Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rockets open at home tonight vs CFA

Tyson Steele (in blue) will get a shot at
center during the early part of December
as returning starter at center, Gavin
Dickerson (background), works to
get into basketball shape. This picture
was from the Blue-White Game.
To borrow – and tailor – a proverbial phrase from Forrest Gump: Rocket basketball is like a box of chocolates.

It couldn’t be more true this fall as Denis Hodge shoves off for his sixth season as head coach.

“We’re not exactly sure right now what we’re going to get,” Hodge said.

The boys open their season tonight at Rocket Arena against Christian Fellowship Academy.

Despite winning just five games a year ago, the coach says this past offseason hasn’t included much introspection or misery. Instead, he and the boys have rolled up their collective sleeves and worked to get better. They’ve been in the weight room, worked on improving speed and agility and of course spent a lot of time shooting the basketball. It’s all part of Hodge’s grand scheme to have a sweet-tasting box of candy ready for Rocket fans by stretch time, if not sooner.

The coach asks for a little patience early on, however. One of the team’s best scorers is already on the shelf with a broken hand and it will be a while before the football players get into true basketball mode.

For his part, the coach has retooled the schedule, adding more small-school opponents like Gleason, Tenn., Fulton City, Ballard Memorial, Carlisle County, Christian Fellowship, Community Christian and Todd Central to the non-district slate for 2016-17.

“It’s funny who answers the phone after you win just five games,” Hodge said with a grin, pointing out that some of those teams had dropped the Rockets from their schedules in the recent past. Now, though, they are more than willing to sign back up after Crittenden finished with the second worst record in the region last season.

Personnel wise, the Rockets have a handful of returning starters or players who saw considerable action during the previous campaign.

At point guard will be senior Bobby Stephens. He has an uncanny understanding of the game and its most intricate concepts. He’s a crowd favorite because of his hustle and can touch off threes when left open. Stephens closely personifies the entire Rocket roster. At 5-foot-5, he’s not going to be the biggest guy on the floor, but Hodge says his point guard has learned to use his size to an advantage. Stephens is particularly strong for his frame, Hodge says, and he’s learned how to get under taller opponents and cause them trouble.

Senior Will Tolley was just coming of age last year when he suffered a season-ending leg injury in early January. Tolley is the team’s best defender, he’s quick and can shoot the long ball. Tolley will be one of the squad’s top scorers. The coach needs Tolley getting to the basket often in transition, ahead of opposing defenses.

The skipper says the team will have to be creative offensively.

“We will need to get some putbacks, score in transition and at the foul line,” he said.

Last year, Crittenden struggled to score when teams were able to set up their defense and force the Rockets into a half-court game.

Logan Belt, a junior who turned out to be a big scorer last season, will be the starting wingman when he heals. Belt let his temper get the best of him during a recent practice and smashed the wall with his fist.

“He broke his hand,” Hodge said. “Now we have some new team rules about those kind of things.”
Belt is one of those guys Hodge wants to see become more versatile on offense.

“He can’t just rely on his jumper,” the coach said.

Belt should be back in action by Christmas. Until then, sophomore Sawyer Towery will get some key playing time. Towery is a gem in the making, Hodge said. His grandfather was an NBA player and Towery inherited a natural ability to score.

At the other forward will probably be sophomore Hunter Boone once he’s conditioned for basketball. Boone, like Devon Nesbitt and Gavin Dickerson, is coming straight off the football field. All three will figure into the top seven when they’re game ready. Boone has a nice touch on offense and will run the point when Stephens needs a breather.

Dickerson will be the center. His tenacity and physical play make up for what he lacks in height under the rim. At 6-foot, he will certainly be among taller timber most of the time but Dickerson is a battler. He scores well by scrapping points around the round rim, but don’t be surprised to see the center pop out to the perimeter for some threes.

Junior Tyson Steele has made big improvements during the offseason, Hodge said, and will get an early opportunity to show his abilities.

Nesbitt will be one of the first off the bench. He’s perhaps the best pure athlete on the team and plays with a great deal of doggedness, especially when it comes to defense.

Junior Sean O’Leary, freshmen Erik O’Leary (brothers) and Jayden Carlson may also get some early game time with the varsity team while the coach is figuring out what he has off the bench.
The coach believes all of the pieces will start falling into place after a few weeks of game-speed action.

Fans may also get a glimpse of the future. Promising eighth-graders Preston Turley, Gabe Mott, Tyler Boone and Braxton Winders are on the high school roster and might even get on the floor this season. Turley, who is smooth around the basket at 6-foot-3, has perhaps the best chance to make an impact.
Around the region, little has changed. Trigg County has won the last four district championships and Hodge says until someone proves Payton Croft’s Wildcats aren’t the favorite, they will wear the label.
Livingston Central has a strong returning corps and Lyon County will be athletic. There will be no easy games in the district for Crittenden County; however, Hodge likes his team and likes its chances of surprising some opponents this season.

“A whole lot will depend on how we play,” Hodge explains. “If we play with emotion and at a good pace we could be okay. We will have to create scoring opportunities with our defense, scoring in transition before defenses can set up on us.”

The Rockets will try to trap and use defensive pressure in a variety of ways. Expect a regular barrage of long-range shooting as the Rockets hope to deflect attention from its lack of height on the baseline.

“The goal we have for this team is for us to be as good as we can be,” Hodge said, stopping short of any unrealistic objectives, but clearly convinced that the boys will improve as the season moves ahead.

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