As he enters his second year at the helm, Highland High boys basketball coach Brian Perkes said his team is a full 180 degrees different than what he inherited when he took over the reins for his initial campaign.
“We basically had nothing coming back last year and now we’ve got everything coming back this year, so the expectations certainly are far different this year than they were last year,” Perkes said. “We’ve got a lot of experience coming back so that’s going to help us.
“We’ve got some skill and some athleticism. I like our kids and I like our team. so I am really excited about this year.”
With experience also comes familiarity.
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“The kids are more comfortable with me and I am more comfortable with the kids,” Perkes said. “Not everything is new, like the drills. It is basically the same type of drills we are running. A lot of the offense and the plays are going to be the same. We’re going to add some new twists but not everything is brand new to these guys. So it’s a little bit easier, certainly.”
Perkes breaks into a wide smile when he speaks about the potential wealth of talent the team possesses.
“We’ve got some talent. I’m not going to lie to you, there’s some talent here,” he said, laughing.
Offensively and defensively
Last year, Perkes was very concerned that his team would have difficulty scoring and for the most part they did.
However, this year should be an about-face for the squad’s offensive fortunes.
“I don’t think scoring is going to be a primary problem for us this year,” he said. “We’ve got all of our points back. You assume that everybody would have gotten a little better just through experience and another year of playing, so offensively, we should be a little bit better than what we were last year.”
Perkes said he likes the team’s shooting proficiency.
“I like the way all of our kids shoot the ball,” he said.
Perkes believes the Bulldogs should also be good on defense.
“If you have good athletes, you should be a pretty good defensive team and I feel like we have some good athletes,” he said. “We have to find what our best defense is. I feel like there are some things that we can play around with that gives us some advantages defensively.”
Notable advantages Perkes was referring to were the team’s length, toughness and quickness.
After making strides throughout last year, the starting five all return and it is a potentially potent unit featuring both length and speed. The starting five includes a junior surrounded by four sophomores, with senior forward Stephen Schniers joining with junior forward Sam LaPorta, junior center Stephen Torre and junior guards Brady Feldmann and Jacob Kruse.
“They all have experience and I think we are going to very competitive,” Perkes said.
LaPorta is a very athletic and dynamic player on a long and strong 6-foot, 4-inch frame. He is adept on both ends of the floor, as evidenced by him finishing first on the team in scoring, rebounds and assists, while he also was second in steals and third in blocked shots.
Perkes said LaPorta has improved his 10- to 15-foot shot immensely, which will enhance his versatility on offense.
“I thought he looked pretty good for us during the summer shooting that shot. You can tell that Sam has put some time in,” Perkes said. “If he knocks down that 15-footer, he is going to be very tough to guard. He is a freak of an athlete and that’s a good thing. He is very athletic and he’s a hard worker too. When you have those two attributes, it makes for a special player.”
LaPorta, Schniers and Feldmann all averaged over nine points per game last year.
Schniers, who is 6-3, is a headsy forward, can score inside and out. Schniers also led the team in steals while he also ranked second in rebounds, assists and scoring.
Kruse, who is 6-2, and the 5-9 Feldmann can both light it up from the outside. Feldmann also utilizes his quickness and ball handling skills to beat opponents off the dribble and slash to the basket and score.
Torre is a smooth post player who at 6-6 is the team’s best shot blocker. Perkes said Torre has also been given the green light to shoot mid-range perimeter shots.
“If he wants to shoot that outside shot, he’s a nice looking shot and he may have one of the prettiest looking shots we have in the program,” Perkes said.
Role players will also be very important to Highland’s success this season.
Senior guard Cameron Altadonna, who is a 5-10 steady, experienced player who will provide key minutes off the bench.
“We’ve got some kids that we can bring off the bench, some role players, and we also hope to develop some of the other kids that didn’t get to play a whole lot last year,” Perkes said.
Junior Trent Lammers, who is a 6-1 forward, and sophomore 5-7 guard Brylee Portell should also figure into the mix coming off the bench.
“Hopefully we can incorporate some of these guys and get them some minutes and it will only make us better down the road,” Perkes said.
A couple of new additions to the roster who should pay dividends. Junior Blake Barth, who is 5-11, transferred from Vandalia and is a good athlete who will add more athleticism and versatility to the squad. Junior Mitchell Foult, who is 6-2 and played in the program as a freshman but did not play as a sophomore, can add strength, toughness and grit inside.
“I really think these kids are going to help us and I really like those two additions to the program,” Perkes said.
Perkes also likes some of the younger kids coming along in the program, such as 5-11 freshman Christian Kassey.
Even though Highland’s overall record last year was not pretty at 10-20, the Bulldogs stacked up well in the balanced Mississippi Valley Conference after finishing 7-3 and sharing the title with Triad and Civic Memorial.
“I know it was a three-way tie but we’re calling ourselves the conference champs, and I think that’s quite an accomplishment when you’ve got four sophomores and a junior that start,” Perkes said.
But Perkes knows winning the conference again will not be easy. Mascoutah returns its top two players, Malik Green and Blake Weiss. Civic Memorial brings its best player back in Jaquan Adams. Triad will always be a tough game because they always give maximum effort. Jerseyville had a great freshmen class and will still be young but will have more experience.
“I think the conference overall is going to be stronger than it was last year,” Perkes said. “There are no givens in this conference and I learned that last year. Every game is a war so it is a lot of fun competing in the conference. I think winning the conference should be a goal every year here and I like our chances. I wouldn’t trade our team for anybody else in the conference. But it won’t be easy.”
Beyond conference, Perkes said he would like his team to compete well and have a chance to win the tournaments they compete in, especially when the postseason tourney tips off.
“Certainly postseason play is the ultimate goal. We certainly would like to make a little run in the postseason,” he said.
But Highland competes in Class 3A and the field should be loaded in Southern Illinois. East St. Louis is always tough and is now competing in 3A. Centralia is traditionally strong and has four starters back. Alton Marquette will be in 3A this year and also has four starters returning. And Columbia should also pose a stiff challenge.
“We can compete with those schools but it’s not going to be easy,” Perkes said. “(Class) 3A basketball is going to be very competitive around here this year. But I would like to get the regional, I would like to get more than that this year. I think it’s a realistic goal for us to make a deep run in March.”
Although the playoff sites have not been named yet, Perkes said there is a strong possibility Highland will host a regional this season.
Opening the season
Highland opens the season next week at the Effingham Saint Anthony Turkey Tournament. The Bulldogs officially opened in Pool A, where they first face Effingham on Tuesday, Nov. 21. Then Highland takes on host Effingham St. Anthony at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22 before finishing pool play against Okaw Valley at 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24.
The tournament wraps up on Saturday, Nov. 25 with the following schedule: Pool A No. 4 vs. Pool B No. 4 at 3 p.m.; Pool A No. 3 vs. Pool B No. 3 at 4:30 p.m.; Pool A No. 2 vs. Pool B No. 2 at 6 p.m.; and Pool A No. 1 vs. Pool B No. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Due to the football team’s historic success, four of Highland’s top six players, including a trio of starters ( LaPorta, Feldmann and Kruse), will be behind in getting ready for the basketball season.
“It’s a good problem and it’s only going to help us,” Perkes said. “It may hurt us a little bit early in the year but the success that they’re having on that football field is going to breed success in other areas.”