By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
For fans of old-school basketball — the kind where teams pass the ball around six or seven times, set back screens on the blocks and pass up seemingly open shots to work the ball in for a better look — a word of caution: stay away from Pleasantville High School this winter, because you won’t see much of that. What you will see when you attend a Greyhounds game is a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball that typically sees Pleasantville score in the 70s, 80s or even 90s. Not exactly typical high school basketball, but the Greyhounds like it that way. They are going to get up and down the court and score as many points as possible. If you can’t keep up, well, that’s a you problem.
Entering January, Pleasantville was 4-1 and had scored less than 70 points just once, in a 77-66 loss to a very good Lenape team in the Score at the Shore holiday tournament at Southern Regional High School. In their wins, the Greyhounds have scored 71, 84, 95 and 73 points, and have beaten some pretty good teams, including Ocean City, Egg Harbor Township, Notre Dame and Holy Spirit. The Greyhounds are talking about making serious runs at the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament and South Jersey Group 2 titles, and those thoughts are not far-fetched at all. This is a talented team that has plenty of scoring options, includes seven seniors, and has some of the best ball-handlers in the league.
“We plan to score and have a fast-paced offense. We ran a lot in the summer and got in shape to be prepared to score as many points as possible. Prior to the season, coach told us that we were going to get in shape, play defense and run. He wanted us to make the tempo how we like to play, and push the pace. It’s fun. We have a lot of athletes and scorers on our team, so offense comes pretty easy to us. All of our players have a high basketball IQ, so if we work hard on defense, the rest will take care of itself,” said Sahmir Jones, a junior with varsity experience who transferred over from Mainland Regional prior to the start of this school year. “I feel like we have a deep team. We all know how to share the ball, and any one of us can score points in bunches. We’re all encouraging and unselfish players, and we’ve expected to do what we’re doing now. In certain games, if somebody is obviously hot and hitting crazy shots, we’ll look to get him the ball, but a lot of times we score a lot of points in transition or we’ll get to the line a lot, and that helps push the point totals.”
“We’re a very deep team and we have a lot of offensive power coming from a lot of different guys, even our bench, which I think is the real key to that. We get about 16-to-20 points from our bench, along with our three guys who are capable of scoring 20 per game. Last year, when I first got these guys, none of them really had much varsity experience,” said coach Butch Warner, who is in his second year after taking over for Ken Johnson, who employed a similar run-and-gun type of style. “Divine (Anderson) played a little bit of varsity as a sophomore, so he came in with a little bit of unknown about the varsity level, the pace of the game, maturity, facing adversity and getting through your mistakes — and that’s tough on a kid who has never played at that level. So with all the kids getting experience — we played in a lot of tight games last year, and with experience we’re overcoming a lot of those things we weren’t able to understand last year. I thought this year was going to be a much stronger year for us, and a year in which we could compete for some titles.”
Pleasantville has three solid scorers in its starting lineup, including guards Jones and Anderson, as well as forward Jacob Valeus, a junior. The lineup also features seniors Augustine Akpan, Shawn Vaughan and Mike Wilson, as well as other seniors who fill in such as Adam Pickens, Robert Suttle and Mark Zamor. There are also a handful of juniors, such as football star Mohamed Toure, along with Iisihr McFadden, Sam Growalt and Latrell Townsend, and freshman Elijah Jones. Warner said it’s one thing to want to play an up-tempo style, it’s quite another to have the talent to make it work.
“I like to press and play full-court man-to-man, but you have to have the players to be able to do that. I think our kids are more comfortable playing in an up-tempo style, but we’re always trying to minimize the mistakes on the offensive end. Our kids are more adept at playing that style, and I enjoy tht type of game. The game has evolved, it’s more guard oriented and the pace is quicker. Kids are used to playing basketball that way, and we have to organize it in a way that it doesn’t get too sloppy. You have to know how to play in the half court sometimes and play in an organized system. It depends on who you are coaching as to how you coach your kids. They have to be comfortable playing basketball the way they play, but also within a system,” Warner said. “We still have work to do, but these kids are a lot more patient now when we get a lead. They don’t force things as much. Even in the Holy Spirit game, we had a seven-point lead and we didn’t force things. We took care of the basketball and got better shots, and that helped us get to the line at the end, make free throws and win the game. So, we are getting better than that.”
