Slow pace leads to fast turnaround for Mainland boys basketball team

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher High school coaches talk about it all the time. Getting their players to “buy in.” Easier said than done, especially in the first few years of any coach’s tenure. Dan Williams went through the customary transition period when he took over the Mainland Regional boys basketball program prior to last season. The Mustangs went 9-16, missed the state playoffs and weren’t much of a factor in the Cape-Atlantic League’s American Conference. But this season, Williams said his players are finally starting to buy in to his approach to winning games with the roster the Mustangs have. That approach features pounding the ball inside to the big guys, senior forwards Darius Jerkins and Kenny Randall, having his guards take care of the ball and playing tough, man-to-man half-court defense. The result has been a very nice turnaround, as the Mustangs head into the CAL playoffs with a 14-9 record and are in fourth place in the toughest conference in the CAL – a conference Senior guard Drew Riska said the Mustangs have bought into coach Dan Williams' philosophy of a slower pace on offense that plays to Mainland's strengths. The result has been a solid season for the Mustangs that includes a berth in the Cape-Atlantic League playoffs. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Senior guard Drew Riska said the Mustangs have bought into coach Dan Williams’ philosophy of a slower pace on offense that plays to Mainland’s strengths. The result has been a solid season for the Mustangs that includes a berth in the Cape-Atlantic League playoffs. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) that features powerhouse teams Holy Spirit, Atlantic City and Millville. The Mustangs won six each at home and away through their first 20 games, are currently on a two-game winning streak, made the CAL playoffs and grabbed the overall No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Group III playoffs. “It’s been a combination of a few things. They are buying into what we are trying to do, and they are more experienced and confident,” Williams said. “We’re trying to play good, solid man-to-man defense and on the offensive end trying to pound it in to the bigs and have the guards fill in when the defense crashes down on the big guys.” Senior guard Drew Riska said experience, especially in the front court, has made the difference for the Mustangs. “Kenny and Darius were juniors last year and now they have another year under their belt, and Sam Jackson is a sophomore now and I’m in the lineup as a senior, so we all know how to play together and we all have the same goals,” Riska said. “We want to win.” Mainland also has shown an ability to bounce back after a loss, the mark of a mature team that has the ability to put bad games in the rearview mirror quickly. The Mustangs have followed up six of their nine losses with wins, the only losing streak coming earlier this month when they ran into Bridgeton, a hot Vineland team that scored a win over Atlantic City, and a very tough and athletic Millville squad. Kenny Randle has been a key player on the low blocks for Mainland, providing another option in the paint along with fellow senior Darius Jerkins. Kenny Randle has been a key player on the low blocks for Mainland, providing another option in the paint along with fellow senior Darius Jerkins. The Mustangs’ front court features a pair of seniors in Jerkins and Randall, who are both experienced and talented. What also makes the duo unique is that Jerkins shoots the ball right-handed while Randall is a lefty, an ideal situation for a coach. Riska is a senior who provides stability in the off-guard position and Jackson, the sophomore point guard, brings a certain toughness that other players feed off of. “He doesn’t fill up the box score, but he has that toughness about him,” Williams said of Jackson. “Even in tough matchups, like against Atlantic City, he doesn’t shy away. He’s one of a bunch of guys we have who have no problem giving up the idea of self for the good of the team.” Riska would love to be the type of scorer he was when he was younger, but said he understands the style Mainland has to play in order to be successful. “My role is to get rebounds and keep the game under control. We have two younger guards, so my job is to help keep them under control, minimize turnovers and score here and there, taking my shots when the shots are open,” Riska said. “In middle school, I was all about the scoring, but when I came to high school I wasn’t scoring a lot. It was frustrating my freshman and sophomore years but I realized the best way to win games was to focus on getting the ball down low and I’ve accepted that role.” Drew Dalzell, a junior guard, has emerged as a consistent 3-point shooting threat and seniors such as Anthony Rivera and James Brennan can come off the bench and spell Jerkins and Randall in the front court when they get into foul trouble. And 6-foot-6 sophomore Matt Roland is getting some experience at the varsity level while learning from Jenkins, who scored his 1,000th career point in January. Williams said the key for Mainland, which has plenty to play for in the final weeks of February, is to control the ball, limit turnovers and do what it does best. “What I’d like to be good at is controlling tempo. We have guys who can come out and hit 3-pointers, but they’re not going to do it in transition like (Khaliq) Ford from Millville or (John) Middleton from Holy Spirit. Those kids can do that regularly,” Williams said. “But when we kick the ball out to open guys they are really good at knocking down shots. We are just average when we are trying to do a little too much. They have bought into that, and that’s what I really like about this team. They don’t get insulted when we preach that in practice.” A key for Williams, he said, has been the help of assistant coach Dan Feld. Feld has an extensive basketball background and has a way of getting through to the players and showing them how they can be most effective with their particular skill sets. “Feld is great about that. He gets into them about understanding who they are and what their roles need to be for us to be any good. So far they have bought into it,” Williams said. Most high school basketball players would love to be flying up and down the court and playing an up-tempo game. Williams would, too, but knows he doesn’t have the type of players a team like Millville, Holy Spirit or Atlantic City has. “In some of our practices it gets like that. But they know, to a man, that they can’t play that style. There’s no chance in this universe that we can play up-and-down with teams like Atlantic City or Holy Spirit. The coaches can only say that so much, but the kids have to see it, and they do,” Williams said. “They like getting up-and-down and in practice sometimes we let them do that because we want to keep it fun. There’s a really good chemistry about this team and I do want it to be fun for them, because that’s the whole reason they started playing basketball. But they know we are way down toward the bottom of our conference if that’s the game we try to play.” “(Coach Williams) wants us to slow down and run the offense and really focus on packing it inside, which is our biggest strength. We’ve all accepted that because we realize that should be our goal because we are strongest on the inside,” Riska said. “He always says to pack it in and the defense will double down and that’s when the shots will come. Teams like Atlantic City and Holy Spirit, we can’t play to their speed, so slowing things down has worked for us.” So Mainland will stick to its strengths as it heads into the postseason. And Williams believes his team has as good a chance as any to win the South Jersey Group III title. “It’s a question of, ‘why not?’ There’s no real dominant team in South Jersey Group III,” Williams said. “Delsea is a solid team, for sure, but there isn’t anybody like Atlantic City, Holy Spirit, St. Augustine or Haddonfield. If you name the top eight teams in South Jersey, as good as Delsea is there isn’t a team like those others in Group III. Ocean City could be saying ‘why not us?’ Woodstown could be saying ‘why not us?’ And why not Mainland too? That’s going to be our approach.” Said Riska, “I think we can go all the way … we’ll be playing at home with our home crowd, so I think anything is possible.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]


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