether it’s the district playoffs or the state playoffs,” Coller added. “That urgency will probably come in handy whenever we need it. We’ll be excited to play every game because it’s our last go-around as a group, but there’ll definitely be some extra urgency for certain games throughout the year.”
In addition to Wilson (12.4 ppg/52 treys) and Coller (8.6/24), Hershey has senior regulars such as 6-1 guard Chase Wallace (5.5), 6-4 forward Drew Painter (6.1) and 6-7 forward Nick Hines (3.5) back in the Trojans fold. Junior guard Griffin Jackson (3.8/28), a 5-11 sniper, also logged lots of minutes.
Other potential rotation players include 6-1 senior guard Alec Singer, 6-3 senior swingman Dante Hunter, 5-11 senior guard Michael Abruzzo and 5-10 junior guard Tyler Myrick.
With so much experience on hand, the coaching staff was able to open preseason practice at an advanced stage, not at the proverbial square one.
“We’ve had to do things a little differently,” admitted Blackburn, who played on two of Carlisle’s state championship teams (1985 and 1986). “We have 10 seniors on the roster. It’s a big group, and they kind of know what to expect. They just have to put the work in and get refreshed.”
“We’re very confident in the group we have, and we’re happy with what we have coming back,” Coller said of a Hershey roster that lost Luke Blackburn to graduation and lead guard Luke Hedrick to Lower Dauphin. “We haven’t really talked about our goals just yet, to be honest.
“We made a little run in the state playoffs last year and we feel like we can do something like that again if we do the right things and work hard as a group.”
With Hedrick gone, Coller spent much of the offseason improving his ball skills — just in case Blackburn needs him to direct floor traffic from the lead guard spot.
“I’ve worked on my ballhandling a little,” Coller admitted. “[Since] our point guard from last year moved to [neighboring] Lower Dauphin, I’ll probably have to handle the ball more this year. I’m also trying to work on my leadership, like around the guys and stuff.
“I feel like Jake and I have a big responsibility this year with that, so those were pretty much my goals since the end of [last] season.”
Wilson certainly agrees with Coller’s assessment.
“I played football [for the first time] this year, so that actually kept me out of the gym,” said Wilson, a wide receiver and corner. “It actually helped me as a player just leadership-wise just going through playing football as a senior and making me more aggressive with both defense and offense.”
“Jake’s a four-year starter for us,” Blackburn added. “He’s pretty much heard every stupid joke I have and [seen] every goofy thing I do. He knows me better than most people, just because he’s been around all the time. In the offseason, he doesn’t miss when he doesn’t have football.
“When he came in the gym, I damn near hugged him. I was like, ‘Where’ve you been?’”
While the Trojans hope to get off to a good start at their own season-opening Tip-Off Tournament — Hershey will play Cocalico first and then Cumberland Valley or Allentown’s William Allen — other nonleague tests will come against Milton Hershey, Lebanon, Elizabethtown and East Pennsboro.
Hershey also will spend two days in late December at New Oxford’s holiday event.
If that’s not enough to whet Chocolatetown’s hoops appetite, Blackburn’s Trojans hope to be a major player before the Mid-Penn Keystone Division championship chase comes to an end.
And since a number of squads are expected to have terrific shots at claiming the eight-team division and landing a spot in the Mid-Penn Conference’s postseason tournament — Lower Dauphin, Hershey, Bishop McDevitt, Cedar Cliff and Susquehanna Twp. may have the best shots — the Trojans believe they can be at or near the top of the table when early February arrives.
Quite possibly because of the late-season tussles and training sessions they endured months before.
“There’s a lot of different things [about playing those extra games and having those extra practices],” Blackburn admitted. “Yeah, state tournament is different. District tournament is different.
“They have something to look forward to like, ‘I want to get back to that and I think we can win that game this year, that second-round state game. I think we can go further in districts and I think we can finish higher in the Keystone Division.’ … We could probably have a better regular-season record.’
“I know those are things I think about and I’m sure they do, too.”
Soon, however, these Trojans will be playing meaningful games.
Not the District 3-5A and PIAA Class 5A engagements they hope arrive in February and March, but contests that can help Blackburn’s bunch pin down a better seed in postseason play.
Maybe even a regular-season championship — something Hershey has not attained since the 2011-12 Trojans led by Matt Banas, Jim Brier and Harold Brantley collared an outright Keystone crown.
Since high school basketball teams need to win big games in order to capture championships, one can easily link all the dots — and they lead right back to Hershey’s most-recent postseason exploits.
“Going through that experience, it was kind of the mindset you needed to have to get through that,” Wilson said of having a sense of urgency. “Just going into the season, it just connects with knowing what kind of mindset we have to have and I think we can be even better and go further.
“Just looking forward to being able to show people what we’ve got.”
“We’re really excited,” Coller added. “We’re excited about the season.”
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