Hillsboro High School head boys’ basketball coach Darrel Knoll said he does not like to compare a current team to past teams.
Each team develops an individual personality based on its players. Knoll is looking forward to finding the right rotations and the right plays to allow his 2012-13 squad to play cohesively.
That does not mean there aren’t common denominators. Whether he was talking about his first state championship team in 1991 or the teams in the late ’90s, Knoll said all of his best teams liked to play up-tempo with pressure defense and a fast-breaking offense, those teams could lock down on defense when they needed to, and collectively each unit had reservoir of physical and mental toughness to call upon in dire moments.
Knoll’s current team already has two out of four of those factors. With a likely starting five of Brett Weinbrenner, Evan Ollenburger, Shaq Thiessen, Christian Ratzlaff, and Josh Wiebe, the Trojans will be as athletic as any team in 3A. Last year the Trojans were skilled in the open court, by applying full court pressure and running the floor in transition.
“When we were playing great ball last year, we were pushing the ball hard,” Knoll said.
This season, the Trojans will look to use a tenacious man-to-man defense to make up for a lack of height. Each member of the Hillsboro top seven, including seniors Harry Faber and Tyler Proffitt, is a competent on-ball defender. Hillsboro was also adept at playing passing lanes for steals, to the tune of about 10 per game last season.
Leading the Trojans is junior point guard Brett Weinbrenner. At practice on Nov. 14, Weinbrenner was the first up in any drill, providing an example for his teammates. His handle is impeccable and his composure is equally airtight.
“Brett has a ton of ability to play basketball,” Knoll said. “I put a lot of faith in his ability.”
Floor general for Hillsboro is a difficult job filled with seemingly contradictory tasks. Knoll wants Weinbrenner to be aggressive and push the ball with every opportunity, but he also wants his junior guard to limit turnovers whenever possible. The Trojans turned the ball over about 10 times a game last year; Knoll wants that number to be the same, if not improve slightly.
Knoll wants Weinbrenner to be aggressive in the Hillsboro offense, looking to drive, draw multiple defenders, and then dish to the open teammates. He wants to see Weinbrenner’s assists go up, but he also wants Weinbrenner to take advantage of scoring opportunities. He said most of Weinbrenner’s shots last season were quality looks — mostly open 3-pointers and layups, with an occasional spot up jumper near the free throw line — and he wants that trend to continue.
On top of all of that, Weinbrenner often plays full-court defense, hassling an opposing team’s point guard up the floor. The earlier he can force his opposite into an error, the better chance Hillsboro has of scoring on the other end. In any game, Weinbrenner needs to instinctively measure the flow of the contest and then adjust his game to what the Trojans need.
Right behind Weinbrenner in any drill Nov. 14 was Thiessen.
At times, Thiessen’s considerable athletic gifts overshadow his skill. Knoll marveled how quickly Thiessen runs the floor, from standing to sprinting in about two steps. Thiessen is equally likely after to lead a Hillsboro break after picking off an errant pass or finish the possession with a highflying layup.
Thiessen was one of the team leaders in blocks last season and will be one of Hillsboro’s better rebounders this season. As a 6-foot tall wing player, he uses his jumping ability to match the abilities of a taller player.
That said, Thiessen has worked to acquire the skills to be an offensive force. Like Weinbrenner, his handle is strong. He uses a variety of stutter steps, crossovers, and spins to get into the lane. Once he gets where he wants to go, he can finish in traffic, hit a mid-range jump shot, or drain it from 3-point range. He is Hillsboro’s most difficult one-on-one cover and is destined to give opposing coaches nightmares.
Once either Weinbrenner or Thiessen get into the lane, Ratzlaff and Ollenburger will be waiting to spot up for open shots. Of the two juniors, Ratzlaff is the more natural gunner, looking to hoist a three at every opportunity and for good reason because he has a pretty stroke and the height to hit the shot over most defenders.
Ratzlaff also showed flashes of an all-around offensive game in the second half of the season last year. He was often the second wing for 3-on-2 breaks but he could finish at the basket in Hillsboro’s half-court offense as well. He will be called upon this season to replace some of all-around contributions of Jesse Allen.
Knoll’s concern for Ratzlaff is less about his play and more about his health. Ratzlaff struggled with a knee injury most of last season before sitting out for football this last fall. He also has a history of nagging back problems. As far as Knoll can tell in early practices, Ratzlaff seems to be operating at 100 percent and the Hillsboro coach would prefer to keep it that way.
Ollenburger earned starting time last season mainly for his effort on defense. In many games last year, he was asked to cover an opposing team’s best scorer. He may be the toughest player on the team, showing a passion for diving for loose balls and completing other hustle plays.
Knoll said Ollenburger worked this summer to improve his shooting and vowed to include the junior guard as a bigger part of the offense.
That leaves senior post player Josh Wiebe to round out the starting five. Even though Wiebe was willing to run the floor and showed a talent for finishing at the rim with multiple defenders in the vicinity, Wiebe could go for stretches where he was forgotten in the Hillsboro offense.
It’s not that Wiebe is not willing to partake in difficult physical tasks. Although he is 6-2, Wiebe is the Trojans only true post defender and he will be asked to push larger players off the block. Knoll said Wiebe has come into this season with added muscle to help him bang nightly in the post. He is also Hillsboro’s best rebounder and he gave the Trojans several second chances on offense with his work on the glass last season.
Knoll wants Wiebe to get more touches, whether in the low post or from the high post positions, with his back to the basket or facing up. Knoll knows Wiebe will be a source of high-percentage shots.
The Trojans bench may be thin, at least to start the season. Faber and Proffitt both give the Trojans quality shooting and defense off the bench. Both players saw their playing time increase last season as they showed improvement. Fellow senior Jesse Brown offers an athletic option at guard off the bench.
Sophomore Micah Allen and newcomer junior Josh Davidson are vying for playing time, Allen as a long-armed guard and Davidson in the post.
Knoll said conditioning was going to be a point of emphasis any way, especially to develop mental toughness. Toughness is the last trait the Trojans have yet to develop. As the Trojans grind through these early practices, they’ll show evidence of that toughness by pushing through fatigue.
Other moments to prove their toughness will have to wait for the first games of the season starting 7 p.m. Dec. 4 against Moundridge in Moundridge.