“We’ve just been grinding the whole offseason, and now it’s paying off. We’re working hard on defense and scoring on the other end. We’re just playing basketball, and (high scores) are just happening. We like to play at a fast pace, and our coach tells us to run and not slow up because that’s what other teams like. We like to run, and see what the other team has. We like to get out and run. This is a better team (than last year), we just have a better feel for the game,” said Valeus, who is averaging a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) so far this season. “When coach Warner came in he told me I had the potential to be a good player in the Cape-Atlantic League, so I just wanted to work hard on my game. Last year, I was young and just wanted to experience some varsity time. That really helped me, and I put in a lot of hard work on the floor and watching film, and I’m a lot stronger now.”
The addition of Sahmir Jones — who helped lead the football team to its best season in 15 years as the starting quarterback — has been huge for the Greyhounds because his ability to run the point allows Anderson the freedom to attack the basket and become a go-to scorer.
“We’re more confident now with Sahmir. We played with him back in middle school and now he’s back, and that’s made us better and stronger as a team. Sahmir has given us an extra 20 points per game and that’s just adding to the 80 or 90 points that you’re seeing,” Valeus said. “And last year, Divine really grew up and that’s helping him this year. He’s made this team better, and I saw this coming from him.”
“With Sahmir coming over, he’s a good point guard and has a lot of patience and doesn’t get rattled. And having him allows Divine to play off the ball more, because Divine is a scoring guard despite his size. It allows him to do some of the things he does, and the other guys have grown up, which makes our bench even deeper,” Warner added. “When you have three guys who can score 20 points per game and you’re getting 20 from your bench, it’s pretty exciting to think about what could happen. We’ll hit some adversity, and we just have to learn how to handle it, like we did against Holy Spirit. But to have this talent and to be able to play the style that I like is really exciting. There are things we have to get better at, but it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to think about challenging for a South Jersey title. If we can get some big wins the next couple of wins, these guys will recognize how good they really are.”
Jones said Pleasantville’s philosophy is to push the issue and force teams to play at a speed that most aren’t comfortable with. That approach seems to be working so far.
“On defense, we try to make teams take shots they don’t want to take. We try to pressure the ball, and if the other team doesn’t have a confident ball handler, we want to create havoc and create a lot of turnovers. If a team does score, we want to get the ball out quickly and push it back down the court. When teams try to slow the game down, then we just trap them and it makes them have to play to the speed we want to play at,” he said. “We’re excited. We all know we put in a whole lot of work over the summer and we know we just have to stay humble and not get too hyped up over any publicity or wins. We just have to keep the goal in mind. We have a lot of leadership on the team and we all hold each other accountable. The seniors hold us even more accountable because they know it’s their last ride and they want to make a run at a state championship. This year, out goal before the season was to win the CAL Tournament and make a run at a state championship. We know we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Greyhounds aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves yet, however. They know there are some really good teams in the Cape-Atlantic League, such as Atlantic City, St. Augustine Prep, St. Joseph and Wildwood Catholic, and South Jersey Group 2 won’t be a walk in the park, either. But they are confident they can compete with anybody.
“I think we’re in a good spot. Losing to Lenape taught us a lot. We just have to keep working hard, and in January we’re going to have some tough games against teams like Wildwood Catholic and St. Joe’s, so we just have to stay focused and hope we come out with the ‘W,’” Valeus said. “If we’re running and we make a mistake, he might tell us to slow down a little bit, but once we’re up and running, I think coach likes that. He knows turnovers will come when we’re running like that, but as we get better, the turnovers will be limited. It’s fun for us.
“This year, we’re aiming to play at Stockton in the CAL Tournament final, and to play at Rutgers (in the state final). We have high hopes. We just have to keep working hard as one unit and believe in ourselves.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays