Some basketball coaches get a little worried when some of their players head to the football field to play in the fall.
But New Haven coach Bruce Stephens? He has no such reservations.
To Stephens, his group of kids that hit the gridiron come back to the basketball court stronger and more physical, which pays dividends during the season.
“They are just so much stronger and fit,” Stephens said. “That physical mentality they bring really helps us.”
Stephens is counting on that, with Jakar Williams, Dre Wright and Thomas Latham all expected to be major contributors again for the Bulldogs, all of whom saw significant action for Coach Jimmy Linn’s football team.
The last time we saw Stephens’ team in action, it was knocking off Homestead 46-44 to win a 4A sectional title in a game that shocked many. It earned the Bulldogs their first 4A sectional crown since 2013.
“We were really looking forward (to regional) and seeing how we would match up against Carmel and the other great teams in that field,” Stephens said.
Instead, Covid saw the remainder of the season canceled, ending New Haven’s campaign with an 18-6 record.
The goal this year is to pick up where the team left off last March. Leading scorer Donovynn Lewis (15.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.2 apg) has moved on, as well as underrated threat Jamarr Hutchins (9.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.8 apg), but the aforementioned trio of Wright, Latham and Williams, coupled with sophomore Darrion Brooks, give Stephens four of his five starters locked in at the start of the season.
“We lose a lot of speed from those guys last year, and Jamarr was such a leader,” Stephens said. “But we should be a lot more physical.”
That attribute was something used frequently last year to describe the Bulldogs. Playing tough and strong gave other teams fits throughout a year ago. Having Latham (14.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Williams (11.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Wright (6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) all back will help that cause.
“The thing about Dre and Thomas (as seniors) is that they are two great kids with a lot of character,” Stephens said. “Other kids tend to follow them and gravitate towards them.”
Meanwhile, Brooks, the younger brother of Keion Brooks Jr., got his feet wet as a freshman at the varsity level, averaging 4.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Stephens expects the sophomore to take the next step in his development this year.
Stephens is eyeing several players to fill that fifth starters spot, as well as a solid bench.
Junior Nick Myles is in that conversation after seeing some action last year, while fellow junior Jackson Turnwald is also in the mix after having a successful JV season last year and being promoted to dress for the sectional.
Sophomore Jojo Robertson reminds many of Hutchins and could be a speedster on the floor once he settles in at the varsity level. Junior Martin King at 6-foot-4 will make New Haven even longer on the floor when he is inserted into the game.
While the Bulldogs may not have as many shooters as they have had in the past, this year’s team will work from the inside out. There are plentiful options with guys who can play inside, coupled with slashers and wings with power who can finish at the rim.
All of it is fed by the desire to build off of the end of last year.
“When you get a taste of success, that can really fuel you,” Stephens said. “The kids have come back hungrier and more confident.”
While New Haven lost a couple of key pieces, it enters the season with four of its starting lineup set. The experience that Stephens has is so advanced that his players are running plays during 5-on-5 that he has not even taught this year’s group yet.
With the lack of a true summer to work out the kinks, coupled with potential disruptions due to Covid, the season is going to favor experienced teams.
With the group Stephens has, the Bulldogs may be the greatest threat to Leo in the NE8.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Losing Donovynn Lewis and Jamarr Hutchins hurts this team in a variety of ways. Both were threats from three-point range and Lewis led the team in free-throw percentage at 81 percent.
New Haven has guys that can fill those roles, but until we see it, it is open to question.
JAN. 15 AT LEO
Could this game decide the Northeast 8? It is very possible, as the Bulldogs and Lions look to be the strongest two teams in the conference to begin the season.
New Haven got the best of Coach Cary Cogdell’s squad a year ago. With Norwell in a bit of a transition period, it opens the door for one of these two teams to ascend to the top of the standings. This one is the big one for both squads.
DRE WRIGHT, SENIOR
Wright is used to leading the defense on the football field from his linebacker spot, so leading on the basketball court should come naturally.
While New Haven will need Wright’s rebounding prowess and physicality, what it most needs may be Wright’s ability to command the huddle. A leadership void was left with the departure of Hutchins. Stephens is confident that one of his seniors can fill that role. It is only natural if it is Wright, a guy who knows how to get teammates’ attention in the fall is fully capable of doing it in the winter.
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